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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."

China calls Tibet youth group a terrorist organization

November 28, 2008

By Tim Johnson
McClatchy Newspapers
November 27, 2008

A rundown two-story building in this Himalayan hill station might not
seem to be the command center of a subversive group jangling the
nerves of neighboring China. Monkeys clamber over the rooftop, and
any stranger may walk through its front door.

Yet China calls the Tibetan Youth Congress "a terror group worse than
(Osama) bin Laden's" and accuses it of stockpiling guns, bombs and
grenades in Tibet for use by separatist fighters.

China alleges that the 30,000-member group has allied itself with
al-Qaida and with a homegrown Muslim separatist organization in
China, the East Turkestan Islamic Movement.

The president of the congress, Tsewang Rigzin, a former banker who
lived in Minneapolis, scoffs at China's charges, saying his group
seeks independence for Tibet but adheres to nonviolent principles put
forth by the Dalai Lama, the exiled spiritual leader whose
headquarters are here.

"These are all baseless and fallacious allegations that the Chinese
are making," Rigzin said over a meal of curry at a local restaurant,
suggesting that the charges were scare tactics aimed at the Chinese citizenry.

If nothing else, the views of the Tibetan Youth Congress underscore
the chasm between Beijing and Dharamsala over Tibet. On the streets
of China's large cities, ordinary citizens consider government
charges against the Tibetan Youth Congress as obvious fact, and look
upon those who question them as concealing a general bias toward
China. For their part, Tibetans see the charges as weird and fanciful.

Rigzin, a 38-year-old son of poor Tibetan exiles, hardly seems the
prototype of an international terrorist. He favors sport coats and,
with his receding hairline and soft-spoken manner, looks the part of
the banker that he was until mid-2007, when he left a wife and two
daughters in the U.S. to serve a three-year term as the group's president.

Rigzin was born in northeast India's Sikkim region, later moving to
south India with his parents. In 1993, he won a government lottery
for a U.S. visa and was placed in Santa Monica, Calif., where he got
a job making espresso at a local mall. He eventually moved to the
Twin Cities, where he climbed the ladder at a regional bank, NorWest,
which later was bought by Wells Fargo. A few years ago, he moved to
Vancouver, Wash.

The Tibetan Youth Congress, founded in 1970, has some 30,000 members
spread across 12 countries, with the largest chapters in India,
Nepal, the U.S., the United Kingdom and Canada. Its former leaders
have often gone on to serve in the Tibetan government in exile
headquartered here, which objects to China's viselike grip on the
Tibetan Plateau since a military incursion in 1950.

China turned its sights on the Congress during a spasm of unrest that
erupted March 14 in Lhasa, Tibet's capital, when ethnic Tibetans
rampaged through the city's streets, angry at the arrest of monks
days earlier during peaceful demonstrations. Rioters overturned
police cars, smashed store windows and set fires.

Authorities said the rioting left at least 22 people dead, many of
them Han Chinese, while exiles said more than 100 died, most of them Tibetans.

Largely peaceful demonstrations spread in subsequent weeks to dozens
of other ethnic Tibetan areas, turning into the largest bout of
ethnic unrest in China in nearly two decades.

Liu Hongji, a senior researcher at the China Tibetology Research
Center, a Beijing-based organization that does research on Tibet,
said the Tibetan Youth Congress played a role in the unrest through
the use of "mobile phones, e-mail and sending people to China. They
have a system, which is like a spy network."

In May, Liu told the official Xinhua news agency that the Congress
"sought mutual support from international terrorist organizations
such as al-Qaida and East Turkestan groups" in northwest China. The
agency also quoted him as saying the group held training sessions,
"such as one on 'dynamite techniques' and another on how to carry out
violent and terrorist activities."

In the interview, though, Liu declined to elaborate on charges that
the group is now armed.

"Because we do research, not intelligence, we cannot provide
details," Liu said. "But it is said that they have these (weapons).
These are secret."

The People's Daily, the official mouthpiece of China's ruling party,
cited a spokesman for the Ministry of Public Security, Wu Heping, on
April 8 saying police had raided homes of Tibetan monks following the
March unrest and confiscated 178 guns, 13,013 bullets, 359 knives,
7,709 pounds of explosives, 19,360 primers and two grenades.

"How destructive it would be if these weapons were added together! If
'Tibetan Youth Congress' was not a terrorist organization, what else
would it be?" the People's Daily asked.

No such weaponry is known to have been used in any attack, and the
group responded in July with a statement of its own.

"In its 39 years of existence, the TYC has not been involved in a
single incidence of resorting to terrorism," the group said, adding
that "all TYC campaigns in the past have been peaceful."

Rigzin declined to say whether Congress members played any role in
stirring unrest earlier this year in Tibet, responding curtly with a
"no comment" when asked about the group's contacts inside China,
saying only that Tibetans have plenty of reason to rise up on their own.

"Ours is a democratic organization, a transparent one," Rigzin said.
"Anybody can come to our office and check it out. We have nothing to
hide. What China is saying, they could be able to fool some of their
own people in China, but they can't fool the international community."

In a speech at Harvard University on Oct. 8, the Dalai Lama's chief
negotiator with China, Lodi Gyari, said his Chinese counterparts
routinely label the Congress "as being a terrorist organization" - a
charge he rejects.

Analysts of Tibet in the West generally say that while Congress
leaders voice skepticism over the Dalai Lama's nonviolent approach
and chatter about the possible use of sabotage and other violence,
the sentiments don't appear to go beyond mere talk.

Liu, the Chinese analyst, said Beijing has yet to formally declare
the Congress as a terrorist organization but will do so if new
evidence emerges.

"If it (the Congress) still carries out violent incidents, people of
the world will know its terrorist nature better," Liu said, "which
not only helps China but also the whole world. The whole world hates
terrorism very deeply."

At a gathering of hundreds of Tibetan exiles in this Indian city that
ended Nov. 22, a few participants said the Chinese campaign to
demonize the group and affix the terrorist label to it had only
succeeded in reframing news coverage into "China says, Tibet says"

"What they've been successful at is creating doubt and this need to
'balance' coverage," said Nima Dorjee, an engineer based in Calgary,
Alberta. The terrorism label, he added, also contributes an emotional
element that "makes it uneasy for outsiders to discuss the issues."
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