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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."

Opinion: Into the dragon's den I went and came out unscathed!

July 25, 2008

Visit to Tibet and China
By Dhawa Dhondup (Acharya)
July 23, 2008

In the third week of June this year I entered the outer fringes of
Tibet (Sichuan Province) and stayed in the area for twenty days. From
what I heard from people there and later from news items in the free
world, it appears I was one of the only few Tibetans, if not the only
one, who managed to get into Tibetan territory at that time.

A Tibetan living abroad with a foreign passport had been turned away
from the same Chinese airport a few days ago. He happened to speak
Chinese and the Chinese officials had a ball abusing him and turning
him away. Some Tibetans, with a certain South-East Asian-country
passport, running businesses in China had the bad luck of going out
of the country just prior to the March protests, and now are denied
visa to re-enter China - they are still waiting at the gates of
China! Upon my return to the free world the first news I heard was of
the Tibetan lady from London turned away from Beijing airport.

Outwardly things do not appear too restrictive in places like
Chengdu, Dhartsedo and even deeper inside Tibetan regions like
Barkham, the places I visited. Handful of Westerners could still be
seen wandering the streets of Dhartsedo ('Kangding'), although none
in Barkham. Except for the heavy police presence, day and night, in
Wuwuqi Tibetan Street (the Tibetan area of Chengdu) monitoring the
Tibetans, Chengdu feels like an open city for travelers.

But these are sensitive times. Besides the ubiquitous close-circuit
cameras on the ceilings of the hotels, when you check in, your
passport is photocopied and sent to Public Security Bureau (PSB, the
Chinese secret agency), and you are casually asked the inevitable
twin questions: "Where are you coming from?" and "Where are you going
next?" The answers to these are also sent by the receptionist to PSB.
How do I know of this? Once when I was asked these I responded by
asking back why am I being asked the same questions again and again,
every time I checked in. In her innocence the receptionist blurted
out that they have to send to "the police (she meant PSB)" these
reports daily. I was told that there is certainly a personnel from
PSB, in disguise as a hotel staff, in every hotel where foreigners
stay. Definitely you get the feeling many eyes were watching you each
time you entered or left the premises. Guys in crew-cut do hang around.

I had nothing to fear. I entered the country legally with a valid
visa. I went as a pilgrim and as an observer, a pilgrim visiting my
own motherland Tibet, and an observer of what it is like in Tibet and
China. Intentionally, I did not engage in anything political, least
the Chinese reassert their blatantly false accusation of protests in
Tibet being instigated from abroad. Also, purely to not bring on
unnecessary troubles to the locals I avoided contacts with them. In
the handful of temples and monasteries I visited I did not engage in
conversations except for making an offering or a donation.

But I went for daily rounds and prayers at local Tibetan temples and
monasteries. I ate at Tibetan restaurants. I travelled in cars owned
by Tibetans. There was bound to be chance conversations, compatriot
confluence of ideas, experiences, narratives, and so on.

The picture one gets is there has been very heavy-handed crackdown on
Tibetans, post 14 March. Monasteries and the ordained are
particularly being subjected to a ruthless campaign of restrictions
and scrutiny. In Ngawa ('Ngaba') region of Amdo, bordering Barkham,
major monasteries of learning and practice have become deserted of
resident monks: the younger monks who could not bear to stand the new
political re-education of denouncing the exile leadership simply left
their monasteries, only a few immobile elderly monks remain behind.
"Unless there is going to be something done from outside about our
country, from within here it is all finished" - such whispers of
despondency reflect the situation inside Tibet.

Yet in Karze daily protests continue to the day, despite inevitable
arrests and torture. Witnesses tell of Tibetans being shot right in
the marketplace. A Chinese soldier to every Tibetan in Karze would
still leave a surplus of Chinese soldiers - this is how hard the
Chinese have come down on the Tibetans and yet the Tibetans are still defiant.

Tibetans who had to leave Lhasa because their hometown is in eastern
Tibet, and not holding a Lhasa resident permit, use this common
phrase in describing what it had become to be living in Lhasa,
"Sem-pa kyi-po khyoen-ney min-dhuk" Mind-is-not-happy-at-all.

Early in the morning of 24 June I saw people waiting across the road
from the local Ngawa ('Ngaba') County Court, in Barkham. Armed troops
marched up and down the main street of the town. Words spread that
three Tibetans who protested, in Ngawa, were going to be sentenced
that day. Representatives from local institutions were decreed to
attend the proceedings, to give it a facade of an open public trial.

By afternoon the marketplace was abuzz with the tragic news that of
the three Tibetans one was sentenced to life imprisonment, with
belongings to be officially confiscated, another Tibetan was
sentenced to eleven years and the third to eight years. I felt sad
and mournful that evening, thinking three fellow Tibetans have been
subjected to a colonial law and sentenced in a remote country town,
away from the knowledge of the outside world. Against my own wish I
thought it far too dangerous to make any attempt at finding out the
names of the three Tibetans who would suffer for a long time in
Chinese prisons. I would not do anything to add to their false
accusation of exile instigation.

Again, for that reason, when I noticed a poster on the walls to the
entrance of the hotel where I stayed a night at Tanpa ('Danba') I
feigned not seeing it, let alone give it a second glance. At the
first sight I read the heading "'Zin-bZung bKa'-rgya" (Order for
Arrest), with black and white photocopied passport-profile
photographs numbering over thirty faces. The odd thing about the
poster was it was entirely written in Tibetan. I wondered if the
Chinese authorities were trying to play down the extent of the recent
protests, in the eyes of the Chinese public, by concealing the "Order
for Arrest" behind the veil of a language unintelligible to the
public. Having wandered about the hotel for a whole day and night
when I suddenly noticed the poster the next morning my initial
thoughts were the officials were sending a threatening warning to me.
Only when I found out that the hotel's wall adjoined with that of the
main long-distance bus-stand of Tanpa I realized it was a mere coincidence.

Four days later, by sheer coincidence a similar poster was pasted on
the wall to the entrance of the hotel I stayed in Dhartsedo, a
distance of over a hundred kilometers away from Tanpa. Here the
poster had been defaced and torn apart - Tanpa bus-stand is too small
a place for anyone to attempt such, whereas in a relatively much
busier town like Dhartsedo some brave people have taken the advantage
of night-time darkness and a busy traffic of pedestrians.

These are the things I saw. I had decided not to become a courier of
rumours and I wasn't going to ferry across gossips here to there and
there to here. Other things I witnessed were:

A few hours after the sentencing of the three Tibetans in Barkham
('Maerkhang') the local television showed an in-depth programme
titled "March 14," in Chinese. A petite host spoke with a tone of
vengeance. The footages focused on interviews of Han victims and
charred shops of Lhasa. Incredibly, they still show the Chinese
policeman in disguise wearing Chupa and brandishing a long sword,
prompting others to riot! Many months after the disguise was busted
(by a Thai tourist) and the Chinese propaganda of the footage
discredited and the picture apparently taken off the official Chinese
websites, they are still showing it in June 2008, to an audience in
remote town in Sichuan province!

What is telling is there was hardly any extra footage of those days
that weren't in the Western broadcasts. Part of the programme focused
on the alleged biased attitude of Western media in reporting of the
protests. BBC online pages highlighted and circled with fluorescent
ink by the Chinese, which we have seen way back in March, were still
being shown in June 2008!

In the afternoon of 5 July I arrived back in Dhartsedo ('Kangding'),
after visits to Barkham and Tanpa. Police cars and motorbikes
patrolled up and down the main solitary road of the town. At one
stage there was a police motorcade of three motorbikes at the front,
followed by four cars and another three motorbikes at the rear.
Fearing protests from the Tibetans next day on the important day of
His Holiness the Dalai Lama's birthday, the Chinese officials were
making a show of their arms, to intimidate the Tibetans. Tibetan
monks and nuns walked about the streets uncowed.

The following day I stayed in the town till midday. It was a Sunday
and the main marketplace was quiet. But there were Tibetans,
especially elderly ones, who were offering juniper-incense at the
giant hearth of the local temples, fervently turning the massive
prayer-wheels, and audibly reciting the extensive Long-life Prayer of
His Holiness, The entire three secrets of the infinite Victorious Ones/...

When I headed towards Chengdu that afternoon, I recited in the car
Gang-ri ra-wai kor-wai zhing-kham dhir/...(In this realm surrounded
by snowy mountains/...) all the way upto Erlang Tunnel ('Erlangsha'
Tunnel). After a full five minutes through the tunnel, on the other
side I changed the recitation into Gang-ri ra-wai kor-wai zhing-kham
dher/ (In that realm surrounded by snowy mountains/...)

In this part of Tibetan territory Erlang Mountain Pass, into which
the tunnel had been dug through, demarcates the border between
Tibetan territory and Chinese territory. It is here, when coming from
below the plains of the Chinese area one sees the first road signage
in the Tibetan language, in gold lettering Erlang PHug-Lam (Erlang Tunnel).

(If I manage to find some time, a second part will follow this,
telling besides other things, how I was hassled by the Chinese
officials at the entry into the country, during the stay, and at the
final departure at the airport, and how I was able to stand up in
their face as a Tibetan.)
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