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Riot-hit areas slowly picking up the pieces
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14:45, April 14, 2008

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At the renowned Labrang Lamasery in Gansu province, warm sunshine on the red and white Tibetan Buddhist temple heralded the arrival of spring.

The shops lining the fringes of the lamasery in Xiahe county were stocked full of handicrafts and souvenirs, ready for the start of the travel season.

Yet few tourists were seen on Thursday. "Not many people come in anymore," said a shop owner who identified herself as Drolma.

Drolma said it should be the beginning of the peak tourist season for the lamasery and the whole of the Gannan Tibetan autonomous prefecture in Gansu, but the recent riots - where a number of Labrang lamas participated - have scarred the sector and life in general.

"I used to make 500 yuan ($71) a day, but for the whole past month, I hardly touched that figure," said Drolma, even as she hoped for the full resumption of business in the region.

Gannan, also known for its scenic pastures, saw the largest annual increase of foreign tourists last year.

But the prospect of further growth has now been seriously dampened.

The impact of the riots on the prefecture has been severe, said its acting head, Mao Shengwu. The tourism sector has been particularly hit, Mao said.

The riots last month, beginning on March 14 in Lhasa, capital of the Tibet autonomous region, quickly spread to neighboring Tibetan-inhabited regions, including Gannan, Aba in Sichuan province and parts of Qinghai province.

Tibetan women pick textile at a local store in Maqu, Gansu province.

Across the affected areas, rioters damaged government offices, schools, hospitals and other public facilities, and left burned shops in their wake.

The authorities have meanwhile advised foreigners and domestic travelers against going to Tibet.


The Potala Palace in Lhasa also reopened to the public from March 26, after it was closed for 10-days following the riots.

Pilgrims have slowly returned to the holy site, where prayer wheels turn once again and people are seen in the main square.

"There is still a lack of business because there are not so many visitors, but the number is increasing steadily," said Liu Jijun, owner of a Tibetan handicraft shop below the palace.

"I'm still confident of business opportunities here," Liu said. Tourists visiting Lhasa also said they could sense slight unease and the regional capital was far less lively than they had thought.

"There is almost no nightlife here, as many people are still afraid," said Wan Fan, a tourist from Shanghai.

"But the local people are really nice and have reminded us to be safe," she said.

Businesses in Lhasa are slowly recovering with strong government support, but sales revenues are still lower than before.

Danish menswear shop Jack & Jones was torched in the riots. It reopened on March 25, newly decorated, in downtown Beijing Middle Road.

Currently, its sales revenue is about 2,000 yuan a day. It was more than 8,000 yuan for the same period last year.

Shop manager Yu Dan remained optimistic.

"It's much better than I expected, in such a short period of time," Yu said.

The unrest that struck Lhasa on March 14 left 908 shops looted, seven schools, five hospitals and 120 homes torched, and many residents penniless. Total damage has been reported to be more than 244 million yuan.

To help restore businesses, shop owners who suffered losses in the March 14 riots in Lhasa will receive monthly living allowances of 260 yuan from the government, which is equal to the minimum living allowance in the Tibetan capital. The government aid will continue up to 2010.

Over the same period, owners of the damaged shops will be exempted from business and corporate income taxes, as well as urban maintenance and construction taxes, the Tibetan government said last week.

The city government has also helped a number of badly hit businesses obtain bank loans.

Maqu county

Maqu, which lies on the northern tip of Gannan and has a population of 46,000, suffered the worst damage among the six riot-hit counties in the prefecture because of its location amid neighboring Sichuan and Qinghai provinces.

Local officials said that 70 percent of businesses in the county town were affected. But none of the businesses had taken out insurance, while the local government has limited funds to help in the recovery.

Xin Zilong, who used to be one of the wealthiest residents in the county, is among the 100-odd businesses worst hit by the violence. All that remains of his three-story building are charred bricks. His economic loss is estimated to be about 1.4 million yuan.

Xin, 43, was born to Han parents in Maqu and has helped the development of the region. Xin said he now has to live on government handouts.

The local government is planning tax exemptions but Xin and other businesspeople said it might take a long time for such recovery.

Similarly, businesspeople have said that the riots have made the backward western region poorer and cut the progress made in recent years.

Maqu alone suffered an economic loss of 104 million yuan, about the county government's fiscal income for half of 2006.

"I have been doing business in Maqu for 20 years and have witnessed the development of the county," said one resident.

"Tibetan herdsmen could finally get water from taps and electricity, and roads have been built up to their homes. It was time for them to enjoy better lives, and I couldn't understand why someone would ruin it."

Victims all

While some have played up ethnic conflict as the root of the riots, many officials and residents say that Tibetans are also victims.

Of the 18 killed in the March 14 riot, three were Tibetans. Stores owned by Tibetans were also not spared from the looting and torching.

Some rioters, mostly Tibetans and a few Han people, said they were forced to join the riots.

"I was threatened and forced by some strangers to take part in the riots. I feel very regretful over that. I want to say sorry to the victims," said 25-year-old Daindar, who turned himself in to authorities in Lhasa.

There were also many cases of Tibetans who had saved the lives of their Han and Hui neighbors from the riots.

In Maqu, Cuchim Gyamco, a Tibetan monk from a subsidiary of Labrang Lamasery, begged the rioters for mercy and managed to take an injured policeman to a safe place.

Yet the sudden horror after decades of peace has clearly struck the local residents and left them with nightmares.

A teacher named Cering at the Labrang Tibetan Primary School said the memories of the violence still haunt many of the teachers and students.

The school's 24 male teachers have now been divided into four groups to patrol the school at night to ensure safety, Cering said.


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