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Unusual protests in Chinese-controlled Tibet signal desire for religious freedom. CHALLENGE FOR CHINA

The recent unrest in the Tibetan capital has highlighted how Tibetan opposition to Chinese rule is chiefly a struggle for religious freedom. Eyewitness accounts show that the Oct. 1 riot in Lhasa erupted after police arrested 40 monks waving a flag of ``the snow mountains and lions,'' a Tibetan religious icon, and shouting ``Tibet wants independence'' at the Jokhang Temple, Tibet's holiest site.

As the police held the monks at a nearby police station and, according to unconfirmed reports, shot one of them, some 300 Tibetans hurled stones at the station and set it on fire.

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The ensuing turmoil, in which at least six people - some reports say up to 19 - were killed, demonstrated that Peking's 36-year campaign to make the former kingdom more Chinese is far from complete. Details of the clashes showed that the protesters primarily were incensed by Chinese abuse of the monks and desecration of Tibetan Buddhist shrines.

For example, as eight police officers shot pistols at the crowd before the police station, two monks wrested an automatic rifle from a police officer on the roof of the 1,300-year-old Jokhang temple and destroyed the weapon, according to a visiting American graduate student and other witnesses. The crowd carried a badly burned monk from the police station and set him on a high ledge where, amid wild cheering, he blessed the demonstrators with a prayer. Peking has barred foreign correspondents from reporting from Lhasa and, at press time Sunday, security forces were reportedly blocking roads to the capital and sealing off monasteries.

``It was a terribly emotional scene,'' the American student said in Chengdu. ``Many, many women were crying, people were saying they hoped the Dalai Lama [Tibetans' spiritual leader] would return to Tibet and urging foreigners to photograph [the unrest].''

The protesters ``really seemed to believe the Dalai Lama will come back to Lhasa soon to lead Tibet,'' she said. Considered a ``god-king'' by Tibetans, the Dalai Lama ruled Tibet before China annexed it in 1951. He has lived in exile in India since 1959.

This violent demonstration of Tibetan Buddhist faith that coincided with China's national day and a smaller rally in Lhasa Sept. 27 were expressions of Tibetan nationalism. With a 2,100-year-old tradition that has merged religion with matters of state, Tibetans have found Peking's enforcement of atheistic communism repugnant.

Harsh Chinese rule has intensified Tibetan opposition and enmity. Peking has acknowledged that during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), Chinese Red Guards destroyed thousands of lamaseries. The Dalai Lama estimates that Peking has killed some 1.2 million Tibetans.

Many Tibetans also remain alienated from China for deeply-rooted cultural reasons: They speak a different language and observe different traditions.

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Representatives of more than 100,000 Tibetan exiles living abroad note that popular awareness of Tibet's discrete history also fuels resentment of Peking.

For most of the 8th century Tibet extended more than 2,000 miles, from the Pamir Mountains and Samarkand (now in the Soviet Union) in the west to Xian in the east. In later periods before the Chinese invasion, Tibet either enjoyed complete independence or maintained nothing more than a tributary tie with China.

Conversely, Chinese officials claim China has ruled Tibet since the Yuan Dynasty in the 13th century. Since the Cultural Revolution ended in 1976, Chinese officials have sought to revive the region's economy with flexible economic policies, and the annual average per capita income has more than doubled from about $75 in 1979.

Peking also has eased religious restrictions since 1980, allowing a limited number of pilgrims into Tibet and about 4,000 lamas to worship freely. Thirty years ago Tibetan lamas numbered more than 110,000.

Peking has trumpeted such recent achievements in the state-run TV and press since the Dalai Lama began a 10-day visit to the United States on Sept. 19.

Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs Zhu Qizhen told the Monitor that Tibetan political strife is ``purely an internal matter.''

[US consular officials in Chengdu reportedly told the Associated Press that two Americans were detained briefly in Lhasa during the demonstrations, but then were released.]

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