As Tibetans prepare for the 57th anniversary of the Tibetan Uprising, Chinese authorities have sealed the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) to all foreign visitors.
The annual closure went into operation on Thursday after notices were issued to all major cities and counties saying that foreign visitors must leave the region by the 25 February deadline. It has not been confirmed when the region will reopen but based on previous years it is likely to be at the end of March.
Speaking to the newspaper The Tibet Post, Alistair Currie of the Free Tibet group explained the annual closure is likely due to, “the movement of security forces and enhanced security presence that don't look good in tourist reports.”
Each year the anniversary is marked on 10 March to remember the 1959 uprising against Beijing rule, which resulted in the Dalai Lama leaving Lhasa for Dharamshala, India. It also marks the anniversary of a wave of protests which swept through Tibet in March 2008, quickly escalating to a series of riots and violent clashes preceding the Beijing Olympics.
The unrest in 2008 sparked a transformation in the political landscape of the TAR and it has since been closed annually to foreigners in March. It has also resulted in intense militarization of the plateau, which Beijing has justified by claiming that political control over Tibet is linked to the ‘stability’ of the whole of the People’s Republic of China.
Other oppressive measures have been implemented since 2008 including the rollout of a number of intrusive government surveillance programs, such as one dubbed ‘Benefit the Masses’. This program has seen more than 20,000 officials and communist party personnel dispatched to over 5,000 rural villages. Along with intrusive surveillance of villagers, they carry out widespread political re-education, and establish partisan security units. The information that is collected can then potentially lead to detention or other forms of punishment.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) reported in January that the Benefit the Masses program appears to have been extended indefinitely and said this "signals authorities' intention to suppress any signs of dissent or criticism among Tibetans".
A Tibetan source told the rights group International Campaign for Tibet that the measures have gone from a simple crackdown to something, “sophisticated and terrifying”.
He added: “Security is invisible and everywhere. It is no longer only armed police patrolling the streets; often we don’t know who the police are as they blend into society, and officials are in our homes, asking about every part of our lives.”
Feature image: The Chinese army marching outside Potala Palace in Lhasa/via Free Tibet
Steve Shaw is a freelance journalist living in Manchester, England. He has worked internationally for The Tibet Post International and The Shan Herald News Agency; his work has focused primarily on human rights, injustice and conflict. He is also a contributor to the Bhutan News Agency and the business publication P1.