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Tibetans' hopes hinge on Dalai Lama

September 11, 2010

Keith B. Richburg, Staff Writer
The Washington Post
September 9, 2010

IN TONGREN, CHINA -- 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 soft drinks, beer and snacks.

And everywhere, it seems, the fervent wish is
that the Dalai Lama might return soon to help
save Tibet's language and culture, which many say
are threatened by 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
seminomadic 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, 24, a
monk at a monastery in the nearby village of
Wutong. "If we look ahead 10 or 20 years, if the
Dalai Lama fails to come back, I do think Tibetan culture will die."

Asked to comment on the calls for the Dalai
Lama's return, a spokesman for the Chinese
Embassy in Washington, Wang Baodong, said in an
e-mail: "We've been dealing with the Dalai Lama
for decades, and we know him well. His personal
future depends on whether he'll abandon his
separatist positions on Tibet-related issues in
real earnest, as this is a matter bearing on
China's sovereignty and territorial integrity."

Wang added: "There's been the cry of 'the wolf is
coming' on the dying of the Tibetan culture and
religion. The undeniable fact is that the Tibetan
traditions are prospering thanks to the joint
effort of the Chinese government and the Tibetan people."

A three-day trip through the ethnic Tibetan areas
of Qinghai province, where the Dalai Lama was
born, showed that official efforts to vilify the
revered leader have had no discernible effect.
Many Tibetans said they usually get advance
notice of inspectors' visits, so 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 denied those allegations,
saying 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.

Here in Tongren, a monk in his 30s who
participated in three protests in March 2008 said
he was detained for six months after the riots
and was suspended from the ceiling, beaten 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 is similar to those of scores
of others who were interviewed for a 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," he 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.

For many Tibetans, the front line in the cultural
struggle is linguistic. Some complain that even
in the supposedly autonomous prefectures of
Qinghai, signs in Chinese outnumber those in
Tibetan. In government offices, they say, they
are forced to speak Chinese. And they worry that
Tibetan is not 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 policy
will help overcome poverty and stop overgrazing
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.
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Marjo Herji, 30, said many of the herdsmen on the
mountainside overlooking Qinghai Lake have left
to work in 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 to
attend first grade, and she hopes the girl 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
tourist attraction, and some Tibetans have found
jobs shuttling Chinese visitors in electric golf
carts, letting them pose for photographs with
rare white yaks and renting out local costumes.
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 a political settlement
that allowed the Dalai Lama to return could
reverse some of the trends on the plateau, but
Barry Sautman, a Tibet expert at the Hong Kong
University of Science and Technology, said, "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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