Hundreds of police and paramilitary troops stood watch and hand-picked onlookers cheered as the Olympic torch passed through the Tibetan capital on Saturday, the scene of bloody anti-government riots three months earlier.
No disruptions were reported, although the mood overall was far more subdued than at the torch’s earlier stops in cities in China proper.
The torch next travels to neighboring Qinghai province, also hit this spring by protests in Tibetan-dominated areas, before gradually winding its way across northern China toward Beijing on Aug. 8. The Tibetan leg was cut from three days to one, ostensibly to make way for an Aug. 3-5 visit to Sichuan province, the center of a May 12 earthquake that killed nearly 70,000 people.
Lhasa, which has been under a security lockdown since the March riots, all but closed down for the relay, with streets deserted and shops closed. A security cordon was thrown around central Potala Square, with costumed performers taking the place of Buddhist pilgrims who visit to turn prayer wheels and prostrate themselves in front of the hillside palace, the traditional home of Tibetan rulers which is now a museum.
Waiting for the torch’s arrival at its final stop in the vast plaza, resident Yongzong Tsering blamed the March riots for the low-key mood, repeating Beijing’s claims that the protests were orchestrated by exile groups loyal to the Dalai Lama, the region’s traditional Buddhist leader.
“The separatists want to make Tibet independent and they use this Olympic torch occasion to disrupt our nation’s unity,” he said. “So because of the March 14th riots in Tibet, that’s why the mood today is somewhat different.”
Onlookers screened and approved
Officers lined the route through the historic city at intervals of as little as 10 feet, while badge wearing onlookers, who had been carefully screened and individually approved beforehand, waved flags and chanted “Go China.”
A few dozen foreign reporters given special permission to cover the Lhasa leg were required to travel in a closely guarded convoy. They were only allowed to cover the opening and closing portions, isolating them from contact with ordinary residents.
Almost all foreign visitors have been banned from the region since the protests, hamstringing the local tourism industry.
The roughly six-mile run began at Norbulingka, the Dalai Lama’s former summer palace from which the Tibetan Buddhist leader fled into exile in 1959. The relay also saw the main torch reunited with a separate one carried to the top of Mount Everest, with just under half of the 156 runners ethnic Tibetan, the official Xinhua News Agency said.
Summitting the world’s highest peak marked the apogee of the grandiose global relay that saw ugly confrontations during its international relay between mobs of Chinese supporters and groups protesting Beijing’s human rights record and policies toward Tibet and Sudan.
'Suicide squad' claims
On both sides, anger was fueled by the March riot, in which Beijing says 22 people died and which spawned further protests throughout Tibetan-inhabited regions of western China.
Chinese officials have repeatedly accused the Dalai Lama of trying to sabotage the Beijing Olympics and preparing “suicide squads” to carry out attacks.
The 1989 Nobel Peace Prize laureate, who fled to India in 1959 amid a failed uprising against Chinese rule, has denied the charges. On a recent visit to Australia, he pledged to “totally support” the Games and the torch relay, according to the exile government’s official Web site.
“The Dalai Lama has been supportive of the Beijing Olympics and believes that China deserves to host the Olympics. Since the torch relay in Tibet is part of the Olympics he has asked the people in Tibet to respect the event,” Thupten Samphal, the official spokesperson of the exiled government, told The Associated Press on Saturday.
Activist groups say the Tibet leg and Mount Everest relay are an attempt by Chinese leaders to symbolize their control over the Himalayan region, which communist forces occupied in 1949. Although China claims to have ruled Tibet for centuries, many Tibetans say their homeland was essentially independent for much of that time.
The torch has so far had a smooth run in China, undisturbed by the protests that hounded its appearance in London, Paris, San Francisco and elsewhere.
In a report that could not be confirmed, a Hong Kong-based monitoring group said 7,000 troops had been dispatched to stand guard along the two-year-old railway line to Lhasa, on alert for sabotage attempts during the Saturday relay.
The Information Center for Human Rights and Democracy said the line has been attacked more than 80 times since it opened. Incidents have included the placing of obstacles on the tracks and gunshots fired at the windows of passing trains, it said.
Officers at the two different police stations attached to the railway line refused to answer questions about security or sabotage attempts.