DANBA, China – China plans to put Lhasa rioters on trial and reopen Tibet to tourists by May, underscoring the government’s drive to close the book on recent unrest well ahead of this summer’s Beijing Olympics.
Other Tibetan regions could remain off-limits considerably longer, however, with police in western Sichuan province blocking access to
foreigners on Thursday. One officer said the area, scene of widespread protests last month by Buddhist monks and laypeople, could remain closed until after the games.
Chinese propaganda continues to blame the Dalai Lama for a bloody March 14 riot in Lhasa, but has also begun portraying life in western China as gradually returning to normal.
State television Thursday showed individual Chinese travelers returning to Lhasa, and the regional tourism authority announced Tibet would reopen to foreign tour groups on May 1, the start of a national three-day holiday.
Tour operators, hotels and restaurant owners have complained of major losses due to the closure of the region’s borders as part of the massive security clampdown.
The rioters will go on trial before May 1, Lhasa’s deputy Communist Party secretary was quoted as saying in the state-run Tibet Commerce newspaper. Wang Xiangming said about 1,280 alleged rioters have been captured or turned themselves in to police.
Rights groups have voiced concerns about the potential for abuse of prisoners. John Kamm, an American advocate for political prisoners, said he had asked Beijing for information about 17 Tibetan monks who were detained on March 10 at the start of peaceful protests that turned violent four days later. The protests have been the largest and most sustained among Tibetans in almost two decades.
Kamm, executive director of the San Francisco-based Dui Hua Foundation, said China appeared determined to defy international criticism over its Tibet policies, even though some officials seemed to realize the country’s reputation had suffered in the run-up to the games.
«What gives me some hope is that there’s some recognition that China’s international image has taken a beating,» Kamm told reporters in Beijing.
Beijing has sent thousands of police and paramilitary troops into Tibet and neighboring Tibetan areas to maintain an edgy peace, hunt down protest leaders and surround Buddhist monasteries in Lhasa.
Police manning a checkpoint on Thursday stopped reporters trying to enter Aba prefecture, a primarily Tibetan area in Sichuan province, and escorted them back to the provincial capital, Chengdu.
«This area should be open after the Olympics, but I can’t guarantee that,» said Wang Qing, head of the foreign affairs office in Danba town, a two-hour drive from Aba.
«This is not a stable place,» Wang added, although he said he knew of no recent cases of unrest.
China has allowed journalists almost no access to Tibetan areas since the protests began and efforts taken to keep information about the clampdown from leaking out are readily apparent, especially at monasteries. In nearby Kangding, the head lama of the Nanwu monastery said he couldn’t speak to the media without a government official present. Monks shied away from an AP photographer.
Ordinary Tibetans quietly expressed sympathy for the protests.
«But there’s nothing that can be done,» said one teenage boy selling vegetables, who spoke softly while watching a plainclothes policeman lingering less than 6 meters (20 feet) away. «Independence is impossible. More freedom? That’s possible. It should be possible.
At a news conference in Beijing, Aba’s deputy chief Xiao Youcai, said life was «completely normal» in the area, but insisted also that it remained «too dangerous» for foreign journalists.
Xiao refused to confirm an earlier state media report that Aba police had shot and wounded four rioters in self-defense, conceding only that shots had been fired in self-defense. Tibetan groups said up to 20 people may have been killed.
Alongside the ramped-up security, the region’s top officials have ordered boosted ideological education _ an apparent acknowledgment that years of political indoctrination have failed to curb support for the Dalai Lama.
Such campaigns have exacerbated tensions in Tibet and created resentment believed by experts and Tibetans to have fed the unrest.
Zhang Qingli, Tibet’s hard-line Communist Party leader, ordered officials to direct ideological education at young people. He said efforts should focus on negative portrayals of Tibet prior to the Communist invasion in 1950, and continued vilification of what Beijing calls the Dalai Lama’s secret campaign to split Tibet from China and sabotage the Olympics, according to the official newspaper Tibet Daily.
Already, officials including the national police chief have ordered boosted «patriotic campaigns» in the monasteries of monks who led the protests.
Zhang, meanwhile, appeared to indicate that at least some local officials had been insufficiently loyal during the recent unrest.
«We absolutely will not condone violations of political and organizational discipline and will definitely find those responsible and meet out harsh punishment,» said Zhang, a protege of President and party chief Hu Jintao, who was a top official in Tibet during the last major protests there in 1989.
Zhang has reportedly already overseen the firing of dozens of ethnic Tibetan officials seen as politically unreliable.