DHARAMSALA, India, March 17, 2008— -- The Chinese military is shooting Tibetan demonstrators "like dogs," a Tibetan exile group said Monday, firing "indiscriminately" intro groups of people protesting Chinese rule.
The accusation was leveled by the Tibetan Center for Human Rights and Democracy, a group run by exiled Tibetans in Dharamsala, India, home to the Dalai Lama. Exile groups in India receive some of the few reports from inside Tibet and have provided some of the only reporting from there since last Monday, when the most significant Tibetan protests in 20 years began.
"People have been saying they're shooting our people like dogs," Tenzin Norgay, the spokesman for the Tibetan Center for Human Rights and Democracy, told ABC News, citing his sources inside Tibet. He spoke just a few hours after a deadline set by the Chinese government expired for the protestors to stop or face a crackdown. The protests, he says, continued, and so did the retaliation.
"From reports we have been able to gather, the military forces, they do not tolerate anything more than a few minutes and then immediately they begin shooting or beating. And if the crowd goes out of control they shoot indiscriminately," Norgay said.
He said his group had confirmed that 55 protestors had been shot to death in the last few days. The Tibetan government in exile, which is seated in Dharamsala, maintains that it has confirmed at least 80 deaths in the capital of Lhasa alone during one week of protests.
If the Chinese military is in fact shooting into crowds, the accusation is impossible to prove. The Chinese government has kicked all journalists out of the region and exiled groups' sources are anonymous and refuse to speak directly to the media for fear of their safety.
The Chinese government denies shooting protestors over the last week, saying that Tibetans themselves are at fault.
The "atrocities of the Tibetan independence forces manifested ... the hypocrisy and deceit of its peace and non-violence propaganda," foreign ministry spokesman Liu Jianchao said, according to the Associated Press. "The Chinese government will unwaveringly protect national sovereignty and territorial integrity."
"Unwavering" for China has clearly meant a massive mobilization of soldiers and police to quell the protests. ABC News witnessed hundreds of buses filled with soldiers, rumbling along the road to Tibet on Monday, hours before the deadline expired.
But the protestors themselves have also been unwavering, and seem to be more aggressive than ever.
They have burned buildings, attacked cars with baseball bats and thrown rocks at Chinese authorities. Those methods have long been used by revolutionaries around the world, but never so often by Tibetans.
And as the actions and rhetoric on both sides rose over the last week, a fault line within the Tibetan independence movement has been exposed.
The Dalai Lama is the spiritual leader of the movement, the living God who won a Nobel Peace Prize for advancing non-violent protest in Tibet. But the 72-year-old's faith in Gandhian resistance has left some of his followers frustrated.
"He is the leader, yes, but every single Tibetan has the responsibility" to fight for independence, Tsewang Rigzin, the president of the Tibetan Youth Congress, told reporters in Dharamsala. "The issue of Tibet is not an issue of an individual or an individual organization. The issue of Tibet has to do with every single Tibetan. "
He sat in front of a sign that read "Rise Up, Resist, Return." Unlike the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan Youth Congress stands for aggressive protest. Unlike the Dalai Lama, it stands for Tibetan independence from China and not just autonomy. And unlike the Dalai Lama, it believes that China should be stripped of the Olympics.
"There is a growing frustration within the Tibetan community, especially the younger generation," Rigzin said. "His holiness' brand of 'middle way' has been in existence for the last 20 years. And as of right now, nothing has come of it whatsoever."
The Dalai Lama has stuck to his principles. "Particularly in our case," he said during a press conference on Sunday, "violence is almost like suicide."
But he pointedly did not condemn the protesters' actions during the press conference. He said he didn't have the power to stop the demonstrations, though he admitted that he'd received requests not to intervene.
"Generally, Tibetans follow, I think quite sincerely, non-violent peaceful" protest, he told reporters. "Of course, individual human beings, emotions become out of control, and [that leads to] violent actions. So this is possible."
Asked by ABC News whether he supported the demonstrators and had the power to stop them, the Dalai Lama parried, saying, "I have no such power."
Perhaps he is not standing in the way because he and his advisers realize this is a moment the Tibet movement needs to seize. The Summer Olympics begin in only five months. Never have so many eyes been on China. And it seems that never has he been so impressed by the possibilities of this week's protests.
When the Dalai Lama heard the Chinese impose a deadline to the protestors, he said, "I got the same sort of mental state which I experienced in 1959." That is an extremely significant year for the Tibetan people — the year the Dalai Lama fled to India, and the year Tibetans tried to seize their homeland through force. "One side, Chinese military determined to crush. Other side, Tibetan side also, determined to resist that," he said.
Emotions have never been higher here. Lobsang Tsering, a 28-year-old monk, left Tibet in 1989 to move to a monestary in Dharamsala. He has been following the protests in Tibet closely.
"So many people have been killed in Lhasa. Yesterday 15 were killed in Amdho. And yet the protesters continue, with only a photo of the Dali Lama and the Tibetan flags as their weapons. They have no guns. The Chinese have the guns," he said.
While being interviewed he and another monk received a call from one of their friends in Tibet. The caller described a scene of violence unfold right in front of his eyes.
"The police are beating 70 people," the called said. "One policeman just hit a monk's head with a baton. The monk is bleeding right now." As he continued describing the scene, the violence turned worse. "Oh! Just now, two people were killed. I saw it right in front of me."
Tsering was inconsolable. Speaking a few hours before the Chinese deadline, he feared that the violence would only get worse.
"If the Chinese shoot bullets into the Tibetans, the feeling is felt in the heart of those of us in exile," he said. He started crying, and hugged a visiting reporter. "When I think about the news from the last couple of days, I feel mad. I don't know what to do."