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RIGHTS-CHINA: Tibet Protests Won't Slow Olympic Torch

Analysis by Antoaneta Bezlova

BEIJING, Mar 16 2008 (IPS) - A crackdown on Tibetans protesting against Chinese rule over their Himalayan homeland – in the ancient capital of Lhasa and other Tibetan cities – is beginning to parallel the brutal suppression of the 1989 Tiananmen pro-democracy demonstrations.

 Credit: Office of H.H. The Dalai Lama

Credit: Office of H.H. The Dalai Lama

But China in 2008 has more at stake than it did in 1989 when Beijing’s leaders sent tanks against unarmed students and civilians. Today, Chinese leaders stand to lose more from brutal repression in Tibet – perhaps even more than the autocratic Burmese regime did when it suppressed peacefully protesting Buddhist monks, late last year.

China is only five months away from staging the grand 'coming out party', the Beijing Olympic Games, which is designed to showcase not only the country’s rising international profile but also national unity and prosperity. The unrest comes just two weeks before the Olympic celebrations kick off with the arrival of the Olympic torch in Lhasa.

Tibetan protests challenge the painstakingly crafted perception of national unity by drawing international attention to China’s unfulfilled promises to its minorities. They also threaten to focus unflattering light on Beijing’s continuous use of intimidation and force against any dissenters.

Even more troublesome for Chinese leaders is the fact that a brutal outcome of the Tibetan protests may tip the scales on an upcoming controversial referendum and presidential vote in Taiwan – which China regards as a renegade province.

On Mar. 22, voters on the island, which has been ruled separately from China for as long as Tibet has been under China’s administration, are to cast ballots to decide whether or not to back the ruling, pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party in its bid to apply for United Nations membership.

While polls suggest that Taiwanese voters favour the Nationalist Party of Kuomintang, which supports a pro-unification course with China, any violent onslaught in Tibet may still swing the vote in the opposite direction.

Mindful of the international and domestic risks involved in a harsh crackdown on Tibetan monks and civilians, Chinese leaders have responded with both force and propaganda, hoping to contain the unrest and influence international opinion.

Beijing has mobilised officially favoured religious figures to denounce the riots and discredit international calls for a lenient response. The 11th Panchen Lama, the second-highest-ranking monk in the complex Tibetan hierarchy, issued a statement on Sunday in which he "resolutely supported the Party and the government efforts to ensure the safety and stability of Lhasa", according to the official news agency Xinhua.

"We resolutely oppose all activities to split the country and undermine ethnic unity. We strongly condemn the crime of a tiny number of people to hurt the lives and properties of the people," the Panchen said from Lhasa.

Gyaincain Norbu is the Panchen Lama recognised by Beijing, but not by the Dalai Lama and his followers in exile. The six-year-old Tibetan boy, Gendun Choekyi Nyima, chosen by Tibet’s spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama to take the title of Panchen Lama, disappeared soon after the choice was made public in 1995 and has not been heard of since.

The exiled community has called the boy the "youngest political prisoner in the world". His fate exemplifies the rights denied to Tibetans after the Chinese communist takeover in 1950.

From the 1930s onwards, while seeking popular support in its civil war against the Kuomintang, the Communist Party repeatedly promised the minorities the right to national self-determination, which included the freedom of self government and independent religious institutions. But the communists reneged on these promises after coming to power and within a few years it became treason for minorities to ask for independence.

When in 1959 Tibetans rebelled against the expropriation of their property, the closure of monasteries and China’s misguided agriculture, that led to a massive famine, Beijing ordered a military intervention that forced the Dalai Lama to flee to India.

Since then, the Tibetan government-in-exile in Dharamsala, India, has consistently pressed its demands not for full independence but for a high level of autonomy with Beijing. The Dalai Lama, winner of the 1989 Nobel Peace Prize, has toured world capitals trying to promote the Tibetan cause and get Chinese leaders to negotiate.

For a brief period in the mid-1980s when liberal party leader Hu Yaobang and his successor Zhao Ziyang were in power, Beijing and Dharamsala were still preparing to negotiate over Tibet’s future.

But the process came to a halt when hardliners toppled Hu Yaobang. And Zhao Ziyang was purged for his sympathetic stance toward the student demonstrators in the Tiananmen Square protests.

Fresh riots broke out in Lhasa in 1989, which brought the imposition of martial law and an abrupt end to talks with the Dalai Lama. The Tibetan party secretary who oversaw the harsh crackdown in 1989 was Hu Jintao, now China’s president and party chief.

Speaking last Monday the Dalai Lama said that "during the past few years Tibet has witnessed increased repression and brutality". His remarks came as more than 300 monks turned out on the streets of Lhasa to commemorate the anniversary of Tibet’s national uprising against the Chinese occupation.

Seeking international attention surrounding the Beijing Olympics, Tibetan exile community staged simultaneous protests in Kathmandu, Dharamsala, New Delhi and other world capitals.

After Chinese police used teargas and opened fire to put down the Lhasa riots, protests spread to Chinese areas inhabited by Tibetans. On Saturday, Xiahe in Gansu province – where the Buddhist holy site of Labrang is located – saw more protests by monks and civilians. China has said at least 10 people died in the riots but Tibetan campaign organisations have claiming far greater numbers.

Dashing international hopes that Beijing might display leniencey towards the rioters and even seek dialogue with the Dalai Lama, Chinese officials have threatened tough measures against detractors.

"We will deal harshly with these criminals in accordance with the law," Champa Phuntsok, chairman of the Tibetan government, told reporters in Beijing.

"Beating, smashing, looting and burning… we absolutely condemn this sort of behaviour. This plot is doomed to failure," said Phuntsok, speaking on the sidelines of the ongoing annual session of the National People’s Congress, China’s parliament.

Meanwhile, organisers of the Beijing Olympics have dismissed suggestions that disturbances in Tibet may derail the torch relay passing through there.

"The preparations for the torch relay in Tibet and taking the flame up Mount Qomolangma (Mt Everest) have been progressing smoothly,’’ Sun Weide, spokesman for the Beijing Organising Committee for the Olympic games, was quoted as saying.

While protesting against repression in Tibet and the crackdown on protestors, the Dalai Lama has repeatedly said that he supported Beijing’s right to conduct the Olympic games.

At a televised press conference in Dharamsala on Sunday, the spiritual leader reiterated that ‘’China deserves to be a host of the Olympic Games.’’ But he added that Beijing needed to be "reminded to be a good host of the Olympic Games".

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