THE TRISONG CAFE OF LHASA
CHAPTER 33: DAYS OF RAGE
IS THE BARKHOR BURNING?
Friday, March 14, 2008. Opening night. The entire week leading to Friday was of course a whirlwind of final costume fittings, endless script changes, and rehearsal after rehearsal after rehearsal. The soundboard broke, but thankfully that was on a Tuesday. Lighting design kept “evolving” as the costumes, choreography, and story lines were finalized. Chodak was behind schedule on sketching out his Thangka backdrops.
Dolma and Jigme looked at each other frantically that Thursday afternoon. All this had to come together for tonight’s dress rehearsal. At 6:30, an invited audience of friends and family packed the small studio - Standing Room Only.
After the audience cleared, Jigme announced, “Tomorrow, the theater opens at 4 PM for those who need to come early. Otherwise, show up by 6 PM. Light meal served until 6:30. Doors open at 7pm. Showtime at 8 PM sharp.”
“No Tibetan time!” Dolma underscored.
Finally, she asked Dhargey the Rinpoche to give a blessing. He intoned the Santi or Peace sutra,
“oṃ śa nti śa nti śa nti oṃ śanti śanti śanti”
Everyone repeated it in rounds until Dharghey slowed it down, brought it down to a whisper and ended it on a last, lingering santi.
Then, Jigme announced last call, “Drink up, go straight home and get a good night’s rest.”
“This play, our play, came together. So sleep deep, dream sweet, gather energy, and hold a clear intention for opening night.”
But on Friday morning, March 14, 2008, a group of monks marched out in single file towards the Bharkor. They were Yellow Hat monks, of the Gelupta denomination whose spiritual head is the Dalai Lama. March 14th was also the 49th anniversary of the Lhasa riots of 1959, under which cover, the 14th Dalai Lama fled Tibet into India.
The row of monks continued into the Barkhor. They sat in rows in silent meditation in front of the Jokhang. The police arrested and removed them.
Too busy in final preparations for the opening, the players had not paid heed to the buzz in the streets. Crowds stood in alarm as to the whereabouts, and more, the safety of the detained monks. The pilgrims who daily made their way into Lhasa were the first to voice this. Soon, the migrant workers, most of whom lived in and around the Barkhor and unlike many Lhasans were devout, old-style Buddhists, too, became agitated. On street corners, along sidewalks, and in tea shops, agitation quickly grew into a call for action.
By early afternoon, black plumes of smoke started whirling up into the sky, more than the usual giant incense urns in the Bharkor could ever churn out. Rabten spotted them from his fourth floor room at Sera. He had not been among the protesting monks, had known nothing of this.
“Wow, they’re like angry dragons, twisting high into the sky. “ He watch the plumes rise higher than the Potala Palace, black, endless and new uncontrolled plumes, one after another. He hears the monastery loudspeakers, “Sera is now locked-down. Everyone return to your rooms and stay there. Wait for further instructions.”
Soon, word spreads by phone that all of Lhasa is in lock-down. TV and radio announce the lock-down. All stores and restaurants must close. Shopping centers, cinemas, restuarants, bars, shops, karaokes, and theaters must close. Parents were told to go pick up your school children. Everyone go home and stay there.
PSB units fan out to enforce the lock-down.
At noon, Dechen was home at her family’s upper story condo on Xianzu island immediately south of Lhasa. Her mother called her from her shop in the Bharkor. Rioters had threatened to burn down her shop, but she screamed at them that she was Tibetan, that her workers were Tibetan. She was about to pull down the metal gate. Mother didn’t know if the road was open to traffic, or whether she could even cross the bridge to their island home. Her assistants lived nearby, that she would stay with them for a few hours.
At 1pm, Dolma was at the Cafe checking on cakes and drinks to deliver to the theater. She had just approved the “Close Tonight for Show at Tibet University” sign a staff member had printed. Then she noticed a growing agitation in the streets. Then, she heard sirens. Staff and customers gathered at the windows, looking out on wide Beijing Central Road, an unobstructed view along it’s East-West length. Jigme tromped in, dashed over to Dolma, his arms opening. They hug.
“Trouble. The streets are being closed. Lock-down announcement. I almost couldn’t get here.”
Dolma suddenly realizes the street was cleared of traffic - all of it: honking trucks, private cars and taxis, 3-wheel Pedi cabs, scooters, motorcycles, belching tour buses, local jitneys, and jaywalking pedestrians. She had been so busy she hadn’t noticed the quiet.
Jigme tells two staff members to chain the front entrance below. To alert the other businesses to stay indoors.
On Beijing Central Road, a Tibetan mob attacks the security police who quickly back away. The mob marshals itself again and again, growing steadily in size and boldness. Soon armed with clubs, stones, knives, chains - anything they laid hands on, they slowly push back the police. Futilely swinging their batons, the police soon break ranks, flee down Beijing Central Road, directly below the Trisong Cafe.
Jigme and Dolma watch as approximately 40 young men in plain clothes suddenly move into a line formation across Beijing Central Road. The squad inexplicably squats down, as if they were part of a protest group of plain-clothes monk.
The mob is puzzled. They pause, there is discussion. “Who are they? What are they doing?”
A military vehicle pulls up and soldiers disgorge uniforms and riot gear: motorcycle like helmets with protective face plastic, 5-foot long green military shields with Plexiglas window pane, black riot sticks as long as four feet and thick as medium size dueling staffs, and protective knee pads. The mystery plain-clothes men suit up in the gear. The PSB formation already on the street reforms behind this riot unit. They grab the remaining shields, helmets, and protective body gear.
“There’s no guns,” remarks Jigme with some relief.
The now well-equipped joint security force gather into formation at the mouth of Xiaozhaoshi road, the north-south pedestrian alley-street, flanking the entrance to the Cafe.
People in the cafe look at each in puzzlement, “Why are they blocking Xiaozhaoshi?”
The other end of XiaoZhaoShi Street connects to another 4-lane boulevard that runs parallel to Beijing Road, the Linkor Road. Both of these boulevards dovetail at the Potala Palace, traditional home of Dalai Lamas, a fort-monastery mounted on cliff-like Red Mountain.
There is a stand-off as scores of Tibetans face the phalanx blocking Xiaozhaoshi Lane. But the mob are joined by a steady stream of noisy, angry Tibetans spilling out from the Barkhor plaza.
The swelling mob curses the police. A few loot a nearby farm utensil and hardware store, grabbing hammers, hoes, sickles, shovels, bush clearing knives, and lengths of shiny chains. These are passed out to the mob.
The mob then pry up the rocks that surface the streets.
The mob lobs a few stones, as if to test the waters. They thud harmlessly off the shields.
Suddenly, a barrage of rocks hits the military vehicle straddling Beijing Central Road, the one that had unloaded the riot gear. Its windshield and sun-roof crumple, then shatter and drop into the car, sucked away clean. The driver roars the truck in reverse down the street. Stops. three-point turns it in a whirlwind, and speeds off.
The mob hurls more rocks onto the phalanx.
“They look like outsiders, country folk.” whispers Jigme to Dolma.
“Migrant workers?” wondered Dolma. So young. Men.”
Dolma noticed that the security force, were young, male Tibetans, too. She recognized some of them when they first sat down. Friends of theirs. Lhasans.
The upraised plexiglass shields of the front line deflect the first few barrages of rocks. But the stones come in faster and thicker. Then, some threw stones into the exposed shins, just below the knee pads. Shins shatter, bleed, and then legs crumple.
The front line falters, and then literally falls to its knees.
The second line places their shields over the heads of the front line. The third and remaining lines form a protective roof over the squad and along the sides. Exactly like the protective turtle shell maneuver in historic Chinese movies like Red Cliff or Greek-Roman legion movies, like the 300 Spartans. Only not so elegant.
Three new military vehicles pull up short of the mob. In short order, their windshields and windows are all completely shattered. They too reverse, three-point turn, hit the gas, and zoom back down Beijing Central Road.
And the rocks and stones keep raining down on the outnumbered, unarmed, retreating phalanx. Those inside the Trisong shove against the a smaller side window to see better. They see the phalanx break into a rag-tag, helter-skelter scamper down Xiaozhaoshi. The able hoist injured comrades onto their backs, half-running with arms under shoulder blades. The roar of the mob extends down the length of the lane.
Twangmo stands outside the family’s guest house as the mob hurls pass her. She sees the outnumbered police stumble pass. She shouted to one, the son of one of her cooks, “What was happening?” He shouted “Riot, riot.” as the squad backs down the lane.
The mob roars by Twangmo. One cohort paused and threaten to burn down her hotel. “We know you serve Han tour groups.”
“We are a Tibetan family business. We are Khamdo. We work very, very hard.”
Another demands if there are Han workers inside.
“Only my family works here. We are family business.” A lie. She had sent her Han employees upstairs to hide in a corner guest room.
“Join us now. We will drive the Han and the Hui out of Lhasa. Join or we will burn down your hotel.”
“OK, but first, I must check on my baby grand daughter - that she is safe. Then, I will come.”
“OK, but we will be back to check.” Twangmo nods in agreement
Twangmo slams shut the thick, double wooden doors and moves the bars across the top and bottom. She lashes her night chains and bolts on heavy, metal locks. The guests had already been told to stay in their rooms, to be quiet. She deploys her male workers to move heavy desks from a storage room and place them against the gates. Others splash buckets of water on the gates, inside and out. She orders distinguishers placed in a corner near the gates.
Twangmo leaves one small door on the far left side of the gate unblocked, but secure. She assigns the Tibetan security guard to it.
“Only let in guests and family members and only if it is safe to do so. Check through the eye level slot. Call me if there is trouble.”
She assigns two kitchen workers to watch the gates, one to run to find her if any confrontations at the gate.
Only then does Twangmo call Dolma and Derga. Everyone is somewhere safe. “No, don’t come back. We are locked in. We are safe.”
Twangmo stations herself by the gates, to steady her employees.
She calls an auntie who runs a Tibetan jewelry store in the Bharkor. She learns that the auntie’s husband could not get to her because the roads have been blocked by police. “It’s because some monks were arrested and no one knows where they are.”
Auntie reports that the protests turned to vandalism on Han and Hui stores and outside stalls. Tibetans placed white silk khada scarves across their doors, but eventually, not even the khadas protected them. Any store, especially with cell-phones and high-teck video-game consoles, were looted.
“Country people, mostly young men. Workers, poor.”
Police men had ordered her to lock-up her shop and then evacuated her and her staff to safety into the nearby Shambala Hotel. Other shop owners and workers were already huddled there. It was well-guarded - policemen with guns at the entrances, on the rooftop. “I’ll stay here until it is safe to go home.”
Lhasa is in full Lock Down. And remained so for 3 more days.
When it was over, Twangmo, Dolma, and Derga pieced together the events.
On Day 1, March 14th, 2008, the skirmishes with police and looting continued into the afternoon. The arson started. Responding fire trucks were overturned and burned, their crews beaten. PBS lost complete control of the Barkhor and it’s nearby warren of streets.
On Day 2, March 15, 2008, the rioting renewed. Migrant workers realized the retreating police had not returned, that shop owners had not fully secured their stores. Young men joined by a few women now targeted stores selling Adidas sneakers, fashionable jeans, shirts, and dresses, North Face outdoor clothing, and other western branded goods.
Sacked one-by-one, and then torched, rioters pile unvalued, traditional Tibetan-style clothing, scarves, and bags along with store furniture onto bonfires. Looters ran off with handfuls of goods only to return with empty bags for more.
Two Tibetan teen-age girls set fire to a pair of jeans and toss them back into a Han owned store where inexplicably the Han operators and their Tibetan sales girls had stayed. No one knows if they survived.
A young Han mother and her young daughters hides in the backroom of their store, their sleeping quarters, as looters set fire to the front. Like most stores there is no back door. The three burn to death. CCTV, the state television station, loops this news story endlessly over the days and weeks to come.
Han looking males are attacked on sight, maimed, and even murdered. So too were Muslim Hui males with their tell-tale Islamic white skull caps.
From his Sera Monastery aerie, Rabten could see white clouds of tear gas blanketing the Bharkor, then enshroud residential buildings, and in his imagination, seeping under the shuttered doors of businesses not yet burned out, and through cracks in the windows of the second-and-third story residences.
Eerily, the black plumes of uncontrolled fires, like skinny tornadoes staying in place, still snaking their way above the pure white teargas. They looked, well — pretty to him, like a scene in a mystical dream, like hell realms he had visited in his meditations, the kind of portentous dreams that he would discuss with his teacher, for hidden meanings, to discern messages from the Buddha.
Everyone heard sirens, sirens, and more sirens - fire-trucks, ambulances, and more police. But the mob continue to attack, overturn, and burn responding fire-trucks. So, the fire-fighters stop coming. The Bharkor is left to burn. Embers fly as the fires smother and then slowly spread from store to store. Then the flames start leaping from building to building.
Could the Jokhang catch fire? Could the entire historic district burn to the ground? Ironically, destroyed by the fury of true believers concerned by the fate of their monks?
Surveillance cameras mounted on rooftops, poles, and corners of buildings roll on undamaged, record the mayhem ---- and the faces of the rioters. Lost in mob madness, the rioters seem not to remember, or care, that their very identities and actions are being caught on video.
On Day 3, March 16th, 2008, a large group of monks violently attack a group of soldiers with clubs and stones. But they are quickly defeated. A Dutch tourist later reports seeing a red-robed monk with a wooden staff beat an unresisting security officer already lying senseless on the ground. In the Bharkor. Possibly killing him.
On Day 4, March 17th, well armed, bulletproof-jacketed army units rumble up and down Beijing Road, Linkor Road, and other major streets. The troops fire directly into crowds of Tibetans, and where there are no crowds, in sweeping bursts into the shuttered, empty stores lining both sides of these very commercial streets where rioters had regularly huddled before storming out again.
They were not firing rubber bullets. They were not firing pigeon shot.
Whatever they are firing was deadly. Rioters are shot down dead. Bullets pierce thick glass and walls, and whiz 30, 40, or even 50 feet only to exit completely through the far-side walls. Bullets imbed themselves into metal structural support, now exposed through the disintegrated plaster and shattered woodwork.
By the end of Day 4, the army secures the Bharkor, its surroundings, and all the streets of Lhasa.
In the Bharkor soldiers move burnt vehicles into protective walls. Fresh tear-gas hovers everywhere, but fire trucks move in safely now and put out the flames, building by building.
“Ironic,” noted Twangmo. “The Han saved the Bharkor from burning down. The Han saved the Jokhang Temple and the Jowo Rinpoche.” The Jowo, the most precious statue of Buddha in Tibetan Buddhism, was brought into Tibet by Princess Wencheng of the Tang Dynasty, who was betrothed to King Trisong as part of a peace treaty.
True Believers would later claim that it was the Cherenzig Buddha who protect the Jokhang Temple and the Jowo.
On Day 5, March 19th, civil order is completely restored. Store owners and workers in protective security in hotels are escorted home by PSB personnel.