Paramilitary police and soldiers swarmed cities and villages in Tibet and restive western China on Tuesday, on the alert for possible unrest on the 50th anniversary of a failed uprising against Chinese rule. The Dalai Lama said Tibet had become "hell on earth" under Beijing's control.
China sought to head off trouble on the anniversary of the 1959 abortive Tibetan revolt against Beijing's rule and a peaceful commemoration last year that spiraled into violent demonstrations by Tibetans. Troops have been poured into Tibet and Tibetan communities in surrounding provinces to smother any protests.
On Tuesday in the Tibetan capital of Lhasa _ where the uprisings of 1959 and 2008 started _ was calm but tense, as was the rest of the region. Residents and businesses reported seeing increased patrols of armed police throughout the city. Tibetans and travelers in western China said police stepped up checks of identity cards.
"There are more paramilitary police in the streets. They're at bus stations, road intersections, even small alleys," said a staffer at the West Tour Go tourism agency in the capital, who declined to give his name for fear of drawing reprisals from the government, which has sought to hide the clampdown.
In neighboring Sichuan's Ganzi prefecture, where some of the most violent protests occurred last year, rows of riot police and soldiers with machine-guns marched through the middle of Kangding town past the main square.
The night before, local Communist Party official Xiang Luo had exhorted paramilitary troops to be especially vigilant: "You must do this month's work well. This is crucial."
In a speech marking the uprising that sent him into exile, the Dalai Lama said decades under Chinese martial law and hard-line policies such as the Cultural Revolution had devastated his Himalayan homeland, leading to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Tibetans.
"Even today, Tibetans in Tibet live in constant fear and the Chinese authorities remain constantly suspicious of them," the spiritual leader of Tibet's fervently Buddhist people said his exile headquarters in Dharmsala, India, denouncing the military's "brutal crackdown" in Tibet after anti-Chinese protests broke out a year ago.
After the Dalai Lama's speech, thousands of young Tibetans took to the streets in Dharmsala, chanting "China Out!" and "Tibet belongs to Tibetans!" Protesters also held marches in support of the Tibetans in New Delhi, Seoul and Canberra, Australia.
The heightened emotions underscored the stakes during the sensitive anniversary period. Tibetans in exile and in China worry that their identity, deeply rooted in their religion, is being undermined by Chinese rule, its religious restrictions and the influx of large numbers of Chinese migrants. Those concerns erupted last year, setting off a deadly anti-Chinese riot in Lhasa on March 14 and spreading to the provinces of Gansu, Qinghai and Sichuan.
Meanwhile, China's authoritarian government sees Tibet, sitting atop rival India, as a strategic asset and a symbol of China's greatness. It has demonized the Dalai Lama as a violent separatist despite his insistence he wants only genuine autonomy within China.
China's Foreign Ministry spokesman called the Dalai Lama's remarks "lies." Its governor of Tibet, Champa Phuntsok, said the Dalai Lama's claims about Tibetan deaths was "merely fabrication and vilification," according to the official Xinhua News Agency. Tibet's population has grown very rapidly in the past 50 years, increasing from 1.2 million in 1959 to 2.87 million in 2008, he said.
Phuntsok, in Beijing for the national legislature's meeting, was quoted as saying that he spoke by phone to Lhasa and "that the whole city is stable and troops are in normal state as usual."
Accounts from across Tibetan communities described higher police presence in recent days, though verifying the situation was difficult. Foreign tourists and reporters have been banned from all but a few parts of the area _ about a quarter of China's territory. Internet and mobile phone text-messaging services were also spotty, as authorities tried to deny activists key tools used to spread word of last year's protests.
Lhasa residents received text messages from service provider China Mobile saying that calls and text messages may experience disruptions between March 10 and May 1 "due to networks improvement." A customer service representative at the company's Lhasa office confirmed the message.
In other Tibetan cities, residents described stricter identification checks for Tibetans and hotel guests. "Any Tibetan from Qinghai or Ganzi or other areas who wants to stay must show their ID cards, but this rule doesn't apply to ethnic Chinese," said a woman at the Changdu Hotel in Changdu city.
In Tsedang, Tibet's third-largest town, two hours southeast of Lhasa, a staffer at the Shannan Yulong Holiday Hotel said the heightened security has been in place since last week.
"Police come to check out our registration for people staying in the hotel every day. ... Even though it seems relatively quiet, we can feel that the security is very tight now," said the staffer, who declined to give a name for fear of reprisals.
Associated Press Writers Chi-Chi Zhang in Beijing and Gavin Rabinowitz in Dharmsala, India.