Three months after an uprising that gripped the international community and set off a series of protests during the international legs of the Olympic torch relay, the dust has yet to settle in Tibet. What exactly happened before and after the unrest on March 14 remains as controversial as the riots themselves. The Chinese authorities blame 'the Dalai clique', a vague reference to any force closely or even remotely related to the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader. But western observers and members of the free Tibet movement believe suppression of peaceful rallies by monks could have ignited the protest. Although the South China Morning Post obtained several witness accounts supporting the theory that the protests were started by trained agitators, western scholars say it was hard to distinguish trained agitators from those who took advantage of the opportunity to vent their anger through violent means. Regardless of the cause, a large number of ordinary Tibetan people joined in the demonstrations, which saw widespread looting, smashing and burning of shops and rocks being hurled at passers-by, most of them Han Chinese. All of which points to a deeper question: why are so many Tibetans unhappy with their lives? Many observers agree that the underlying cause of the riot was economic. In his article in the online journal Japan Focus, Ben Hillman - chair of the Eastern Tibet Training Institute - argued that contrary to conventional belief in the west, there was no systematic discrimination against Tibetans in employment. Owing, however, to their high rate of illiteracy and lack of vocational education, Tibetans were being marginalised in an economy that was seeing rapid state-led development. Entitled 'Rethinking China's Tibet Policy', the article said that more than 40 per cent of Tibetans had no formal schooling, compared with the national average of 8 per cent. This disadvantage in education had made it difficult for Tibetans to secure non-agricultural jobs, Dr Hillman wrote. A Han man whose business was ruined during the riots told the Post that those responsible were rural Tibetans who are jobless or doing piecemeal works in Lhasa . 'There are many such young thugs in Lhasa and it was not very safe at night even before the riot,' he said. The central government has adopted a carrot and stick approach to the Tibetan Autonomous Region and surrounding areas inhabited by Tibetans - using huge state investment in the infrastructure and economy but cracking down with an iron fist on any dissent. Two weeks after the March 14 riot, Xinhua said that Beijing would invest 20 billion yuan (HK$22.68 billion) in 77 infrastructural projects in Tibet this year. Tibet saw its gross domestic product rise more than 12 per cent for seven consecutive years until last year, when it rose 14 per cent. Per capita disposable income last year was just over 11,000 yuan. Over 4 million tourists travelled to Tibet last year, up 60 per cent from 2006. But the riot's long-term effect on the tourism industry remains to be seen, as tourism almost ground to a halt in the two months afterward, and foreign tourists are still banned from travelling to Tibet. According to Xinhua, the central government channelled 28.32 billion yuan in subsidies to the autonomous region last year. That was slightly more than the regional government spent for the whole year. Dr Hillman argued that Beijing should invest in the Tibetan people, spending more on education instead of focusing on infrastructure projects like roads and railways. The quality of education in Tibet was poor and had failed to help Tibetans compete with the influx of Han Chinese migrants, he wrote. A western observer who was in Lhasa during the riots said inflation was another cause. Rising prices for food and other necessities are a reality throughout the country, but Tibetans are particularly vulnerable because prices there are generally higher than in other provinces, and earnings for many Tibetans remain relatively low. According to a government report from August, pork, beef, chicken and egg prices rose substantially, although the overall rise in the consumer price index (CPI) for the first half of 2007 was 2.7 per cent, below the national average. Tibet's CPI rose 3.4 per cent last year, according to a January report by Tibet Daily. Observers say that more should be done to relieve the economic plight of Tibetans, especially those left out of the economic boom. This, they say, would be more effective in helping reduce the tension than a violent crackdown and a strong police presence on the street. According to witness accounts obtained by the Post, the authorities resorted to violence on several nights after the riot: shots were fired and one witness said machine guns put bullet holes in his wall. The witnesses say intimidation and heavy-handed crackdowns have only deepened the feud between Han and Tibetan and infuriate Tibetans even further. As talks with the Dalai Lama loom, observers say that coming up with policies to improve the livelihood of Tibetans would create a common ground between the Chinese authorities and the exiled Tibetan government, and constitute a good starting point for the discussions.