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"We Tibetans are looking for a legitimate and meaningful autonomy, an arrangement that would enable Tibetans to live within the framework of the People’s Republic of China."

Dalai Lama still revered by Tibetans in China

October 26, 2010

Bill Schiller
The Toronto Star
October 22, 2010

XIAHE, CHINA -- Her Tibetan name is Dolma.

She’s a mother in her early 40s, making a
pilgrimage to Labrang Monastery, heading west
through snowcapped mountains along Highway 312 -- on her hands and knees.

It has been four days in chilly temperatures and
Dolma estimates she could have four more days to
go -- prostrating herself on the pavement every
third step of the way as cars and transport trucks blow past.

And yet she’s smiling -- and offering me food.

A chance encounter with Dolma is testament to the
enduring devotion Tibetan Buddhists hold for
their faith, under78pinned by a loyalty to the
Dalai Lama, who has not seen this land for more than five decades.

"It would be better if he came back," says Dolma,
pulling a plastic bag from her knapsack on the
banks of the rushing Daxia River to share a bit of bread.

The Dalai Lama is still "our spiritual guide," she says.

Whether he will ever return to Tibet -- and to
this remote piece of Chinese countryside that is
home to the greatest Tibetan monastery outside
the official boundaries of Tibet -- is questionable.

The decision ultimately rests in the hands of the
Chinese government, stung by riots that erupted
in the Tibetan capital of Lhasa in March, 2008,
which then spread east through communities here along the Tibetan plateau.

Labrang monastery was a centre of discontent at the time.

Today, just a kilometre away, there’s a new
police station, riot vehicles and a new prison is under construction.

But whether the Dalai Lama returns or not, isn't
likely to effect the loyalty of the people here.

"Every family has a photo of him in their home,"
says a shopkeeper on the mainstreet of Xiahe, the
town that is home to the Labrang monastery.

"That picture?" the merchant says, pointing to a
photo of the Dalai Lama behind the counter. "We
take it down when the police come in. Then we put it back up when they leave."

The Star visited one Tibetan home in Xiahe
recently that was festooned with images of the Dalai Lama.

Local authorities loyal to the government in
Beijing might not like it -- but they can’t stop
it, no matter how hard they try.

Police ransacked local monasteries here in 2008
hunting for images of the Dalai Lama. Monks who
didn’t give them up faced arrest and even beatings.

China’s central government hoped their crackdown
in the wake of the rioting, which they accused
the Dalai Lama of instigating from his base in
India -- a charge he denies-- would pry people
from their loyalty to Tibet’s most famous protector.

But that hasn’t happened.

In fact a group of respected Chinese legal
scholars who issued a report last year suggested
that, if anything, those loyalties have likely deepened.

The Beijing-based Open Constitution Initiative
said the 2008 riots in Tibet and Tibetan areas
have made the Tibetan people -- especially the
youth -- sense their "differences" even more.

Just this week at least 1,000 students, and
perhaps as many as 7,000, staged a daring protest
in the remote town of Tongren, 75 km. north of
here, triggered by reports that local Communist
Party officials planned to end classes in the Tibetan language.

Protests in China -- unless you are participating
in government-tolerated protests against Japan
these days -- are an open invitation to arrest, sometimes for years.

None have been made in Tongren -- so far.

But in a country where dissenting voices are not
tolerated, many fear they will come.

The Open Constitution Initiative, for example,
which issued the report last year critical of the
government’s handling of Tibet, has been shut down.

But high up on the Tibetan plateau, the heavy hand is not working.

Two hundred kms south of Labrang, a lean and wiry
monk sets some barberry twigs alight.

Acting as his own bellows, he blows the flames
higher until the light dances off his face.

His name cannot be used -- he’s on a government
register: his safety could be at risk.

But despite government harassment, his allegiance
to the Dalai Lama is unwavering.

He was in this dim and spartan hillside apartment
when 12 armed policemen showed up one night just after the 2008 riots.

"They wanted every picture of the Dalai Lama I
had," he says. "I refused -- and one of the
policeman pointed a gun at my head then." He uses
his right hand and points his index finger at his forehead like a cocked gun.

"They said I should co-operate."

He went to his cupboard and retrieved the pictures.

"I had no choice," he says. "I performed a small ritual and handed them over."

"There were hundreds of police here, maybe a
thousand in all going room to room," he says.

Thereafter, weeks of "political education"
classes followed in which he and his fellow monks
were forced to denounce the Dalai Lama and pledge
loyalty to the Communist Party or face arrest.

Most complied, he said -- but only because
superiors told them the denunciations would mean nothing.

"We continue to do as the Dalai Lama wants us to
do," he says. They study, they pray, they lead
lives of humility and compassion.

Monks at the Lhamo Kirti Monastery, as all the
locals know, supported the pro-Tibet protests then.

But monks at their associate monastery, the Lhamo
Serti, just a kilometer across the valley, did not.

The differences between the two monasteries are as stark as day and night.

Serti has been described by the local Communist
Party Secretary Wang Wanbin as "a good model of
patriotism," and it glistens with elaborate gilt
and bronze roofs that sparkle in the sun.

The Serti contains 400 exquisite figures of
Buddha, 8000 hand painted pictures and 28,000
sutras tucked away in ornate temples. The artwork
has been brought here at great expense from Nepal, Taiwan, Mongolia and Tibet.

A glossy brochure touts the Serti Monastery as a
tourist destination and boasts that it received
support "from all levels of government."

Not so with the Lhamo Kerti Monastery however: it
is a sad and shabby place in need of paint, plaster and repair.

There are no gilt roofs at the Kerti -- just wood and aluminum.

"The government doesn’t give us a cent," says a
Tibetan lay worker repairing one of the small
temples. "Everything you see here is being done by the monastery on its own."

A visitor could be forgiven for thinking that
there is a price to be paid for loyalty to the Dalai Lama.

But the host monk in this apartment -- who now
offers bread, yak butter and tea -- is clearly prepared to pay it.

"Why is there such a difference between the two?"
he asks rhetorically -- after all, both
monasteries belong to the Gelugpa sect, the so
called "Yellow Hat" branch of Tibetan Buddhism to
which the Dalai Lama belongs. "Because," he says,
"we have a good relationship with the Dalai Lama.
We listen to the Dalai Lama. And they do not."

A local Chinese businessman supports this tale of two monasteries.

"It’s politics," says Liu Bin. "The Lhamo Kerti
monks got involved in the 3.14 incident."

Liu is not enthusiastic either with how much
money has been poured into the Serti Monastery"
or Tibets in general, for that matter.

"They put 70 million Renminbi (more than $10
million) into that monastery," he says. "The
government gave the Tibetans 500 million Renminbi
one year just to get through the winter. And they
build houses for them worth 50,000 Renminbi
equipped with appliances. Then they gave each
family two tonnes of coal for the winter."

The changes in the town of Langmusi have been
"huge," he says, looking out on the rugged,
potholed main street that is bustling with small
town commerce, most of it led by ambitious Chinese and Hui business people.

Langmusi is a frontier town, with a touch of the Wild West.

"When I came here as a tourist 10 years ago the
Tibetans were still riding horses. Now they all
have motorcycles," says Liu, gesturing through
the window and dragging on a cigarette.

On the face of it, that’s true: many young
Tibetans make their way around Langmusi’s rutted streets on smart motorbikes.

But as the Open Constitution report pointed out,
until at least last year, the local region --
known as the Gannan Autonomous Prefecture -- was
a nationally designated poverty relief zone, with
farmers and nomadic herders living below subsistence levels.

Education levels too, despite significant funding
by the central government, remain poor, with 2007
statistics showing the average Tibetan had less than four years of schooling.

And the government’s long touted nine-year
compulsory education plan has only been
implemented in the local county this year.

Despite the increased spending in Tibetan areas,
the report emphasized, understanding and respect
for the Tibetan culture remain fundamental if
China is ever to succeed in solving the Tibetan question.

It said there were likely outside influences in
stirring the riots as the government insisted at
the time, but the government’s policies have also fallen short.

It quoted one local Tibetan, Norbu, stressing
that what matters most to Tibetans goes far
beyond consumerism and better housing.

"A Tibetan’s prosperity is more about freedoms,
such as freedom of religious belief, a respect
for people, a respect for life," he said.

For most Tibetans here it also means keeping a
special place for the Dalai Lama. Sometimes it’s
a picture on a wall; sometimes a prayer; but
mostly, it’s a deeply felt sentiment.

In Labrang, a nervous young monk in his 20s --
careful to keep out of earshot of others -- says
bluntly, but with feeling, "No matter where the
Dalai Lama is, whether he is here in China or in
any other country, there will always be a special place for him in my heart."
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