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China's grip on Tibet tight, but options limited

Tibet is in lockdown, closed to most foreigners. Armed paramilitaries patrol the main city of Lhasa, while police line roads to other towns. Even the movement of locals is restricted.

world Updated: Mar 02, 2009 13:16 IST

Tibet is in lockdown, closed to most foreigners. Armed paramilitaries patrol the main city of Lhasa, while police line roads to other towns. Even the movement of locals is restricted.

Beijing is determined that two sensitive anniversaries this month will not trigger a repeat of deadly riots and rippling unrest that destabilised China's west a year ago.

But the campaign to cauterise short-term dissent is fuelling a new level of Tibetan resentment and distrust that experts warn could be a smouldering threat to China's long-term stability.

"The Communists know they are faced with major problems in Tibet, but unfortunately they are not looking at the root cause of the problem," said Tsering Shakya, a Tibet expert and research chair at the University of British Columbia.

"People are really very much galvanised by the idea that the Chinese government will not listen to them. There is clearly a consensus in the (Tibetan) community that they have to take matters into their own hands."

Many Tibetans have resented Chinese rule since the 1959 flight into exile of revered spiritual leader the Dalai Lama, the 50th anniversary of which falls on March 10.

They say China has undermined their language and culture, and are bitter about Han Chinese flooding into the region, grabbing economic opportunities and often looking down on Tibetans.

An uneasy status quo has persisted for years in the "land of snows", with Beijing controlling Tibet while exiled Tibetans won popular support worldwide for their "peaceful resistance".

But recently China has thrown its rising diplomatic clout into efforts to curtail support for the exiles, while the Dalai Lama's health has raised questions about what Tibetans might do when he is no longer around to champion non-violence.

Guerrilla Attacks?

Hardliners in the Chinese government have little interest in a settlement with the Dalai Lama after riots erupted in Lhasa last March, killing 19 people and threatening at one point to darken Beijing's moment of Olympic glory in August.

For some conservatives, violence may even be a desirable outcome as it would provide them with an excuse to further crack down and label Tibetans "terrorists", while undermining the moral authority of the exile community, analysts said.

Even moderate leaders cannot afford to be seen as weak by moving to the centre of the political spectrum.

"They have built up power by presenting themselves as tough masters of these frontier people," said Robbie Barnett, director of the Modern Tibetan Studies Program at Columbia University.

"They are becoming entrenched in, and cornered by, their own rhetoric, so it is increasingly hard for them to make concessions or hold any talks (with the Dalai Lama)."

China has stepped up a campaign to try and dim his global profile, and last December called off an EU summit after French President Nicolas Sarkozy decided to meet the leader who Tibet's top Communist official denounced as a "jackal in monk's robes".

But the Dalai Lama is 73 and has had several recent health scares. By refusing to deal with him, Beijing risks facing a successor who lacks his authority and commitment to non-violence.

Many exiles quietly reject their leader's "Middle Way" approach that advocates greater autonomy for Tibet within China, and have called for more aggressive confrontation with Beijing.

There is little room under China's watchful gaze for a coordinated uprising. But exiles or discontented Tibetans within China could potentially inflict considerable damage with guerrilla-style attacks across the rest of the country.

A protest in Beijing last week underlined the dangers even in a country where the security services have sweeping powers.

Three people from another discontented and closely monitored western minority, the Muslim Uighurs, set themselves on fire near the city's symbolic heart, Tiananmen Square.

To Reincarnate or not to Reincarnate?

Any move towards violence could be exacerbated by the grief and political foment the Dalai Lama's death will stir up.

He is believed to be the 14th reincarnation of a Buddhist master -- the source of his authority, but an additional complication in what will already be a fraught succession.

Beijing and exiled Tibetans are expected to launch rival searches for a new incarnation. Regents who rule while the chosen boy is growing up add an element of uncertainty -- and the selection process itself could heighten tensions further.

Beijing maintains it has a say in anointing Tibet's next spiritual leader but its 1995 choice of an incarnation to succeed the late 10th Panchen Lama, shortly after the Dalai Lama announced his alternate selection, set an unhappy precedent.

Most Tibetans spurn China's Panchen Lama as a fake and the whereabouts of his missing rival is a big human rights issue. The Panchen Lama is Tibetan Buddhism's second most senior leader.

The greatest hope of resolution may be a deal that would bypass the exile community, but agree to respect the Dalai Lama but not allow him back, instead giving local Tibetans more control over their territory, said Melvyn Goldstein, director of the Centre for Research on Tibet at Ohio University.

"In the 1950s, Mao and the Chinese Communist government tried to win over elite Tibetans to be loyal citizens of China but still be Tibetan in terms of language, religion and culture ... I think at some point the best hope is that another Chinese leader will again pursue this strategy," he said.

"It can be done because winning the loyalty of Tibetans is in China's interest. Fifty years down the line, China doesn't want to find itself in the same situation as now ... particularly because there is no telling when it could explode into violence."