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Monks debating, breathtaking landscapes, the Potala Palace against a clear blue sky: these are images many around the world commonly associate with Tibet.

A unit from Tibet police border security force with riot gear participates in a drill at a military base in Shigatse, Tibet Autonomous Region, China, October 24, 2015. © 2015 Reuters

And on occasion there are street protests against Chinese rule. Yet Chinese authorities in the region increasingly speak – and act – as if Tibet were the epicenter of violent conflict. Earlier this month, the People’s Armed Police carried out region-wide drills involving hundreds, if not thousands, of police and paramilitary soldiers. Afterward, state media waxed rhapsodic about “the courage of the broad masses of…soldiers in eliminating unseen threats, their perfect technique and high level of military training” and “their courage in defending home and country, keeping the peace… and dealing with terrorist attacks and sudden incidents.”

Such highly militarized displays aren’t new.  On March 9 – the day before many Tibetans mark the anniversary of the failed 1959 uprising against Chinese rule – Chinese Communist Party, government, and military leaders marked the occasion with a rally where hundreds of soldiers and police took oaths to “safeguard national unity,” and then drove through the streets of Tibet’s capital, Lhasa, in massive convoys of military and riot-control vehicles featuring turret-mounted heavy machine guns and light cannons. According to state broadcaster CCTV, similar displays of armed force were staged simultaneously in each of the major towns across Tibet:

Armed police, public security, border security, fire prevention, [and] special police forces…fully armed, bravely and fearlessly took up battle-ready formation in nearly one hundred vehicles, armored personnel carriers, and special military vehicles...the drill began and stability maintenance forces moved out in unison, to begin their patrolling preventive control duty.

At other times this year, the official media has also broadcast “training exercises” by special police and paramilitary units, in which the targets appeared to be ordinary vehicles or private homes, and the “enemies” were civilians.

China’s security forces, like security forces everywhere, are entitled to conduct training exercises wherever needed for genuine national security reasons. But these militarized displays of force and rhetoric do not appear intended to address a potential threat, but to send a message that lethal force will be the response to any form of protest or opposition.

Massively exaggerating the threat the government faces can only add to Tibetans’ sense of alienation from the state, and increase popular discontent. China does face low-level popular dissent and protest in Tibet. But its use of public and mass intimidation is no way to address it.

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