Thirty maroon-robed Tibetan Buddhist monks, some weeping, stormed a carefully choreographed news briefing at the Jokhang temple in Lhasa yesterday, shouting: "Tibet is not free! Tibet is not free!"
It was a calculated and brave act of defiance which spectacularly undermined Beijing's efforts to control the spin on this month's riots in Tibet and other parts of China where ethnic Tibetans dominate. The Chinese government had been trying to show the invited media that calm had been restored to Lhasa.
The monks knew they would be arrested but said they were willing to accept the consequences. Speaking in Mandarin, rather than Tibetan, to make sure the journalists understood, the monks said there was no religious freedom in Tibet and insisted the Dalai Lama was not to blame for recent violence, including the torching of buildings and attacks on ethnic Han Chinese.
The monks said they wanted permission to leave the temple, where they had been trapped since 10 March. Footage of the incident was broadcast on Hong Kong's TVB television.
An Associated Press correspondent, Charles Hutzler, who is among a small detachment of the foreign press, said government handlers shouted at journalists to leave the scene and even tried to pull reporters away.
Beijing's Foreign Ministry has been selective in the way it has lifted the veil on Tibet since this month's riots. The Independent was not given a place on the tour; the only British newspaper given access was the Financial Times. Reuters has also been denied access. First reports from the Tibetan capital are of a "visible but not overbearing" security presence in the newer part of town, and of a heavy security presence around the Jokhang temple, which has been sealed off. Reporters have not been allowed to visit "potential hotspots" such as Ramoche monas-tery, the scene of serious violence on 14 March.
The incident was quickly reported on the official Chinese news agency Xinhua, which initially said the tour would resume after normal service had been restored. "More than a dozen lamas stormed into a briefing by a temple administrator to cause chaos," said Xinhua, and repeated the government line that order had been restored.
China has deployed large numbers of troops and militia to Tibet and neighbouring areas to try to end the most serious protests by Tibetans in 20 years.
Anti-China protests began with demonstrations by monks in Lhasa on 10 March, the 49th anniversary of an abortive uprising against Chinese rule, when Tibet's spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, fled to exile in India, and they gradually escalated into full-scale rioting. Within days, they spread to Tibetan communities in neighbouring provinces.
So far, China says 19 people have been killed; the Tibetan government-in-exile says 140 have been killed by Chinese security forces.
China was keen to show the foreign press the effect of attacks on ethnic Han Chinese. The agenda included interviews with injured policemen and trips to sites where Han Chinese were killed by rioters.
Western leaders have urged China to talk to Tibetan leaders to calm the situation, but China's line remains strongly critical of the Dalai Lama. "Lhasa is now returning to normal after the riot that was organised, premeditated and masterminded by the Dalai Lama clique," Xinhua said.
"The Dalai clique has never stopped secessionist activities since Dalai went into exile in 1959. In addition, there were many signs that the clique was behind the crimes that aimed to sabotage China's stability and unity."
Matt Whitticase of the Free Tibet Campaign said the protest, on a carefully planned state-managed visit, showed "the Chinese government is powerless to prevent the protests still being staged all over Tibet".
China issued a stern warning not to interfere in Tibet before a two-day meeting of foreign ministers from the EU. A Foreign Ministry spokesman told a news briefing he hoped European countries would not send "erroneous messages" to the Dalai Lama, and added: "I believe there are criminals, especially violent criminals, in the European countries. How do the policemen handle these cases in Europe?"
The Dalai Lama said the press trip was "a first step" which he hoped would enjoy complete freedom.
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