From New York Times – Fresh ethnic violence has erupted in a Tibetan region of southwestern China, with disputed reports of eight people shot dead by the police, and the Chinese government on Friday vowed swift and severe punishment of Tibetans accused of rioting and taking part in last month’s antigovernment protests.
Police officers fired Thursday evening on a crowd of protesters outside government offices in the Garze Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture in Sichuan Province along the border with Tibet. A Tibet activist group said the shooting left eight protesters dead, according to The Associated Press.
Signs of ethnic unrest in another area, in the northwestern region of Xinjiang, have also begun to emerge in recent days, with details of protests and rumored plotting by Muslim separatists in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region and of police crackdowns in several areas of the region.
China’s official Xinhua news agency confirmed the latest incidence of Tibetan unrest in Sichuan Province, saying that a riot had broken out and that the “police were forced to fire warning shots to put down the violence,” citing a local official. It said a government official was attacked and seriously injured in the protest, but gave no details of other injuries or deaths.
The pro-Tibet activist group, the London-based Free Tibet Campaign, said hundreds of Buddhist monks and lay people had marched on the government offices to demand that two monks detained for possessing photographs of the Dalai Lama, the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader, be released, The A.P. reported.
Quoting Tibet’s highest law enforcement official, The Tibet Daily, an official newspaper, said that courts would “use the weapon of the law to attack enemies, punish crime, protect the people and maintain stability,” in what it called a drive to “shock criminality and root out the base of the separatists.”
Tibet was shaken by protests last month by Buddhist monks demanding religious freedoms. Riots followed in Lhasa, the capital, on March 14, in which shops owned by the country’s ethnic Han majority were attacked. China says 19 people were killed in the rioting and ensuing crackdown, while Tibetan exile groups say they have reports of 140 deaths. The events in Lhasa quickly brought a wave of sympathy protests in parts of several neighboring provinces where Tibetans live in large numbers, in the biggest outbreak of unrest in the region in at least two decades.
Like Tibetans, Uighurs, who are the predominant ethnic group in Xinjiang, harbor memories of political independence and deep resentment of Chinese control, particularly over the practice of their Islamic faith.
Residents of townships and villages near Gulja, a city in the northwestern region of Xinjiang, said that about 25 Uighur Muslims were arrested last week on a tip that people in the area were making bombs. Residents said the police search had turned up three bombs in a cow shed, but the authorities were still looking for more devices that they believed were hidden in the area.
A resident of Yengiyer, a township near Gulja, speaking by telephone on Friday of the uncovering of a bomb plot, said that the police tip had come after the recent arrest of an Uighur in the provincial capital , Urumqi. The police contacted in the area declined to discuss the tip or provide details of the plot. But local residents with connections to the government said that the bombs were part of a conspiracy to undermine Communist rule.
“Their goal is pretty simple: They want to overthrow the rule of the Communist Party,” said Hong Xiuhua, 50, a retired local party official who said her husband had been briefed on the arrests by the local party secretary. “They claim that Xinjiang belongs to them and want to drive all the Han people out.”
Ms. Hong said that the police were holding two couples, as well as a local baker, but they had released some of the other initial suspects. She said that unauthorized gatherings in the region had been banned, including weddings, as a precaution, and that people had been warned “not to talk about inappropriate things, such as complaining about socialism.”
A police official reached by telephone declined to provide details about the arrests. “It is related to matters of stability, and we have the right not to give you a reply,” the official said.
As in Tibet, religious freedom has been a constant source of tension in Xinjiang. The government, for example, bans students and party members from practicing Islam, and tightly controls and polices the Muslim clergy. Many Uighurs also complain of discrimination, saying that they are rarely given jobs in the modern economy or allowed to study abroad with the same ease as their Han counterparts.
During a previous wave of protests in Gulja in 1997, Uighur human rights advocates say, dozens of demonstrators were killed on the spot by paramilitary forces, and many others executed later.
A Han resident of the area, a 63-year-old woman who gave her name as Huang, however, blamed leniency for the latest troubles. “If some of them are executed, then they’ll learn to be scared,” she said. “I’m talking about the Uighurs. They’re all like this.”
Reports of the alleged bomb-making activity came as reports emerged from other parts of Xinjiang suggesting mounting tensions throughout the region. As protests spread across Tibetan areas to the south and east, about 500 Uighurs gathered in the city of Khotan on March 23, reportedly hoisting banners and shouting pro-independence slogans before the police moved in and arrested many of the demonstrators, clearing the area.
On March 18, a rumor spread quickly through the streets of Urumqi that an Uighur woman had detonated a bomb on a city bus, escaping before its explosion. Officials have denied that account, but in a telephone interview an American resident of Xinjiang’s bustling capital said that he had visited the scene hours after the rumor spread and found what looked like a heavily guarded impromptu construction site, where workers refused to talk and urged him to leave.
“Pretty much everyone you speak to, whether Chinese or Uighur, says a bomb went off,” said the American, who declined to be identified by name. “That same night there were riot police in full gear patrolling the neighborhood, and since then I’ve seen heavy police patrols everywhere, including riot police at the main markets, with tear gas, automatic weapons and armored personnel carriers with gun turrets parked nearby.”
“We’ve been here for three months and it was certainly never been like this before.”
In the western Xinjiang city of Kashgar, a traditionally important center of Islam in the region, meanwhile, the police have arrested 70 Uighurs in recent days in a sweep aimed at securing the city before the arrival of the Olympic torch, according to Reuters. Beijing is to host the Olympic Games in August, and the torch is to pass through Kashgar in June.
In an interview with Reuters, Dilxat Raxit, spokesman for the World Uighur Congress, a Germany-based exile group that seeks independence, said the authorities were using the Olympics as an excuse to crack down on the Uighurs. “One world, one dream?” Mr. Raxit said, referring to Beijing’s Olympic motto. “Is that right? The Uighurs have a different dream. We don’t want the Olympics here.”