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CHINA: Under Pressure to Rethink Tibet Policy

Antoaneta Bezlova

BEIJING, Mar 21 2008 (IPS) - As continuing Tibetan protests testify to the failure of China’s policy of accelerated economic development with harsh political controls in the Himalayan region, pressure on Beijing to begin dialogue with the Dalai Lama, the exiled Tibetan leader, is growing.

Sites where Tibetans are known to have mounted protests and demonstrations in March  Credit:

Sites where Tibetans are known to have mounted protests and demonstrations in March Credit:

Large swaths of sparsely populated Tibetan areas have been swarmed with a huge number of Chinese troops while embers of unrest continue to smoulder in the wake of the biggest protests by the Tibetan minority in twenty years.

Beijing has denounced the "splittist" Dalai Lama for masterminding the violent riots in hopes of sabotaging this summer’s Beijing Olympics and promoting Tibetan independence. But even as rhetoric against the Tibetan spiritual leader heats up, there are calls from all sides for China to recognise his undying significance to the Tibetan population and make breakthrough on a problem that does not seem to go away.

A group of 26 Nobel laureates has appealed to Beijing to resume dialogue with the Tibetan leader who has lived in exile in Dharamsala, northern India since 1959.

"We protest the unwarranted campaign waged by the Chinese government against our fellow Nobel laureate, His Holiness the Dalai Lama," the group said in a statement released by Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel on Thursday.

The Dalai Lama won the 1989 Nobel Peace Prize for his determined commitment to non-violence in pursuing the Tibetan cause. He has repeatedly said he is not asking for a sovereign independent Tibet but for a genuine autonomy, pledged to his people by Chinese communist leaders in 1951 but never delivered.

That religious and cultural autonomy, the statement said, "is fundamental to the preservation of the ancient Tibetan heritage."

China has rejected the appeals for dialogue, calling instead for an international investigation of the riots that Beijing says have caused mass destruction in the Tibetan capital of Lhasa and claimed the lives of 16 people, most of them "innocent civilians".

The Tibetan government-in-exile however, has offered a starkly different account of the events, saying more than 90 people have died in the unrest and that troops had been allowed to open fire on protesters.

European politicians have sent mixed signals about their willingness to consider measures to punish China for its harsh crackdown in Tibet. Nevertheless they aligned behind calls to Beijing to resume direct dialogue with the Dalai Lama.

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown who spoke with his Chinese counterpart Wen Jiabao about the riots and appealed for a restraint last week, has said he plans to meet the Dalai Lama during his visit to the UK in May.

The Dalai Lama has said in the past that he was ready to meet Chinese leaders. His envoys met with Chinese officials in 2002, re-opening channels for dialogue that had been put on hold since the 1989 crackdown on protests in Lhasa. While negotiators have met six times since, most recently in June 2007, observers say little genuine progress has been made.

Speaking with Gordon Brown, premier Wen Jiabao repeated Beijing’s well-entrenched position that the Dalai Lama must abandon the "proposition of independence" of Tibet and cease his "separatist activities".

"It is only under these preconditions that the Chinese central government will talk to him (the Dalai Lama)," Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang told reporters in Beijing this week. "It is only on that basis that the doors of the dialogue will be open".

But calls for rethinking Beijing’s policy on the Dalai Lama have come not only from the international community but also from the wider Chinese public.

Wang Lixiong, a Beijing-based writer whose research works on Tibet have been circulated within the communist party, says the current crisis should serve as a "wake up" call for Chinese leaders that their rapid economic development policy in Tibet is a failure.

"The last major unrest in Tibet in 1987 and the riots of 1989 when a martial law was imposed were limited to the capital of Lhasa and involved only monks, intellectuals and students," Wang told IPS in an interview. "But today’s unrest has spread over all Tibetan areas and there are people from all walks, including peasants and workers."

In his major work ‘Celestial Burial: The destiny of Tibet’, which was published outside of China in 1998, Wang reflected that Beijing’s politically-motivated investment in Tibet is fuelling economic growth that widens social inequality and creates discontent.

Calling the visible signs of development in Tibet a "pretence of modernisation", Wang describes how the dramatic rise in living standards among the Tibetan elite is in a stark contrast with the impoverishment of the overwhelming majority of Tibetans who remain rural, illiterate and poor.

"If the current leadership doesn’t reconsider its Tibet policy, in ten or twenty years time, the Tibetan fight will become even uglier," he reckons. "They must now recognise that imposed economic prosperity would not erase the significance of the Dalai Lama in Tibetan hearts. The Dalai Lama is the key to the Tibetan problem because he is their ultimate spiritual leader and also an international symbol of the Tibetan identity."

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