Violence in Lhasa's "Beijing" exposes deep divisions

(dpa) - Many Tibetans scathingly call the sprawling modern sections of the capital Lhasa "Beijing," where Chinese migrants try to make new lives in the harsh physical and social climate of the Tibet Autonomous Region.

As the People's Liberation Army reportedly took control of the city with tanks on Saturday, following the worst rioting for at least 20 years on Friday, ethnically Chinese residents locked themselves indoors away from troops and Tibetan protesters.

"All the shops are closed, I have no water to drink," said one young Chinese woman who moved to Lhasa several months ago to work at a ticketing agency

"I don't know what's going on with the government," the woman told Deutsche Presse-Agentur dpa by telephone.

"I dare not drink the water," the woman said, citing rumours of poisoning.

"I have nothing to eat," she said, adding that she was making do with instant noodles while it was unsafe to venture out and supermarkets remained closed.

The woman said all local police stations, government offices and hospitals were also closed on Saturday, after protesters set fire to the police station in Barkhor Square, the symbolic heart of old Lhasa, on Friday.

"I have heard that many Han people were seriously beaten by Tibetans. Many shops selling gold and silver products in the market were looted," she said.

The Hong Kong-based Phoenix satellite television station showed footage of dozens of protesters running amok in Lhasa on Friday, with no sign of police or soldiers pursuing them.

The rioters were seen smashing their way into commercial buildings and overturning a car, and at least one of them was brandishing a sword. Several buildings were in flames.

The ruling Communist Party has linked Lhasa to the rest of China via a new railway and regularly trumpets its development of the region it has controlled since 1951.

Tibet is one of China's poorest and least developed regions, but critics see some development projects as cementing Chinese rule and encouraging non-Tibetans to migrate into the region.

The Dalai Lama, the exiled Buddhist leader of Tibet, in January said the railway had already allowed the start of a "second invasion of Tibet" by Chinese migrants.

Authorities in Lhasa last year began building a huge new district to help the city accommodate an influx of tourists and migrants.

The government said the regional population increased to 2.81 million last year, but its figures apparently do not include the tens of thousands of temporary migrants and soldiers who live there.

One Chinese resident of Lhasa claimed that a survey in 2002 recorded 500,000 migrants from Sichuan province alone living in the Tibet Autonomous Region, although that figure may include Tibetan migrants as well as Chinese ones.

On Saturday, the government said a mosque was razed and that at least 10 people had burnt to death during the anti-Chinese rioting on Friday.

The official Xinhua news agency said paramilitary police had tackled 160 fires and rescued some 580 people from burning banks, supermarkets, schools and hospitals.

The Tibetan protesters' anger was directed at Han Chinese and Hui Muslim migrants, as well as the police and troops.

"Several buildings owned by Chinese immigrants and Chinese Muslim immigrants were set on fire," US-based Radio Free Asia quoted a witness as saying.

"All those shops owned by Chinese were ransacked and burned. Tibetan shop owners were told to mark their shops with scarves," the witness said.

As the government tried to restore order on Saturday, it denied the rumours that the public water supply had been poisoned during the rioting.

But its statement on the water supply was not the only thing that the young migrant in Lhasa distrusted, raising serious doubts about the official death toll of 10.

"It must be much more," she said. "It is unbelievable that only 10 are dead."

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