Medal for Dalai Lama sparks China riots

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"In our hearts we were so happy, we just went out into the streets to celebrate. We saw it on TV, the government didn't know. We were very, very glad. The Dalai Lama won an American award," whispered a nervous crimson-robed, shaven-headed monk in the remote monastery town of Xiahe in China's Gansu province.

He was speaking just metres away from where, a fortnight ago, hundreds of Tibetan monks from the Labrang monastery ran out into the streets of Xiahe to celebrate a great event – their spiritual leader had won the Congressional Gold Medal, the US's highest civilian honour.

Eyewitnesses, who cannot be named for fear of retribution, told of how the monks met stiff opposition from the police, and the celebrations on the night of 17 October quickly turned into a confrontation.

The demonstration of support was a brave and significant display of dissent by the Dalai Lama's supporters in China and offers a rare insight into the tensions that exist between the three million Tibetans who live in Chinese territory outside the Tibetan Autonomous Region and the Chinese authorities, who insist that Tibet is part of China.

Truck-loads of police and paramilitary police were called in to deal with the escalating situation. Firefighters used hoses to clear the monks, shopowners were ordered to close their shops and foreign visitors were told to stay indoors.

The monks had watched the Dalai Lama receive the award from President George Bush on banned satellite televisions and on the internet, or listened on the radio. Morale, within Tibet and in the Tibetan regions of China, has been boosted in recent months after the German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Australia's Prime Minister John Howard met the Dalai Lama, greatly angering the Chinese.

"It's been a bit tense here lately. On the night, the police came, the People's Armed Police came, though they weren't armed on the night. The firefighters came with hoses and turned them on the monks. The monks threw stones at the police and there was a clash," said one Tibetan.

Police reportedly made four arrests, but the monks were later released following a plea for calm by the Living Buddha, who is third in rank in the Tibetan Buddhist hierarchy after the Dalai Lama and the Panchen Lama.

Tensions were still running high in the remote monastery, which is in the predominantly Tibetan Amdo region, and the monks in Labrang were clearly afraid to talk but took whatever opportunities they could to get their message across.

Following a religious rite, where throat-singing monks intoned deep-voiced sutras, all the monks rush into a courtyard, a number of youthful monks pulled at my coat sleeve and said "Dalai Lama, Dalai Lama" and gave the international thumbs-up sign.

Down one of the alleyways threading through the monastery, another monk pulled me aside to tell of his love for the Dalai Lama in broken Chinese, saying the police had come but they had celebrated anyway.

A Chinese supermarket owner, surnamed Zhang, said: "I heard the Dalai Lama got an award and local Tibetans got together to stir up trouble up near the temple. They lit fireworks and the Tibetans threw stones and smashed a police car. There were thousands of Tibetans and the mess lasted until 2am. Two trucks of armed policemen came, about 200 of them. Five armed policemen were physically hurt by Tibetans and three Tibetan leaders were arrested, but I heard they were released the next day because the police did not want any more trouble and make the Tibetans more angry."