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"On my part, I remain committed to the process of dialogue. It is my firm belief that dialogue and a willingness to look with honesty and clarity at the reality of Tibet can lead us to a viable solution."

As The Dust Settles

September 22, 2008

Sin Chew Jit Poh - Malaysia

After six months, normalcy has returned to Tibet. But the already
fragile Tibetan-Han relations are now in tatters.

A yellow khata, the Tibetan white silk scarf of blessing, is squished
between his taxi’s windscreen and dashboard.

The ethnic Chinese driver, Li, knows that in the deadly riots that
rocked this city in mid-March, shops and homes marked with a khata were
largely spared. The scarf sent a message—that the shop and homeowners
were Tibetans.

Almost six months have passed since the worst anti-government violence
to convulse the Tibetan capital in two decades, but Li is not ready to
remove his scarf.

“During the riots, many of us Han Chinese drivers put khatas in our
taxis. Most of my friends have kept theirs now. Mine is still protecting
me,” said the man who moved from northern Shaanxi province to Lhasa five
years ago.

The appearance of normalcy has returned to this holy city. But
ever-present armed paramilitary troops and police, and a few remaining
charred shells of shops torched in the March unrest, are reminders of an
undercurrent of fear and discontent. Beijing says 22 were killed in the
riots but the Tibetan government-in-exile puts the death toll at around 80.

Every morning I was in Lhasa, the fragrance of crackling juniper would
waft from monasteries’ furnaces. Pilgrims prostrated themselves along
the Barkhor prayer circuit around the Jokhang monastery in the heart of
the city, watched by armed paramilitary soldiers atop some of the
low-rise buildings.

On the streets, parents ferried their children to school on bicycles, as
groups of mostly Chinese tourists stared at the awe-inspiring sights.

Troops holding riot shields, long batons and automatic weapons weaved
around them.

In the Tibetan residential area of Karma Kusang in Lhasa’s east, troops
guarded all sides of a petrol station. Tibetan children played badminton
outside their homes as army trucks drove past them. In Xijiao—or
‘Western Outskirts’—where most Chinese live and play, no policemen were

At a giant TV screen erected opposite the majestic Potala Palace to show
Olympics highlights, two paramilitary soldiers marched back and forth,
even though a crowd rarely gathered.

In downtown Lhasa, the teenage faces of many policemen make them look
less-than-menacing behind their riot gear.

“They make us feel safer,” said an ethnic Chinese chef from Sichuan, who
runs an eatery off Barkhor Square. But a young Tibetan man, a thangka or
Buddhist scroll painter, said: “I’m scared when I see so many police on
the streets, it’s like something is about to happen again.”

Their disparate views were telling. Despite the official narrative of
ethnic harmony, the March riots seem to have frayed further
already-fragile Tibetan-Han relations.

“We rarely really interact with the Tibetans. They are really bu xing,”
muttered an ethnic Chinese shopkeeper about how the Tibetans were “no
good”, echoing a view voiced by a few others.

Wang, a taxi driver who arrived from Gansu province two years ago, was
more blunt: “These days, when business is good, I avoid picking up
Tibetan passengers and take only Chinese ones. When I’ve no choice, I
drive the Tibetans. But when they get into my car, I feel angry.”
He added: “Before March, we Hans often gave money to the Tibetan
pilgrims who beg. Now we don’t give a cent.”

The Sichuan cook, who has lived in Lhasa for 15 years, was more polite.
“There’s a bit of a psychological barrier now when we interact with
Tibetans. But overall ethnic relations are good. Eighty per cent of our
customers are Tibetans.”

Tibetan pilgrims strolled into his noodle shop with ease, holding their
prayer wheels and beads. His colleague, a young Chinese woman, tugged
playfully at the hands of a Tibetan woman as she left after a meal.

The cook said: “March 14 was really the first time there was such
violence against the Chinese here. The Tibetans beat each Han they saw.”

The events of mid-March remain contentious and murky. Peaceful marches
by monks on March 10—the 49th anniversary of the 1959 Tibetan uprising
against Chinese rule—somehow spiralled over the days into violent
protests against the police. These then turned into attacks on ethnic
Chinese property and people.

Scores of rioters have been put away and hundreds of monks are being
given “patriotic education”—in which they are required to denounce the
exiled leader the Dalai Lama—at the key monastery of Drepung, locked
down till last week. I was stopped by police at a barricade some 2km
downhill from Drepung, and told to delete photos I had snapped of the

Six months on, the real roots of the unrest do not seem much clearer and
the broader issue of what is next for Tibet appears as intractable as ever.

The government, Lhasa-based officials and Chinese residents firmly
finger a “small group” of malcontents directed by the ‘Dalai clique’ for
what is known as the ‘3/14 incident’. Overseas scholars point to deeper,
grassroots socio-economic factors, and political and religious curbs.

What is apparent to the untrained eye, though, is that this ballooning
city is in the throes of seismic change—especially since the opening of
a US$4.2 billion railroad linking it to inland China in July 2006.

More shops, malls and people have arrived with the railway, fuelling
worries over mounting inter-ethnic competition and a widening income gap.

In dealing with the tough issue of ethnic minorities across its vast
territory, Beijing seems to bank on the formula that has worked
elsewhere in the country: economic development.

Growth and the social changes it brings, Beijing hopes, might make
Tibetans more like their counterparts elsewhere in China, and dilute
their devotion to religion—and the Dalai Lama.

With some, it seems to have worked. A Tibetan middle class has emerged,
invested in the system that raised it. A few 20-somethings I met,
including the two young Tibetan women from the local Foreign Affairs
office who shadowed me, went to school in inland Chinese cities,
transliterate their names into Chinese, and sang along to Chinese,
English and Tibetan pop songs.

A 27-year-old Tibetan hair salon owner said: “I’ve never met the Dalai
Lama. Why would I even think about him?”

In these nervous times when informants are on the prowl, it was
difficult to have Tibetans speak their minds. It did not help that they
saw me as mainland Chinese, not Singaporean.

Some who clearly understood that I was a foreigner quietly voiced
support for the Dalai Lama, though. A 25-year-old Tibetan looked down at
his fashionable jeans, dropped his voice to a whisper and said: “Unlike
what the Chinese say, the unrest was not orchestrated by the Dalai Lama.
And most Tibetans here want him to return.”

While stating that he disapproved of the March violence, an elderly
Tibetan man said: “There’s no need for independence. It’s good to have
stability like now. The Dalai Lama can return in these conditions.”

The aims of the Lhasa protesters were not clearly articulated. But in
the days and weeks that followed, a wave of up to 100 protests swept
across Tibetan-inhabited areas in three nearby provinces of Gansu,
Sichuan and Qinghai. Some slogans called for the return of the Dalai Lama.

Internal reports circulated among cadres estimated that some 30,000
people took part. The authorities said they detained more than 6,000 people.

Citing official Chinese documents on stamping out dissent in the
monasteries, rights groups warn of a further crackdown after the
Olympics, when China would be less under the world’s spotlight.

Beijing and the Dalai Lama’s envoys have met twice since the March
unrest and are expected to hold what could be make-or-break talks next
month—against the backdrop of the issue of Tibet having become a major
flashpoint between China (and its nationalistic fenqing or ‘angry
youth’) and the West this year.

Out in Lhasa’s Old City, rumours of arrest and torture are whispered.

A Tibetan painter said: “I don’t know what will happen here after the
Olympics. Maybe all who should be caught have already been caught.”

Another young Tibetan man seemed more optimistic than most. He said:
“During the Olympics opening, many world leaders came to Beijing. I
think they talked to the Chinese leaders about the Tibet issue. So I
hope there will be good change after this.”

On the roof of the Jokhang monastery, Tibetan Buddhists’ holiest shrine,
tourists milled around snapping photos. A lone monk was very still,
staring out at the pedestrianised square—where policemen stood in
formation. (By SIM CHI YIN In Lhasa/ The Straits Times/ AsiaNews)

( The opinions expressed by the writer do not necessarily reflect those
of MySinchew )

MySinchew 2008.09.21
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