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Tibet: Tibetans wait for Dalai Lama, cling to culture

September 9, 2010

Chinese government policy and population trends
have many Tibetans worried that their culture might be dying.
Keith B. Richburg
The Washington Post
September 8, 2010

TONGREN (Amdo Labrang) -- In China, the Dalai
Lama is officially a dangerous separatist and a
"criminal," and his supporters are prohibited
from discussing him or even displaying his
picture. But here in the ethnic Tibetan areas of
Qinghai province, nominally autonomous while
under strict Chinese control, the exiled
spiritual leader remains a ubiquitous presence,
despite his long physical absence.

The Dalai Lama's beaming visage gazes down from
the temple altars of Buddhist monasteries. His
likeness adorns a popular artist's workshop and a
small convenience store selling bottled soft drinks, beer and snacks.

And everywhere, it seems, the fervent wish is
that the Dalai Lama might return soon, to help
save the Tibetan language and culture that many
believe could soon be overwhelmed by the presence
of China's ethnic Han majority. Even the
Tibetans' centuries-old tradition of herding yak,
cattle and sheep across the Tibetan plateau's
grasslands appears threatened as Chinese
officials move increasing numbers of semi-nomadic
herdsmen into "resettlement towns," where jobs are scarce.

"We long for the Dalai Lama to come back, to
solve the issue of religious freedom and to help
Tibetan culture come back," said Gen Ga, a
24-year-old monk at a monastery in nearby Wutong
village. "If we look ahead 10 or 20 years, if the
Dalai Lama fails to come back, I do think Tibetan culture will die."

A three-day trip through the ethnic Tibetan areas
of Qinghai province, where the Dalai Lama was
born, showed that the Beijing government's
efforts to vilify the revered leader have had no
discernible effect. When government inspectors
come, many Tibetans said, they usually get
advance notice, and they simply hide or cover the Dalai Lama's photo.

The vilification efforts escalated after the
Tibetan areas, including this province, exploded
in rioting in March 2008, the most serious
resistance to Chinese rule in decades. Thousands
of monks and others were arrested, and outside
groups, including Human Rights Watch, accused the
government of systematically abusing detainees
while looking for evidence that the Dalai Lama was responsible for the unrest.

Chinese officials have strongly denied those
allegations and said authorities operated
lawfully to maintain order. "The judicial rights
of the defendants were fully guaranteed, as well
as their ethnic customs and personal dignity,"
Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang said in July
in response to Human Rights Watch's allegations.

Here in Tongren, a monk in his 30s who said he
participated in three protests in March 2008 said
he was detained for six months after the riots,
describing how he was suspended from the ceiling,
beaten repeatedly and tortured with electric rods.

The monk, who spoke on the condition of anonymity
for fear of reprisals, said the beatings ended
only when he agreed to make a videotaped denunciation of the Dalai Lama.

"They made me agree to a confession saying all
the things I did was because I got instructions
from the Dalai Lama," the monk said. He said he
believes he was singled out because of his
support for a group of 13 monks who drafted a
2007 proposal calling for the preservation of Tibetan language and culture.

The monk's account accords with those by scores
of others who were interviewed for the Human
Rights Watch report. "When the monks were
tortured in detention, it was often because they
refused to denounce the Dalai Lama," said
Nicholas Bequelin, the China researcher for Hong Kong-based Human Rights Watch.

"There is no doubt that many Chinese state
policies are aimed at diluting or reshaping
Tibetan traditional culture in a way that is
innocuous to the state," Bequelin said.

The main repositories of Tibetan Buddhist culture
are the monasteries - which were also the source
of the 2008 uprising - and the government has
since attempted to increase its control over
them, setting up "management committees" to
ensure that the senior monks toe the correct political line.

Chinese official media reported last month that
Du Qinglin, chief of the Communist Party's United
Front Work Department, which oversees Tibet
policy, said monasteries must take the lead in "anti-separatist struggles."

For many Tibetans, the front line in the cultural
struggle is linguistic. Some complained that even
in the supposedly autonomous prefectures of
Qinghai, signs in Chinese outnumber those in
Tibetan. In government offices, Tibetans say,
they are forced to speak Chinese. And they worry
that Tibetan is not being taught in schools on an equal footing with Chinese.

One of the most hotly debated government
policies, among Tibetans and outside experts, is
the effort to induce herdsmen to give up their
nomadic lifestyle on the grasslands and resettle
in rows of brick houses in newly built towns.

Officials and some outside experts say the effort
is needed to tackle poverty and to stop
over-grazing of the grasslands. But most of the
herdsmen are illiterate, and there are few jobs in the resettlement towns.

Some who have been resettled have returned to the
nomadic life, but often while keeping older
relatives and children in the towns to be closer to medical care and schools.

"It was pretty hard to find a job there," said
Gartsang Cerang, 36, who lived in the
resettlement town of Dowa before returning to the
grasslands three months ago. "Life in the town
was pretty hard." He has to start over now - he
has only half a dozen yak and two sheep and lives
in a tent with his daughter Nam Turji, 17. He
left two children, ages 13 and 14, in town.

Marjo Herji, 30, said many of the herdsmen on the
mountainside overlooking Qinghai Lake have left
to work in the tourist shops. But she said she
and her husband plan to stay. "It's hard for us
to do any other job. We don't have any special
skills," she said, churning yak milk into butter with a hand-cranked machine.

But she left her daughter in the village so the
girl can attend first grade and she hopes her
daughter does not follow in the herder's life.
"It's better for her to become a literate person," she said.

China is developing Qinghai Lake as a major
attraction for Chinese tourists, and some
Tibetans have found jobs shuttling visitors in
electric golf carts, renting local costumes or
letting tourists pose for photographs with rare
white yaks. But they say the pay is scant and the
tourist season short. Life on the grasslands is
hard, too, they say, but they could sustain themselves with their herds.

It is difficult to see how even a political
settlement that allowed the Dalai Lama to return
could reverse some of the trends underway on the
Tibetan Plateau, but according to Barry Sautman,
a Tibet expert at the Hong Kong University of
Science and Technology, "if he were there, he
could have quite a bit of influence with the central government."

Tibetans are hopeful - and waiting.

Staff researcher Wang Juan contributed to this report.
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