Reflections on a Riot

The sharp crack of bullets, fired to suppress Tibetan unrest, is not an unusual sound in Tibet; but it is unusual for tourists to hear them, as hundreds like firecrackers or little explosions coming from the overturned, burning police jeeps. Then came the screams, panic, people limping off and children being carried away by their parents.

The series of demonstrations began on September 27, when about 20 monks emerged from the Jokhang Temple, the heart of Lhasa's Tibetan quarter. They marched clockwise around the outer walls of the temple as devout Buddhist pilgrims have done for centuries. Carrying small, homemade Tibetan national flags and sometimes chanting, they proceeded towards the Tibet Autonomous Regional Government building. As they entered a predominantly Chinese business district on Remmin Lui, "The People's Street", followed by hundreds of Tibetan supporters, a police motorcycle and sidecar careened into the monks, knocking several down. Within half an hour, dozens of policemen had descended upon the marchers, striking them with their fists, knees and rifle butts and herding them into vans.

In the aftermath of the September 27 demonstration, Lhasa was in a flurry of activity: rumors flew, sirens wailed intermittently at night, military vehicles sped dangerously through the crowded streets. Everyone was asking, "Will it happen again?"

Three days later, on October 1, the day began as usual as pilgrims walked clockwise around the Jokhang spinning their prayer wheels, shopkeepers opened up for the day and street vendors lay their produce out on blankets. A thin column of smoke rose from the Barkhor Square in front of the Jokhang. Suddenly, shopowners started closing down and street vendors hurriedly gathered their wares. The monks were marching again. This time a much larger crowd of Tibetan supporters followed them. Police vehicles raced to the scene.

Again, the police grabbed the monks and beat them in front of a large Tibetan crowd. One police officer had a shovel that he swung again and again, leaving a monk covered in blood. The police herded the monks into a nearby police station in the midst of the Tibetan quarter. Almost immediately, the crowd started throwing rocks at the police. Soon the police barricaded themselves inside the station along with the monks and several Westerners who had been taking pictures.

Word of the riot spread like wildfire around Lhasa. Soon thousands of Tibetans swarmed around the Jokhang Temple, chanting "Free Tibet" and "Chinese out of Tibet" The crowd chased any Chinese from the area, including Chinese-American tourists, and often stoned them with rocks. As its anger grew, the crowd began to smash and burn the police vehicles and then set the station itself on fire. As a result of the confusion, most of the monks inside the station were able to escape, except those who jumped out a side window, who were either shot or apprehended by the police. One elderly monk who ran into the station to help the others escape got caught in the burning entrance, emerging from the flames with sheets of skin hanging from his pink arms. In a sea of clenched fists, raised in angry defiance, men carried the burned monk through the crowd.

For several hours the police fired at the crowd, mostly shooting high or low but sometimes aiming right at individuals, killing them instantly. Finally, after hours of sporadic shooting, the police withdrew from the Tibetan quarter altogether. Climbing through the wreckage of the police station, the crowd destroyed files, carried off furniture and searched for bodies. At least 10 Tibetans were killed that day, all by police gunfire. The Chinese claim that six policemen were killed, presumably by stones, but no foreign eyewitness saw anything to substantiate that figure.

The October riot is a violent microcosm of much larger issues that are prevalent in Tibet today. The level of racial divisiveness is extraordinarily high - certainly no less than it was in Selma, Alabama, in 1965. The spontaneous mass support for the demonstrating monks reveals a renewed readiness among Tibetans to make their grievances known to the world. And the resolution and aftermath of the riot belie a ruthless intolerance of Tibetan dissent and an unabashed willingness to respond with intimidation, violence, arrest and imprisonment.

It was obvious that the Chinese were caught off guard on October 1 by the intensity of the Tibetan reaction to the beatings and arrests of the demonstrating monks. The Tibetan crowd did not react peacefully: they threw stones and burned police vehicles and the police station itself, while the police fired at them with AK 47s and 7 - and 9-millimeter pistols. Any well-trained and well-equipped Western police force could have dispersed this crowd without the loss of life. But it was apparent that the Chinese had not trained the police crowd control tactics; they had not provided them with riot helmets and shields, they did not employ tear gas and they did not try to use the least force possible when arresting peaceful protesters. In striking contrast, the police who broke up and arrested student demonstrators in various Chinese cities in December 1986 and January 1987 were consistently more professional and more humane.

We will never know what orders the police acted upon that day or who was responsible for giving them. Of the thousands of rounds of ammunition that were fired, relatively few appeared to be fired with the intent of causing death. Many people sustained leg injuries from bullets purposefully fired low, but some of these low bullets killed at least one child and severely wounded others. Some deaths could have been from ricochets. Initially the official New China News Agency said that the Tibetan rioters snatched guns from policemen and shot at the police and at bystanders, killing six and injuring 19. It said that the police had strictly followed orders not to open fire. However, the only gun that a Western eyewitness ever saw in the hands of a Tibetan was when a young boy ran toward the police station and picked up an AK 47 that a policeman had dropped. The boy carried the gun back, and it was passed from hand to hand over the heads of the crowd, cheering at this small, symbolic victory. Then someone smashed the gun to pieces on the street. It was loaded, but never fired.

Many commentators noted the incongruity of Buddhist monks taking part in the riot and in particular the image of them hurling rocks at the police station. The photographs carried by the wire services and printed in all the major papers gave a distorted view of the role of the monks. First of all, never more than a handful of monks were present among the thousands of protesters. Most of the monks who had chosen to demonstrate had already been arrested. Secondly, the rocks hurled by the monks were directed at a building, not at another human being. Thirdly, once the arrested monks escaped from the police station, all the monks disappeared and did not take part in the remainder of the protest.

The phenomenon of Tibetan monks playing a role in violent activity is not new and appears to have the support of the Tibetan population. Many monks participated in the protracted resistance in the 1960s and 1970s. The monks from Sera Monastery outside of Lhasa, two of whom were shot October 1, have earned the reputation over the centuries as "warrior" monks. Monks are leaders in Tibetan society; as such, they may also feel a duty to act in accordance with what they perceive to be Tibet's best interests.

The Chinese claimed that the demonstrations were instigated by foreigners and/or (depending upon the broadcast) by "splittist agents of the Dalai Lama clique." The role of the civilian underground in the demonstrations is unclear. All the demonstrations were initiated by a relatively small group of monks (between 20 and 80); to Western eyewitnesses, civilian support appeared to be spontaneous. Tibetan monks remain overwhelmingly loyal to the Dalai Lama and tot he hierarchical structure of which he is the pinnacle. Yet communications between Dharamsala and Lhasa are severely restricted and slow. The monks involved assert that their decision to demonstrate was precipitated by auspicious signs, including a rainbow on the 25th and earthquakes on the 26th.

It was commonly known by all Tibetans that the Dalai Lama had just been in Washington, DC; the Chinese themselves staged a publicity campaign against the Dalai Lama and his US trip through radio and newspapers in Tibet. News of the trip was also carried in Chinese over Voice of America and the British Broadcasting Corporation. Even people in remote mountain villages knew of the Dalai Lama's trip. This sparked the imagination and hopes of the Tibetan population, and angered them at the same time. The blame for the widespread and intense Tibetan unrest during the past months is partly due to the Chinese publicity campaign against the Dalai Lama.

Western tourists were also accused of instigating the unrest by the New China News Agency. They reportedly were "waving their hands and urging demonstrators to attack the police." While several Westerners did participate in throwing rocks, they did not assume any leadership capacity. Western tourists certainly had no advance warning of when or where a demonstration would occur, but were eager to witness and photograph the events. It is widely believed that, had Westerners not been interested in the crowd on October 1, there would have been many more casualties. Throughout the day Tibetans begged us to take more photographs, particularly of the dead and wounded, and get them to the Dalai Lama. Later we wrote news reports and smuggled the reports and our film to Hong Kong and Beijing. Ironically, in this age of technology, after the guns and rocks cameras played a significant though very different role on both sides. Dozens of police were photographing the crowd with video cameras and telephoto lenses in order to later identify those present.

Since the October 1 riot at least three other major demonstrations have taken place in Lhasa alone, resulting in the beatings, arrest and detention of well over 100 monks and nuns. Freedom of expression is not legally protected under Chinese law and "counter-revolutionary" activity is still punishable by death. Yet even these legal principles are still far removed from this land in which courtrooms are sparingly used and the legitimacy of authority rests on the sword and gun.

Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.

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