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China tries to forget Dalai Lama birthplace

March 11, 2009

AFP
March 9, 2009

TAKTSER, China (AFP) -- Nestled deep in the mountains of northwest China lies a tiny hamlet that authorities would rather people forgot -- the birthplace of the Dalai Lama.

There are no signposts to Taktser -- Hong Ya in Chinese -- a village carved into a hill about two hours by road from the capital of Qinghai province, Xining, and just several hundred kilometres (miles) from restive Tibetan areas.

It was in this hamlet 73 years ago that Lhamo Dhondrub was born, later to be recognised as the 14th Dalai Lama, Tibet's spiritual leader.

That distinction set him on course for a life in exile and would see China call him a "wolf in monk's robes".

China says the Dalai Lama is a "splittist" intent on winning independence for what is currently called Tibet, plus other areas of western China that traditionally populated by Tibetans such as Taktser.

The Dalai Lama denies this, saying he only wants greater autonomy for the Himalayan region under China's rule, but nevertheless infuriates the Chinese leadership by accusing them of presiding over cultural genocide in Tibet.

Amid this backdrop, Taktser is off limits, part of a long-running government campaign to stop Tibetans worshipping the revered figure that critics say is one of the root causes of tensions.

Some tourists have been known to brave the pot-holed road to visit the house and its shrine -- both reportedly tended by the Dalai Lama's cousin.

But ahead of Tuesday's 50th anniversary of a failed uprising in Tibet that triggered the Dalai Lama's flight into exile, the village is guarded by policemen, and two AFP reporters were unable to get near the house.

"This is not an open place," one of the policemen said after stopping the car and spending 10 minutes checking passports.

The Chinese government has over the years tried many other ways to stamp out any sign of support of the Dalai Lama among Tibetans.

Photos of the spiritual leader, for example, were banned in China in 1994 in a meeting chaired by the then president Jiang Zemin, according to Robbie Barnett, professor of Tibetan studies at Columbia University in New York.

The decision was implemented fully in Lhasa, Tibet's capital, in 1996, and rolled out in other Tibetan areas over the next two years -- angering Tibetans who continue to revere their leader.

"This decision must rank as one of the most regressive moves by the Beijing leadership in all its Tibet policies -- it was as unnecessary as it was provocative, and might be the biggest single cause of the recent protests," said Barnett.

Riots erupted in Lhasa on March 14 last year after four days of peaceful protests to mark the 49th anniversary of the 1959 uprising, and unrest then spread into neighbouring areas.

Some monks were pictured then brandishing photos of the Dalai Lama in an open act of defiance.

The ban continues to be quietly ignored by Tibetans, as in a monastery not far from Xining, where a large photo of a young Dalai Lama was propped up in one of the temples.

"We just put it away when they come and check," one monk told AFP.

The London-based group Free Tibet has also criticised the "patriotic re-education" classes that monks and nuns have to endure in which they are told to denounce the Dalai Lama.

"There will never be any solution to the problems in Tibet until the Chinese government accepts the right of the Tibetan people to love their spiritual leader," it said.
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