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"We Tibetans are looking for a legitimate and meaningful autonomy, an arrangement that would enable Tibetans to live within the framework of the People’s Republic of China."

Caught Between a Crackdown and a Tibetan Welcome

April 4, 2008

By MICHAEL BENANAV
The New York Times
April 3, 2008
Personal Journey

THE ride in the Chinese minivan had taken 11 hours. After enduring
multiple delays, the crossing of a treacherous 16,000-foot mountain pass
and a seatmate who chain-smoked the entire way, casually flicking the
ashes into his lap, I had arrived in Dege. I was in the culturally
Tibetan area of western Sichuan Province, practically on the border of
the Tibetan Autonomous Region. I had come to Dege to visit the sacred
Bakong monastery, which is both the world’s largest library of ancient
Tibetan Buddhist texts and a printing house where monks hand-ink
thousands of pieces of religious paraphernalia every day.

It was Wednesday, March 19.

Moments after I sat down in the lounge of the cheap but comfortable
Gesar Guesthouse, two police officers entered. The man, in a blue
uniform, sat across from me and never spoke. The woman, who wore a long
gray coat and a black sweater that said “Police” where an alligator
emblem might have been, did all the talking, through a translator. “We
advise that you leave here tomorrow,” she said. “It’s very dangerous.”
It was, I confirmed, a polite way of kicking me out of town. The police
were always polite. “It’s for your own safety,” she insisted.

All of western Sichuan had been closed to foreigners. According to news
reports, thousands of Chinese soldiers were flooding into the area to
douse any revolutionary sparks threatening to ignite in Tibetan lands,
following the riots in Lhasa a few days earlier. Tourists already in the
region were being gently expelled; those heading toward it were stopped
at checkpoints and ordered to turn back. For the time being, this
travelers’ paradise — with sky-scraping alpine scenery, stunningly
beautiful people and a culture that exudes the exotic in everything from
its dress to its religion to its architecture — was completely sealed off.

I knew about Lhasa, of course. I’d seen long Army convoys trundling over
roads throughout the region, with canopied trucks filled with uniformed
young men. Camouflaged troops marched through every major town, with
helmets on, riot shields raised, clutching batons and chanting with the
intent to intimidate.

On Tuesday, March 18, while I was staying in the town of Ganzi, a small
clash erupted; according to residents, a group of some 20 monks and
their supporters were vocally but nonviolently protesting the arrest of
a Buddhist nun who had phoned India — banned since the events in Lhasa —
when they were attacked by soldiers. Local rumors alleged between one
and five protesters beaten to death, with no soldiers hurt. (The Tibetan
government-in-exile names three killed.) Stores on the usually lively
streets were promptly shuttered, many people stayed indoors, and police
vehicles cruised around broadcasting messages of Chinese-Tibetan unity
from loudspeakers.

Despite all this, I felt perfectly safe. The soldiers ignored me, and
the Tibetans were as genuinely, enthusiastically welcoming as any people
I had met anywhere on the planet. I understand how one who wasn’t there
could question my judgment, could think I’m naïve. But for the hours in
Ganzi immediately after the episode of excessive force, there was no
real menace in the air, and no sense of a riot or rebellion simmering
below the surface. The soldiers generated a temporary tension when they
marched by, but townspeople mostly viewed them as an insult or a
nuisance, not an imminent threat. In all, everything felt calm.

I have an acute sense of self-preservation, yet the assertion from the
two police officers in Dege that I was in danger — particularly from the
Tibetans, from whom I was purportedly being protected — struck me as
preposterous.

I thanked the police for their concern, and persuaded them to let me
stay an extra day, after which I would absolutely have to leave. And, I
was told, I had to change hotels. “This one isn’t safe enough,” the
policewoman declared, which seemed to me to be a questionable assertion.
Though not certified to house foreign guests, my hotel was no less
secure than the one that she “recommended,” which was just 100 yards
away, had no sink or shower in the entire place, and provided a
10-foot-long tiled trench for a common toilet.

As our conversation progressed, it became clear that the police
officers’ version of reality was being molded to fit government orders.
Attempting to reason with people employed to sustain that reality was
like trying to find out who’s on first.

I finally turned to the translator and asked if she thought all of this
was crazy. She wouldn’t say anything, even though the officers spoke no
English, but she laughed in the affirmative.

Despite the apparent urgency of getting me out of Dege, I stayed for
three days, since the road out was closed because of heavy convoy
traffic. I spent many hours among the local people and pilgrims who came
to circumambulate the monastery, and was met with unanimous,
unmistakable warmth. They were, conclusively, no threat.

I harbored some anxiety about overstaying my welcome. But the police,
who were everywhere, paid me no attention. Many soldiers were overtly
friendly, waving and saying “Hello” in English. I shouldn’t have been
there, but no one cared that I was.

While this was a relief, it was also confusing. I didn’t know if the
rules really mattered, what the consequences might be for violating them
and how much of that depended on the whimsy of any given person in
uniform. Looming behind everything was the shadow cast by China, its
human rights record, and its intolerance of lawbreakers. As a result, I
succumbed to a few baseless paranoid fantasies, even slashing slits in
my backpack straps to stash my photo memory cards, which were my
greatest concern.

Over those three days, the scene in Dege, which never felt tense,
relaxed even more. Soldiers began marching without helmets, shields or
clubs; they looked like a group of students out for some exercise, their
faces expressing that their mission was a bore.

When I was able to return to Ganzi, the checkpoint at the edge of town
conveyed an altogether more serious situation. Soldiers with machine
guns eagerly surrounded the minivan I was in and flung open its doors on
both sides. One of them addressed me in hurried, gruff tones; I calmly
replied in English, “I don’t speak Chinese.” He stared at me,
speechless, then turned his attention to the Tibetans in the vehicle. I
wasn’t even asked to show my passport.

Walking openly around town, I wasn’t questioned once by the police
positioned at every intersection. Bizarrely, my presence seemed of no
concern to anyone. The mood on the streets was as vibrant as when I’d
first been there, and local people confirmed that life had returned
essentially to normal. I was tempted to stay. Though deep in forbidden
territory, I thought I might get away with it. There were still many
mountain villages near Ganzi that I wanted to explore.

Hungry to squeeze every last drop out of the trip, I envisioned myself
playing out a traveler’s version of “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.”
Recalling the movie’s end, however, and noting that those who wanted me
out had badges, I decided I had experienced plenty, and left. But
regrets linger.

I’m yearning to return — once it’s safe again.
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