Authorities in the Tibet Autonomous Region’s capital Lhasa have arrested 10 people for violating government rules meant to prevent the spread of COVID-19, but critics say the charges are merely a guise for politically motivated harassment detentions.
The Tibet Daily reported March 12 that “the security bureau office in Lhasa is striking back against those social elements who go against the measures of containing and controlling the spread of COVID-19.”
“Keeping the safety and welfare of he people is the paramount duty of the security forces, so it is only natural that in instances where people illegally breach government measures, they are met with harsh punishment,” the Daily continued.
“Those guilty people were given a trial and sentenced in accordance with the law,” the report said, adding, “The police were in the forefront of maintaining law and order during this crucial point in time.”
Lhasa police officially registered seven instances of people violating coronavirus prevention and control measures laid out by the government, with 10 people arrested, the report said.
Additionally, police investigated 134 coronavirus related incidents and confiscated about 50,000 counterfeit face masks, it said.
But not everyone is happy with the Lhasa police’s track record.
Dolma Kyab, a Tibetan legal expert, told RFA’s Tibetan Service that the Chinese government is only using coronavirus as a convenient excuse to infringe on the human rights of Tibetans.
“Since the beginning of the coronavirus outbreak, the Chinese government hastily issued new laws to severely punish those who go against government efforts to contain its spread,” said Dolma Kyab.
“So this new law stipulates that those who come in the way of the government’s efforts to contain the virus will be dealt with, but they can use this law as an excuse to harass people in China and Tibet,” the legal expert added.
“Since then, they have unleashed terror on individuals deemed to have hampered government efforts,” he said.
“For example, if any unknown carrier of the coronavirus has mingled with a crowd or otherwise been out in the public, the government can charge him for endangering public security and safety and the suspect can receive a heavy sentence, including the death sentence,” he added.
“This new law gives the Chinese authorities limitless power to infringe on individual rights, making a bad situation even worse,” he said.
A U.S.-based Tibetan analyst noted that the Chinese government has cracked down on citizen journalism throughout China, especially if people try to report their findings or opinions on the coronavirus.
“Tibetan people are facing a similar situation as in China,” said Jampon Monlam, a former political prisoner who now lives in Boston.
“Even if Tibetans tell the truth, the Chinese government will crack down on them as if they are spreading rumors. This is because the Chinese government wants people to believe only their narrative as the truth on the coronavirus situation,” he said.
“This singular channel of information makes people suspicious,” he added.
Jampon Monlam doubted that the 10 arrests were purely related to the coronavirus.
“It is not only about the coronavirus, it is also about the fear of political and social unrest in Tibet,” he said.
Rinchen Tashi, a China analyst at the Washington-based International Campaign for Tibet also questioned the arrests, asking RFA, “What did those 10 suspects do wrong?”
“The Chinese authorities didn’t say anything about that. Under such an opaque system of law enforcement or governance, it leaves room for abuses and corruption,” he said.
“As a matter of fact, there are no fundamental freedoms in Tibet. Against the will of the Tibetan people, the Chinese authorities control everything from news and information flow to even the people’s right to wear face masks,” Rinchen Tashi said.
“Regarding the allegations of fake face masks, there were not sufficient supplies [in Tibet] so the monks in Tawu handmade them. I don’t know if those are related to what was reported,” he said.
Bawa Kalsang Gyaltsen, another China analyst told RFA, “ On the one hand, China said there is only one coronavirus case in Lhasa, but on other hand they had to arrest 10 people and dealt with 134 incidents related to coronavirus. So there are so many contradictions.”
“Besides the arrests and those incidents occurred just prior to March 10, a highly sensitive political anniversary.”
March 10, known locally as Tibetan Uprising Day, commemorates the failed 1959 armed rebellion against Chinese rule.
Key Lhasa temples remain closed
A source in Lhasa told RFA “the Jorkhang temple, the Potala palace and the three seats of the monasteries continues to remain closed to the public due to coronavirus fears.”
“Things are a little better and relaxed now, but everyone is acting with an abundance of caution, and most people are still not coming out of their houses that much,” the source said.
“If people go outside, the must wear face masks. Without them, they are not allowed in the streets. The local municipal committee is selling only four masks to each person,” the source added.
“The Tibetan people in Lhasa are very cautious of the coronavirus but the influx of [Han] Chinese visitors continues here, which is a concern for local Tibetans as the first confirmed case was from [mainland] China,” the source said.
“The large numbers of [Han] Chinese tourists milling around Lhasa is a matter of concern and fear for local Tibetans that COVID-19 can still find a way in from China.”
Meanwhile in Sichuan province, the Kardze (in Chinese Ganzi) Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture’s Health Committee announced Wednesday that over the past 18 days there were no new cases of the coronavirus.
“Out of the 71 patients in Kardze, all but one has recovered,” the committee said.
A Tibetan living in Kardze told RFA that there were fewer activities and a lower overall flow of people in his area.
“There is no definite time period for when schools will start, but as of now most of the schools are offering remote or online instruction,” he said.
Reported by Kalden Lodoe,Dorjee Damdul, Yangdon and Lobsang Chophell for RFA’s Tibetan Service. Translated by Dorjee Damdul. Written in English by Eugene Whong.