As China marks exile of Dalai Lama, mood in Tibet isn't festive

Tibetan prayer flags fly from stupas at the Wutun Monastery in Tongren, China.
Tibetan prayer flags fly from stupas at the Wutun Monastery in Tongren, China. Tim Johnson / MCT

BEIJING — Senior officials Friday dismissed the threat of ethnic uprisings this month among restive Tibetans, proclaimed grand celebrations to mark the Dalai Lama's flight into exile 50 years ago and upheld the half-fiction that Tibet is open to foreign journalists.

The officials declined to say how much Beijing has beefed up security on the Tibetan Plateau to quell any unrest that may occur a year after a rampage in Lhasa set the city afire.

"An event like March 14 last year will not happen again," said Qiangba Puncog, the chairman of the Tibet regional government, adding that any disturbances near the anniversary of the Lhasa riot would be minimal.

The riots in the Tibetan capital a year ago killed 18 people, injured 382 others and left the city smoldering amid more than 300 fires, Puncog said.

Scores of other protests erupted around the Tibetan Plateau afterward in what experts said was the worst ethnic unrest in China in nearly two decades. In the run-up to the sensitive 50th anniversary of the Dalai Lama's flight into exile, this year has seen a smattering of unrest as well, including a Tibetan monk who set himself afire on Feb. 27.

Puncog and other officials spoke about Tibet at a news conference on the sidelines of the National People's Congress, the largely ceremonial legislature that's in session this month.

They said there'd be major celebrations March 28, which they call Serfs Emancipation Day, to mark what China claims is the liberation of 1 million Tibetans from serfdom with the Dalai Lama's departure for exile in India after a failed uprising.

China claims that 90 percent of Tibetans lived as serfs or slaves under the Dalai Lama, who's the spiritual and temporal ruler of Tibet, and that much of the world is blind to the feudal oppression that existed in the region before Chinese troops began marching into the plateau in 1950.

"The importance of abolishing the serfdom system (in Tibet) is not inferior to that of abolishing serfdom in Europe and abolishing slavery in America," said Legqog, the president of the Tibet Autonomous Region People's Congress. Like some Tibetans, he uses only one name.

Legqog said the marking of the day was part of a "tit-for-tat struggle" with Dalai Lama supporters, whom Chinese officials describe as a dangerous clique that's looking to wrench Tibet from China's control. He said that many young people knew little about Tibet's history.

"By doing this, we want to . . . educate people, especially teenagers, to remember the great historical fight against slavery," Legqog said.

Historians concur that many rural people lived bonded to estates and large monasteries in pre-1949 Tibet, but the labeling of conditions as feudal is part of a larger struggle that China wages to blunt the impact of the Dalai Lama, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989 and is seen in many parts of the world as a moral icon who crosses religious and ethnic boundaries.

"The Dalai Lama was the biggest serf owner," Puncog asserted. "He has no qualifications to talk about human rights, because at that time human rights could not have been worse."

In a message last week to mark the Tibetan new year, the Dalai Lama appealed for Tibetans not to be provoked by a heavy military presence on the plateau or "cruelty and harassment" that he said was designed to get them to rise up.

Foreigners traveling to Tibet must have permits, which have been given to only a handful of foreign journalists under tightly controlled conditions in the past year. Most requests are rejected.

Without a trace of mockery, however, Puncog said that more journalists should travel to Tibet.

"We very much welcome journalists from all over the world to Tibet to do interviews. We always say seeing is believing," he said. "The 'problem' of not allowing foreign journalists to enter Tibet does not exist."


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