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Standoff in Tibet


Tibet's exiled spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, says Tibet is "materially backward" and that it is necessary to remain part of China so that Tibetans can realize the benefits of modernization. The Dalai Lama says that Chinese control of Tibet is resulting in "cultural genocide" for his people. He says China should grant Tibet autonomy in education and other local matters.

Chinese troops and police have tightened their hold on Tibet and areas in western China in an effort to maintain control of the region. Last month's unrest in Tibet came as China prepares to host the Summer Olympics and it has rallied exiled Tibetans. Demonstrators in several European cities and in San Francisco, California, for example, disrupted the traditional journey of the Olympic torch ahead of the August games in Beijing.

Daniel Southerland, Executive Editor of Radio Free Asia, or RFA, has covered similar crackdowns in Tibet. But he says last month's demonstrations, which were pegged to the anniversary of a failed uprising against Chinese rule nearly 50 years ago, were much bigger.

"Even though 1959 involved an armed revolt, it is bigger [this time] in the sense of being more widespread. It covers a huge area; hundreds and hundreds of miles from Lhasa, things are happening," says Southerland.

Distrust and Stalemate

The Dalai Lama has threatened to resign as leader of Tibet's exiled government if violence in his homeland spirals out of control. He says he wants only cultural autonomy for his people. "Tibetans should be citizens of the People's Republic of China. I mean, happy citizens of the People's Republic of China. My mantra is, 'We are not seeking independence, we are not seeking independence, we are not seeking independence.' This is our mantra. The Chinese government's mantra is, 'Tibet is part of China, Tibet is part of China, Tibet is part of China,'" says the Dalai Lama.

RFA's Daniel Southerland says China insists that the Dalai Lama is seeking political independence for Tibet and that is one of the main reasons why there has been no progress in the dialogue between the two sides. "They are painting him so black that how can they talk to him. And yet most of the analysts in the West will tell you that the best hope is to engage somebody who is not calling for independence," says Southerland.

And Tibet expert Robert Barnett of Columbia University in New York says the Chinese do not trust the Dalai Lama. "The Chinese have this historical memory of giving what they would say were big concessions to the Dalai Lama in the past -- in 1950 and again in 1980. And both times after about eight or nine years, the situation just plummeted into unrest and chaos again," says Barnett. "Actually, that unrest, those protests came from the the mass level of discontent with Chinese policy. But the Chinese blame the Dalai Lama for this."

But Daniel Southerland says the Dalai Lama was not responsible for Tibet's 1959 uprising. "I don't think the Dalai Lama was leading that [i.e., the 1959 revolt]. I think that rebellion led the Dalai Lama; that's when he had to leave [and go into exile]. There were a lot of spontaneous things happening. I think that a lot of what happened in Tibet, or if you want to call it greater Tibet, was spontaneous. Communists ought to understand this," says Southerland. "But I don't think they can acknowledge that there is so much popular dissatisfaction."

Hope for Dialogue?

Whatever the reason for the slow progress in dialogue between Tibetan leaders and Beijing, Asia scholar Robert Barnett says China's government has used this time to tighten its grip on Tibet. "The Chinese have increased restrictions in Tibet for no obvious reason by appointing Zhang Qingli, the new [Communist] Party secretary [in 2006], to go to Tibet and be very heavy handed in terms of religious controls, opening the railway, increasing migration [of Chinese into Tibet] and so on."

Barnett also says that Beijing is ignoring the Dalai Lama's calls for cultural autonomy and is trying to undermine the spiritual leader's influence among Tibetan youth. "Why does China not give concessions to match the concessions [the Tibetan government in exile in] Dharamshala [, India] has given in the last few years and in the last couple of weeks," asks Barnett. "I think because it is deliberately hoping the young radical Tibetans will get angry and will get violent because this will discredit the Dalai Lama."

The India-based Tibetan government-in-exile says that about 150 people have died since Chinese security forces took action against protesters last month. China says about 20 "innocent" people have died and blames the casualties on Tibetan rioters.

"It is in terms of arrests, rapid imprisonment. It is going to be executions. And it is going to be long prison sentences and basically destroying people's lives and making them denounce the Dalai Lama," says Robert Barnett. "That's where we are going to see the pressure -- off camera [i.e., not covered by the media] -- out of the sight of the international community."

Barnett says 80 percent of the demonstrations across Tibet were peaceful. But he says the government manipulated the media to focus only on a small number of attacks by Tibetans on Chinese civilians in Lhasa -- a charge Beijing denies. "My research suggests that there have been at least 97 other protests across Tibet in the last five weeks. And I don't think any of those involved attacks on Chinese civilians," says Barnett.

Columbia University's Robert Barnett warns that Tibetans must let Chinese residents in Lhasa, for example, know that their anger is not against them, but the government in Beijing. Otherwise, he says, they risk a Chinese nationalist backlash and could lose their momentum for greater freedoms.

This story was first broadcast on the English news program,VOA News Now. For other Focus reports click here.

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