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"As long as human rights are violated, there can be no foundation for peace. How can peace grow where speaking the truth is itself a crime?"

Fireworks in homeland ahead of Dalai Lama's Obama meeting

February 19, 2010

Ben Blanchard and Maxim Duncan
February 17, 2010

TONGREN, China (Reuters) -- Tibetans living near
the birthplace of the Dalai Lama in northwest
China welcomed Thursday's scheduled meeting
between their exiled spiritual leader and Barack
Obama with a defiant show of fireworks.

Buddhist monks in Tongren, an overwhelmingly
ethnic Tibetan part of northwestern Qinghai
province, said they were celebrating the meeting
in Washington, which is going ahead despite
warnings from Beijing that Obama's act will hurt Sino-U.S. ties.

Tensions with Washington have already risen over
issues ranging from trade and currencies to a
U.S. plan to sell $6.4 billion of weapons to
self-ruled Taiwan, which China considers a renegade province.

The midnight display of fireworks along a valley
dotted with Tibetan Buddhist monasteries was a
bold and noisy reminder that, in spite of Chinese
condemnation of the Dalai Lama, he remains a
potent figure in his homeland, and his meeting
with Obama will be noticed here by both supporters and opponents.

"My heart is filled with joy," said Johkang,
showing off an enormous smile, standing at his
monastery in this arid and mountainous part of
the Qinghai province, which lies next to the official Tibet Autonomous Region.

"It is so important for us that this is
happening, that the U.S. has not given in to
threats and will meet our leader," added the
monk, who like many ethnic Tibetans goes only by one name.

Qinghai, called Amdo by Tibetans, is where the
Dalai Lama was born in 1935. He fled into exile
from Tibet in 1959 after a failed uprising
against Chinese rule, and since then has
campaigned for self-rule for Tibetans. China brands him a separatist.

Tibetans set off fireworks at this time of year
anyway to mark the start of their traditional lunar new year.

But many Tibetan monks in Tongren told Reuters
that this year they were also marking the Dalai
Lama's scheduled meeting in the White House.

"We do this whenever something big, and good
happens," said Losan, swathed in the vermillion
robes of a Buddhist holy man, standing on a
hillside above a monastery where monks were
lighting fireworks in the early hours of Thursday.

"He's really going to meet Obama?" interrupted a
monk standing next to him, sounding somewhat incredulous.

"I heard it on Voice Of America," Losan told him confidently.

The sound of conch shells being blown echoed
around the valley as a group of monks burned an
offering of flour and a ceremonial Tibetan scarf on a fire.

Veneration for the Dalai Lama transcends the
Buddhist clergy and extends into broader Tibetan
society where many resent Chinese rule and the relative wealth of Han Chinese.

"I'm very excited about who the Dalai Lama is
going to meet," said one Tibetan woman, who
declined to be identified citing the sensitive
nature of the topic. "But I worry about what
measures the government could take against us in retaliation."

Word of the Dalai Lama's meeting with Obama has
filtered through to Qinghai through
Tibetan-language foreign radio broadcasts, monks
say, though news that the meeting was happening
has been mentioned in passing in state media.

Some spoke proudly of the Dalai Lama's Nobel Peace Prize, awarded in 1989.

"That the 1.3 billion Han Chinese have never had
one of their number win a Nobel prize and that we
have, with just 6 million people, says something
powerful," said a monk, Tedan. "Now you understand why we love him so much."

While technically Tibetan monasteries are not
supposed to show pictures of the Dalai Lama, many
in Qinghai do, the government generally having a
more relaxed attitude outside of the Tibet Autonomous Region.

Still, a sense of wariness pervades Tongren.

A large new paramilitary police headquarters is
being built outside the county seat, and monks
mutter about occasional fines if their public
devotion to the Dalai Lama becomes too much.

Around 12 months ago, also during the start of
the Tibetan lunar new year, Chinese security
forces maintained an obvious presence in Tongren,
though lighter than in some Tibetan areas,
especially Lhasa, capital of the official Tibet autonomous region.

The year before had been marked by anti-Chinese
violence across Tibetan-populated parts of China,
centered on Lhasa, where at least 19 died after
protests by monks gave way to bloody violence,
with Tibetan rioters attacking Han Chinese.

China blamed the Dalai Lama for inspiring the
unrest, and regularly condemns him for seeking
Tibetan independence. He has repeatedly denied
being a separatist or supporting violence.

"CCTV is always saying this and that about him
and about us Tibetans," said monk Tarkey,
referring to China's main state-run television
network. "The world will get a better idea about
who he is once he meets Obama."
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