Asia Crisis

As quake draws focus, China keeps Tibet under thumb

(Adds post-quake orders for stability, paragraphs 5-6)

HONG KONG, June 4 (Reuters) - Last month's devastating earthquake diverted world attention from China's troubles in Tibet, but protests and arrests have continued in the region and the leadership has been girding for more trouble.

Since the May 12 quake that killed around 70,000 people and was centred in an ethnic Tibetan prefecture of Sichuan province, more than 80 Buddhist nuns and a dozen monks have been detained following new protests, and a female student was shot at in a public square, Tibet rights groups have said.

"There's no evidence that the crackdown has abated since the quake. Indeed, the authorities have done everything they can to ensure that the hardline restrictions remain in place," said Kate Saunders of the International Campaign for Tibet.

The government is on alert for protests when the Olympic torch is run through Lhasa on June 18. Authorities are also jittery about trouble during the current month-long Saga Dawa festival, which marks the Buddha's birthday.

On the day the quake struck, authorities in Aba prefecture, the jurisdiction where it was centred, issued an urgent document entitled: "Combining work on anti-separatism and safeguarding stability with disaster relief work", Saunders said.

Elsewhere, officials ordered security personnel manning check-points to stay at their posts, remain vigilant and respond swiftly and toughly to any problems, she said.

Tibet and vast stretches of Tibetan-populated territory in nearby provinces have been closed since mid-March when anti-Beijing protests turned violent in Lhasa, making it difficult to confirm reports of demonstrations and arrests.

What is clear, however, is that the ruling Communist Party is not letting up and is preparing for a prolonged struggle.

Late last week, Tibet's Communist Party leadership set the tone in its first major meeting since the Lhasa unrest. In a keynote speech the region's hardline party boss, Zhang Qingli, said the return to relative normalcy was a "partial victory".

"This is just the beginning of a new round of struggle against the Dalai clique and the hostile Western forces that support it," the Tibet Daily's website quoted Zhang as saying.

"A more arduous, complicated and intense struggle is yet to come. The situation is still serious ... and we must maintain clear heads at all times and be prepared to handle even more serious challenges at any time."


Lhasa police launched a campaign against rumour-mongering after the riots and recently arrested five people, the newspaper reported. "This special action will not end before the Olympic Games," it quoted a member of Lhasa's Party committee as saying.

Beijing hosts the Games in August.

Hong Kong reporters visiting Lhasa on Tuesday reported armed police in the streets.

One overseas Tibet rights group called on the International Olympic Committee to pressure Beijing into canceling the Tibet leg of the torch relay due to the risk of unrest.

Tibet leaders have also continued to disparage the Dalai Lama, despite a meeting between central government officials and representatives of the Tibetan spiritual leader in April.

It was unprecedented for the government to face two major crises like this at once -- the biggest natural disaster in a generation and its sharpest political challenge in decades.

The results remain to be seen.

Authorities were creating new problems for themselves by forcing Tibetans, including Buddhist clergy, to denounce the Dalai Lama at "patriotic education" sessions, said Robbie Barnett a Tibet specialist at Columbia University.

"There hasn't been a single protest in the last four weeks that is about the totality of government policies, or Chinese presence in Tibet, or migration, or religion policy," he said.

"They have all been protesting against the Chinese government's crackdown and its response to the previous protests. It's just creating a cycle of more protest." (Editing by Sanjeev Miglani)