By Chris Buckley
GANZI, China, Jan 26 (Reuters) – Ethnic tension simmered in remote corners of China’s southwestern Sichuan province on Thursday after security forces fired on demonstrators in a series of deadly clashes that Tibet’s government in exile condemned as “gruesome”.
The flareups were perhaps the bloodiest spate of Tibetan-linked violence in China since early 2008, when riots and protests erupted in Tibet’s capital, Lhasa, and spread to other restive regions in China’s western border regions including Sichuan, Qinghai and Gansu provinces.
Lobsang Sangay, the prime minister of Tibet’s government in exile in Dharamsala in northern India, denounced the shooting by police on hundreds of Tibetan protesters in western Sichuan this week that he said had killed six and injured more than 60.
“Because of gruesome acts such as these and the systematic repression of Tibetans, the resentment and anger amongst Tibetans against the Chinese government has only grown since the massive uprising of 2008,” Lobsang Sangay wrote in a statement.
On Tuesday, at least one Tibetan was killed in a clash in Seda county, known as Serthar in Tibetan, when police opened fire on protesters, leaving the town square “covered in blood” and tear-gas canisters, according to the Washington-based International Campaign for Tibet.
Another group, Free Tibet, said at least two Tibetans had been killed and many wounded during protests in Seda.
Calls to the Seda public security bureau went unanswered.
Two Tibetans were shot dead by police on Monday in a separate protest in Luhuo township, known as Drango or Draggo to Tibetans, also in the mountainous western reaches of Sichuan province, according to Tibetan rights groups and observers.
In Sichuan’s Ganzi prefecture, en route to one troubled area, local communities remained on edge, with a large deployment of police and troops, some setting up road checks.
“There’s been trouble here, so the government is tense,” said one resident, who gave his surname Zhang, saying he was of mixed Tibetan and Han Chinese parentage.
“The main problem is that the followers of the Dalai (Lama) have been holding protests. They used the Spring Festival time to organise, when a lot of police are usually off duty,” he added, referring to the exiled Buddhist leader revered by many Tibetans. The Spring Festival is the Chinese New Year holiday.
A Reuters correspondent was blocked and questioned by police before being turned away. Police then followed closely.
Local residents said government employees had been ordered to return to work, despite the holiday, apparently to deter them from taking part in protests.
The fresh violence is another reminder of longstanding underlying ethnic tensions between Tibetan communities — some of whom have called for the return of the Dalai Lama — and Han Chinese authorities whom they accuse of stifling Tibetan traditions, religious freedoms and their unique way of life.
China has ruled what it calls the Tibet Autonomous Region since Communist troops marched in in 1950. It rejects criticism that it is eroding Tibetan culture and faith, saying its rule has ended serfdom and brought development to a backward region.
The Dalai Lama fled Tibet in 1959 after a failed uprising against Chinese rule.
Over the past year, there have been at least 16 incidents of Tibetans setting themselves on fire in response to Beijing’s iron-fisted grip over Tibetan affairs.
“You (the Chinese leadership) will never address the genuine grievances of Tibetans and restore stability in Tibet through violence and killing,” wrote Lobsang Sangay. “The only way to resolve the Tibet issue and bring about lasting peace is by respecting the rights of the Tibetan people and through dialogue.”
The clashes come at an sensitive time for China as vice president Xi Jinping — seen as China’s next leader-in-waiting in a leadership transition late this year — prepares for a high-profile visit to Washington in February.
Xinhua news agency has confirmed the clashes in Luhuo and Seda, claiming police were forced to open fire in Seda to maintain order, killing one “rioter” there after protesters attacked a police station with gasoline bottles, knives and stones.
The Foreign Ministry has branded the self-immolators “terrorists” and has said the Dalai Lama, whom it condemns a supporter of violent separatism, should take the blame.
(Reporting by Chris Buckley and Michael Martina; Writing by James Pomfret; Editing by Nick Macfie)