March 2008 witnessed a fierce uprising by Tibetans in the TAR. What initially began as a peaceful protest by Tibetans in Lhasa to mark the 1959 Tibetan uprising against Chinese occupation, took a violent turn as a result of deep resentment and suppression by the Chinese rule. The significance of the uprising lies in its crucial timing, a few months prior to Beijing Summer Olympics. As a result, the events that unfurled in March-April 2008 not only gained wider international attention but also impacted the fate of the Tibetans in the TAR.
One of the significance of the 2008 protest is its intensity as a result of growing discontent among Tibetans, buttressing beyond the TAR and gradually emerging in other regional provinces with high concentration of Tibetans. The protesters in Lhasa, besides marking the 1959 uprising, was also demanding the release of fellow Drepung monks who were detained for celebrating the awarding of US Congressional Gold Medal to the Dalai Lama. As protests swelled, demonstrations for freedom, human rights and the Dalai Lama’s return to Tibet were echoed.
On 11 March, a day after the protest began, about 2,000 Chinese troops resorted to firing tear gas and further used live ammunition, killing and inuring the protesters. This was followed with internet shutdown and locking down of monasteries in and around Lhasa. The PRC’s reaction was to curb the peaceful protest with sheer violence. Brutal crackdowns ensued in Lhasa followed by internet shutdown and other restrictions.
The TAR was sealed off for foreign journalists and tourists to hide the travesty and abuse. State-run medias narrative was to show culpability of Tibetan protesters hiding the brutal suppression by the Chinese security forces. Tibetan organisations outside China and foreign journalists reported heavy military build-up in Lhasa and other areas of protests. Soon, military and security operations were undertaken involving the deployment of the PLA and the PFA. Even though China did not formally announce the imposition of a martial law, the security measures undertaken reflected a de facto imposition of one. For instance, curfew was imposed at 7 pm and Tibetans having no residency permits were forced to leave. Witnesses reported military checkpoints on roads, police officers and soldiers in riot gears patrolling cities where protests occurred. By 21 March, Xinhua news agency reported that 183 Tibetans had “voluntarily surrendered” to the authorities.
On March 18, the then Chinese Premier Wen Jiabo, in a press conference in Beijing, called the protest to be a “Dalai Clique”, blaming the Dalai Lama to be the instigator behind the uprising. The Dalai Lama denied the said allegations, reiterating his commitment to non-violence and condemning the violent turn of protest and even threatened to resign from his political post “if things become out of control.” Chinese authorities however refused the allegations against security forces’ use of lethal force to suppress protest. Suddenly on 21 March, the police shot four people, citing “self-defence”.
The state media however reported death of “13 civilians” by violent Tibetan rioters in Lhasa. However, a detailed investigation by a prominent Human Rights group reported that more than 140 Tibetans were killed by Chinese security forces. The Chinese authorities accepted killings of 22 civilians. Estimates by Tibetan organisations outside China claimed about 1200 to over 2000 Tibetans were detained during the protest, and 100 were reported to be victim of enforced disappearance.
The protest gained new momentum during the Olympic torch relay in April 2008, making it a flashpoint of the protest. It was already predicted that the protest would threaten and overshadow Beijing’s preparations for the game. On March 23, a protester in Greece managed to unfurl a banner that read, “Boycott the country that tramples on human rights”, during the torch rally. Similar protests sprung up in London, Paris, San Francisco, New Delhi and other place all over the world. Such was its impact that both then French President and the President of the European Union expressed to boycott the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics, if not the game. The then International Olympic Committee President Jacque Rogge, too, called on China to put an end to the Tibetan unrest peacefully, prompting reaction from Beijing who accused “Tibetan separatists” of committing an act of defiance of the spirit of Olympics.
The protests that sprung up during the torch relay attracted an international condemnation and criticism of China over its brutal crackdown on Tibetan protesters, although the call for a boycott of the Beijing Olympics over China’s human rights violations echoed during the Olympic torch relay protests did not materialise. Two days prior to the Beijing Olympics in August 2008, a documentary named “Leaving Fear Behind”, an international campaign for the release of Tibetan filmmaker Dhonchup Wangchen, was premiered and shown to a small group of foreign journalists in a hotel room in central Beijing. The documentary came to be a first glimpse of the Tibetans and of Tibetan resistance. Along with this, Tsering Woeser, Tibetan writer, blogger and activist’s relentless documentation of the 2008 uprising, too, helped in the 2008 Tibetan uprising gaining attention in the media and political arena internationally.
Also Read, TIBET: A Lost Cause?
The use of lethal force, detention, torture and enforced disappearance of Tibetans that started during 2008 protest did not end there. The increasing suppression of Tibetans via adoption of harsher methods by Chinese authorities, reflected in its Sinicisation policy; eventually culminating into self-immolation as a form of protest against Chinese rule in the TAR, the first witnessed in 2009 and reaching peak in 2012. However, in reality, the Tibetan issue is far from resolved. The attempts at assimilation and imposition of Mandarin and Sinicisation of religion can all be comprehended to be the ill effects of Chinese authorities’ doubling up its crackdown on its ethnic minority population since Xi Jinping took over the country’s leadership.