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A Tense Anniversary: 50 Years Later, Beijing Still Fails to Control Tibet

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Tuesday marks the 50th anniversary of the 1959 revolt in Tibet against China and the Dalai Lama's flight from the country. Despite decades of repression, the Tibetans living under Chinese control still dare to voice their demands for more autonomy -- and the return of their exiled spiritual leader

It was 6.30 a.m., and the sun had not yet risen when they left wearing their red robes to march along the narrow paths between the fields. Then they turned left at the Petro China gas station onto Democracy Street and continued in the direction of the Guinan local government offices.

It was Feb. 25, the first day of the Tibetan New Year. The monks from the Lutsang monastery had heeded the Dalai Lama's advice to his compatriots in China that, this year, they should forgo loud and joyful celebrations. The religious leader had made it known from his place of exile in India that -- in the light of the "immense difficulties and misery" faced by Tibetans -- the time had come for reflection.

It was this call that led roughly 100 monks to light candles on this particular morning and to present their demands to the local officials: That China should understand the hopes and thoughts of the Tibetans better.

There has probably never been a lonelier place for a protest. The road to Guinan trails like an endless ribbon through the high plains of Qinghai Province, where herds of yaks, goats and sheep, overseen by shepherds on horses and mopeds, graze on the blades of grass. Yet the action was not without consequences.

Patriotism Classes

Two weeks later, four long rows of monks from Guinan are crouching before the altar of their monastery, which clings to the side of a cliff. They murmur sutras and clap their hands. "Ten monks from our monastery are still in jail," one of them reports. The police have ordered the other monks not to come back into the town.

In a modest room heated by a coal-fired stove, a lama hesitates for a long time before speaking, despite the fact that this is forbidden by the authorities. In the end, he says: "The demonstration was not about Western democracy, but about a better Buddhism. My brothers had good reasons for their actions." His monastery is now under strict police surveillance; the monks have to take patriotism classes and distance themselves from that "traitor," the Dalai Lama. "He is still our spiritual leader," the lama says defiantly.

Acts of civil disobedience, such as the monks' demonstration in Guinan, show that the central government in Beijing does not have the Tibetans completely under control. As a number of important anniversaries loom, the tensions in the Tibetan areas are escalating.

50 Years of Civil Disobedience

On March 17, 1959, the then 23-year-old Dalai Lama fled to India on horseback after thousands of his supporters had rebelled against the Chinese military. The People's Liberation Army brutally suppressed the uprising. Then, in 1989, Chinese soldiers shot protesting monks and nuns on the streets of Lhasa, the capital of the Tibet Autonomous Region. On March 14 of last year, the Tibetans rose up again. According to the official figures, 19 people died. However, Tibetans in exile estimate that around 200 people lost their lives. The revolts led to the arrest of 2,405 "insurgents," of which 76 were given long jail sentences.

The government in Beijing is now extremely worried that there will be more unrest. Armed police and soldiers wearing steel helmets are positioned behind sandbags to monitor the roads leading to Xiahe in Gansu Province, where the Labrang monastery is located. No foreigners are allowed into Xiahe, and Chinese visitors have to sign a register as they enter the city. In marked contrast to the scenes in March 2008 when hundreds of them congregated in the city, the usually ubiquitous monks are nowhere to be seen.

Beijing's fear can be felt elsewhere, too. In Xining, the capital of the neighboring province of Qinghai, a water cannon mounted on a white police vehicle moves through the streets, followed by many military trucks. International TV programs are not allowed to be recieved in the big hotels there, and Tibetan residents are not given visas to leave the country.

China, Tibet and environs.
DER SPIEGEL

China, Tibet and environs.

Attempts to Mold Perspective

At the same time, the Communist Party is rewriting Tibetan history: On March 28, the anniversary of the day the party overthrew the government in Lhasa, there will be celebrations for the "liberation from serfdom." This was the date, the party claims, when the "democratic reforms" began in Tibet.

Every evening, Chinese-language news programs on Tibetan TV include features on local folklore: Women dance in costumes and nomads show off their equestrian skills, while police measure people's blood pressure on the streets of Lhasa. A Tibetan woman named Jinzhu donates her breast milk to the soldiers because it is said to ward off snow blindness when rubbed into the eyes.

Exhibitions, newspaper articles and talk shows are conveying a simple message across the country: Ever since Chinese troops marched into Tibet in 1950, the inhabitants are doing much better than when they were ruled by the monks.

Seething Discontent

Given how the economy has been modernized, Beijing is probably right. But the party is unable -- or unwilling -- to understand the deeper causes of a discontent that led Tibetans to kill some Chinese immigrants last year.

The inhabitants of other Tibetan regions are also protesting, although they face punishments, including torture and many years in prison. In Aba, a city in Tibet's neighboring province of Sichuan, a monk from the Kirt monastery set himself on fire. Eyewitnesses say the police shot at him as he burned. On March 1, some 200 Tibetan monks from the Sey monastery marched through the town. And, in Litang, a monk named Lobsang Lhundup stood in the market square and shouted: "Long live the Dalai Lama" and "Independence for Tibet." He was arrested.

Around 100 kilometers from Guinan, the Longwu monastery stands on the outskirts of the town of Tongren. It is one of the most important centers of Tibetan Buddhism. Last year, the approximately 340 monks living here staged three demonstrations against the government.

Leader in Absentia

In the first week of March, Tongren's main street is crowded with Tibetans buying pots, pans, butter and tea. Photos of the Dalai Lama hang in some shop windows.

Monks with shaven heads and books under their arms rush through the monastery's passageways. None of them dares to talk about the events of last year. Photos of the Dalai Lama and the 10th Panchen Lama, who was also a critic of Beijing's tough policy in Tibet and who died in 1989, hang here as well. They have been put up in front of statues of Buddha. It's a silent protest because it's forbidden to display pictures of the Dalai Lama in public. "When the police come, we hide them," says one monk.

After the unrest last year, he says, 200 monks from this monastery were locked up. The police now frequently conduct searches of the monks' quarters. "We're all afraid," he says. "There are informers among us. Please don't ask any more questions now. We must pray for peace."

The man they honor -- and who the government in Beijing hates so deeply -- was born almost 74 years ago some 100 kilometers from here in the village of Taktser. Everything is brown there at this time of the year -- the mountains, the fields, the houses. Tibetans, Chinese and Muslims from the Hui people live side by side in this place, growing potatoes, beans and corn.

In the early morning there's not a soul around on the paths or in the fields. The small farm where the Dalai Lama grew up -- and where monks tracked him down in 1937 as the reincarnation of the 13th Dalai Lama -- consists of three modest stone buildings surrounding a courtyard. Two thick bundles of hada, a type of Tibetan cloth, hang at the brown doorway. Two small metal plates adorn the door to a courtyard: "Honorable Family" says one. "Three combinations -- births, planning, family" says the other.

Where Rules Bend

Gongbu Tashi, 63, lives here. He is a retired teacher and a nephew of the Dalai Lama. He's not a dissident; quite the contrary: Gongbu Tashi has a seat on the Political Consultative Conference of the province, a powerless body made up of academics, business people and retired officials.

Still, Tashi showed a lot of courage by building a pagoda in honor of his uncle over the last two years. Its curved roof can be seen on the other side of the wall. He received 800,000 yuan -- €93,000 ($117,000) -- in donations for the construction. The authorities allow people access to the shrine, probably to prevent unrest among the farmers.

In these early days of March, no one is allowed inside. But the door suddenly opens -- everything must happen very quickly before the police find out. A narrow passage leads to the yard where the Dalai Lama once played. Two fir trees give shade, and there's a little tractor next to them. On the walls of the shrine there are brightly colored pictures of deities, and two statues flank the little pagoda. Pilgrims have put down a pink-colored egg, sausages and sweets as oblations.

"We hope so much that the Dalai Lama will be able to return here," said an old Tibetan woman with long braids before she closes the gate again. "He has to return, doesn't he?"

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