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Return to Tibet -- Outward calm

January 28, 2010

Even inside a once-forbidden monastery, the view is constrained
The Economist
January 27, 2010

IN LHASA the authorities want to project an image
of life returning to normal after the riots of
March 2008. In some ways it is. The extensive
wreckage I saw during my last visit, which
happened to coincide with the riots, has long
since been cleared. Ethnic Han Chinese whose
shops were wrecked and merchandise piled up and
burned by Tibetans are back in business. After
the violence I had seen Tibetan pilgrims turned
away from the Jokhang temple in the heart of
Lhasa by gun-waving troops. Now they are flocking
to it again, prostrating themselves on the paving
slabs outside (two small boys among them wearing
sacks to protect their clothing from the wear of countless obeisances).

That I have been allowed to return is doubtless
part of the authorities’ efforts. An occasional
visit by a journalist gives the impression that
the city is open. It is still far from it.
Numerous previous requests to go there since the
unrest had been turned down (though, it must be
said, it was rarely easy for journalists to get
permission to go, even before the rioting).
Tourism—a crucial driver of the city’s
economy—has yet to recover fully. The upheaval
unnerved Han Chinese who might have visited from
other parts of China. Jittery officials did not
help by tightening restrictions on foreign
tourists, including a requirement that they be escorted by guides.

My own official guide took me today to Sera
monastery, about 3km (2 miles) north of the city.
I had tried to visit this important centre of
Tibetan learning just after the rioting, only to
be detained by police standing guard outside.
Sera, and Lhasa’s two other large monasteries
Drepung and Ganden, have long been at the
forefront of Tibetan dissent. A protest by Sera
monks outside the Jokhang temple on March 10th
2008, and a subsequent demonstration by
colleagues demanding the monks’ release, were
part of the build-up to the violence (directed
mainly against property rather than people) in Lhasa four days later.

The police presence outside Sera is hardly less
evident than it was on my last, abortive visit.
This time I got through with my government
escort, but even beyond the police cordon
(through which, it seemed, pilgrims were allowed
to pass) the ancient monastery itself was teeming
with security officials. I probably saw more of
them than I saw monks. Half a dozen people in
plainclothes accompanied me, along with one of
Sera’s senior monks, Qamba Tashi.

The monk enthusiastically described the
monastery’s religious artefacts, but was clearly
reluctant to give away much of anything about
life in Sera today. There were, he said, 500
monks at Sera. A report in the official media
last year suggested that there could have been
twice as many there when the riots broke out in
Lhasa (in which very few monks were seen
participating). Some 500 “visiting monks and
lodgers” were expelled after the unrest, the
report said. Qamba Tashi said that no monks from
Sera itself were punished after the riots, though
“some” of the temporary residents had been.
Again, no details. Visitors would have included
long-term students; Sera is one of Tibetan
Buddhism’s highest centres of learning.

In downtown Lhasa, approaches to the city’s two
main temples, Jokhang and Ramoche, are guarded by
clusters of riot police in camouflage uniforms
and helmets, armed with batons and—some of
them—rifles. Others are stationed on rooftops
overlooking the square in front of Jokhang, a
large open area surrounded by shops selling
Tibetan handicrafts that is often the starting
point of any unrest in Lhasa. A foreign tourist
describes seeing police get upset when another
foreigner took a photograph that included such police in the background.

China needs to be careful if it wishes for a
return to normality in Lhasa. There is little
sign that it has understood how a massive influx
of tourists in 2006, following the inauguration
of Tibet’s first rail link with the rest of
China, helped fuel the riots. The resulting boom
brought with it a large number of ethnic Han
immigrants and left some Tibetans feeling
marginalised. Extra security measures adopted
since the riots are likely to put a lasting
damper on tourism here. But they will do nothing to make Tibetans happier.
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