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[New York Times] Times Topic: Tibet

Updated: Aug. 7, 2012

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Tibet, the high-altitude Himalayan plateau associated in popular memory with meditation and Buddhist serenity, has been the scene of periodic strife ever since it was seized militarily by China in 1951.

China’s government regards Tibet as an integral part of China and is sensitive to expressions of support from Tibet’s former ruler, the Dalai Lama, who fled into exile in 1959, after a failed uprising against Chinese rule. He has accused China of stifling Tibetan culture. The Chinese consider the Dalai Lama a subversive advocate of Tibetan independence, although he has said he only wants greater autonomy for Tibet.

In March 2011, the Dalai Lama announced what he called his retirement, as he prepared to relinquish political power. The next month, Tibet’s government announced the election of a Harvardlegal scholar, Lobsang Sangay, as its new prime minister, a choice signaling a generational shift within the Tibetan movement.

Analysts said the Dalai Lama would continue to be recognized as the leader of the Tibetan cause since he alone can unify and mobilize Tibetans inside and outside of China. But by formally giving up political power, the Dalai Lama was trying to deepen the authority of the movement’s democratic government, according to analysts.

The Dalai Lama and many older Tibetan exiles were born inside Tibet and fled in 1959. But Mr. Sangay is part of the younger generation born outside Tibet, many of whom are eager for a more confrontational approach with China.

An Exile’s Self-Immolation Galvanizes a Movement

Nearly 50 Tibetans have set fire to themselves since 2009 in what appear to be protests against Chinese rule. In the first three weeks of March 2012 alone, seven Tibetans chose an agonizing, self-annihilating protest.

As a result, Chinese security forces clamped down across the plateau, so only a handful of the self-immolations have been recorded and transmitted, and only in grainy cellphone photographs or video.

That changed on March 26, when Jamphel Yeshi, a Tibetan exile in New Delhi, India, set himself alight in front of hundreds of people during a protest before a visit by President Hu Jintao of China, who was scheduled to attend an economic summit meeting in New Delhi. Mr. Yeshi was taken to a hospital with burns over 98 percent of his body, and died two days later.

The shocking images of Mr. Yeshi’s self-immolation provided the Tibetan exile movement with a rallying point. Within hours, the pictures had been posted on blogs and social-networking Web sites.

In August 2012, a Tibetan woman, Dolkar Kyi, 26, killed herself through self-immolation at a monastery in a Tibetan area of China, according to Free Tibet, an advocacy group based in London.

Also, a Tibetan monk from Kirti Monastery self-immolated in the town of Ngaba, according to reports by Free Tibet and Radio Free Asia, which is financed by the United States government.

The monk appeared to be alive and badly burned when he was taken away by security forces after the self-immolation, the reports said. Radio Free Asia gave his name as Lobsang Trinlay, while Free Tibet identified him as Lobsang Tsultrim.

Many self-immolations have taken place in Ngaba, called Aba in Chinese, where there is a market street now known as “Martyrs Road” because of the number of self-immolations that have taken place there.

2008: Uprising Across Tibet

Rioting in 2008 convulsed Tibetan areas of China, and rights groups said scores of artists, intellectuals, students and businesspeople were detained and sentenced to prison on charges of subverting state power or seeking to “split” Tibet from China.

A report on the 2008 riots by Human Rights Watch, released in July 2010, said Chinese security forces violated international law in suppressing the protest by indiscriminately beating, detaining and fatally shooting civilians in towns across the vast Tibetan plateau in western China.

Disturbances broke out on March 10, 2008, the anniversary of the failed uprising against Chinese rule. The protests turned violent and were described as the largest since 1989, which ended in a bloody clash with Chinese security forces and the imposition of martial law.

The 2008 disturbances were a public relations nightmare for the ruling Communist Party, which held its annual meeting of the National People’s Congress in Beijing in March of that year. Harried by pro-Tibet demonstrations around the world, China was hard pressed to present a harmonious image to the world when it played host to the Olympic Games in August 2008.

The Han Migration

Han Chinese workers, investors, merchants, teachers and soldiers are pouring into remote Tibet. After the violence that ravaged this region in 2008China’s aim is to make Tibet wealthier — and more Chinese.

Chinese leaders see development, along with an enhanced security presence, as the key to pacifying the Buddhist region.

Simple restaurants located in white prefabricated houses and run by ethnic Han businesspeople who take the train have sprung up even at a remote lake north of Lhasa. About 1.2 million rural Tibetans, nearly 40 percent of the region’s population, have been moved into new residences under a “comfortable housing” program. And officials promise to increase tourism fourfold by 2020, to 20 million visitors a year.

But the increased ethnic Han presence — and the uneven benefits of Han-led investment — have kept the region on edge.

2009: Words From the Dalai Lama

In 2009, the Dalai Lama delivered one of his harshest attacks on the Chinese government in recent times, saying the Chinese Communist Party had transformed Tibet into a “hell on earth” and that the Chinese authorities regarded Tibetans as “criminals deserving to be put to death.”

The spiritual leader of the Tibetans spoke in Dharamsala, India, the Himalayan hill town that is the seat of the Tibetan government in exile. Tibetans outside of China and their supporters held rallies around the world marking the uprising’s anniversary.

The furious tone of the speech may have been in reaction to the clampdown. The Dalai Lama may also have adopted an angry approach to placate younger Tibetans who have accused him of being too conciliatory toward China. The Dalai Lama advocates genuine autonomy for Tibet and not secession, while more radical Tibetans are urging him to support outright independence.

Imposing More Control Over Clergy

Communist Party leaders have also introduced a “monastic management” plan to more directly control religious life. As part of the plan, 21,000 party officials have been sent to Tibetan communities with the goal of “befriending” monks — and creating dossiers on each of them. Compliant clergy are rewarded with health care benefits, pensions and television sets; the recalcitrant are sometimes expelled from their monasteries.

At some temples, monks and nuns have been forced to publicly denounce the Dalai Lama, whose name is often invoked by self-immolators. The freedom of movement that allowed monks to study at distant monasteries across Tibet and four adjacent provinces has been curtailed.

Senior officials have trumpeted the new approach, which includes the distribution of one million national flags and portraits of Mao Zedong and other party leaders. But such measures may be having the opposite intended effect.

The antipathy, never far beneath the surface, is erupting into plain view with greater frequency. In one week in March 2012, several protests broke out, including two in Qinghai Province that were led by students angry over the introduction of Chinese-language textbooks for subjects like chemistry, math and geography. In January, exile groups said 31 people were shot, at least one fatally, when police opened fire on demonstrators in Drango County, in Sichuan Province. In Diru County, in the Tibet Autonomous Region, 20 of the 22 monasteries have been closed, according to the Tibetan Center for Human Rights and Democracy.

Spasms of unrest have coursed through modern Tibetan history with some regularity. In 1959, thousands perished when troops violently quelled an uprising against Chinese rule that spurred the Dalai Lama to flee to India. Between 1987 and 1989, the region was rocked by protests that were brutally crushed. The most recent crackdown began in March 2008, when rioting in Lhasa, the Tibetan capital, led to the death of at least 19 people, most of them Han Chinese. In the weeks and months that followed, exile groups say a far greater number of Tibetans died.

But Tibetan scholars and exiles say the current resistance campaign is unlike anything seen before. The tactic — public, fiery suicides that do not harm bystanders or property — has profoundly moved ordinary Tibetans and bedeviled Chinese officials. Just as significant, they note, is that the protesters are mostly young.

Technology Helps Fan Unrest

The technology revolution, though slow in coming, has penetrated the most far-flung corners of the Tibetan plateau, transforming ordinary life and playing an increasingly pivotal role in the spreading unrest over Chinese policies that many Tibetans describe as stifling.

Despite government efforts to restrict the flow of information, citizen journalists and ordinary monks have gathered details and photographs of self-immolators, pole-vaulting them over the country’s so-called Great Firewall. In some cases, blurred images show their final fiery moments or the horrific aftermath before paramilitary police officers haul the protesters out of public view.

News accounts, quickly packaged by advocacy groups and e-mailed to foreign journalists, often include the protesters’ demands: greater autonomy and the return of the Dalai Lama.

The awareness is influencing a generation raised under Chinese rule but skeptical of official propaganda that maligns the Dalai Lama or brands the self-immolators as terrorists.

Many analysts say the contrast between 2012 and the aftermath of unrest in 2008 is striking. It is still difficult to know exactly what happened during and after the 2008 rioting that started in Lhasa, the capital of the Tibet Autonomous Region. Tibetan advocacy groups say hundreds across the region died at the hands of the police. The government acknowledges only two dozen deaths, most of them of Han Chinese killed by rioters and several of Tibetans convicted and executed for their role in the violence.

Tibetan exiles and advocacy groups say they increasingly receive calls during impromptu street rallies. Such activity, however, can be perilous. Exile groups say government efforts to choke off information have been largely successful in much of the Tibet Autonomous Region, where security is draconian and foreign journalists are forbidden to go.

But to the east, in predominantly Tibetan areas that until recently were more lightly administered, the fear of retribution has yet to stanch the sharing of information.

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Related News: 

Tibetan Protesters Injured in Crackdown; Self-Immolations Continue

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