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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."

Praying for change

March 2, 2009

Sunday Herald, Scotland
February 28, 2009

New-year boycott grows as tibetans defy Beijing?s threats to protest at
lack of freedom An eyewitness report From Bill Allan in Qinghai Province

GO AWAY! They will arrest anyone who looks in there," said a middle-aged
woman standing near the closed red doors of a small temple in China's
northwestern province of Qinghai.

My nervous taxi driver jumped into his car and started rolling downhill
with the doors still open and his two passengers stranded.

We were in the mountain village of Hongya at the gate of what Chinese
officials and tourists call the "Hongya Former Residence", with no sign
to give the name of the illustrious former resident. Thick sheaves of
dozens of white silk scarves hung from the double brass door rings
offered the biggest clue that this is a special place to some.

The sensitivity of the walled compound stems from its attraction to
Tibetan Buddhist pilgrims loyal to the 14th Dalai Lama, their exiled
spiritual leader, who was born - or reincarnated, according to Tibetans
- on this spot in 1935. The Dalai Lama was taken from the village for
education in Tibetan Buddhism two years after his birth. Twenty-two
years later, in 1959, he fled China following a failed uprising against
Chinese rule of Tibet.

Police reportedly sealed off Hongya village, which is known as Taktser
to Tibetans, for most of last year after violent protests against
Chinese rule in many Tibetan areas from February to April. But on the
eve of the traditional Tibetan lunar new year festival, or Losar, no-one
tried to prevent us from reaching the Dalai Lama's birthplace.

Just 60 miles from Hongya, over several barren mountains and deep
valleys on the eastern edge of the Tibetan plateau, is the Qinghai town
of Tongren, or Rebkong. Tongren is home to the famous Rongwo monastery
and several smaller monasteries. Last year it made the news not for its
renowned Buddhist art but for protests and arrests.

The conflict reportedly began in mid-February when Rongwo monks and a
group of Tibetans protested against the disruption of a religious
ceremony by paramilitary police. Police used tear gas on the crowd and
arrested more than 200 people, according to reports by Tibetan exile groups.

Monks at the monastery said that police arrested more than 100 people
from Rongwo last year. As ordinary Tibetans in sheepskin-lined robes
spun giant gilded prayer wheels and bowed before images of the Buddha,
the Dalai Lama and other revered Tibetan gurus, three monks who sat
around a stove in small room said they were heeding calls by Tibetan
exile groups to boycott this year's 15-day Losar celebrations.

"We don't have a happy life. We have no freedom," said one of the three
monks, whose names are being withheld to protect them from possible
reprisals. "We are not celebrating the new year," he said as he
refuelled the stove with a mixture of coal slack and dried cow dung.

Another monk, in his mid-20s, handed me his mobile phone to show a video
of last year's protests. They began in Lhasa, the capital of the Tibet
Autonomous Region, on March 10, the 49th anniversary of the 1959 uprising.

Then he showed two photographs of the Dalai Lama in meetings with the US
president, Barack Obama, and California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger.

"It gives me hope to know that these foreigners are supporting the Dalai
Lama," he said. "I have more hope and strength when I see these
photographs and I hope that Tibetans can find a peaceful solution."

I asked him about the spindly blue lines of a tattoo on his arm, which
he said he did himself, but he failed to understand my Chinese. "It says
Free Tibet' in Tibetan," his older friend answered for him. "We don't
like to speak Chinese," he added.

The older monk was visibly emotional as he spoke, his face gradually
reddening. He peered several times through a gap at the side of the
curtain to see if anyone was approaching his room.

One of the others put his wrists together as if he was handcuffed, then
thrust his hands behind his back to show the treatment he expected if
security officers found him giving negative statements to a foreign
journalist.
The Dalai Lama accused China of ?such a level of cruelty and harassment?
that Tibetans will be ?forced to remonstrate?. He urged patience ?so
that the precious lives of many Tibetans are not wasted?.

About one million of China's estimated six million Tibetan people live
in Qinghai, which is home to more than four million other people from
the Han Chinese, Hui Muslim, Mongolian and other ethnic groups.

Many other monks and ordinary Tibetans in other areas appear to have
joined the campaign to boycott the Tibetan new year. It was launched to
protest against the crackdown by Chinese authorities following last
year's unrest.

Tibetan writer Tsering Woeser, who lives in Beijing under heavy police
surveillance, talked on her blog recently of a "great civil disobedience
spreading throughout all of Tibet".

The ruling Communist Party has tried to counter the movement by urging
Tibetans to take part in government-sponsored new year events, and some
lay Tibetans in Qinghai said they were visiting monasteries to mark
Losar. Police have also increased security in many Tibetan areas in the
run-up to the anniversaries of last year's protests and the flight into
exile of the Dalai Lama.

In Lhasa, though, most Tibetans reportedly stayed indoors on Wednesday,
the first day of the new year. The Hong Kong-based South China Morning
Post, apparently the only overseas news organisation to get a reporter
into Lhasa for the new year, said the streets and temples were "deserted".

The newspaper described "extremely tight" security around the city's
Barkhor square, which is outside Tibet's most important temple, the
Jokhang. "Fully equipped armed police patrolled the area in small
squads, wielding machine guns and tear-gas guns," it said.

The Tibetan government-in-exile reported that about 200 Tibetans were
shot dead by paramilitary police during last year's protests. China said
only 21 people died in the violence, most of them non-Tibetans killed by
rioters. Exile groups produced some credible reports of Tibetan deaths,
but the Chinese government's ban on foreign journalists visiting many
Tibetan areas, and the climate of fear, mean it is impossible to verify
the claims.

In his new year message, the Dalai Lama talked of "hundreds of Tibetans
losing their lives and several thousand facing detention and torture".
He said the new year was "certainly not a period when we can have the
usual celebrations and gaiety".

The US State Department this week said the Chinese government's human
rights record in Tibetan areas "deteriorated seriously" last year.

"Authorities continued to commit serious human rights abuses, including
torture, arbitrary arrest, extra-judicial detention and house arrest,"
it said in a report on China.

The Dalai Lama accused China of "such a level of cruelty and harassment"
that Tibetans will be "forced to remonstrate". He urged patience "so
that the precious lives of many Tibetans are not wasted".

"Above all, the path of non-violence is our irrevocable commitment," he
said.

The level of control is particularly strong in major monasteries around
Lhasa, such as Drepung, Sera and Ganden, said Robbie Barnett, an expert
on Tibet at Columbia University in New York.

"Of the 2300 monks in Drepung 18 months ago, of whom two-thirds were
unofficial and unregistered, now only about 400 are left in the
monastery and even they are having to spend time every day to do
political study," Barnett said. "The rest have been expelled and banned
from being monks, or sent back to their home villages."

Some Tibetans still want independence from China, while many others
support the Dalai Lama's "middle way". For several years, he has
publicly renounced independence in favour of maximum autonomy for
Tibetans within China. His representatives have held seven rounds of
talks in China since 2002, the latest in July. Yet Chinese officials
continue to accuse him of fighting for independence and sometimes
lambast him as a "wolf in monk's robes".

"Consistent use of intimidating and aggressive language within the
Chinese leadership on the Tibet issues has made it impossible for
moderate officials to risk expressing views about Tibet that suggest any
kind of compromise, so at the moment any progress in the talks is
impossible," Barnett said.

Barry Sautman of the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology sees
intransigence on both sides. "There are people in both camps who don't
want the dialogue to succeed and it will go nowhere without the Dalai
Lama acknowledging that Tibet is legitimately part of China," he said.

"If he does so, it's possible for religious and cultural autonomy in
Tibet to be expanded.

"The odds are that Communist China will outlive the Dalai Lama, a fact
that he must become convinced of in order for actual negotiations to be
possible," Sautman said.

Some observers believe the lack of progress in talks on Tibet's future
are a major cause of the frustration and tension.

Amonk set fire to himself on Friday after Chinese authorities prevented
him from observing a traditional prayer festival, the London-based Free
Tibet Campaign reported. The monk poured petrol over himself and set
light to it after walking from the Kirti monastery into the nearby
centre of Aba town in the south-western province of Sichuan, said Matt
Whitticase of the Free Tibet Campaign.

"While he was walking, he was shouting and holding aloft a Tibetan flag
with a picture of the Dalai Lama on it," Whitticase said. "As soon as he
set himself alight, he was immediately surrounded by armed police."
Whitticase said witnesses reported hearing three gunshots.

The monk, identified by the name Tarbe, reportedly fell to the ground
and police put out the flames and took him away in a van. "We don't know
whether the monk is alive or dead," he said.

New York-based Students for a Free Tibet said the monk was shot in the
incident. The two reports said the self-immolation followed the turning
away of hundreds of Kirti monks from a locked prayer hall earlier on
Friday, despite orders from officials and the abbot to stay away.

"That a young monk felt compelled to self-immolate in protest shows that
China's repression in Tibet is driving Tibetans to the brink," said
Lhadon Tethong, executive director of Students for a Free Tibet.

An earlier report by US-based Radio Free Asia said paramilitary police
sealed off the Lutsang monastery in Qinghai on Friday after more than
100 Tibetan monks staged a candlelit vigil outside local government
offices. Several other small protests were reported in Tibetan areas
this month, and Whitticase said they "show the depth of resentment" of
Tibetans.

"Tibetans are resisting peacefully and those acts of resistance are
beginning to spread," Whitticase said.

How far the disobedience will go remains unclear. The monks at Rongwo
said they believed the heavy presence of plain-clothes police, and the
use measures such as stop-and-search on the streets of Tongren, would
probably prevent a repeat of last year's large protests.

"I don't think there will be protests because they have such strict
controls," said the oldest of the three, in his mid-30s.

Whitticase said he had shifted his view after Friday's self-immolation,
suggesting there is "much more general active resistance". "It now seems
that protests are more likely than I was thinking a few days ago," he said.

At Rongwo, the monks asked to see what I had shot on my video camera.
They watched clips of Tibetan pilgrims prostrating themselves repeatedly
in front of the monastery and footage of a military convoy on the road
from Tongren to Xining, Qinghai's provincial capital.

"It's like that every day," the older monk said of the military convoy.
"If we had a video camera we could record what's going on here and let
the world know."
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