March 14, 2008 -- The Tibetan capital of Lhasa was thrown into chaos today by anti-China protests and the government's swift response to quell them.
An eyewitness, who did not wish to be named, told ABC News that "gunshots were fired" and that the main square has been barricaded by hundreds of police. Emerging reports describe a city under lockdown, and many fear Beijing could soon enforce martial law.
Plumes of dark smoke covered downtown Lhasa after the protesters, led by Buddhist monks, set alight shops and cars. Reports indicate that the shops targeted were Chinese-owned.
"My Tibetan friends are all scared. They are telling me to stay indoors and not to go out," the eyewitness in Lhasa said. "The situation is very tense."
The protests began peacefully Monday when a group of monks marched to Lhasa demanding more religious freedom. This call was matched by Tibetan exiles around the world as they marked the 49th anniversary of Tibet's 1959 uprising against China. The 1959 rebellion resulted in the Dalai Lama's self-imposed exile in India.
The three great monasteries -- Sera, Drepung and Ganden -- are all now surrounded by phalanxes of Chinese troops.
"The Sera monastery is surrounded by Chinese soldiers or police," the same eyewitness told ABC News. "I went yesterday to an area nearby to meet a Tibetan friend, and I saw the monastery surrounded by them."
Reports of protests in other parts of Tibet are slowly coming out despite restricted media access to the region.
"There has been for years now a deep-seated resentment brought on by the intensification of China's policy toward Tibet," Matt Whitticase, of the Free Tibet Campaign, said.
The protesters have decided "now is the time" to draw attention to their unhappiness with China's hegemony because the upcoming Olympics has focused the international media's attention on Beijing.
China's rule of Tibet has led to a marginalization of locals and deep concerns that Tibet's culture may soon be eroded by China's influence, Whitticase says.
Described by the Dalai Lama as "demographic aggression," Chinese Han now easily outnumber indigenous Tibetans in Lhasa and often receive preferential treatment from government officials. The opening of the Beijing-Lhasa railway in 2006 has made it easier for China's central government to assert control in the remote Himalayan region.
Tibet's religious communities in particular are affected by Chinese rule, Whitticase says
"Work teams" are sent by Beijing into monasteries and nunneries to convert the monks and nuns into becoming Communist Party loyalists. They are also forced to renounce allegiance to the Dalai Lama, whom Tibetans regard as a reincarnation of Buddha. Those that remain loyal to "his holiness" are often "derobed" and forced out of their monastery or nunnery.
The Chinese government has been downplaying the situation. "In the past couple of days, a few monks in Lhasa made some disturbances in an attempt to provoke social unrest," Beijing's Foreign Ministry spokesperson Qin Gang told reporters at a news conference yesterday. "This is a political scheme carefully planned by the Dalai clique in a bid to separate Tibet and sabotage the Tibetan people's normal life of stability and harmony."
There is no mention of today's rioting on the main Chinese news sites. The international version of Xinhua, China's official news agency, carries a brief report describing "violence in downtown Lhasa" but it does not address the motivation for this "violence."
Beijing has yet to issue an official reaction to today's events, but Tibet's regional authority blamed the Dalai Lama. Xinhua quoted an official from the government of Tibet Autonomous Region as saying the protests were "organized, premeditated and masterminded" by the Dalai Lama.
A spokesperson for the Dalai Lama denied the allegations telling ABC News the protests were "completely spontaneous" and that the Dalai Lama had "nothing to do with them."
The Dalai Lamai had previously issued a statement calling for calm. "I therefore appeal to the Chinese leadership to stop using force and address the long-simmering resentment of the Tibetan people through dialogue with the Tibetan people," he said. "I also urge my fellow Tibetans not to resort to violence."
News of the number and extent of casualties is unclear.
"In Tibet it takes so much time, and even now after four days we do not know how many were shot, how many are injured, how many are arrested," Tenzin Wangmo Dunchu, Tibetan government in exile representative to the European Union, told reporters.
"We don't have the real figure. This is, I think, a big concern."
A statement from the Tibet Society, an exile group based in London, says: "It has been reported that a 16- year-old girl was shot and killed in Lhasa and a monk has been killed in Ramoche."
Radio Free Europe, the U.S.-funded station, reported that two monks in Drepung, where the protests began, attempted suicide and are now in critical condition. Many others from that monastery are on hunger strike.
White House Deputy Press Secretary Tony Fratto said he was not aware of any direct contact between the Bush administration and Beijing's government over this matter.
"We believe Beijing needs to respect Tibetan culture; they need to respect multi-ethnicity in their society," he told reporters. "We regret the tensions between ethnic groups and Beijing. The president has said consistently that Beijing needs to have a dialogue with the Dalai Lama."