Five years after an explosion of unrest on the Tibetan plateau, the region is again in crisis. This time the world is looking away
INSIDE a small monastery in China’s Qinghai province, a red-robed monk looks around to see if he is being watched, then begins sobbing. “We just want the Dalai Lama to come home”, he says. His words echo those of dozens of Tibetans seeking to explain why they have set themselves on fire in public places across the Tibetan plateau in the past two years. Desperation is growing among the Dalai Lama’s followers in China. So, too, is the government’s effort to silence them.
Since an outbreak of unrest swept the Tibetan plateau five years ago this month, including anti-Chinese riots in the Tibetan capital Lhasa and protests in numerous towns and monasteries, the party has tried to control Tibetan discontent by means of carrot and stick. The stick has involved tighter policing of monasteries, controls on visits to Lhasa, denunciations of the Dalai Lama and arrests of dissidents. The carrot is visible not far from the crying monk’s monastery: new expressways across the vast grasslands, new roads to remote villages, better housing for monks and restorations to their prayer-halls. Yet the spectacle of more than 100 Tibetans setting themselves alight, mostly in the past two years, in one of the largest such protests in modern political history, suggests that neither approach is working.
Despite, or perhaps because of, intense crackdowns in the affected areas of the Tibetan plateau, the burnings in recent months have spread across a wider area (the plateau is one-third the size of America) and involved more people without links to monasteries. The government’s growing worry is evident in the intense security in the worst-affected areas, mostly in Tibetan-populated parts of the provinces of Sichuan and Qinghai, as well as in Lhasa, the capital of the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR). Since last year the government has begun rounding up those deemed to have encouraged Tibetans to burn themselves. Dozens have been detained. Several have been jailed for terms ranging from a few months to life.
All of the TAR, as well as trouble spots in neighbouring provinces, are off limits to most foreign journalists. But tension is palpable even in the few areas that remain accessible. During celebrations of the Tibetan new year in late February, at least three fire engines were parked inside Kumbum monastery compound near Xining, the capital of Qinghai. Dozens of police with extinguishers and fire blankets stood among the crowds of pilgrims and holidaymakers. West of Xining in Hainan prefecture, a Tibetan-majority area about the size of Switzerland, no one has been reported to have set themselves on fire. But the authorities are worried. In November hundreds of medical students protested in Gonghe county against the circulation of a government leaflet disparaging the immolators and the Dalai Lama. Residents say the police used tear-gas to break up a demonstration in the county town and arrested several participants. The prefectural authorities called the demonstration “illegal” and demanded that young people in Hainan form a (metaphorical) “wall of copper and rampart of iron against splittism, infiltration and self-immolations”.
Though most minority groups live fairly peacefully under Chinese rule (see article), the Tibetans cite many reasons for the renewed unrest: the continuing influx of ethnic-Han migrants (encouraged by huge government investment in transport infrastructure); environmental damage caused by mining and construction; the marginalisation of the Tibetan language in schools. The ageing of the Dalai Lama (he is 77) and his announcement in 2011 that he was retiring as head of Tibet’s government-in-exile in India are also factors. A growing sense that this incarnation of the Dalai Lama might not have much longer is fuelling demands for his return to the land that he fled after a failed uprising in 1959.
Too long in exile
“[In] this life…service at least in the field of Tibetan struggle now already end”, says the Dalai Lama in his halting English in the Indian town of Dharamsala that is his home. He is now, he says, devoting himself to the promotion of religious harmony and a dialogue between Buddhism and modern science. China is not convinced. Robert Barnett of Columbia University says that in recent weeks Chinese officials have increasingly accused the “Dalai Lama clique” of organising the burnings.
Mr Barnett says it is possible that China will try to defuse the tensions by reopening talks with the Dalai Lama’s representatives. There have been no such meetings since January 2010, when the two sides reached an impasse over differences relating to the envoys’ call for “genuine autonomy” for Tibet, while accepting that it remain part of China. (Other Tibetans in India still want independence, a cause of dispute among the exiles.) Chinese officials denounce even the compromise of autonomy as a scheme for achieving full independence. Among China’s other concerns is a proposal that Tibet be defined as the TAR plus the Tibetan-inhabited areas of neighbouring provinces, an area one quarter the size of China (see map).
The Dalai Lama’s retirement could make a resumption of talks more difficult. In August 2011, after winning an election in which nearly 50,000 Tibetan exiles voted, Lobsang Sangay, a Harvard academic, took over as head of the exiled government and assumed the political role once played by the Dalai Lama (“now demon peacefully sleeping”, the holy man quips, referring to a word he says Chinese officials have used to describe him). Mr Sangay says that China can still hold talks if it wants with the Dalai Lama’s representatives. But those envoys resigned in June, citing the “deteriorating situation” in Tibet and China’s failure to “respond positively” to autonomy proposals. Among the powers Mr Sangay has taken on is the right to appoint the envoys’ successors, who have yet to be chosen. This will make China wary of beginning talks, for fear of conferring legitimacy on the new exile administration.
Some Tibetans in India see a glimmer of hope in China’s ten-yearly change of leadership which will be completed with the appointments of Xi Jinping as president and Li Keqiang as prime minister shortly before the end of the annual session of China’s parliament, the National People’s Congress, on March 17th (see article). Mr Xi’s predecessor, Hu Jintao, was party chief in Tibet during an outbreak of unrest in the late 1980s which he resolutely suppressed (just as he suppressed the far bigger eruption in 2008). Mr Xi, goes the thinking, could be different. In the 1950s the Dalai Lama got to know Mr Xi’s late father, Xi Zhongxun, who was one of Mao Zedong’s comrades. The elder Xi received a watch from the Dalai Lama, which he wore long after the flight to India. If the father had a soft spot for the Dalai Lama, optimists think, so might the son.
In recent months the birthplace of the Dalai Lama in Hongya village, about 30km (20 miles) south-east of Kumbum monastery, has been given a makeover, though no one is sure why. Despite a crackdown on Dalai Lama worship elsewhere on the plateau, visitors to the grey-walled compound can see photographs of him, as well as a golden throne intended for him to sit on should he ever return. A caretaker says money for the recent improvements (including new bricks and a coat of paint) came from the government. She says foreigners are not allowed inside, but gladly shows around a group of Tibetan pilgrims who have driven hundreds of kilometres to see the site. But exiled officials are unimpressed and the Dalai Lama is cautious. “Better to wait till some concrete things happen, otherwise…some disappointment”, he says with a chuckle.
Indeed, disappointment still appears likely. Mr Xi is under little pressure from other countries to change Chinese policy on Tibet. The unrest in 2008 broke out as China was preparing to host the Olympic games. It wanted the event to mark the country’s emergence as an open-minded world power. Despite that, it cracked down hard on the protests, but in a concession to international demands, resumed talks with the Dalai Lama’s representatives less than two months later. Two rounds were held before the games started, but with no obvious progress.
Since 2008 the West’s economic malaise has made China even less amenable to foreign persuasion on Tibet. Britain, hoping to reduce China’s prickliness on the issue, announced in October that year that it was abandoning its century-old policy (unique among Western countries) of merely recognising China’s “suzerainty” over the region rather than its sovereignty. It has reaped no obvious reward. Britain’s relations with China were plunged into a prolonged chill by a meeting last May between the Dalai Lama and the British prime minister, David Cameron. Global Times, a Beijing newspaper, said last month that China had “more leverage than Britain” in the two countries’ relations, adding with some justification: “Few countries can afford to really be tough against China.”
One nation indivisible
Mr Xi faces little pressure from public or elite opinion inside China, other than to maintain a firm grip. Some Chinese intellectuals have questioned whether the government’s heavy-handedness in Tibet will bring about long-lasting stability. A small but seemingly growing number of Han Chinese, the country’s ethnic majority, are attracted by Tibetan Buddhism (Han visitors to Kumbum Monastery thronged around its statues and clasped their hands in prayer during the recent festivities). But concessions to the Dalai Lama on autonomy have little support in China.
Few observers expect any relaxation of what seems to be a stepped-up effort to stop Tibetans fleeing to India. Before 2008, 2,000-3,000 a year were doing so. This fell to a few hundred after the unrest that year. A new refugee centre opened in Dharamsala in 2011, with American funding and the capacity for 500 people. In 2012 fewer than 400 escaped. At the beginning of March only two people—a couple from a Tibetan area of Sichuan province—were there. Before they left their village, they had to sign a document saying they would not go to India. For Tibetans, even visiting Lhasa needs a permit. Last year hundreds were detained, some of them for months, after returning from legal trips to India in which they surreptitiously attended teachings by the Dalai Lama in Bodh Gaya, a holy Buddhist site.
Heavy security in Tibet, including riot police patrolling the streets of Lhasa, may help prevent another plateau-wide explosion like that of 2008. But the sight of Tibetans setting themselves on fire, and official attempts to denigrate them, are deepening the region’s wounds. Little chance of resolution is in sight. The weeping monk recalls that, after an earthquake in 2010 in Qinghai’s Yushu county, officials asked some victims what they needed. They replied that they just wanted the Dalai Lama back. “They can control us,” the monk says, “but they can’t control our hearts.”