A CNN crew was detained yesterday while trying to reach the Tibetan prefectures which have been the epicenter of the self-immolation crisis:
Our hope is to get to the Tibetan autonomous zone, in the mountainous region of Sichuan province, an area reportedly locked in an ever-growing spiral of violence.
We’re so close, only an hour or so away. And then the light.
Within minutes, we grind to a halt. A policeman is flashing a flashlight in my face. Our Chinese driver is already outside the car. We won’t be going any farther tonight.
Roadblocks like this are strewn across the back roads of this province. For weeks, ethnic Tibetans and Chinese security forces have been locked in conflict.
As our car turns back, our driver calls a Tibetan contact. Something serious is going down. The Tibetan says his village is crawling with police and the military. Later, local news reports tell of two Tibetans killed in protests.
But many of the villages that straddle the mountains are inhabited by Han Chinese — the dominant ethnic group in China. Inside the houses, lights are on, as people eat, watch TV and talk. We ask what they’re hearing. They tell us they have little time for the Tibetans. They call them lazy and accuse them of living off government handouts.
One woman claims the Han Chinese are being targeted by violent Tibetan gangs. Local media reports say more than a dozen people have already been killed.
There is hysteria, bigotry and fear here. It is fueled by government secrecy and a constant stream of military and police vehicles. Much of the province is in lockdown.
It’s hard to get people to talk here. We see a group of young monks on a corner and wave them over. They agree to take us to their living quarters. Here in a tiny one bedroom apartment, four beds crammed against the walls and their food tied in sacks, the monks tell us they are verbally abused and harassed by police; pushed to breaking point.
“I cannot bear it any longer – any more,” says one.
They are far from their home in the mountains; cut off they say, they cannot even make contact by phone.
On our way to the airport, a car, rather suspiciously, rams into the back of our taxi.
As we make our way to the service counters, we are followed by plainclothes security talking constantly on mobile phones. Eventually trying to clear airport security, we’re grabbed by police. We are marched to an airport police station and detained and questioned for five hours. Police keep some of our video.
They want to know who we spoke to, what we are doing here, where we’ve been and why we want to cover this story. We have our own questions — questions authorities are answering only with roadblocks and police.
An MSNBC article quotes the Chinese government, still vowing to give no quarter to Tibetans:
“The Chinese government will, as always, fight all crimes and be resolute in maintaining social order,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said in comments on the incident.
The harsh response points to a deep anxiety about the self-immolations, said Youdon Aukatsang, a New Delhi-based member of the Tibetan parliament-in-exile.
“They’re worried that there is an underground movement in Tibet that is coming to the surface,” she said.
Tibetan desperation has been fed both by the harsh crackdown — security agents reportedly outnumber monks in some monasteries — along with a deep fear that the Dalai Lama, probably the most potent symbol of Tibet’s separate identity, will never return.
Dibyesh Anand, a Tibet expert at London’s University of Westminster, said resistance to Chinese rule is likely to grow more fierce.
“Protests will get more radicalized since the Tibetans in the region see no concession, no offer of compromise, no flexibility coming from the government,” he said.
“By not responding constructively when it was faced with peaceful one-person protests, the (Communist) party has created the conditions for violent, large-scale protests,” said Robbie Barnett, head of modern Tibetan studies at New York’s Columbia University.
NYT has more details from Chengdu:
Armed soldiers in dun-colored camouflage trooped up and down Wuhouci Hengjie, a tree-shaded lane that is home to two government offices. Police cars, vans and even tow trucks, their red-and-blue light bars flashing, were stationed every 50 to 100 yards. Bands of police officers patrolled the sidewalks; on one corner, they upbraided an angry Tibetan man as anxious women grabbed his arms, pulling him away.
Asked about the heavy security, one shopkeeper sarcastically suggested the forces were in town to prevent rowdiness during the spring festival, a traditional Chinese holiday.
He added quietly: “I don’t dare talk. The police came to my shop and told me not to spread the word.”
A reporter who sought on Thursday to drive to Ganzi was halted at a police checkpoint halfway to his goal and, after inspection of his journalist’s visa, politely but firmly turned away.
“There is thick ice ahead,” the police said. “It is not suitable for foreign guests.”
Two backpackers were also ordered to turn around, but were told that the area was unsafe because “the Tibetans are in revolt.”
But some inside the locked-down area are getting their information out in other ways. Posts on Twitter and Chinese microblogs documented some of the local reaction to the strife before being deleted from Chinese sites.
“A cold morning in Danba County town,” one post stated. “It’s all very chaotic over here, with the police searching all nonlocal vehicles and all the hotels aren’t being allowed to accept Tibetans or foreigners.”