DHARAMSALA, India — A rundown two-story building in this Himalayan hill station might hardly seem to be the command center of a subversive group jangling the nerves of neighboring China. Monkeys clamber over the rooftop, and any stranger may walk through its front door.
Yet China calls the Tibetan Youth Congress "a terror group worse than (Osama) bin Laden's" and accuses it of stockpiling guns, bombs and grenades in Tibet for use by separatist fighters.
China alleges that the 30,000-member group has allied itself with al Qaida and with a homegrown Muslim separatist organization in China, the East Turkestan Islamic Movement.
The president of the congress, Tsewang Rigzin, a former banker who lived in Minneapolis, scoffs at China's charges, saying his group seeks independence for Tibet but adheres to non-violent principles put forth by the Dalai Lama, the exiled spiritual leader whose headquarters are here.
"These are all baseless and fallacious allegations that the Chinese are making," Rigzin said over a meal of curry at a local restaurant, suggesting that the charges were scare tactics aimed at the Chinese citizenry.
If nothing else, the wildly different views of the Tibetan Youth Congress underscore the chasm between Beijing and Dharamsala over Tibet. On the streets of China's large cities, ordinary citizens consider government charges against the Tibetan Youth Congress as obvious fact, and look upon those who question them as concealing a general bias toward China. For their part, Tibetans see the charges as weird and fanciful.
Rigzin, a 38-year-old son of poor Tibetan exiles, hardly seems the prototype of an international terrorist. He favors sport coats and, with his receding hairline and soft-spoken manner, looks the part of the banker that he was until mid-2007, when he left a wife and two daughters behind in the U.S. to serve a three-year term as the group's president.
He was born in northeast India's Sikkim region, later moving with them to south India. In 1993, he won a government lottery for a U.S. visa and was placed in Santa Monica, Calif., where he got a job making espresso at a local mall. He eventually moved to the Twin Cities, where he climbed the ladder at a regional bank, NorWest, which later was bought by Wells Fargo. A few years ago, he moved to Vancouver, Wash.
The Tibetan Youth Congress, founded in 1970, has some 30,000 members spread across 12 countries, with the largest chapters in India, Nepal, the U.S., the United Kingdom and Canada. Its former leaders have often gone on to serve in the government in exile headquartered here, which objects to China's vise-like grip on the Tibetan Plateau since a military incursion in 1951.
China turned its sights on the congress during a spasm of unrest that erupted March 14 in Lhasa, Tibet's capital, when ethnic Tibetans rampaged through the city's streets, angry at the arrest of monks days earlier during peaceful demonstrations. Rioters overturned police cars, smashed store windows and set fires.
Authorities said the rioting left at least 22 people dead, many of them Han Chinese, while exiles said more than 100 died, most of them unarmed Tibetans.
Largely peaceful demonstrations spread in subsequent weeks to dozens of other ethnic Tibetan areas, turning into the largest bout of ethnic unrest in China in nearly two decades.
Liu Hongji, a senior researcher at the China Tibetology Research Center, a Beijing-based organization that does research on Tibet, said the group played a role in the unrest through the use of "mobile phones, email and sending people to China. They have a system, which is like a spy network."
In May, Liu told the official Xinhua news agency that the congress "sought mutual support from international terrorist organizations such as al Qaida and East Turkestan groups" in northwest China. The agency also quoted him as saying the group held training sessions, "such as one on 'dynamite techniques' and another on how to carry out violent and terrorist activities."
In the interview, though, Liu declined to elaborate on charges the group is now armed.
"Because we do research, not intelligence, we cannot provide details," Liu said. "But it is said that they have these (weapons). These are secret."
The People's Daily, the official mouthpiece of China's ruling party, cited a spokesman for the Ministry of Public Security, Wu Heping, on April 8 saying police had raided homes of Tibetan monks following the March unrest and confiscated 178 guns, 13,013 bullets, 359 knives, 7,709 pounds of explosives, 19,360 primers and two grenades.
"How destructive it would be if these weapons were added together! If 'Tibetan Youth Congress' was not a terrorist organization, what else would it be?" the People's Daily asked.
None of such weaponry is known to have been used in any armed attack, and the group responded in July with a statement of its own.
"In its 39 years of existence, the TYC has not been involved in a single incidence of resorting to terrorism," the group said, adding that "all TYC campaigns in the past have been peaceful."
Rigzin declined to say whether Congress members played any role in stirring unrest earlier this year in Tibet, responding curtly with a "no comment" when asked about the group's contacts inside China, saying only that Tibetans have plenty of reason to rise up on their own.
"Ours is a democratic organization, a transparent one," Rigzin said. "Anybody can come to our office and check it out. We have nothing to hide. What China is saying, they could be able to fool some of their own people in China, but they can't fool the international community."
In a speech at Harvard University Oct. 8, the Dalai Lama's chief negotiator with China, Lodi Gyari, said his Chinese counterparts routinely label the congress "as being a terrorist organization," a charge he rejects.
Analysts of Tibet in the West generally say that while congress leaders voice skepticism over the Dalai Lama's nonviolent approach and chatter about the possible use of sabotage and other violence, the sentiments don't appear to go beyond mere talk.
Liu, the Chinese analyst, said Beijing has yet to formally declare the congress as a terrorist organization but will do so if new evidence emerges.
"If it (the Congress) still carries out violent incidents, people of the world will know its terrorist nature better," Liu said, "which not only helps China but also the whole world. The whole world hates terrorism very deeply."
At a gathering of hundreds of Tibetan exiles in this Indian city that ended Nov. 22, a few participants said the Chinese campaign to demonize the group and affix the terrorist label on the group had succeeded in reframing news coverage into "China says, Tibet says" presentations.
"What they've been successful at is creating doubt and this need to 'balance' coverage," said Nima Dorjee, an engineer based in Calgary, Alberta. The terrorism label, he added, also contributes an emotional element that "makes it uneasy for outsiders to discuss the issues."
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY:
McClatchy Newspapers 2008