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"Canada can, within a positive friendly atmosphere, ask the Chinese government to resolve the Tibetan situation."

WITNESS: Reporting from behind China's Himalayan curtain (Reuters)

March 2, 2009

Sat Feb 28, 2009 7:27pm EST
 
By Emma Graham-Harrison

LHASA, China (Reuters) - I had barely stepped off the plane, gasping
slightly in the thin Tibetan air, when our government minder wandered
over to tell me plans for an evening of rest and adaptation to the high
altitude had been canceled.

Instead a dash to see Tibet's most sacred temple, and a news conference
that dragged late into the night, set the gruelling pace for a reporting
trip around China's most sensitive region.

The one-year anniversary of deadly riots and 50th anniversary of the
Dalai Lama's flight into exile are looming in early March. Both are
potential triggers for unrest and key tests of China's control of the
closed-off Himalayan plateau.

While China has promised the foreign media unfettered access to most
parts of the country since hosting the Olympics, Tibet is an exception.
Foreign tourists are also banned at present, except for a lucky few
given special permission.

So being one of a dozen journalists taken on the first media visit to
the region in months was a rare but daunting opportunity.

Readers outside China are eager for news not filtered by China's state
media, while officials escorting us were equally keen to ensure we saw
the region and its troubles from Beijing's perspective.

Our stamina was strained by an agenda kept largely secret from us but
packed from morning until late at night, busy enough to keep us from
slipping out to meet ordinary Tibetans.

The area is strategically vital to China for its potentially rich
mineral reserves and its snow-fed highlands which are the source of many
of Asia's rivers. Beijing's rule of the region has also become a
sensitive diplomatic issue after a globe-trotting campaign by the Dalai
Lama raised Tibet's profile.

So I was curious to see if the government had relaxed or tightened its
control on volatile Lhasa, what ordinary people thought about the
upcoming anniversary and whether any of the ethnic tension generated by
the riots had dissipated.

Getting a handle on what was really going on in Tibet turned out to be
difficult in a hectic, stage-managed four-day visit.

I spent what seemed like half my time arguing against visits to model
villages and tourist sites such as palaces, where there was little
chance to catch even a controlled glimpse of ordinary life.

I tapped my feet in frustration through trips to a walnut oil processing
factory and local astrologers, and simply skipped a meeting with the
woman who carried the Olympic torch up Everest.

We were only taken to a second Lhasa monastery after I harassed our
unlucky minders and threatened to boycott an unwanted trip to a
traditional medicine hospital.

But I was surprised and grateful that officials whose careers could be
put on the line by our reporting were willing to show some flexibility.
They even let me slip off to a Tibetan market instead of touring the
Dalai Lama's summer residence.

TRUSTING YOUR EYES

Tibet was often breathtakingly beautiful despite the stress and I had a
few moments of the unexpected interaction that can make reporting such
fun, like when a grinning old pilgrim gave me a slap on the bottom for
taking a photo of her devotions.

But we were stalked by disconcerting reminders that in Tibet even our
own eyes could not always be trusted.

Locals told us that for our visit, officials had hidden hundreds of
paramilitary police who had been keeping order in Lhasa for months. It
was the type of large-scale stage-management of reality I thought had
been abandoned along with Maoism.

"It's amazing. The day before you arrived, Lhasa became suddenly
peaceful again," quipped one taxi driver.

When we were taken to a provincial town, police lined many of the
villages along our route, their backs to the road so they could keep a
close eye on clusters of locals. Officials would not explain why they
were there.

And as we were hurried through the halls of Lhasa's monasteries I asked
to meet some rank-and-file monks, the originators of many recent
protests in Tibet, but their red-robed superiors said they were locked
away in study or otherwise unavailable. A colleague then stumbled across
a group of them cooking nearby, but was hurriedly ushered away.

The message Beijing seemed keen to convey was that Tibet was stable and
prospering. Yet the careful attempts at managing our perceptions served
only to create the opposite impression.

The watchful police, disappearing soldiers, sequestered monks, and days
packed with irrelevant visits left me convinced that China thinks Tibet
is dangerously volatile, and worries about both its grip on the place
and international opinion.

The one thing I am still unsure about, despite my best efforts, is the
opinions of ordinary Tibetans outside the government apparatus that
showed us around.

Beyond a raised eyebrow or an unhappy grimace, none wanted to open up.

"It's difficult here. We don't dare talk" was the best I could get.

(Editing by Nick Macfie and Megan Goldin)
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