Tuesday marks the 50th anniversary of the failed Tibetan uprising in 1959, which led the Tibetan leader, the Dalai Lama, to flee to India.
Last year’s anniversary saw a wave of largely peaceful protests in the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) and Tibetan-populated areas in neighbouring provinces. These protests led to arbitrary arrests and other human rights violations including prolonged detention and imprisonment, torture and other ill-treatment.
The Chinese authorities’ failure to address the long-standing grievances of the Tibetan people, including unequal employment and educational opportunities, scores of Tibetans detained and the intensification of the “patriotic education” campaign has fuelled protests that have continued over the past 12 months.
Overseas Tibetan organizations have documented between 130-200 individual protests since March 2008.
Monks and nuns, laypeople and nomads have been taking part in popular protests across Tibetan-populated areas. Reports of Tibetan protests are matched by those of tightened security measures and calls to “crush” any demonstrations of support for the Dalai Lama, especially over the recent weeks. Despite this, popular Tibetan protests have continued across the region.
Some observers have interpreted the tightened security measures which include the removal of monks and nuns from monasteries, and an increasing presence of the People’s Armed Police as acts of provocation.
The “Winter Strike Hard Unified Checking Campaign” was launched in Lhasa on 18 January. The campaign aimed to “vigorously uphold the city’s social order and stability”, targeting in particular those who are not permanent Lhasa residents.
According to the Lhasa Evening News, in the first three days of the campaign, the police had “thoroughly checked” nearly 6,000 people in residential blocks, rented accommodations, hotels, guesthouses, internet cafes and bars. The police had detained 81 suspects by 24 January, including two for having “reactionary songs and opinions” on their mobile phones.
The People’s Armed Police are reported to have shot a 24-year-old Tibetan monk who set himself on fire on 27 February 2009. The monk was holding a homemade Tibetan flag with a picture of the Dalai Lama on it.
The incident took place in Ngaba county (Chinese: Aba), Ngaba Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture (TAP), Sichuan province, after the local authorities dispersed a group of hundreds of monks who had gathered to observe a prayer ceremony.
The official Chinese news agency, Xinhua, confirmed that a protest took place and that a monk was taken to a hospital to be treated for burn injuries. The Chinese authorities later denied the shooting.
The continued lock-down in Tibet has made independent verification of reports difficult and raised fears that reports of human rights violations that reach the outside world represent just a fraction of the whole.
Foreign journalists have previously needed a special permit to travel to the TAR. However, in the wake of the unrest in spring 2008, they have been allowed to visit the TAR only on government organized group tours.
Amnesty International has called on the Chinese authorities to allow access to UN human rights experts and other independent observers to investigate the human rights situation in the TAR and in Tibetan populated areas in neighbouring provinces.
The Chinese authorities have turned down as “inconvenient” requests for visits to the TAR by several UN human rights experts. In March, they launched a white paper on “50 years of democratic reform in Tibet” in which they accuse “Western anti-China forces” of training “the Dalai Lama clique” and supporting “separatist forces” that try to restrain and split China.
These signal a worrying trend by the authorities to turn inwards and frame the protests as isolated criminal incidents and a failure to acknowledge the scale and strength of grievances held by the Tibetan people across the region.
The Chinese authorities reported that during the 2008 protests, 21 people were killed by violent protestors while Tibetan sources say that over 100 Tibetans were killed.
According to the United States’ Congressional-Executive Commission on China, more than 1,000 people detained for protests of March 2008 remain unaccounted for. Testimonies of those released, tell a story of desperate prison conditions, including beatings, refusal of medical treatment, and inadequate food and drink.
Official reports state that 76 people have been sentenced in connection with the unrest in spring 2008. Those convicted have received sentences ranging from three years fixed term imprisonment to life imprisonment. Most of them have been sentenced for crimes described as “arson, looting, picking quarrels and provoking troubles, assembling a crowd to storm state organs, disrupting public service, and theft.”
Amnesty International has documented a pattern of unfair trials, including a failure on the part of the Chinese authorities to distinguish between individuals engaged in peaceful protests and those perpetrating criminal acts.
Amnesty International has called on the Chinese authorities to account for all those who have been killed, injured or gone missing, and for all those detained in Tibet, including their names, whereabouts, and any charges against them.
The organization has also called for a prompt and impartial investigation into the allegations of torture and other ill-treatment of Tibetan detainees, with a view to bringing those responsible to justice; a prompt and impartial investigation into the deaths of individuals detained in official custody over the last year and the immediate and unconditional release of all those detained solely for peacefully exercising their rights to freedom of expression, association and assembly.