LHASA, China — The stage-managed tour of Tibet's holiest temple was going according to the government script. Suddenly, 30 young Buddhist monks pushed their way in, slammed the door, and began shouting and crying to the foreign reporters that there was no freedom in the riot-torn region.
"What the government is saying is not true," shouted one monk, first in Tibetan until the confused reporters asked them to speak in Chinese. Then a wellspring of grievances poured out before government officials abruptly ended the session and told the journalists it was "time to go."
The emotional, 15-minute outburst by the red-robed monks decrying their lack of religious freedom was the only spontaneous moment Thursday in an otherwise tightly controlled government trip to the Tibetan capital for foreign reporters following this month's deadly riots.
On the second day of the tour, officials hewed to the government line — that the most violent anti-Chinese protests in nearly two decades was plotted by the exiled Dalai Lama and his supporters. Officials escorted two dozen reporters to shops, clinics, a school and a jail to interview victims and rioters, many of them already widely interviewed by state media.
Those who tried to break away from the pack were followed by car and on foot, making all but the most fleeting of contact with ordinary Tibetans risky.
Monks: 'Believers' in shrine are fakes
Only the monks at the Jokhang Temple, Tibet's holiest site, managed to upend the official stage-managed event.
As reporters were ushered toward the temple's inner shrine by a senior monk and administrator, the 30 young monks began shouting to them. The monks said the believers then in the shrine were fake — members of China's ruling Communist Party.
They complained that troops had ringed the monastery and kept it shut with all 117 monks inside since March 10 — the day the protests began — and were only removed Wednesday, when foreign journalists arrived.
"Tibetans have no freedom," one monk said. "We want the Dalai Lama to come back," said another, adding that they were certain to be detained.
The government officials then tugged at the journalists to leave and shouted: "Time to go." The monks filed upstairs.
Hours later, the temple and the large square in front that is usually thronged with worshippers were closed again by paramilitary police in helmets and plastic shields.
Monasteries still sealed off
The three major Buddhist monasteries that ring Lhasa — Sera, Drepung and Ganden — and a fourth, Ramoche, where the March 14 rioting started, remain sealed off by police. Investigators were gathering evidence against monks who took part in protests, officials said.
Even as China seeks to show that Lhasa's protests have subsided and worldwide concern should not affect the Aug. 8-24 Beijing Olympics, the government seems to be rejecting appeals for impartial outside observers and relying on old methods that have inflamed Tibetan anger.
The protests and rioting in Lhasa touched off widespread demonstrations in Tibetan communities in other parts of Tibet and across western China — the broadest challenge to Chinese rule since the failed 1959 uprising that sent the Dalai Lama into exile.
Lhasa remains scarred by the rioting that spread over two days, with at least 22 people dead by official count. Rows of shops in and near the old Tibetan quarter were burned-out shells after being torched by rioters. The unrest has left Tibetans angry and shook the confidence of many Chinese who migrated to Lhasa for work.
"Ethnic unity? This was an ethnic conflict," said one middle-aged Tibetan in a shop selling yak butter in the Old City of Lhasa.
Shrine to riot victims
The Chinese-owned Yishion clothes shop where five young women burned to death when rioters set fire to the two-story building has become a shrine. Yellow flowers and paper funerary wreaths surrounded photos of the victims.
Li Kunjian and his wife left the central city of Chongqing a year ago and, with a $17,200 bank loan, set up a small grocery store on the outskirts of Lhasa — only to see it burned by more than 100 rampaging Tibetans.
"We never thought this kind of thing would happen and leave us with nothing," said Li, now living at a government aid center.
The Dalai Lama said Thursday that he was in touch with "friends" to try to start a dialogue with Chinese officials.
"I think this is time the Chinese government and Chinese officials, I think, must accept the reality," he said in New Delhi. "Now in any case we are (in the) 21st century, pretending or lies cannot work."
In Lhasa, the Chinese-installed vice governor, however, signaled an uncompromising line toward protesters and the Dalai Lama. He denied the March 10 protests by monks were connected with the riots four days later, and he vowed to punish those who took part, saying 414 were in custody. Only 10 of the 53 most wanted have been detained, however.
But he blamed the unrest on the Dalai Lama and other exile groups such as the Tibetan Youth Congress, which has challenged the spiritual leader's policy of nonviolence.
"The Dalai clique has been bent on separating China, and this time this incident was caused by separatist forces both inside and outside China acting in collusion," Baima Chilin said at a testy news conference. When asked for proof, he offered none but said it would be released in time.
As for the monks at Jokhang, Baima Chilin said they had previously been confined to the monastery because some had taken part in the protests. But he promised they would not be punished for their outburst.
"We will never do anything to them. We will never detain anyone you met on the streets of Lhasa. I don't think any government would do such a thing," he said.
State TV, which has widely covered the foreign journalists' tour, showed the Jokhang visit on its evening newscast, but not the monks' outburst.
Rioters hit Chinese interests
Almost none of the business owners and managers the foreign journalists were taken to interview would say why their establishments were targeted by rioters. Many of the burned buildings were linked to the government or run by Chinese or Chinese Muslims, who have dominated commerce.
"We were attacked because we're the Bank of China and we're a sponsor of this year's Beijing Olympics," said manager Han Hongjun, whose branch was a charred hulk except for a sign of the Olympic mascots. "Perhaps they wanted money too."
Many of the interviews raised more questions than they answered. At the Tibet Emergency Center, where many injured were brought, director Wang Shoubi said the hospital made no "distinction whether they were criminals or not." Asked if they treated any rioters, she said, "Up to now, no."
After the last violent uprising in Lhasa in 1989, Tibetans claimed many more Tibetans died than the official toll of 16 because families feared punishment if participants went to hospitals.
Injured troops at the People's Armed Police Tibet Hospital said they confronted rioters with no weapons, batons or shields, even though the riot occurred four days after protests began, reinforcing concerns that commanders bungled the operation.
"The people who attacked me weren't real Tibetans, not ordinary Tibetan people," said Wang Xinmao, 45, with lines of stitches above his eyes from where he had been hit with stones. He said an elderly Tibetan woman saved him, adding: "This shows that the Chinese and Tibetans have no contradictions."
At a detention center, reporters interviewed Tibetan prisoners as police stood by and interpreted into Mandarin.
"All my friends were setting fires so I joined them," said 25-year-old said Luoya, who like many Tibetans uses one name. He was charged with burning down a motorcycle shop east of Lhasa in an incident widely reported in Chinese media.
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