As Chinese Troops Seal off Tibet, Dalai Lama Warns Tibetan Identity 'Near Extinction'

Human Rights

BEIJING, Mar 11 (IPS) - China has sealed off Tibet with troops and demanded that the international community recognize the legitimacy of Beijing's historical claims over the Himalayan plateau, escalating a row over its policies there.

"It is impossible for any western country to not interact with China. However, it is [also] impossible for the West to cooperate with China unless it develops an objective and unbiased stance on Tibet," said an editorial in the Communist party's flagship publication, the People’s Daily, this week.

The ultimatum comes as Chinese foreign minister Yang Jiechi urged foreign governments "not to allow [Tibet's exiled leader] the Dalai Lama to visit their countries" and "not to allow their territories to be used by him to separate Tibet from China."

Refusing the Dalai Lama a visit should be written into "the basic norms of international relations" of any country "interested in preserving its ties with China," Beijing’s top diplomat said during a press conference on the weekend.

Yet China is far from winning the historical debate over who has the right to decide the fate of Tibetans, according to Barry Sautman, political scientist at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.

"They [the Chinese] have won the debate inside the country with the possible exception of some Tibetans," he says. "But their focus on beefing up security in Tibet in the face of strong international criticism shows they are feeling under siege. Their position on Tibet is continuously criticized in the West and automatically dismissed."

The 50th anniversary of the failed Tibetan uprising against Chinese rule, this week, saw Tibetan areas locked in a massive security ring, and sporadic manifest of anger quickly suppressed as Beijing put up the strongest show of force since Chinese communist troops first arrived on the Tibetan plateau in 1950.

"We must build up a Great Wall in our fight against separatism and safeguard the unity of the motherland," China’s President Hu Jintao said Monday. He was speaking to Tibetan delegates of the National People’s Congress, China’s legislative body, which is currently holding its annual session in Beijing.

In the run-up to the anniversary, Beijing launched a blitz propaganda campaign designed to drum up support for its policies of heavy investment and tight political control in Tibet.

An exhibit showcasing the "democratic reforms" brought by China into Tibet opened at the Cultural Palace of Nationalities in Beijing on Feb. 24, while the China Central Television (CCTV) aired a three-part documentary featuring Tibet’s evolution from "autocracy to democracy," according to the People’s Daily.

"I hope they [people] can come on site to learn about the real situation in Tibet -- the region’s gruesome past, and the vast changes since then," Qiangba Puncog, Tibet governor, was quoted as saying from the site of the exhibition.

Reflecting Beijing’s position that Chinese communist troops liberated Tibet from a brutal feudal regime, earlier this year pro-Chinese Tibetan lawmakers declared a holiday on Mar. 28 -- the anniversary of the dissolution of the old Tibetan government, and called it "Serf Emancipation Day."

Beijing insists Tibet has been an integral part of Chinese civilization since the 13th century and its rulers exercised hands-on administration, appointing imperial envoys to supervise the remote, mountainous territory.

But the Tibetan government-in-exile rejects such claims, saying Tibet was only annexed by Chinese troops in 1951 when the Dalai Lama and Mao Zedong signed a 17-point agreement which officially acknowledged Chinese rule.

The Chinese communist government created an autonomous region in central Tibet and divided the rest of the Tibetans among different provinces. Under the terms of the agreement, inner Tibet was temporarily exempted from introducing the same policies of collectivisation and cultural uniformity enforced over the rest of the country.

But the rest of Tibetans who now lived in the provinces of Sichuan, Qinghai, Gansu and Yunnan rose in revolt against the destruction of their monasteries and the appropriation of their lands. In 1959, violence boiled over to inner Tibet, escalating into large-scale bloodshed and forcing the Dalai Lama to flee to India amid fierce fighting.

Tibet's government-in-exile says that more than 87,000 people died between March and October of 1959 alone. Last year, the 49th anniversary of the uprising saw more violent protests, which spread from the capital Lhasa across Tibetan regions of western China.

In a speech to mark the sensitive anniversary of the failed uprising on Mar. 10, the Dalai Lama accused China of having brought ‘’hell on earth’’ to his homeland after unleashing a series of repressive campaigns since his flight to India.

"These thrust Tibetans into such depths of suffering and hardship that they literally experienced hell on earth," he said in a speech televised from Dharamsala, the north Indian capital from where he runs his ‘government-in-exile’.

Thousands of Tibetan Buddhist monks, nuns, and young descendants of those who had originally followed him into exile, flocked to Dharamsala on Tuesday to pledge support with events that culminated in a candlelight vigil.

"Even today, Tibetans in Tibet live in constant fear, and Chinese authorities remain constantly suspicious of them. Their religion, culture, language, identity are near extinction,’’ the Dalai Lama told his followers in India.

China says the Dalai Lama is seeking to carve out a "Greater Tibet" despite his repeated claims that he is only pursuing "meaningful autonomy" for his homeland.

"Would Germany, France or other countries accept that a quarter of their territory be separated?" Yang Jiechi asked on the sidelines of the National People’s Congress.

His remarks follow a bitter spat with the European Union over a December meeting between French President Nicolas Sarkozy and the Dalai Lama. Last year, relations between China and Germany suffered a setback after German Chancellor Angela Merkel met with the Dalai Lama in the autumn of 2007.

But despite Yang’s warning to foreign countries that friendly relations with China hinge on rejecting the Dalai Lama’s quest, Beijing’s handling of Tibet continues to draw scrutiny and criticism.

On Tuesday, the U.S. urged China to reconsider its policies in Tibet, saying they have created tensions and had a "harmful impact" on religion and culture in the region.

In a statement marking the anniversary of the uprising, the U.S. state department said it is "deeply concerned by the human rights situation in Tibetan areas" and called for talks between Beijing and the Dalai Lama.

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