Tibet riot anniversary passes in tense quiet

Paramilitary and plainclothes police blanketed Lhasa with patrols and checkpoints today, imposing what witnesses called a tense calm on the anniversary of a violent anti-Chinese riot in the Tibetan capital.

Lhasa residents said police with rifles or batons marched around the Jokhang Temple and the adjacent Barkhor Square in the old city, where rioters ran rampant last year. A Hong Kong tourist said two military helicopters hovered over the city in the morning - a rare sight - and that officers demanded to see identification at checkpoints.

"I was constantly stopped for identity check in the past few days," said the tourist, who only wanted to be identified by his surname, Chu, because of the heavy security. "I was stopped twice last night on my way back to my hotel from dinner. They were just several hundred metres apart."

The riot erupted on March 14, 2008, after four days of largely peaceful protests led by Buddhist monks that called on China to allow the exiled Dalai Lama to return. Tibetans torched and ransacked Chinese businesses.

The violence touched off protests in Tibetan communities across western China that sputtered on for weeks — the largest uprising against Chinese rule in decades.

In response, China smothered the area with armed police, who have been kept in the region ever since. Their numbers were increased in recent weeks, putting the area under a form of martial law, setting up checkpoints and trying to enforce an information blackout. Foreign tourists and foreign media have been barred from the region, and in some places, Internet and mobile phone text-messaging services have been cut.

Residents in other Tibetan areas described security arrangements today similar to those in Lhasa. Police in the overwhelmingly Chinese provincial capital of Chengdu blocked traffic into the city's Tibetan neighborhood, and plainclothes police followed foreign reporters.

Due to the tight security and information blockade — then and now — much about the Lhasa riot and the subsequent uprising has remained unclear. Beijing says 22 people, mostly Chinese civilians, died in the riot, and though it has acknowledged deaths elsewhere, a full tally has never been provided.

The Dalai Lama's exiled government in India says 220 Tibetans died and nearly 7,000 were detained.

Several media outlets from the Chinese territory in Hong Kong managed to get reporters into Lhasa for the anniversary. Hong Kong RTHK radio posted photos on its Web site showing shuttered shops around the Jokhang temple while armed police with automatic rifles patrolled nearby.

The South China Morning Post carried reports from an unidentified staff reporter describing door-to-door inspections of hotels and neighborhoods by authorities to round up "suspicious people."