Tibetan businessman’s eyewitness account of Lhasa protests and authorities’ crackdown: March 10-17

Monday, 12 May 2008

Press Release - May 12, 2008 . Free Tibet Campaign has spoken to a Tibetan businessman who was in Lhasa in March when large-scale protests broke out in the city. He was in Lhasa when protests broke out at Drepung monastery on 10 March and was an eyewitness to the large-scale protests which escalated on 14 March, prompting violent crackdowns by the Chinese authorities. To protect his identity and safety, and that of his family, Free Tibet Campaign cannot name the businessman. His account provides a rare eyewitness account of the first days of protests in Lhasa between March 10 and 17. The businessman states that, on the basis of what he saw together with what he was told by other eyewitnesses, the number of Tibetans killed on 14 March as a result of the authorities’ crackdown was greater than the official number given at the time by the Tibetan government in exile (TGIE). The account provides a snapshot of what was seen by one person - and what he was told had been seen by others - in Lhasa between the 10 and 17 March. It is not intended to provide a comprehensive account of events as they unfolded in Lhasa as a whole. Although the businessman was told about press reports of the deaths of Han Chinese migrants, he did not personally witness any of these reported incidents. MARCH 10 – DREPUNG MONASTERY PROTESTS The businessman first heard of protests staged by monks from Lhasa’s Drepung monastery on 10 March when he visited a friend’s shop on the same day. His shopkeeper friend told him that the monks were protesting at the increased deployment of Public Security Bureau (PSB) officials in Lhasa. As a result of consistent reports from credible news sources, it is now clear that the monks were actually calling for the release of monks arrested in October 2007 following celebrations of the award of the Congressional Gold Medal to the Dalai Lama. But it is interesting to note that this was not appreciated by some Lhasa residents, at least on March 10 when the protests started. The businessman said that later in the day he received a series of phone calls from relatives and friends in Lhasa, all warning him to be careful and return to where he was staying as soon as possible as the situation in Lhasa had become very tense. In another indication that news of protests, and the reasons for protests, was difficult to obtain in Lhasa, the businessman said that he heard only on 12 March that the Drepung monks had been protesting in various parts of the city. He reported having heard via phone from other Lhasa residents that two Drepung monks had stabbed themselves. He told Free Tibet Campaign: "Since then Drepung monastery has been sealed off. Nobody has been allowed to enter or leave the monastery.” The businessman then moved on to the major protests of 14 March in Lhasa. He observed that Tibetans inside Tibet were aware of the protest march that had set off from Dharamsala on Sunday March 9 intending to march to the Nepal-Tibet border and then enter Tibet. News of the march had emboldened Tibetans inside Tibet, according to the businessman. PROTESTS ON MARCH 14 AND AUTHORITIES’ VIOLENT CRACKDOWN 1) Ramoche Monastery The businessman was an eyewitness to the events that sparked the demonstrations outside Ramoche monastery on March 14. Friends told the businessman that police had been stationed outside Ramoche monastery since March 11. On March 14 at 11am the businessman said that four monks approached a police car that was blocking the gate to the monastery. From a distance of about 100m the businessman saw the monks demanding that the car be removed from in front of the gate. There were about ten policemen talking to the monks. Then a further 50 monks joined the four monks around the car. After a short discussion, all the monks and the police moved to the roof of Ramoche monastery where they continued talking. It was obvious by the monks’ gestures, according to the businessman, that the monks were continuing to insist that the police car be removed. By this time more onlookers had joined the businessman in watching what was happening on the roof. Finally another police car arrived at the monastery and the police chief ordered all the monks and police to come down from the roof. Another policeman ordered the onlookers to move away. A Tibetan from the Kham region (Ch provs: Sichuan/Yunnan) demanded to know why they could not stay and watch what happened between the police and the monks. The argument provoked a scuffle between the 30-40 policemen present and the onlookers. Outnumbered, the police at this stage backed away, according to the businessman. Following the departure of the police the Tibetan onlookers turned the police car over and removed it from in front of the monastery gate. The Tibetans started to shout “Free Tibet”, “Long Live His Holiness” and “We want freedom!” The demonstration was broken up shortly after, according to the businessman, when five trucks of armed police arrived. They fired tear gas into the crowd forcing the crowd to disperse in all directions. The businessman ran behind the Ramoche monastery. The businessman said that the monks shouted at the Tibetan onlookers not to run and many stayed where they were. The armed police started to beat the Tibetans who stayed. Many of the Tibetans who had stayed continued to shout “Free Tibet” and “Long Live the Dalai Lama” while they were being beaten by the police. The businessman said that he saw an elderly Tibetan man of around 60 together with a young boy who were both bleeding. He saw them being pushed into a police van by five policemen. The businessman at this point was behind the monastery and opposite a police presence with about 200 other Tibetans. Far more Tibetans were in front of the monastery. The businessman said that around 50 policemen were watching the Tibetans behind the monastery and, in a clear warning that the Tibetans would be arrested if they continued to protest, the policemen waved handcuffs at the Tibetans. According to the businessman, some policemen were filming the demonstrations with video cameras. By this time the businessman could hear a large amount of gunfire coming from in front of the Ramoche monastery. He then saw five bodies being put in to an army truck. The situation had now escalated and the atmosphere was very tense. The businessman wanted to return to safety in his hotel but it was too dangerous to go out into the streets as there were clashes between the authorities and Tibetan protesters in the area immediately surrounding Ramoche monastery. The businessman could see Tibetans throwing stones at the police and the police firing teargas into the crowds of protesters. 2) 14 March – Jokhang Temple The businessman said that he managed to make his way to the Jokhang temple. He described seeing the air there full of smoke. He saw four dead bodies of young Tibetans, two boys and two girls, in their twenties lying in the street. The corpses were lying in their own blood. The businessman met a friend who had seen the young Tibetans killed. The two boys had died about ten minutes after being shot by Chinese armed police. One of the dying boys had said to the businessman’s friend, who had been crying as he saw the Tibetans dying: “Don’t cry, we are dying for a good cause. Please put some holy pills in my mouth.” After saying this, the boy died. The businessman said he saw a further 20 bodies lying along the side of Beijing Road, but he was not able to look closely at the bodies as the situation in the street was so dangerous. “I also saw a Tibetan woman wearing a white top garment killed in front of the Gamchun Restaurant. I saw police dragging her body towards a nearby police van. “Throughout the day we continued to hear gunfire and explosions. The number of armed police that I could see kept increasing. I personally saw 40 tanks moving down Beijing Road and I think that at least 100 tanks in total were brought in [to Lhasa]. “Before nightfall I witnessed two tanks, with six armed soldiers each, opening fire in all directions on Beijing Road." He was able to return to where he was staying on Beijing Road by evening. From the roof he could see over Lhasa: “Lhasa looked like a battlefield. As time went on I could hear more and more gunfire and see more and more smoke in the air. I could hear one group after another protesting as they marched down Beijing Road. Each group must have contained 200-300 people and there were five groups in total. They were shouting ‘Free Tibet!’ and ‘Long Live the Dalai Lama!’ “Friends called me from the Luphu area to tell me that they had seen six bodies of Tibetans being brought to the area on rickshaws. Meanwhile a relative of mine living in the Alipeko area told me on the phone that she had seen two Tibetan men and one woman being chased by a group of nine armed policemen. She said the police opened fire on the Tibetans and the woman fell to the ground. She managed to get to her feet and the police fired again. She then fell completely to the ground. The two other men managed to run away. My relative said that she saw an elderly Tibetan by-stander rush to the site where the woman had fallen to take care of the body. The armed police who had killed her said nothing and left, according to my relative. 3) 15 March (morning): Businessman receives more news about events on 14 March in Lhasa On the morning of 15 March the businessman was told by friends staying in the same hotel that one of them had spoken to an old Tibetan woman early that morning. The old woman said that she had seen about 500 bodies gathered in front of the Jokhang temple. She had seen the bodies before daybreak but the bodies had been removed by dawn. The businessman told Free Tibet Campaign: “With confidence I can say that the number of the death toll of Tibetans is much more than the exile government has put.” (At the time of the interview the Tibetan government in exile was able to account for 140 Tibetan deaths, in Lhasa and other Tibetan-populated regions.) On 15 March further reports reached the businessman of events on 14 March: “A business partner of mine told me on the phone on 15 March that armed police had opened fire on a Tibetan family in Karmakutsang inside the family house. All family members had been killed, including the children. Elsewhere: “Friends told me on the phone that they had seen a group of Tibetans waving white scarves and performing three koras (rounds) around the Jokhang Temple during the morning of 14 March. Whilst performing the rounds, they chanted: ‘We want freedom’; ‘Long Live His Holiness the Dalai Lama’; ‘Release the Panchen Lama!’ and ‘Allow the Dalai Lama to return home!’. “After completing the three rounds of the temple, they started to warn shops in the area around the Barkor to close. Soon after, armed police attempted to disperse the demonstrators by beating them. This provoked clashes between the demonstrators and the police. I was told that many of the demonstrators were killed in the clashes whilst others had their arms and legs broken. My friends told me they had heard that even one 70-year-old Rinpoche (reincarnated lama) was badly tortured in prison after being arrested. He was released after the authorities learned he had not taken part in the demonstrations. The Rinpoche told his friends that many Tibetans arrested were dying in the prison that he had been in.” 4) Sweeping arrests on March 14/15 The businessman told Free Tibet Campaign that he had seen large numbers of People’s Liberation Army (PLA) soldiers being brought into Lhasa on 15 March. Sweeping arrests of Tibetans had been taking place since March 14. According to the businessman, Tibetans were being arrested regardless of whether they had taken part in demonstrations or not. The businessman told Free Tibet Campaign that due to the sheer number of arrests, Lhasa’s prisons were full. The businessman said that Tibetans everywhere were talking of reports that many arrested Tibetans were being taken from Lhasa to Gormo (Ch: Golmud) in Qinghai province on the recently opened Gormo-Lhasa Railway. The businessman said that, as from March 14, anyone in Lhasa without an identity card was being arrested. He said that he had seen roadblocks every 100 metres where Tibetans were being stopped and searched. Anyone found to be carrying photos of the Dalai Lama was ordered to tear up the photo and step on it. According to the businessman, anyone refusing to do this was imprisoned and beaten. The businessman described one such incident: “I was in line at such a security point on either 16 or 17 March. An elderly Tibetan man of around 75 years was caught with a Dalai Lama photo. He was ordered to tear the photo and step on it but he refused. He was immediately beaten and fell to the ground. I saw blood spilling from his head. Two armed police were pointing guns at him whilst another policeman handcuffed him. He was taken away.” 5) Announcement on March 15 of deadline for Tibetans who had protested to surrender The businessman told Free Tibet Campaign that the Chinese authorities announced on local television that a deadline of midnight on Monday 17 March had been established for Tibetan demonstrators to turn themselves in. The announcements on local television began on March 15. The businessman said that on March 16 he saw footage on local television of around 200 Tibetans from Phenbo county apparently giving themselves in, according to the tv reports. Meanwhile the businessman described the house to house searches that were happening all over Lhasa on the weekend of 15/16 March: “Around five armed police came to each house. They ordered families to stay outside their house while they searched for banned materials including photos of His Holiness the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan National Flag. Everyone obeyed these orders as the police threatened to use firearms on anyone who refused to co-operate. ….Beating and torture was common that weekend. Anyone who didn’t have an identity card when it was demanded was beaten, arrested and tortured.” End Matt Whitticase Press Officer, Free Tibet Campaign Notes: For further information please contact Matt Whitticase at matt@freetibet.org Or call on +44 (0) 207 324 4605/+44 (0)7515 788456