Violent protests erupted Friday in a busy market area of Lhasa, the Tibetan capital, as Buddhist monks and other ethnic Tibetans clashed with Chinese security forces. Witnesses say the protesters burned shops, cars, military vehicles and at least one tourist bus.
The demonstrations were the most violent since protests by Buddhist monks began in Lhasa on Monday, the anniversary of a failed Tibetan uprising against Chinese rule in 1959. The protests have been the largest in Tibet since the late 1980s, when Chinese security forces repeatedly used lethal force to restore order in the region.
The developments prompted the Dalai Lama, the exiled spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhism, to issue a statement, saying he was concerned about the situation and appealing to the Chinese leadership to “stop using force and address the long-simmering resentment of the Tibetan people”.
By Friday night, Chinese authorities had placed much of the central part of the city under a curfew, including neighborhoods around different Buddhist monasteries, according to two Lhasa residents reached by telephone. Military police were blocking roads in some ethnic Tibetan neighborhoods, several Lhasa residents said.
Information emerging about Friday’s protests was scattered and difficult to verify. But witnesses in Lhasa say the violence erupted on Friday morning at the Tromsikhang Market, a massive, concrete structure built in the old Tibetan section of the city by Chinese authorities in the early 1990s. “It’s chaos in the streets,” said a person who answered the telephone at a bread shop near the market.
A local travel agent, reached by telephone, said a riot broke out at the market and around the nearby Ramoche Temple because of friction between Tibetan and Han Chinese traders. The agent said fires erupted near the Ramoche Temple and elsewhere in the market area, while Tibetan traders also overturned a tour bus and set it ablaze.
Robert Barnett, a Tibet specialist at Columbia University who has communicated with Tibetan exiles, said the initial incident occurred Monday afternoon when about 400 monks left Drepung Loseling Monastery intending to march five miles west to the city center. Police officers stopped the march at the halfway point and arrested 50 or 60 monks.
But Mr. Barnett said the remaining monks held the equivalent of a sit-down strike and were joined by an additional 100 monks from Drepung. The monks “were demanding specific changes on religious restrictions in the monastery,” said Mr. Barnett. He said monks want the authorities to ease rules on “patriotic education” in which monks are required to study government propaganda and write denunciations of the Dalai Lama.
Tibet has experienced no violent demonstrations since a crackdown in 1989, making these incidents unusual. At this point it's impossible to say whether the protests will grow in size, but thanks to the upcoming Olympics China is not so free to violently suppress any demonstration as the Burmese government did last year.
UPDATE: This report suggest that protests have expanded beyond Tibet's capital city of Lhasa, but provides no detail. This article provides more detail on that and the response of Chinese security forces. The BBC has more pictures of the protests. CNN offers a handy timeline of this weeks events, from the peaceful marches on Monday to the outbreak of violence today. The U.S. has responded by urging Chinese officials not to respond with violence.
UPDATE II: This TIME article is the best explanation of the background of the protests that I've seen yet, and it details the particular tensions in Lhasa over the influx of Chinese into the city, a particular example of China's policy of assimilating Tibet by swamping it with Chinese immigrants.
UPDATE III: From Sophie in comments, here are more pictures of the protests.