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Tibetan monks protest Chinese rule (Lhasa Protests), 2008
On March 10, 2008, the Tibetan Uprising Day, a protest against China's occupation of Tibet took place in Lhasa, Tibet’s administrative capital. Worried about the worsening human rights situation inside Tibet, participants intended to use the Olympics’ spotlight to attract international support for the Tibetan cause and to pressure the Chinese government to end its occupation of Tibet, to put a stop to its abuses against Tibetan citizens and supporters, and to ultimately respect Tibet’s sovereignty.
Organizations such as Students for a Free Tibet had been preparing for a protest against the Chinese oppression and abuses in Tibet for months. They set the date for the protest for March 10, intending to mark the 49th anniversary of the 1959 National Uprising against China’s illegal occupation, an uprising that had been crushed by the Chinese army. Weeks before the day of the protest, Students for a Free Tibet issued calls to the general population, urging Tibetans and Tibet supporters from around the world to amplify the voices of Tibetans inside Tibet and China and to send them messages of solidarity. Some of the proposed activities included recording video messages in the lead up to or on March 10 (during the protest/rally), using social networking websites to spread the news about the protest and gain international attention, organizing a petition drive for the release of Tenzin Delek Rinpoche (arrested in 2002)—an important figure in institutional development in eastern Tibet and mediator between Tibetans and Chinese—and raising or displaying the Tibetan flag on roofs, windows or vehicles.
However, on March 10, it was a group of 300 Buddhist monks who initiated the protests, peacefully marching through Lhasa to pressure the authorities to release several fellow monks who had been arrested earlier that year. Hundreds of ethnic Tibetans gathered on Barkhor Square, an open-air market area surrounding Jokhang Temple (the heart of Lhasa's traditional quarter, generally considered the most important temple in Tibet), to support the monks’ protest. The protesters formed a strong, silent, peaceful circle around the police who kept the middle of the square open. Several monks stabbed their wrists and chests as a form of protest. According to witnesses, undercover agents filmed the events, as a method to identify the protesters and create fear. Several protesting monks were arrested and driven away almost immediately.
Perhaps as a result of their arrest, more protests followed. The unrest led to confrontations the same week, not only in Lhasa, but also in other parts of Tibet, between protesters and the Chinese forces, who meant to put an end to the demonstrations. Although initially centered on the release of detained monks, the demands of the protesters also included cries for Tibet's independence. The protests quickly turned violent. Although the police used force against the demonstrators, it is not clear if this was a response to violent actions taken by the protesters themselves or simply repressive tactics or intimidation maneuvers on the part of police forces. Chinese shops, hotels and other businesses in Lhasa were damaged during the protests, but it is uncertain whether this property destruction was caused by the protesters themselves. Although significant numbers of policemen were driven to the square and started driving the protesting crowd apart, small groups of people remained in the square until sunset, including Tibetans and tourists.
Two other days of protests followed in Lhasa the same week and they resulted in police detaining and firing tear gas on hundreds of monks. Two of Tibet's three most important monasteries had joined the protests at the beginning of the week, and monks inside a third, the remote Ganden Monastery, staged a demonstration towards the end of the week. A human rights group revealed that about 400 monks from Lutsang monastery in the northwestern province of Qinghai and about 100 monks from Myera monastery in the neighboring province of Gansu had also protested in solidarity with the Lhasa actions.
Considering that the Tibetan monks had defied Chinese authority, Beijing leaders responded by promising that they would strike hard against such “illegal activities”. Lhasa Mayor Doje Cezhug was quoted by China's official Xinhua News Agency as saying that the unrest was provoked by a handful of monks and lawless persons engaged in beating, smashing, looting and burning. Dozens of protesters were detained after Chinese authorities broke up the demonstrations using the police and the military. The Chinese government promptly dispatched military troops and police to important monasteries in Tibet to put a stop to what was being seen as the largest protest by ethnic Tibetan Buddhist monks in the Himalayan region in the last twenty years. According to witnesses, trucks full of troops surrounded Drepung monastery in Lhasa and the nearby Sera monastery. Monks and nuns were jailed, tortured, or "disappeared" for expressing spiritual allegiance to the Dalai Lama and to the notion of Tibetan sovereignty. The official position of the Chinese government was that “some monks from some monasteries”, under the instigation of a small group, had carried out illegal activities that threatened social stability, but relevant departments had dealt with the monks in accordance with the law. Chinese authorities denied the use of force as a response to protest. The official Xinhua News Agency quoted Tibet's governor, Qiangba Puncog, as saying that the monks had been "persuaded to leave" peacefully.
However, the Tibetan cause received international attention. The Dalai Lama appealed to the Chinese leadership to stop using force against the Tibetan demonstrators and to address Tibetan resentment through dialogue rather than violence. Western countries also expressed concern at the clashes, with US officials calling on the Chinese to act with restraint when dealing with Tibetan protesters and to engage in dialogue with the Dalai Lama.
The protests in March 2008 have been considered the biggest since the late 1980s, when riots led to martial law. Perceived as a sign of defiance in Tibet, these protests came just five months before the Olympic Games in Beijing and Tibetan activists strategically used the extra attention to highlight their cause. The Chinese police attempted to give the impression of dealing with a small manifestation that could easily be controlled. Although the Chinese Foreign Ministry spoke of "a few monks" that had "caused disruption to create unrest”, reports from Lhasa suggested that there were in fact several hundred monks on the streets, not only in Tibet but also in predominantly Tibetan-populated areas on the Chinese side of the border. The protests coincided with demonstrations in India, Nepal and Greece.