New York, Mar.24 : Foreigners and local residents of Tibetan capital Lhasa who were witness to the anti-Chinese violence, have said that they were simply stunned by what they saw.
They claimed that so chaotic was the situation in the first 24 hours that riot police officers initially fled and were often nowhere to be found. Some Chinese shopkeepers begged for protection, they added.
According to them Tibetans rampaged through the city's old quarter, waving steel scabbards and burning or looting Chinese shops. Clothes, souvenirs and other tourist trinkets were dumped outside and set afire as thick grey smoke darkened the midday sky.
"The whole day I didn't see a single police officer or soldier. The Tibetans were just running free," the New York Times quoted an American woman who spent hours navigating the riot scene, as saying. Lhasa is now occupied by thousands of paramilitary police officers and troops of the People's Liberation Army, but witnesses say that for almost 24 hours, paramilitary police were paralysed and unprepared for the Tibetan opposition.
The escalating violence has touched off a sweeping crackdown and provided fodder for a propaganda-fuelled nationalist backlash against Tibetans across the rest of China that is still under way, claims the paper.
The crackdown began within 24 hours, on March 15. Witnesses described hearing the thud of tear gas projectiles and the crackle of gunshots as paramilitary police officers gradually took control of the riot area. By March 16, the paramilitary police were searching Tibetan neighbourhoods and dragging away suspects. One foreigner saw four Tibetan men beaten so savagely that the police sprinkled white powder on the ground to cover the blood.
Analysts wonder if the authorities, possibly fearing the public relations ramifications of a confrontation before the Beijing Olympics in August, told the police to avoid engaging protesters without high-level approval.
Timing also may have contributed to indecision; Tibet's hard-line Communist Party boss, Zhang Qingli, and other top officials were attending the National People's Congress in Beijing when the violence erupted.
The full explanation could take years to emerge from China's secretive Communist Party hierarchy. But the Lhasa unrest, not entirely unlike the Tiananmen Square pro-democracy protests of 1989, may be remembered as much for poor police work - faulty crowd control and political indecision followed by a large-scale response - as for the underlying grievances of protesters.
According to the NYT, Lhasa now has created far more than a public relations problem for Beijing. It has unleashed widespread Tibetan resentment over Chinese rule.