Chinese police shot dead a Tibetan “by accident” during a protest related to mining in a Tibetan area of Sichuan two weeks ago, according to a rare admission in a Chinese state media report yesterday. According to reports from Tibetans in the area at least three Tibetans may have been killed in the incident, in which police opened fire on a group of Tibetans protesting about environmental damage caused by mining in the eastern Tibetan area of Kham, although it has not been possible to confirm the exact number of fatalities. It is the most serious incident in recent months of armed response to a mining protest that Tibetan sources reported was peaceful.

The Chinese official news agency Xinhua claimed that a 47-year old Tibetan called Babo was allegedly leading a group of protestors who “attacked” police in a courtyard in Payul (Chinese: Baiyu) county in Kardze (Chinese: Ganzi) prefecture, Sichuan, using “knives, clubs and rocks,” and injuring 17 police officers, according to the official report. In other incidents where police have opened fire, the state media has reported that police were ‘attacked’ by Tibetans apparently in order to justify their actions, and it has not been possible to confirm that this was the case. “[Babo] was later fatally wounded by a stray bullet when police fired warning shots with an anti-riot shotgun. Babo was rushed to hospital but died on August 16,” Xinhua reported yesterday (August 30).

The Xinhua version of events stated that local people were protesting about the detention of a businessman named as Fu Liang for allegedly exploiting goldmines and damaging the grasslands, but this could not be confirmed. Exile Tibetan sources in contact with people in the area report that the Tibetans were protesting because heavy equipment brought in for the increased mining operations had damaged farmland. According to one Tibetan in exile, the protest developed because the local authorities were seeking to increase the number of mining sites in the area, and Tibetans began to put together petitions against the mines. The source, a Tibetan in India in contact with Tibetans in the Payul area, said: “Local people took the petitions to the government building and gathered in front of the building, and some sat down outside the office. Armed security threw tear gas at the crowd and afterwards opened fire.”

Radio Free Asia’s Tibetan service reported that at least four Tibetans were killed when police opened fire, and that as many as 30 Tibetans were wounded in the August 17 shooting (Xinhua reported that it happened on August 15). (RFA, Police fire on mine protesters). According to RFA, citing a Tibetan monk based in India, additional security had been sent to the area to quell unrest. The same source said that around August 13, a group of Tibetans led by village head Tashi Sangpo traveled to the government headquarters in the county seat of Payul to express concerns about an increase in mining activity. They said that gold mining by the Chinese-owned Kartin Company had led to an increase in people coming to the area, severely degraded the fertility of their farmland, and adversely affected the local grassland habitat. According to the same report, Tashi Sangpo was singled out first when police opened fire, and was shot in the leg.

There has been an expansion of mining activities in recent years following an emphasis on exploitation of minerals in the area by the prefectural authorities in the early 1980s, when official sources described Payul’s Changtai Gold Mine as one of the prefecture’s “backbone enterprises”, according to “Tibet Outside the TAR,” CD-Rom by Steven D Marshall and Susette Cooke, published in 1997. “[Official sources] also mention that gold prospecting has been increasingly developed at rural town enterprise and village organization levels since 1990, a policy which encourages Chinese immigrant miners as much as local Tibetans.”

“Two weeks after the event, this admission by the Chinese authorities that ‘by accident’ they killed a Tibetan who was ‘attacking’ police is simply not a tenable account of events,” said Mary Beth Markey, President of the International Campaign for Tibet. “Whatever the truth of the situation, it cannot be denied that drafting in police armed with ‘anti-riot shotguns’ and imposing a blackout on information from the area once again underlines the vulnerability of the Tibetan people, and the lack of accountability from the Chinese authorities both to the Tibetan people themselves and to the international community.”

Tibetans have increasingly been prepared to protest against the impact of mining or other industrial activity on their local environment in recent years despite the dangers. On May 15, 2010. police opened fire on Tibetans at a cement factory in the Tibetan area of Amdo (Labrang in Gansu Province) after local villagers, worried about pollution from the factory, started to rebuild a road that had been closed by the expansion of the factory. Fifteen people were taken to hospital with gunshot wounds or injuries from beatings by police, although no one was killed, according to an exile Tibetan source in contact with Tibetans in the area. (Images of troops massed at the protest, Police open fire at Tibetans protesting cement factory pollution).

The incident followed protests by Tibetan villagers in Markham in the Tibetan area of Kham against mining operations earlier this month, according to the Tibetan language service of Radio Free Asia. Thirteen Tibetans were detained and five injured on May 4, 2010, the day a mining company was given the go ahead, despite earlier protests, to resume mining at three major sites in Markham (Chinese: Mangkang) county in Chamdo (Chinese: Changdu) Prefecture, Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR). (Tibetan Review, 13 arrested, five injured as Tibetans protest Chinese mining in Markham).

The Chinese authorities started surveying and mining Tibet in the 1950s. The mining industry expanded considerably during economic reforms of the 1980s and 1990s but generally remained small-scale. As China has faced growing shortages in the domestic supply of raw materials there has been an accelerated exploitation of Tibet’s minerals and as infrastructure has developed mineral commodities have become increasingly accessible. Poor governance and control over mining have in some cases exacerbated its environmental impact as the interests of local people have been subordinated to those of officials and the state. Mining has had a serious environmental impact in many areas, notably land degradation, pollution, and harm to livestock and wildlife bio-diversity.