World News

Olympic torch arrives in Tibetan areas amid tight security

SHANGRI-LA, China (Reuters) - China paraded the Olympic torch through the mountain town of Shangri-la on Wednesday, the first of several stops it will make in Tibetan areas despite complaints from overseas rights groups.

Security around the flame was extremely tight, hinting at how nervous the authorities are with reports of unrest and arrests continuing in Tibetan parts of China three months after anti-Beijing demonstrations turned violent in Lhasa, prompting the government to flood troops into the region.

At a monastery on the outskirts of town, some Buddhist monks said they had been forbidden from leaving during the torch run, while others were made to attend a sutra reading session that lasted from 7 a.m. until 3 p.m. -- right when the torch was passing.

“Our teacher told us not to go out today,” said one novice. Another said police had ordered the monks to stay in their compound.

Paramilitary police lined the streets in town, some kept watch atop buildings and others were posted at intervals on a rural road that the torch and its huge entourage had to drive down to get to the location of the closing ceremony.

The torch was a lightning rod for human rights and free Tibet protests during its international leg after China cranked up security in Tibetan populated areas in response to the unrest in the region.

Those demonstrations, including several attempts to douse the flame, struck a raw nerve with many Chinese.


China has since shortened the Tibet leg of the torch relay to one day from three, and the exact date remains a secret. In May, the torch was lit at the top of the Tibetan face of Mount Everest, in an event exiled Tibetans saw as provocative.

Students for a Free Tibet, a New York-based group, reiterated an appeal to the International Olympic Committee to “avert a further humanitarian crisis” by pressing China to scrap the Tibetan leg of the torch relay.

“By saying nothing and allowing the torch relay to proceed through Tibet under lockdown, the IOC has essentially encouraged Chinese authorities to use whatever force they deem necessary to ensure a successful, protest-free propaganda exercise,” Lhadon Tethong, executive director of Students for a Free Tibet, said in a statement.

In Shangri-la, known as Zhongdian before 2002, pockets of supporters along the torch route, including many Tibetans, cheered as the flame passed.

The Tibet Autonomous Region, a province-like administration, is often referred to simply as Tibet, but ethnic Tibetans populate wide swaths of land in nearby provinces including Yunnan, Sichuan, Gansu and Qinghai.

“I have been really moved to see the Olympic flame in a Tibetan area,” said Sunnuo Qilin, a 25-year-old Tibetan man from a village in the hills who was carrying a Beijing Olympics flag.

Asked whether he thought there was merit to the argument that the torch should not be brought into Tibetan areas while there is still tension, he replied: “fei hua” -- the Chinese equivalent of “baloney”.

Silan Quzhen, another ethnic Tibetan, took leave from her job in a restaurant and waited for several hours on the street for the torch to go by.

“There was no trouble in Yunnan province when other areas had trouble, so it is not an issue bringing the torch here. I can say 100 percent there wasn’t going to be a problem here,” she said.

The ruling Communist Party has not taken any chances. Several residents said that thousands of troops were brought into the area.

At the Sumtseling monastery, home to about 800 red-robe wearing monks, one devotee said even if he had been free in the morning he wouldn’t have gone to see the flame.

“It shouldn’t have come here. It’s a little offensive to the Tibetans,” he said.