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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."

Tibet in Translation

June 25, 2008

James Reynolds' China
James Reynolds
June 23, 2008

It is the final day of our government-led tour of Tibet's capital
Lhasa. I'm in a group of about 40 foreign journalists invited into
Tibet on a trip to cover the Olympic torch relay. We're the first
foreign reporters China has allowed into the capital, Lhasa, for
almost three months.

First stop is the Sera monastery - one of the most important places
in Lhasa to Tibetans and also to China's security forces. Monks here
played a leading part in anti-China protests in March. Some were
arrested, others went on hunger strike.

Our tour starts shortly after 0900. We're driven to the monastery in
our official convoy (which is so large it's practically visible from
outer space).

We're met by a senior monk who gives us a short tour of the
monastery's main buildings. He speaks to us in Tibetan - his words
are translated by government interpreters (more on this later).

About 550 monks live in this monastery. But on our brief tour we come
across only about a dozen of them, none of whom look to be under 40.
That's no great surprise. The last time China organised a foreign
media trip to a monastery in Lhasa - at the end of March - the tour
was interrupted by a group of young monks shouting "Free Tibet".

We are allowed to interview one senior monk - Lobsang Choepel, the
Director of the Democractic Management Committee of the Sera Monastery.

We crowd around him - it's a first chance to ask the kinds of
questions we've all been thinking about for months.

One reporter asks: "What do you think of the Dalai Lama?"

The monk replies in Tibetan. The government interpreter translates
his words into English: "The Dalai is the head of the Gelupa sect and
I, myself, when I was young, I also learned religious scriptures from
Dalai. In terms of religion, we believe in Dalai, but I don't
recognise or accept what he says and what he does."

Does he teach the younger monks about the Dalai Lama ?

Answer (through the interpreter): "I'm not introducing Dalai to the students."

An interesting small point - when Lobsang Choepel speaks in Tibetan
we clearly hear him say the words "Dalai Lama". But the interpreter
uses the single word "Dalai" - a term often used by the Chinese
government, which can come across to Tibetans as derogatory.

We carry on asking questions.

"What does the Chinese government's re-education programme involve?"
(Since the Tibetan protests in Lhasa in March, the government says it
has sent task forces into monasteries to teach monks that they must
obey the law.)

The answer (through the interpreter): "The content of the legal
knowledge education is to help the monks to have a better
understanding of the state law and constitution so that after we have
this legal knowledge, in the future, we will not violate any laws."

And that's it. We're escorted back onto our buses. As we drive away,
we pass a number of shops and stalls on the road leading to the
monastery. Standing outside the shops are a number of men. We look
closely and see that many of them have ear pieces and carry
walkie-talkies. It's a pretty easy guess that they are plain clothes
officers, deployed to make sure there are no disruptions to our tour.

After the monastery, we're taken to the Potala Palace which overlooks
the heart of Lhasa. It was home to the Dalai Lama before he went into
exile in 1959. It takes us all of about three seconds to ask the
guide the question that's on all of our minds - can we see where the
Dalai Lama used to live?

We're taken in and shown his old chapels and his old bedroom (we get
to see the outer chamber - a curtain is drawn over the room that is
said to contain his old bed). As we walk through the palace, we see
two portraits of the Dalai Lama's immediate predecessor - but no
pictures of the current Dalai Lama whatsoever (in Tibet, displaying a
picture of the Dalai Lama is a punishable crime).

With that, the trip is done. We're driven to the airport. As we queue
up to go through the security check, we pass a bit of paper stuck to
a pillar - it shows photos of two Tibetan protestors wanted by the police.

The official doing the security check reminds us that cigarette
lighters are not allowed on board. But, right now, it seems that
there is an exception. A number of people waiting to get on the
flight back to Beijing are carrying long cardboard boxes - printed
with the logo of this summer's Olympic Games. Each of these people
ran a leg of the Olympic relay in Lhasa. As a reward, they get to
keep the torch they ran with (wrapped up carefully inside a cardboard
box). We head onto the plane, take off, and Lhasa disappears behind us.

I wonder when we'll be allowed to go back.
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