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China: Dalai Lama Appeals To New Chinese Leadership To Grant Tibet Autonomy

  • Jeremy Bransten

Tibet's exiled spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, today urged China to address the issue of autonomy for his nation, warning that the problem could soon become insoluble. The Dalai Lama made his appeal on the anniversary of the 1959 Tibetan national uprising against Beijing's annexation of the once independent Himalayan country.

Prague, 19 March 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Tibet's exiled spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, appealed to China's new leadership today to make a fresh start and begin negotiations on resolving the status of his nation.

The Dalai Lama spoke from Dharamsala, India, on the 44th anniversary of the failed Tibetan national uprising against Chinese occupation.

He said that around the world, "unattended conflicts with ethnic roots can erupt in ways that make them extremely difficult to solve." The Tibetan spiritual leader urged Beijing, where a change of leaders is taking place this week, to avoid the possibility of future conflict and show itself as a "responsible and forward-looking power."

Civic groups and citizens around the world joined Tibet's exiled representatives today in pausing to remember the events in 1959 that led to the flight of the Dalai Lama -- a teenager at the time -- from his homeland. In Central Europe, for example, where memories of foreign domination remain fresh, city halls across the Czech Republic flew Tibetan flags in an act of solidarity.

On this day in 1959, 10 years after Chinese troops first rolled into the independent country of Tibet, thousands of people rallied in the capital Lhasa in a show of support for the Dalai Lama and to register their protest at Chinese occupation.

The uprising soon turned violent, despite appeals by the Dalai Lama against direct confrontation, leading Tibet's spiritual leader to flee his country to escape Chinese imprisonment. After an arduous trek over the Himalayas, the Dalai Lama arrived in India, where he and his entourage were granted asylum and soon established a government-in-exile in the town of Dharamsala.

Forty-four years later, the Dalai Lama's quest for a peaceful resolution to the Tibet issue has won him a Nobel Prize, international acclaim, and millions of sympathizers across the world. But he remains in exile.

Dharamsala has become the semipermanent home of tens of thousands of first- and second-generation exiles and a solution appears no closer. Quite the opposite: Tibet is now firmly established as a province of the Chinese People's Republic. Most of Tibet's legendary monasteries and cultural treasures have been destroyed, and Tibetans have become a minority in their own land.

Tsering Tashi, secretary at the Office of Tibet in London, which functions as an embassy of the government-in-exile, tells RFE/RL the biggest threat facing Tibet today is the continuing immigration into the country of ethnic Han Chinese, who now outnumber ethnic Tibetans. At last count, some 7.5 million ethnic Chinese had settled in Tibet, compared to the 6 million native Tibetans.

"Because of the massive Chinese influx into various parts of Tibet, Tibetans are already becoming an insignificant minority in their own country. For example, in the capital Lhasa, various independent sources and tourists have also indicated that Lhasa now does not look like a Tibetan city. It looks like a Chinese city. And the majority of the population there is now Chinese, not including the presence of hundreds of Chinese soldiers and army personnel. So, this is the biggest threat."

The exile community in Dharamsala and around the world continues to work hard to keep alive its language as well as Buddhist scholarship and traditions, which are central to Tibetan culture. But Tashi says Beijing's policies -- with its frequent crackdowns on religious and cultural practice -- are endangering Tibetan culture at home.

"There is great danger to the survival of the Tibetan Buddhist culture, our way of life," he said. "So even the basic survival of the Tibetan culture, as well as the people, is at stake and we felt that the loss of the Tibetan culture and the total annihilation of the people is not only going to be a loss and tragedy for the Tibetan people but also for the world at large."

A report last year by the human rights organization Amnesty International said 250 prisoners of conscience, many of them monks and nuns, were known to remain imprisoned by the Chinese authorities in Tibet. The "patriotic education campaign" -- launched by the Chinese authorities in 1996 to control monasteries and nunneries and to undermine the influence of the exiled Dalai Lama -- continued, as did restrictions on religious freedom.

Reports of torture, the ill treatment of detainees, and harsh prison conditions were frequent. Many Tibetan prisoners suffered health problems because of poor food and sanitation, harsh working conditions, or beatings. Arbitrary arrests and unfair trials also continued.

In addition, exiles say the Chinese drive to industrialize Tibet threatens to undermine the region's fragile environment. Since 1951, the government-in-exile says, 40 percent of Tibet's virgin forests have been cut down. The growing erosion and desertification of the Tibetan Plateau, which is the source of several of Asia's great rivers, could impact millions of people living downstream in countries such as India and Pakistan. Unrestricted hunting has led to the disappearance of several wildlife species, while mineral and oil prospecting has led to further land degradation.

But the authorities in Beijing accuse supporters of the Dalai Lama of distorting the truth.

The Chinese government today issued a 33-page policy document in which it defended its economic policies in Tibet. It accused the Dalai Lama's backers of seeking to "hamper the social progress and modernization of Tibet" by "camouflaging themselves" with what it called "pretensions of concern about eco-environmental protection in Tibet."

The Chinese government paper said economic development would have to be a priority for Tibet if its people were to improve their lot.

To that end, Beijing is determined to push ahead with the development of industrial and mining operations as well as construction of a 1,100-kilometer-long railroad linking Tibet to the rest of China.

In London, Tibetan representative Tashi expresses hope that with world attention focusing on Beijing ahead of its hosting the 2008 summer Olympics, the Chinese leadership may still reverse its hard-line stance.

"We hope that in the run-up to the 2008 Olympics that are scheduled to be held in Beijing, the Chinese leadership will have the courage and the wisdom to seriously address the issue of Tibet and enter into negotiations in order to promote its own good international image."

More than a decade ago, the Dalai Lama formally renounced demands for the restoration of Tibet's full independence, saying he was prepared to settle for genuine autonomy for his nation.

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