News is emerging of an incident today in which police opened fire following a confrontation between Chinese police and Tibetans in Nagchu (Chinese: Naqu) county in the Tibet Autonomous Region. According to a blogger who posted a report of the incident on a Chinese language website, a conflict between a Tibetan and Chinese taxi driver in Nagchu this morning escalated into a fight, which resulted in People’s Armed Police arriving on the scene and opening fire.

News of the protest is emerging as Hillary Clinton is preparing to visit China for the first time since being appointed US Secretary of State having earlier stated that President Obama’s administration will “continue to press China on our concerns about human rights issues at every opportunity and at all levels, publicly and privately.” (Written answers presented to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, January 13, 2009.) The report also comes on the same day that an editorial in the official Tibet Daily called on people to “Firmly crush the savage aggression of the Dalai clique, defeat separatism, and wage people’s war to maintain stability.”

The report today is a further indicator of increasing tension in Tibet in the buildup to the Tibetan New Year on February 25 and the anniversaries in March of the protests that swept through Tibet last year, and the 1959 Uprising, which led to the Dalai Lama’s flight into exile. Mary Beth Markey, Vice President of Advocacy for the International Campaign for Tibet, said: “China is determined to fuel tensions in Tibet rather than do the work of peaceful conflict resolution with the Dalai Lama. If China’s hard-line position on Tibet is immutable, then Secretary Clinton and others deeply concerned for the difficult situation in Tibet – and for peace in stability in China – will have to face a real and significant obstacle to good relationships with China.”

The source reporting the incident in Nagchu described how Tibetans at the scene started arguing with police when they were about to detain the Tibetan who had become embroiled in an argument with the Chinese taxi driver. The police called in reinforcements including members of the People’s Armed Police (PAP), who surrounded the Tibetans. According to the source, someone shouted out slogans: “Drive out the Han, Give us back our land!” and “Come home Dalai Lama and uphold justice,” and was joined by others, whereupon violence broke out between the Tibetans and the police – several police cars were turned over and set on fire with serious injuries on both sides. The report also stated that when police opened fire, three people were hit, although this could not be confirmed.

Nagchu county – a largely nomadic area of central Tibet traversed by the Qinghai-Tibet railway – was the scene of only one protest known to ICT during the protests that began on March 10, 2008. Reports from the area at the time told of an unusually heavy police presence in the town, possibly because of Nagchu’s position as a central road and rail distribution hub in the region.

This latest protest in Nagchu comes a few days after nomads, monks and local people in Lithang (Chinese: Litang) took to the streets on February 16 after a solitary protest by a 39-year old monk, Lobsang Lhundup. Lobsang Lhundup staged a protest on Sunday (February 15), calling on Tibetans not to celebrate the Tibetan New Year (Losar) as an act of mourning for the people who were killed, detained or still missing from the protests last year – the ‘No Losar’ movement has spread quickly in Tibet, despite the authorities’ efforts to encourage and coerce people to celebrate the festival as normal. (ICT report, Tibetans “in mourning” as Chinese New Year begins – January 27, 2009.)

Other Tibetans joined in the protest, according to the Dharamsala-based Tibetan Center for Human Rights and Democracy (TCHRD), and Lobsang Lhundup was taken away by police. The following day, February 16, more people gathered to continue the protest and to demand the release of Lobsang Lhundup. The protestors – around two dozen according to some reports but many more according to other reports – marched through the main street market in Lithang shouting slogans and carrying a large portrait of the Dalai Lama for as long as two hours before police intervened. Sources report that police used extreme violence in the process of detaining and loading the protestors onto military trucks, with 21 people – all of whom are now known to TCHRD by name – being detained.

Also in eastern Tibet, on January 27 in the monastery town of Derge (Chinese: Dege), police reportedly opened fire on a group of five monks close to the monastery as soon as they started a protest calling for Tibetan independence and the return of the Dalai Lama to Tibet. Sources were unable to confirm whether the monks or anyone else in the vicinity were killed or injured in the gunfire, but several separate witnesses reported seeing the protest and hearing shots, according to the Washington, DC-based Radio Free Asia reporting on the incident.