Did Dalai get the wrong picture on Tibet riots?

by Venkatesan Vembu, DNA India, April 5, 2008

HONG KONG, China -- Chinese internet users have gone to extraordinary lengths to disprove the Dalai Lama’s claim that the riots in Lhasa on March 14, which claimed several lives, were instigated by Chinese soldiers disguised as Buddhist monks.

At a press conference in New Delhi last week, the Dalai Lama made the serious allegation that Chinese soldiers had dressed as monks to convey the impression that Tibetans were instigating the riots. “A few hundred soldiers have been dressed like monks,” he said.

Though the Dalai Lama did not produce any evidence to support his allegation, it is believed he was referring to a widely-circulated photograph which showed uniformed men on a Lhasa street, some of them wearing burgundy-coloured robes (a typical Tibetan lama wear).

Behind them in the photograph are a few Tibetan hangers-on and a tricycle-rickshaw, a common mode of transport in Lhasa. In the absence of an explanatory context, the photograph appears to validate the Dalai Lama’s claim.

But Chinese internet users have collectively critiqued the photograph and effectively disproved the claim. For a start, they pointed out, going by the olive-green uniforms of the men in the photograph, they were not People’s Liberation Army soldiers, but belonged to the People’s Armed Police (PAP), a paramilitary force primarily responsible for law enforcement in China.

Others drilled down further to point out that under new uniform regulations in force since January 2005, armed police personnel sport a red shoulder patch. Since the men in the photograph did not have it the netizens concluded that the photograph must have been taken before January 2005.

The “cyber sleuths” then subjected other elements in the picture to more rigorous scrutiny. For instance, even the tricycle-rickshaws, which had a blue-coloured canopy, provided clues to when it was taken.

Starting October 2004, all pedal rickshaws in Lhasa were required to have a standard yellow-blue-red-green canopy. This meant, argued the netizens, the photographs were taken prior to that date.

Even the Tibetan hangers-on in the photo told a story: they were dressed in summer wear, as were the PAP personnel. In March 2008, when the riots occurred, it was cold in Lhasa.

In other words, the netizens were able to establish that the photograph on which the Dalai Lama appears to have relied was taken years ago.