On March 14, the otherworldly calm of Lhasa, Tibet’s holy city, was shattered by riots and gunfire. The spark that triggered unrest in the Tibetan part of what is now a largely ethnic Han Chinese city is unclear, but occurred somewhere near the Ramoche Temple when Chinese security forces attempted to stop a demonstration by monks.
Whatever the details, only a spark was needed to set off the most serious disturbances in Tibet since the riots of 1987-1989, or perhaps since the Tibetan Revolt of March 1959, which sent the Dalai Lama into exile. It was the 49th anniversary of that revolt, on March 10, that led monks from two large monasteries near Lhasa to stage demonstrations, in which many of them were arrested, raising tensions in the city.
While denying much of what subsequently happened, Chinese officials did reveal the scale of the riots: 422 Chinese-owned shops partially or completely burned, more than 200 million yuan ($28 million) in damage, 325 people injured, and 13 killed – all of them Han Chinese. China admitted to no deaths among the Tibetan protesters, claiming that its security forces had exercised restraint and had not even fired a single shot.
This contradicted Tibetan reports of dozens of deaths, perhaps as many as 100, and accounts of foreign tourists who said they heard shots and saw the bodies of Tibetans gunned down by the security forces. China claimed that the “Dalai Clique” had “organized, premeditated, and carefully engineered and instigated” incidents of “beating, smashing, looting, and burning,” in an attempt to use the upcoming Olympic Games in Beijing to publicize his cause of Tibetan independence. But the only evidence China offered was international Tibetan support groups’ statements that they intended to demonstrate at events associated with the Olympics.