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Tibetan corner calmed by Chinese tolerance

February 20, 2012

By Jamil Anderlini in Qinghai province  Financial Times 15 Feb 2012 

As demonstrations against Chinese rule swept across the Tibetan plateau in March 2008, the monks of Gartse lamasery led hundreds of lay people from the surrounding town in a protest march.

But unlike other Tibetan-majority areas, where Chinese troops opened fire on unarmed demonstrators, the Gartse monks were allowed to protest in peace. Now, as fresh protests and a grisly wave of self-immolations ripple through Chinese-ruled Tibetan areas, the situation around Gartse and most of what is today Qinghai province remains relatively calm.

Local Chinese, Tibetan leaders, experts and exile groups give credit to the relatively lenient governance style in much of Qinghai, which contrasts starkly with far more punitive policies elsewhere.

“We’ve heard about the troubles in other [Tibetan] areas, but our relations with the government are quite good,” said one senior monk at the Gartse lamasery.

From the wall of his small monk’s room, a large framed photo of the Dalai Lama, the deeply revered Tibetan spiritual leader who has lived in exile since 1959, beamed down on him, despite the fact the picture is banned in China.

“Oh that, no, we don’t have a problem with the authorities over that, they know about them but they let us have these as long as we keep them in our personal space,” he explained with a wave of his crimson-robed arm.

In the past year, at least 23 Tibetans, most of them young monks or former monks and including three nuns, have set fire to themselves to protest religious persecution and conditions under Chinese rule.

These gruesome acts of dissent began in a part of western Sichuan province that was once eastern Tibet and have spread throughout the area even though Tibetans do not have a history of self-immolation.

Over the past two weeks alone, seven people have set themselves alight. And two Tibetans were shot dead by police who were hunting them in connection with their role in fresh protests three weeks ago, according to Tibetan exiles and human rights groups.

Late last month, police shot and killed at least another seven Tibetan demonstrators and wounded 60 in protests in the province, according to the Tibetan government-in-exile.

The Chinese government has only publicly acknowledged two Tibetan deaths after police fired in “self-defence” when they were attacked by “mobs” of demonstrators.

Most of the self-immolations have been carried out in the remote Ngaba region of Sichuan, home to the famous Kirti monastery and now the focus of a huge crackdown by Chinese security forces.

Meanwhile, Qinghai has only seen two reported self-immolations. Large peaceful protests in the past week have been met with restraint from the authorities and ended without any violent confrontation.

“We have a cocktail of sensitive factors here which the authorities in Sichuan don’t seem to know how to handle appropriately but interestingly, they do seem to know how to handle them in Qinghai,” says Robbie Barnett, director of modern Tibet studies at Columbia University.

“There have been immolations and protests there too, large ones with hundreds of people, but there was no violence. It looks like they have different rules of engagement on the ground in Sichuan and Qinghai.”

The government’s more moderate approach was apparent in discussions last week with dozens of monks and lay people throughout Tibetan areas in Qinghai and neighbouring Gansu province.

Unconcealed pictures of the Dalai Lama, whom Chinese officials have referred to as a “terrorist” were present inside almost every home.

In Ping’an, a major transportation hub just 30km from the birthplace of the Dalai Lama, police officers were posted at every intersection, but they were unarmed and there was no sign of the overwhelming force on display in Tibetan areas in Sichuan.

“Many Tibetans in Sichuan oppose the Chinese government because it is taking away whole families, persecuting people and even shooting people who protest,” said one monk from Sichuan who was visiting the Labrang monastery, in southern Gansu province, the biggest and most important Tibetan monastery outside of Tibet.

“Down there they throw monks in jail for carrying out our religious practices and if you are caught with a picture of His Holiness the Dalai Lama you get into big trouble.”

Analysts say that since Tibetan demonstrations and riots broke out across the region in 2008 there has been a marked divergence in the responses from different regional authorities and the serious unrest in Sichuan is a direct result of the harsh methods used there.

The anti-Dalai Lama campaign has been ramped up in Sichuan, monasteries have been sealed off and the monks have been subjected to harsh “patriotic re-education” campaigns.

At the Kirti monastery, the epicentre of the self-immolations and protests, the number of monks has fallen from more than 2,000 three years ago to about 500 now, as those who refused to denounce the Dalai Lama were forcibly ejected from the monastery by the authorities.

A myopic focus on rapid economic growth has encouraged large-scale Chinese migration into traditionally Tibetan areas, Chinese language has been prioritised over Tibetan in schools and hundreds of thousands of nomads have been forced off their land into settlements.

“The result is that they have lost eastern Tibet,” says Mr Barnett. “These areas used to be peaceful and people may not have liked Chinese rule but they did not openly fight it.”

Unfortunately, analysts say that areas such as Qinghai are more likely to be ordered to emulate the ruthless methods of Sichuan than vice versa. That is especially true in a year when a new crop of officials will take over the reins of the Chinese Communist party and none can afford to look weak on a core issue of national sovereignty.

In a speech last year to mark 60 years since the “peaceful liberation” of Tibet, vice-president Xi Jinping, the man who will almost certainly be anointed the supreme leader of China at the end of this year, signalled his stance on Tibet.

“We need to deepen and advance our battle against the Dalai [Lama]’s separatist clique,” he said. “We must pulverise all plots to destroy Tibet’s stability or endanger our nation’s unity.”

Additional Reporting by Kathrin Hille in Beijing

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