/ 14 March 2008

China plays down protests in Tibetan monasteries

China is struggling to prevent burgeoning protests in Tibet from overshadowing its Olympic preparations amid reports that monks have gone on hunger strike after the region’s biggest demonstrations in almost 20 years.

Thousands of armed police have surrounded monasteries outside Lhasa, following marches against Chinese rule this week that took place in more Tibetan communities than previously believed.

”We have heard from more than one source that monks in Sera [a monastery in Lhasa] are on hunger strike, demanding the release of imprisoned monks,” said Kate Saunders of the International Campaign for Tibet. ”We don’t know the number, but it seems there are many of them.”

Other reports said the monks were unable to leave. The Associated Press quoted a man inside the monastery saying monks had been confined inside its walls and food supplies were dwindling. Sera is ”surrounded by many people”, the unnamed resident was quoted as saying.

About a dozen monks were reportedly detained on Monday, when several hundred from Sera and Drepung monasteries took to the streets to mark the 49th anniversary of a failed uprising against Beijing. In the boldest action since 1989, some waved the banned Tibetan flag and shouted demands for more freedom.

It emerged that a similar protest took place in Lutsang monastery, where hundreds of monks reportedly chanted slogans calling for their exiled leader, the Dalai Lama, to return. According to the Free Tibet campaign, 100 monks from Myera monastery also staged a demonstration.

Since Monday there have been further demonstrations, including at Lhasa’s third big monastery, Ganden. Thousands of police officers are said to have used teargas to break up rallies. There are reports of gunshots, but no casualties.

A Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson said supporters of the Dalai Lama were ”seeking to spark social turmoil”.

”This was carefully planned by the Dalai clique in a bid to separate Tibet and sabotage the Tibetan people’s normal life of stability and harmony.” The situation was now stable, he said.

The Guardian was unable to confirm the reports from Tibet and neighbouring provinces, where the Tibetan communities are tightly controlled by the Chinese government. A source in Lhasa said he had seen more than 20 military vehicles on the street and heard that roads to the monasteries were blocked off.

Exiled Tibetans say the confrontation has been peaceful, particularly compared with clashes when martial law was imposed in 1989. ”It seems as though police and military are not using excessive force at present,” Saunders said. ”This would be unprecedented as a government response. They appear to have been ordered to handle this carefully ahead of the Olympics.”

With more demonstrations expected, China has declared a climbing ban on the north face of Mount Everest, in advance of the arrival of the Olympic torch there this summer.

Supporters in several other countries have demonstrated this week. In India, exiled Tibetans marching back to their homeland were stopped on Thursday, when Indian police arrested 100 of them. – guardian.co.uk Â