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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."

Despite fears, support for Dalai Lama remains strong in Tibet

September 12, 2016

By Jeremy Koh

Channel News Asia, September 12, 2016 - On a recent government-organised trip to Aba Prefecture, a Tibetan region in Sichuan, Channel NewsAsia found that support for the Dalai Lama remained strong, even though many were fearful of discussing him publicly. 

Aba Prefecture lies just outside the Tibetan Autonomous Region, and it is part of what Tibetans consider their homeland. In theory, foreign journalists do not need special permission to be here, but many reporters have been turned away in the past.

That is because this region has traditionally defied Chinese rule. But the aim of our trip was to showcase the positive aspects of Chinese development in this region.

Feng Yu, the Deputy Secretary-General of the Aba People’s Government, said: “We have religious freedom here. Every citizen has the freedom to either believe in or not believe in a religion.”

As part of our itinerary, we were brought to the Dazha Academy, a Tibetan Buddhist monastery in Zoige County.

There, we were told the monastery actively promotes Tibetan Buddhism culture and traditional culture. When asked about the government’s relationship with them, the monastery’s living Buddha said it was very good.

He said: “As we’re a social group, the government manages our monastery, and the management style is according to laws. Our religion has its own regulations, and we have a lot of rules.” The Dazha Academy is in Aba Prefecture which was once a hotbed of rebellion.

Of the 140 or so self-immolation cases in Tibetan regions in the past few years, more than a third took place in or around Aba. But we were not brought to areas that were wracked by ethnic-Tibetan protests or self-immolations in recent years.

Of late, though, the number of self-immolation cases has dropped sharply, but some rights groups say that does not mean the underlying unhappiness has abated.

I think we can certainly say that the harsh measures that were put in place by the Chinese authorities which criminalises self-immolation and which have led to families, friends, even witnesses of self-immolation being charged and imprisoned, sentenced, played a part in perhaps individual decisions not to take this step,” said Kate Saunders, Communications Director for the International Campaign for Tibet.

Those who had self-immolated had called for freedom for Tibet and the return of the Dalai Lama. Although the leader is still revered here, many were fearful of talking about him openly.

The Dalai Lama, who has lived in exile since a failed uprising against Chinese rule in 1959, has long been reviled by China as a separatist seeking independence for his Himalayan homeland. But the Dalai Lama says he only wants real autonomy for Tibet.

Many looked away uncomfortably when they were asked about the Dalai Lama, with several saying they were afraid to comment. A young Tibetan man working in a shop did speak to me eventually.

He said they still respected the Dalai Lama because Buddhism is their religion. In another shop, a middle-aged man said Tibetans the world over revere him and his family also worships him.

But that conversation ended all too abruptly when two Han Chinese man entered the shop – an indication that speaking too openly about the Dalai Lama can invite trouble in these remote parts of China.

“I think what we’re seeing is a huge increase in admiration and respect for the Dalai Lama among Tibetan people in the last 20, 30 years as China has attempted to attack him, and attempted to hold education sessions in villages, towns and schools forcing people to insult the Dalai Lama or to distance themselves from him,” said Robert Barnett, a Tibetan expert from Columbia University. “I think that’s made him more popular among Tibetans.”

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