HONG KONG—Chinese authorities in Tibetan-populated regions have stepped up travel restrictions in the wake of a series of Tibetan protests and ahead of several politically sensitive dates.
Foreign tourists are being warned against traveling to Tibetan regions of Sichuan, while foreign journalists are currently barred from entering the Tibetan capital, Lhasa.
Lhasa is now on full alert ahead of the Tibetan New Year or Losar, on Feb. 25, and ahead of the one-year anniversary of riots that erupted in Lhasa on March 14, 2008, and quickly spread throughout Tibetan regions of China. March 10 also marks the 50th anniversary of a failed uprising against Chinese rule that prompted the Tibetan spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, to flee into exile.
Authorities have created a blacklist, with foreign parliamentarians and journalists banned from coming to Lhasa, at least not before early April.
There are some Tibetans causing trouble and this could affect people’s safety."
“Chinese tourists still can visit Lhasa, but not foreigners or those who hold foreign passports,” a travel agent in the Sichuan capital, Chengdu, said.
“However, foreign tourists may be allowed to visit Lhasa after March when we will get further information from our boss,” he said.
Tibetans in exile and in China plan to boycott upcoming New Year celebrations in a gesture aimed at honoring Tibetans who died during protests against Chinese rule in 2008.
The Dalai Lama, in a New Year message to the Tibetan people, expressed his admiration for the move.
“Last year in Tibet we witnessed hundreds of Tibetans losing their lives, and several thousands facing detention and torture, in response to the widespread display by Tibetans all over Tibet of their discontentment with the Chinese authorities' policies,” the Dalai Lama said.
“Therefore, since they faced immense difficulties and sufferings, the occasion of this New Year is certainly not a period when we can have the usual celebrations and gaiety,” he said. “I admire the determined move by Tibetans, inside and outside of Tibet, not to indulge in celebratory activities.”
But Chinese authorities are encouraging celebrations, and state-run television has broadcast footage of dancers in traditional Tibetan garb while an audience including monks applauded.
Blacklist, police presence
A source in Tibet said Chinese authorities had a “blacklist” of sensitive professions banned from going to Lhasa.
“In order to maintain stability, foreign media and foreign parliamentarians are barred from visiting Lhasa at this time,” the source said.
Lhasa residents report a strong police presence on the streets.
“The situation gets more critical and serious every day,” one Lhasa resident said.
“[The traditional pilgrimage route and market area of] Barkhor is packed with soldiers as Losar and March approach,” the resident said, referring to the traditional Tibetan New Year and the anniversary of protests respectively.
“Walking about town is frightening,” said the Lhasa resident, who called a listener hotline run by RFA’s Tibetan service.
“I saw with my own eyes, on Feb. 10 at 7 p.m., five students arrested by soldiers for no particular reason. People are being detained randomly. The students were 20-somethings, male. An army vehicle stopped by, and they were thrown straight into the vehicle,” he said.
“Everyone who saw it said that was outright injustice. I think it was on the same day when a state media tour was being conducted for journalists from 10 countries.”
The caller added: “Usually, the government media will blast propaganda about how normal and peaceful Lhasa is. But right now, the officers and the authorities are showing very strong contempt for Tibetans. They’re not bothering to hide it.”
He said no Tibetans from neighboring areas have been allowed into Lhasa since Feb. 1.
“Ramoche temple area is packed with soldiers. Usually the Jokhang [temple] is packed with pilgrims prostrating in front, now there are barely anyone doing prostrations at the Jokhang,” he said.
A second Lhasa resident confirmed his account.
“There are many armed police on the streets,” he said. “Police will search anyone they regard as suspicious, and they are checking people’s papers.”
“There are more police patrolling the streets during the night than during the day, and there are People’s Liberation Army soldiers still in town,” he added.
Meanwhile, authorities in Sichuan’s Lithang [in Chinese, Litang], home to large numbers of Tibetan nomads who stage frequent protests in support of the Dalai Lama, were running checkpoints and controlling people’s movements.
Tensions in Lithang were said to be running high over the weekend.
An official who answered the phone at the Lithang government offices confirmed the roads were under police control, following demonstrations by Tibetans.
Asked if many people took part, he replied, “Why don’t you go and ask other departments?”
A source in Lithang said foreigners would be barred from entering the area until after the sensitive March 14 anniversary had passed.
“Right now, the law and order situation isn’t very good,” the source said.
“There are some Tibetans causing trouble, and this could affect people’s safety. Chinese people are being allowed in, though. It’s just foreigners who aren’t allowed.”
“This has been going on since before the Lunar New Year,” he added. “There was a point at which any cars going into Lithang would get smashed up. Back then, none of us dared to take our cars into Lithang.”
Armed police were also out in force in Kardze [in Chinese, Ganzi], the administrative capital of the Kardze region, where Lithang is situated, Tibetan sources said.
"Kardze town is full of armed police and they are present in every nook and corner of the town. But the Tibetans are still protesting," a Tibetan source in the region said.
Most of the protests were by individuals or small groups of people, who were swooped upon quickly and detained by police, witnesses said.
In Kardze, "several hundred armed police dressed in black clothes are stationed at the monasteries and the Tibetan areas," the Tibetan source said. "No Tibetans will be allowed to visit Kardze town after March 2, unless they have written approval from local town officials."
Lithang was also the site of large-scale unrest in 2007 after a nomad, Ronggyal Adrak, called publicly at the annual horse festival for Beijing to allow the Dalai Lama to return to Tibet. He was arrested, and hundreds of Tibetan protested for his release.
Thousands of troops descended on the region in the aftermath of the protest, and Ronggyal Adrak was convicted on charges of “seeking to split the country and subvert state power.”
A member of the Tibetan parliament-in-exile based in the northern Indian hill-town of Dharamsala said Chinese authorities are fearful ahead of what they see as a sensitive time of year.
“They think that the harder they crack down, the more stable things will be, but really the opposite is true,” the parliament member, Kelsang Gyaltsen, said.
“According to Tibetan custom, if someone dies, then all the neighbors have to go into mourning as well,” he said of the Losar celebrations.
“This means they don’t sing or dance or do anything like that. There have been so many incidents in the past year, and last year was regarded as a ‘black year,’ that many Tibetans simply won’t bother celebrating their traditional new year at all.”
The Chinese government says 22 people died in last year's protests to commemorate the 1959 uprising, but Tibetan rights advocates say many more were killed, and that monks, nuns, and villagers were beaten, fined, or jailed. State media say 76 people have been sentenced and more than 950 detained.
Original reporting in Tibetan by Dolkar, in Mandarin by Qiao Long, and in Cantonese by Lee Kin-kwan. Tibetan service director: Jigme Ngapo. Mandarin service director: Jennifer Chou. Cantonese service director: Shiny Li. Translated and written for the Web in English by Luisetta Mudie, Jia Yuan, and Karma Dorjee. Edited by Sarah Jackson-Han.