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Far from homeland, Tibetans under guard

Heightened security Chengdu,  Sichuan's provincial capital reflects Beijing's efforts to crush unrest in Tibetan communities this month, 50 years after a failed uprising against Chinese rule in Tibet.
China Tense Tibet
A Tibetan monk and a Chinese security guard in Chengdu, China on Wednesday. China has Tibetan communities on close watch to prevent unrest.Ng Han Guan / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Police with rifles and machine guns guard checkpoints at every entrance to the Tibetan quarter in this city of 10 million. Inside, police cars are parked every few yards, their lights flashing as dozens of troops march by monks and other shoppers.

The heightened security Wednesday in this part of Sichuan's provincial capital, a popular gateway to Tibet, reflects Beijing's efforts to crush unrest in Tibetan communities this month, 50 years after a failed uprising against Chinese rule in Tibet and a year after violent demonstrations across a quarter of the country.

Paramilitary forces, a constant presence in Tibet and surrounding provinces since last year's anti-Chinese protests, have poured into the area in larger numbers, resulting in a kind of martial law. The show of force apparently squelched any large-scale protests in the region Tuesday, the start of the anniversary period.

"We are suffocating," a Tibetan shopkeeper said as monks looked over religious artifacts. "I can't begin to put into words how we feel. There is such unease. I can only hope all this security lets up soon." He refused to give his name for fear of official retaliation.

A day after the Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhists, compared life under Chinese rule in Tibet to "hell on earth," Beijing angrily dismissed his remarks. A commentary by the official Xinhua News Agency said he was "like a kid trying to draw attention from other people by crying," and said he had ignored the economic growth Beijing had brought to a chronically poor region.

China protests U.S. comments
The Foreign Ministry lodged a protest with the U.S. Embassy after a spokesman for President Barack Obama expressed concern for religious repression in Tibet and appealed for renewed dialogue between Beijing and the Dalai Lama. Talks between their representatives broke down last year.

"The U.S. side has confused the facts and wrongly accused China for no reason with its gross interference in Chinese internal affairs," ministry spokesman Ma Zhaoxu said in a statement.

The 1959 revolt ended with the Dalai Lama's escape over the Himalayas into exile and Beijing bringing Tibet under its direct control. Peaceful protests marking the event last year spiraled out of control, resulting in a day of ethnic rioting in Lhasa, the Tibetan regional capital, on March 14 and widespread demonstrations elsewhere in Tibet and three surrounding provinces.

As part of the security preparations this year, authorities began barring foreigners from Tibet and Tibetan communities in Sichuan, Qinghai and Gansu provinces last month.

In Lhasa, paramilitary police in riot gear and with automatic rifles stood at the entrances to alleys leading to the Jokhang Temple, Tibet's holiest Buddhist temple and a frequent focal point for protests. "There seem to be more paramilitary police, but overall I still feel safe," said Tibetan tour guide Tudan Danzeng.

An emergency meeting of senior officials in Sichuan on Monday decided to extend a travel ban on foreigners to include the remote Jiuzhaigou valley, in the volatile Aba prefecture, where dissent continues to simmer. The popular tourist spot is far from the unrest.

The emergency order also bars visitors from Hong Kong and Taiwan, tourism administration officials and travel agents said. An official at the provincial tourism administration office who gave only his surname, Xu, cited road safety as a concern. But he could not explain why domestic tourists were still allowed to go.

In Chengdu, whose residents number more than all the Tibetans in China, little security is visible except in the Tibetan neighborhood, a tree-lined series of streets packed with souvenir shops and restaurants centered around the Tibet government's local office.

Residents and store owners said security, already tight since last year's riots, has become even stricter in the past 10 days. Only public buses and cars with resident permits are allowed in. By early evening, the streets are empty, the shops shuttered.

"Business is bad, so bad," said a young Tibetan minding a store selling traditional clothes. He would give only his Chinese surname, Ze. "No one dares to come in anymore."