A Tibetan's Record of the March 14 Protest in Lhasa

By Ashen, From Boxun.com
May 5, 2008 12:00 am Last Updated: May 5, 2008 12:00 am

Lhasa's weather in March 2008 was slightly colder than previous years. It was almost March 10 again, which the Chinese communist government refers to as the “1959 Tibetan Uprising” or “1959 Tibetan Rebellion”, but the Tibetans refer to as the Tibetans' “doom day” or “day of exile.” It has been 49 years since March 10, 1959.

After the large-scale “turmoil” in Lhasa at the end of the 80's, Lhasa had been fairly stabile for the past twenty years. Organized street protests have been rare. Lhasa gradually became the image of “prosperity and harmony” which the Chinese communist government felt comfortable with.

In March this year, Lhasa remained very quiet. The Tibetans on the streets or visiting temples was smaller than Chinese New Year, because the number who returned home for the Chinese New Year had not returned to Lhasa. But the number of tourists was increasing because the tourism season begins in March.

The quiet streets made one wonder if the Tibetans in Lhasa had forgotten March 10, 1959. Yet the Chinese communist government's security measurements have reminded people that they are still very sensitive about the special day. Since March 7, the security was enhanced at the checkpoint in Zhangmu leading to Highway 318 towards Gzhis-ka-rtse.

This is a highway with a speed limit. Normally, drivers have to get out of the car at the checkpoint and hand in a document. Since March 7, the staff at the checkpoint checked each vehicle and asked each driver questions, especially if the driver was a Tibetan. Even the passengers in the car were subjected to the same scrutiny.

In addition, the entire security personnel were replaced. In hindsight, the goal might be to prevent Tibetans from entering Lhasa before March 10.

On March 10, Lhasa remained quiet and peaceful as usual until 4 p.m. Over 300 monks left Drepung Monastery for downtown Lhasa, shouting slogans for religious freedom and in opposition to the increases in Han population. They were stopped at Lhasa customs by large numbers of military police. Some monks were arrested and others sat on the ground quietly.

Meanwhile, over 100 monks left the monastery when they heard the news, but were stopped at the foot of the mountain by the military police and kept there until 2 a.m. They beat the monks and drove them back to the monastery. More police, including police in civilian clothes, surrounded on the square of Jokhang Monastery that day.

Many vehicles parked on the borders of the square. Apparently there was a detailed plan for security that day. Most of the vehicles with special license plates belong to the military police. Many of the army or the public security bureau's vehicles have civilian plates, or even no plate at all. After the protest broke out, the military vehicles and tanks did not have any license plates or had covered them, concealing the identity of the specific troop or military police.

A mid-size bus parked on the border of the square was packed with armed S.W.A.T. police. Until 5 p.m., Lhasa's old town remained quiet with many shoppers and Tibetans spinning their prayer wheel in hand. When asked if they remember March 10, 1959, Tibetans said that no one will forget that day, but they didn't plan to make a lot of noise. Instead, they would light up a candle at home and chant scriptures to pray for those victims.

Tibetan government-in-exile confirmed that at least 141 Tibetans were shot to death by the Chinese Communist military and police. (Courtesy of the Tibetan government-in-exile official website)
Tibetan government-in-exile confirmed that at least 141 Tibetans were shot to death by the Chinese Communist military and police. (Courtesy of the Tibetan government-in-exile official website)

At around 6 p.m., a march protest expected by the Chinese government finally began. It started as a small march of two to three dozen people, mostly monks. They turned out to be young monks from Sera Monastery. They shouted a few slogans for freedom before they unfurled a Tibetan flag bearing the snow clad mountain and a pair of snow lions. But they were quickly stopped by the military police standing on the borders of the square. The police beat and arrested the monks. The Tibetans on the square looked on helplessly and cried.

The news soon traveled among Tibetans in Lhasa. The monks at Jokhang Monastery immediately demanded the authorities to release the arrested monks and civilians, but their request was rejected. The monks at Jokhang Monastery decided to start a hunger strike protest. At 10 p.m. the old town in Lhasa became unusually still with few people on the streets.

Armed police stood on the square of Jokhang Monastery, something rarely seen in the area. A few individual Tibetans kowtowed around Jokhang Monastery to memorize the special day. But most lit up candles and prayed behind closed doors.

Occasionally a drunken Tibetan would appear on the streets and shout “Tibetans need freedom” to passersby, but only their fellow Tibetans understood them. The Han people thought they were talking gibberish because they were drunk. Perhaps the Tibetan people in Lhasa have the courage to shout these words only when they are drunk.

On the morning of March 11, Sera Monastery was also cordoned off. A Tibetan taking a driving lesson next to Sera Monastery witnessed the scene. He saw that a large number of military police had Sera Monastery under siege. Many monks sat outside the gate in silent protest. The military police told them to return to the monastery, but they remained seated.

Next, the military police used tear gas to disperse them, and began beating them in order to drive them back to the monastery. The witness felt anxious and worried for the monks. He wanted to help them, but the driving school had already shut the gate, preventing the students from leaving or intervening.

Since that day, the roads to Sera Monastery have been sealed. There was no signal for mobile phones over a large area surrounding the monastery, either. Drepung Monastery was sealed the day before. On March 11, the west end of Beijing West Road was sealed off as well.

A Chinese Thai witnessed a Chinese policeman disguised as Tibetan holding a knife. (Courtesy of Sound of Hope Radio)
A Chinese Thai witnessed a Chinese policeman disguised as Tibetan holding a knife. (Courtesy of Sound of Hope Radio)

On March 12, 2008, a group of Buddhist nuns from Qusang Temple were stopped by soldiers and police on their way to Lhasa for a protest march. When the nuns learned that Qusang Temple was surrounded by Chinese police, they decide to take a detour to Lhasa.

On March 13, nuns joined a protest but were stopped by soldiers and officers. On the same day, the Ganden Monastery was also surrounded and closed. It's said later that two monks attempted suicide in the Drepung Monastery near Lhasa. At the nearby Sera Monastery, monks began a hunger strike. All large monasteries were closed and their water supply was cut off. Surrounding restaurants were also closed. Monks were forced to stay in Temples for over 20 days without food or water.

Around noon, some monks from Jokhang Temple in the Old City of Lhasa suddenly left the temple and overturned police cars and then returned to their chanting of Buddhist scripture. Jokhang Temple had already been surrounded by Chinese forces, but because the temple is nearly at the center of the Old City, most of them were plainclothes officers. The monks, however, were still able to identify them. Not long after, a riot began near Jokhang Temple.

Monks from smaller surrounding temples and other local people clashed with soldiers and plainclothes officers. Some Tibetans were badly beaten and carried away by police. Angered by the beatings, some Tibetans threw stones at surrounding stores run by Han Chinese. The riot continued to neighboring areas. Soldiers and uniformed officers were evacuated, leaving behind plainclothes police to be identified and attacked by an angry mob.

Before 2 p.m., protesters had spread to Beijing East Road and the Cemoinling area, about 30 feet away from the severely damaged Youth Road that was frequently broadcast on TV. Beijing Road is a major east-west road traversing the old and new Lhasa city. Youth Road crosses over Beijing Road, running from Yu Tuo Road at its south end (adjacent to the Jokhang Temple Square) to Lingkhor N. Road at its north end. Chong Sai Kang market is across the street from the Ramoche Temple on the north side of Beijing East Road. It's adjacent to the Barkhor Street (located in downtown old Lhasa city) and the Jokhang Temple Square.

Riots had spread quickly from Chong Sai Kang to Barkhor Street, and smoke had been seen in several places in Chong Sai Kang and the Barkhor area before 2pm. It was the lunch break for schools in the city. Because of the riots, schools dismissed students early. Tibetan protesters attacked Chinese-owned shops, not children, let alone Tibetan children, so the kids got home safely. Most of the old Lhasa city school students are Tibetan, so they didn't get harassed when they passed through the riot areas.

At the time, very few vehicles drove through the Beijing East Road, east of Cemoinling. The road was packed with Tibetans, and all of the shops along the road were closed. Occasionally, Tibetans attacked the Chinese people riding motorcycles on the road, but they wouldn't attack tourists, especially Western tourists. Chinese people and some Tibetans who were just watching and didn't want to participate walked westbound on the road.

There were around ten police maintaining order at the intersection of Youth Road and Beijing East Road. They just watched the crowd, and didn't do anything to stop them. All of sudden, the crowd ran westbound around 3 feet. The police were scared and immediately withdrew from the middle of the road to the sidewalk. They even ran faster than the watchers on the road.

Another funny thing happened in the western suburbs later. Some tourists who were forced to withdraw from the east to west asked the officers coming out of the police station how to get back to the hotels on the east side. They asked if the police could escort them back, but they said, “We are very busy. We don't have time to take care of you!”

Basically, the military police were only required to observe the assigned section, and occasionally use tear gas on crowds close by. And the Tibetan protesters didn't directly engage in conflict with the military police. It seemed that they were minding their own business. Many government and military vehicles were coming from the west of Youth Road and turning south to Jokhang Temple Road, almost brushing past the crowd.

There were military police wearing helmets and carrying shields at the intersection of Niangre Road and where Beijing East Road merges into Beijing Central Road, around 70 feet after Youth Road, along the Beijing East Road westbound. Many more armed police, several military vehicles as well as several heavy armored vehicles were found on the junction of Kang'ang Road, 20 feet west of Niangre Road, east of Potala Square.

More military and armored vehicles were emerging in a constant stream from the west, turning southbound on Kang'ang Road towards Jiang Su Road. There were only military and armored vehicles on the major roads, but no fire trucks or ambulances, even though multiple locations on the city's east side were on fire and a few Chinese people were injured. The Bank of China, the Agricultural Bank, the Post Office building and the largest shopping mall in Lhasa are all located between Niangre Road and Potala Square.

Potala Square is next to the Tibetan Autonomous Regional Government Building, so it is obvious why the police and military forces were deployed in the area. Around 3pm, the crowd hadn't yet passed Youth Road, however, the military police started to rush people at the Niangre junction westbound all the way to the west of Potala Square. The police were trying to stop all people taking pictures with their cell phones or cameras. Looking eastbound from the west of Potala Square, people could see the crowd looming over Youth Road.

Around 4pm, the east side of Potala Square on Beijing Central Road had been completely closed. By 5pm, the disturbances had spread from N. Linkuo Road to C. Linkuo Road. In addition to the Ramoche Temple, Chong Sai Kang and Barkhor area, the disturbances had spread northbound to the United New Village area and eastbound to Gamagongsang area. These regions are basically all of the areas in Lhasa that were affected by the disturbance.

During the whole period of riots, there were almost no large scale conflicts between the Tibetans and the local military and police in the day time. There were still Western tourists wandering the streets and watching long after the riots had ended for the day—of course the military and police wouldn't massacre people right before their eyes—but loud gunshots could be heard at night.

Although you could barely hear the gunshots before nightfall on Beijing Street (this is where most foreign tourists were gathering in Lhasa) there were still Tibetans killed by police at Paguo Street and Liguo Street.

At Linguo Street, people had seen at least 4 or 5 Tibetans killed by the military, and one of them was killed near the TV Station sometime after 5 pm. In the afternoon, a nun was shot to death by police at Paguo Street. Her relatives living on that street took her body back home, but police retrieved it later that evening.

At night, the western suburbs and the usually very busy New City section of Lhasa, which is at the west end of Butala Square, became very quiet; taxis refused to travel eastbound when they reached Deji Road.

There were hardly any pedestrians after crossing Deji Road; a large group of local military and police guarded the area and blocked the street. Northbound on Beijing East Road, roughly 150 feet from Niangre Road, shops near the street had been severely damaged; but the shops at the southern end of Beijing East Road and both sides of Niangre Road were fine.

It seemed that the protesters walked pass the Qingnian Road and then came back to Qingnian Road, where there were conflicts with the local military and police guarded at Niangre Road. Although there were several bloodstains on the street, the stains weren't very large.

Also, on this street is the Yi Chun Clothing Store where television broadcasts revealed that 5 girls were burned to death. The other shops near the entrance of Qingnian Road were also severely damaged, and a white car parked on the sidewalk was burned.

The southbound Qingnian Road was not damaged badly while the north bound was damaged terribly. One of the badly damaged stores belonged to a Han family named Peng. The fate of this store was also broadcasted repeatedly on TV. The east side of Qingnian Road was at the center of where riots broke out in the afternoon; gunshots and occasional screaming could be heard on Beijing East Road. It was not yet midnight.

The constant sound of gunfire could be heard on the evening of March 14, in the Old City where Tibetans gathered. In the early morning of March 15, the whole city was in a state of siege or at least the Old City was, common people were not allowed to enter this section. During the day, black smoke billowed periodically from the Old City, along with the sounds of gunfire.

Nothing had changed on the 16th. Over these few days, nothing could be heard over the constant sound of gunfire. Nobody answered either emergency calls to 110 or phone calls at government departments. Nobody was allowed in the Old City—those who had nothing to eat at home were sent back by police, who also checked phones to prevent pictures being taken. This rule applied to everyone.

There were a couple of Han Chinese whose store was damaged and wanted to go out to buy food, people could easily tell easily that they were common Han living there, but the police barred them from leaving the designated area. They even checked one of the men's cell phones to see if he had taken any pictures.

Over these two days, the local military and police were working together on a large-scale search and arrest of Tibetans at gathering places. They came to everyone's home to search for suspicious people and pictures of the Dalai Lama. Once they found a picture of Dalai Lama at a Tibetan's home, they asked him to throw the picture on the floor and step on it but he refused to do so, then they beat him up and broke his arms.

Many tearful Tibetans with children had to burn the Dalai Lama's pictures because the children might tell someone. Compared to the occasional sound of gunfire during the day, more intense gunfire was heard at night over these two days. The killing and arrests all happened at night so nobody knows exactly how many Tibetans have been killed or wounded.

On the afternoon of March 16, several small buses arrived on the main streets in the Old City. The passengers consisted of people with big brooms who appeared to be sent by the government to clean up the mess on the streets as martial law would be lifted on the 17th. People could start their normal lives again, and students could go back to school.

On March 17, the curfew seems to have been lifted, but military forces are still guarding every road in the old town to check every passerby's ID. Those who claimed to go to work had to show their work ID. Residents in the Tibetan area are still under strict martial law. There are so many sentries in every alley that Tibetan parents can't even accompany their children to school in the morning.

Passersby are searched and their belongings examined. The sentries even check if the Tibetans are wearing pendants with the Dalai Lama's picture, and arrest them if they do. But because of the earlier door-by-door search, few Tibetans now dare to wear such pendants.

From March 17, all media has been filled with intensive propaganda. Video footage of Tibetans beating Han people are played again and again, but those Han people were actually plainclothes police. As a matter of fact, some Tibetans did beat up Han people during the uproar, and some did destroy and even burn Han people's stores. It saddens us that some Tibetans vented their long suppressed anger on innocent Han and Muslim people by attacking them and their stores.

Many Tibetans were blinded by anger and lost their reason. But still, the majority of the propaganda is nothing but fabrication and slander. Tibetans may destroy and burn Han and Muslim people's stores, but they will never steal or rob the goods. They threw out some goods from the stores and burned them, but they will never take such goods home. Even if a few Tibetans would do that, others would certainly despise them and firmly stop them from doing so.

Of course Tibetans would not beat civilian Han people to death. The Chinese authorities labeled the Tibetans as rioters. Most people would think it is just normal that rioters would do thinks like stealing and killing. But for most Tibetans, such behaviors are absolutely against the basic principles of human beings. So they would not allow their fellow Tibetans to do something like that.

When watching the severely ruined stores on TV, I couldn't help suspecting the credibility of such news. How could it be? At 1:00 P.M. that day, the disturbance spread only to Cemolin area, and even after 3:00 P.M. it didn't reach Qingnian Road. At that point Qingnian Road was already guarded by police, and the next crossroads were filled with armed forces. How can this area suffer such severe damage?

Even if the armed forces tried to avoid conflict with the mob, couldn't they disperse the crowd with teargas and hoses? Further, the Tibetan holding a knife who appeared many times in TV, newspaper and Internet news wore an Amdo style Tibetan gown, but his face is obviously not Amdo Tibetan, and the knife he was holding is not a Tibetan knife at all. The fact is that no one in the crowd was holding a knife. They were trying to break the stores, for which a knife is no use. Knives can be used on people, of course, but Tibetans would not use it on Han people because they did not intend to kill anyone.

A Chinese Thai witnessed a Chinese policeman disguised as Tibetan holding a knife. (Sound of Hope)
A Chinese Thai witnessed a Chinese policeman disguised as Tibetan holding a knife. (Sound of Hope)

Nonetheless, I was astonished, as well as confused by the sensational propaganda of the media claiming that people were burned to death. The sites where arsons were reported were located on the north section of Youth Road, and East Beijing Road which is West of Youth Road, respectively. At the very beginning of the so-called “riot”, police were guarding these places, and the military arm was stationed nearby.

Moreover, from the moment people heard about the riot, to the moment the “riot” spread to these sites, more than two hours had passed. Residents in these sites could escape easily; even if they can only escape by crawling, there was enough time for them to get out of the unguarded region. How could anyone get burned to death??

Even those who are Han nationality were safe in this region and they had enough time to get to a secure place without any obstacles. As a typical example, the “Yichun Fashion Store” which was reported to be one of the arson sites is only about 100 meters away from the military station.

As for the propaganda that Tibetans burned schools, it is sheer slander. Fire spread to the school from shops nearby. Tibetans would by no means attack or burn schools. From the burned signs on school buildings, only a few buildings were burned on the second floor. Where would you find an arson incident whereby the fire was started from the second floor, instead of burning it from the first floor?

On TV interviews, many interviewees were Tibetan-speaking Tibetans. The Chinese caption on the screen did not match what they were saying.

If we look at what happened on Yutuo Road, something unusual deserves our attention. To the south of Yutuo Road, that is, towards the crossroad between Yutuo Road and Youth Road, stores as well as government and enterprise buildings occupied by Han people were destroyed severely, while the other side of the Yutuo Road was just fine.

There was no other major crossway to separate these two sections; however, police force divided the road and guarded the road at each division. South to the Youth Road, called Duogesen Road on the map, was also safe and sound, because the National Defense Hotel (it used to be Tibetan Military District Hotel) is located there. Inside the court house of the National Defense Hotel, there were a large number of military police and military vehicles.

The riot took a very long time to spread. There have always been large numbers of military forces stationed in Lhasa; especially after the “March 10” incident. However, during the entire riot, the military police not only kept watching and did nothing to stop it, but added fuel to the fire.

We wonder who the really “meticulously planned, schemed and well-organized” ones were in this incident!

In the following days, on the surface, it looked like Lhasa had “restored stability” and “people resumed their daily life, social order back to normal.” In reality, the order of martial law had never been removed. Military police are stationed in Tibetan residential areas in large numbers. At first, the police arrested people in broad daylight; later, the arrests continued on the sly. In addition, Communist police never stopped searching every Tibetan household one by one.

Many Tibetans were arrested. Although some of them were able to prove themselves not guilty in participating the riot and violence, they were still beaten after the arrest.

According to a Tibetan who was arrested and later released after proven not guilty, most Tibetans in the detention center were courageous and optimistic. Some young Tibetan girls in the detention center sang songs to encourage everyone all the time. When this person was released from the center, he was beaten so severely that his face was frighteningly swollen.

One Tibetan was very healthy when he was arrested, but when he was released several days later, he could not walk and was barely conscious. He died two days after he was sent home.

The police always tried to seduce and threaten those Tibetans in detention. Whoever exposed someone else would receive an award of 2000 Yuan. Some people did report others to the police for the reward, but there were very few such people. Later, the Department of Public Security of the Tibetan Autonomous Region sent a text message to all cell phone users, saying the reward for those who expose others would be 20,000 Yuan.

Since March 19, local TV showed the photos of the “Wanted” every night, except the few days in which overseas media and foreign diplomats came to visit Lhasa. All Tibetans in Lhasa felt tremendous pressure. No one knows the exact number of how many Tibetans were arrested and how many died in detention centers. It will be difficult to obtain these numbers in the future as well.

On March 27, an overseas journalists group came to Lhasa for an interview. The Potala Square that had been silent for days suddenly saw many people spinning the big scripture tube. Actually, on the previous day, the neighborhood administrative staff in several Tibetan residential districts were ordered to hire residents to spin the scripture. The “salary” they get paid was 200 Yuan per person. People took it as a joke upon finding out the truth.

The government went all out to portray Lhasa as a “stable and harmonious” city; however, civilians in Lhasa felt insecure everywhere.

On March 29, there was another round of small scale riot. It was said three people were beaten to death, but we had no way to confirm it. Half an hour later, all shops on East Beijing Road and Mid Beijing Road were closed. Lhasa residents were much more alert than they were on March 14. Other than that, there were more police in uniforms on the street. There were no sign of any riot on the street. Now the government is handling the riot very differently from what was done during March 14.

There have been more military police in Lhasa than before. No one knows when the curfew will be removed. For a long time, Tibetans have to carry an ID when they go out; they were also required to carry a “temporary residential ID” after March 14. We really don't know when Tibetans outside Lhasa will be able to come to Lhasa for the worship ceremonies in temples.

“We are the souls and spirits of those you killed 49 years ago! We are not afraid to die! If you kill me now, we will come back!” This is the slogan Tibetans yelled during the Tibetan incident in March. All Tibetans who heard the slogan were shedding tears in their eyes and bleeding in the heart. In the Tibetan region, it is not only the living Buddha who is able to reincarnate, every soul with a strong belief can reincarnate. That belief in Tibet is Freedom!