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Tuesday, March 25

A second look at the riots in Lhasa, Tibet

"On March 6, 1989, some 380 defenseless [Tibetan] demonstrators were mercilessly massacred. The person who ordered the killings was a certain Hu Jintao, then Communist Party Chief in Tibet and today President of the People’s Republic of China, whom the Tibetans remember as the “Butcher of Lhasa”. On that day, Hu earned the esteem of the Elders in the Party who soon propelled him to the top."(1)

Their Man in Lhasa
"What you say you saw corroborates the official version. What exactly did you see?"

-- question put by CNN International to The Economist's James Miles about news reports he filed from Lhasa, March 14-19.(2)
If the wording of that question seems an awfully rude way for one accredited member of the press to interview another -- well, it was more of an interrogation than an interview.

Along with at least 29 other accredited news organizations, CNN had tried hard and failed to make their way into Tibet to report to the world on what was going on Lhasa, only to be met at every mountain pass and entry point by Chinese officials and turned back.(3) All CNN had to show for their pains was footage of their crew being turned away from the Tibet border.

However, Mr Miles, alone among accredited Western journalists, "just happened to be in Lhasa," as The Economist put it. He also just happened to snare an entry visa into Tibet for that period when no other Western journalist could manage the feat.

The Economist also just happened to remove Mr Miles from his beat in Beijing to send him into Tibet at that particular time, even though the National People's Congress was going full tilt in Beijing and the most important Tibetan officials were in Beijing for the event.

And so, by miraculous luck Mr Miles allegedly arrived in Lhasa just two days ahead of the March 14 riots, which allowed him to settle in before bravely reporting from the riot front.

I write "allegedly" because there is a report filed by a Chinese journalist -- an accredited one working with a major Chinese news organization -- that seems to greatly contradict Mr Miles's oft-repeated explanation about his visa and its dates, but we'll arrive at that discussion in good time.

For now, it was James Miles's accounts of what he saw that greatly shaped the outside world's view of the unrest in Lhasa. What he saw he termed "racially" motivated riots; an outpouring of hatred by Tibetans for Han Chinese and Hui Muslims.

During that visit, his first to Tibet, Miles provided eyewitness reports about the riots that were seized upon by China's government in their attempt to portray themselves as victims of Tibetan ingratitude and the Dalai Lama as a terrorist mastermind. While these portraits were rejected in the West, they went over big in China.

Just as importantly, Miles's assessment of the situation in Lhasa neatly explained away the most glaring question: Why had Tibet's authorities allowed the riots to occur unimpeded for almost two days?
Han Chinese in Lhasa were baffled and enraged by the slow reaction of the security forces. Thousands of people probably lost most, if not all, of their livelihoods (the majority of Lhasa's small businesses have no insurance, let alone against rioting). But the authorities were clearly hamstrung by the political risks involved.

Going in with guns blazing -- the tactic used to suppress the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989 and the last serious outbreak of anti-Chinese unrest in Lhasa earlier that year -- would risk inciting international calls for a boycott of the Olympic games.(4)
Yet the rioters could have been stopped without heavy firepower, and with the same well-practiced clockwork efficiency -- involving cordoning, copious use of tear gas, and a heavy show of armed force -- that Lhasa security forces deployed from March 10-14 to quash protest marches by Tibetan monks.

Since the 1989 protests, Lhasa has been one of the most locked down cities in the world. Large troop deployments are always nearby, in addition to large contingents of heavily armed and well-trained police at the ready.

None of the above is meant to impugn Mr Miles's integrity as a reporter; as he emphasized over the course of his filings from Lhasa he was wandering around alone in a strange city that had descended into chaos, and trying to make sense of his impressions.

If his impressions were sometimes contradictory -- sometimes he described the rioters as acting spontaneously, other times as acting in methodical, organized fashion -- that is the readily understandable fog of war syndrome.(5)

However, Mr Miles speaks fluent Mandarin and his journalism on Chinese affairs met with enough approval from Beijing to allow him to report from there for a total of 15 years.

In other words, if Hu Jintao and the Tibetan authorities had been looking for one Western journalist they could depend on to give the world a 'fair and balanced' account of what events in Tibet looked like to someone on good terms with China's government, James Miles was their man.

If it had been Pundita, I would have walked up to the first rioter I saw carrying a backpack containing Molotov cocktails and crowbars and asked, "How much you paid for this job? I have better job; maybe pay you more."

The stunt would not have been as dangerous as it sounds; the rioters were under orders not to harm foreigners.

That's enough chitchat about the weather in Mashed Potato Falls, Wyoming. Let's get down to brass tacks.

The Butcher of Lhasa vs Tibet activists
I observed in yesterday's post that the logical time to stage a protest in Lhasa was in June, when the Olympic torchbearer would arrive amidst much pomp and ceremony. Any doubts that my reasoning is correct can be settled by reading the front page article in today's Wall Street Journal.(6)

Because it is known to all human rights activists that China's president is a mass murderer with a hard-line reputation to defend on Tibet, they also know there would be only one way to stage an effective protest in Tibet in answer to China's hosting of the 2008 Olympics games.

As soon as the news broke that China would be the site of the 2008 Olympics, human rights activists worldwide, and Tibetans who supported the Dalai Lama's call for greater autonomy for Tibet, were aware that Hu Jintao would order draconian measures to suppress any protest march in Lhasa during 2008.

So they were absolutely clear that they had to get visual documentation of the suppression, and smuggle or transmit it outside the country, then get the footage to the world's major media outlets. For all that, they would need good strategies and a network stretching from Tibet to Western capital cities.

That is a well worn drill by now. It's the drill followed by expat Burmese democracy activists and their Western activist supporters. They spent years building strategies and a network for visually documenting atrocities and getting the documentation out of Burma. So Burma's activists were ready when Burma's monks took to the streets in protest last year.

Yet just because of the demonstrated effectiveness of Burma's 'underground railroad' and their success in showing the world the Burma military's attacks on unarmed civilians, Hu Jintao knew he would have to beat the Tibet activists at their own game.

Blind Man's Bluff
Writing for Slate on March 17, Anne Applebaum rhapsodized about the role that electronic technologies are playing in getting news out about the world's most repressed regions, including Tibet:
Cell-phone photographs and videos from Tibet, blurry and amateur, are circulating on the Internet. Some show clouds of tear gas; others burning buildings and shops; still others purple-robed monks, riot police, and confusion.(7)
There's just one problem with those images: they don't document the protest marches in Lhasa that took place on March 10 and 11, and yet those were the key protests -- the biggest in almost 20 years in Tibet.

Yet the images floating around the internet, and all photographs published in newspapers during the period of March 10 - 17, document incidents that occurred days after the original protest marches.

And the vast majority of the images -- and all the newspaper photos -- depict the results of Tibetan riots starting the afternoon of March 14 in Lhasa against Han Chinese and Hui Muslims. The photographs showed the effects of the rioting: fires, looted and destroyed Han business establishments, and Han Chinese beaten by Tibetans.

But when it came to reporting on the peaceful attempt to march on March 10 and a smaller attempt on the next day, news organizations and websites outside Tibet had to rely on anecdotes. The wording used by Reuters news and the Phayul Tibetan website to describe the attempts at peaceful protest marches is typical of the game of blind man's bluff that news organizations were forced to play: "Radio Free Asia cited a source as saying..." "According to sources within Tibet..."(8)(9)

In his March 13 report for the United Kingdom's Guardian newspaper, Jonathan Watt, cooling his heels in Beijing, bluntly described his unwilling part in the game. Watt snapped:
The Guardian was unable to confirm the reports from these regions, where the Tibetan communities are tightly controlled by the Chinese government.(10)
But if activists inside and outside Tibet had years to prepare for a historic protest march in Lhasa, and if the monks had been waiting almost 20 years to stage a mass protest, where was the network to record the attempted march and the inevitable crackdown by the authorities?

And why would the monks sally forth in the evening to commemorate Tibet Uprising Day? Payul reports:
...on the evening of 10 March, about three hundred monks from Drepung Monastery, located on the outskirts of the capital, attempted to start a planned peaceful protest march towards Barkhor Street, Lhasa.(9)
The march never got off the ground; before the monks got to Lhasa they were surrounded by "a large number of Chinese armed police."

But it would extremely hard if not virtually impossible to film this in failing light or darkness -- not without using devices that would immediately draw attention from the police.

So what possessed the monks to organize a march in the evening? And why wouldn't they stick with the program that had been carefully constructed by rights activists, and which focuses on dates that the Olympic torch relay arrives in certain cities?

Next: The Set-up.

6:30 PM March 28 Update: See also Evidence emerges that authorities staged Lhasa riots: A second look at the riots in Lhasa, Tibet: Part 5

1) Tibet keeps alive true spirit of the Games by Claude Arpi, Sify, March 2008

2) James Miles Interview on Tibet, CNN, March 20

3) News of Tibet under scrutiny, CNN International, March 19

4) Trashing the Beijing Road, James Miles, The Economist, March 19

5) Compliation of James Miles's reports from Lhasa, March 14-19: From East South West North website.

6) Protests Kick Off The Torch Relay, by Stephanie Kang in New York, Mei Fong in Beijing and Stacy Meichtry in Olympia, Greece, Wall Street Journal, March 25

7) Live From Lhasa: Shaky cell-phone videos from Tibet foretell doom for the Chinese empire by Anne Applebaum, Slate, March 17

8) Tibetan monk protest in Lhasa draws China's ire, Reuters, March 11

9) Tibet reeling under tense situation: Nuns of Chutsang Nunnery join the protest, Phayul, March 14

10) Monks in Tibet go on hunger strike as protests spread by Jonathan Watts, Guardian Unlimited, March 13
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