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Leaders declare 'liberation' holiday in Tibet

March 29, 2009

By Calum MacLeod
USA TODAY
March 26, 2009

BEIJING -- The guide points to a display of tools
used for punishment in Tibet more than 50 years
ago. The heavy stone shaped like a cap kept a
person's head still, so the victim's eyes could be gouged out.

Ye Zi can barely look at it. "It was so cruel,"
she says with a shudder. But Ye leaves the exhibit with a smile.

"Tibetan people have a much happier life now,"
says Ye, 20, a student in Beijing who hopes to
visit Tibet one day. "Thanks to the Chinese
Communist Party, Tibet is better than ever."

To publicize that progress, Tibet will mark a new
holiday Saturday called "Serf Liberation Day."

It was created this year by Tibet's Communist
Party-controlled legislature to mark the 50th
anniversary since the Chinese government
disbanded the Himalayan region's local
government. Tibetan officials compare the date to
Abraham Lincoln's signing of the Emancipation
Proclamation to abolish slavery in the USA.

The Tibetan government-in-exile in India led by
the Dalai Lama counters by calling it a "day of
mourning" for the 1.2 million Tibetans who died
as a result of Chinese rule, spokesman Thubten Samphel says.

"Tibetan people will consider it very offensive," he says.

The war of words between rivals with sharply
divergent interpretations of history comes amid
tensions in the region. China promotes the
anniversary as a commemoration of the rescue of
Tibet from a brutal regime of landowners under
the Dalai Lama. Yet some Tibetans protest on the
anniversary of an unsuccessful uprising March 14,
1959, that led to the exile of the Dalai Lama, Tibet's spiritual leader.

China recently tightened security in the region
to prevent anti-Chinese protests like the ones
last year in the Tibetan capital of Lhasa and
other ethnic Tibetan areas. Foreigners were
barred from the area this month and couldn't
independently report on conditions.

Saturday's holiday has been touted in a public
relations campaign by the Chinese government,
including appearances by Tibetan legislators in
Washington and Canada to portray what they call "the real Tibet."

China's state-run media -- on television and in
print -- have celebrated in recent weeks what
they call the end of feudal serfdom in Tibet and
the material progress of recent decades. A
documentary film, The Past and Present of Tibet,
has been shown across Tibet, including in remote
and rural communities, according to the official China Tibet News website.

In Beijing, the state-organized exhibit on the
"50th Anniversary of Democratic Reforms in Tibet"
that Ye viewed has included visitors such as the
Panchen Lama, Tibet's second-holiest figure.
State-run media quoted him as citing Buddha to
praise China's emancipation of a million serfs.

In Ottawa this week, Shingtsa Tenzinchodrak, a
spiritual leader and vice chairman of Tibet's
legislature, compared emancipating the serfs to
the abolition of slavery in the USA, Xinhua said.

"This is a very provocative act," Samphel, the
spokesman for the Tibetan exiled government, says
about the holiday. He says Tibetans are not being
encouraged to protest Saturday "as it will only bring harm on themselves."

Yet some protests are likely, says Barry Sautman,
a Tibet expert at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.

"This is a new and politically confrontational
event. It's meant to provoke some response," Sautman says.

Although he doubts the holiday will shift
opinions elsewhere in the world, Sautman says
Beijing has successfully provoked the exiled
community into defending the old regime.

"The Chinese government can say, 'Look, these are
just a bunch of aristocrats who had a privileged
lifestyle and would seek to restore that system,' " he says.

Anti-Chinese riots in Lhasa and other Tibetan
areas last March are among several factors behind
the holiday, Sautman says. Tibetan officials hope
to "mobilize the population in Tibet to display
loyalty, if not actually to feel it," he says.

China's leaders think "there is a natural
rightness to their views, even though they don't
make sense in a Western context," says Robbie
Barnett, an expert on Tibet at Columbia
University. Progress in Tibet "has been very up
and down, and in the last year it has been mostly down," he says.

Barnett worries that the holiday marks a step
backward. "This is the language of 30 years ago,
of class struggle. It sends unfortunate and
retrogressive messages to everybody," he says.

At the exhibit in Beijing, retired steelworker Li
Junshan, 60, hopes to make his first trip to Tibet this summer.

"Those Tibetans who want independence have been
tricked by other people," Li says, "but they won't stay tricked forever."

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