As Tibetans Mark ‘National Uprising Day,’ Tensions Simmer on the High Plateau

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Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama, right, shakes hands with Lobsang Sangay, the Tibetan Prime Minister in exile, after Sangay gave an official statement marking the 53rd anniversary of the Tibetan uprising against Chinese rule on March 10, 2012, in Dharamsala, India

It’s known as National Uprising Day to the Tibetans: on March 10, 1959, Tibetans, who had watched Chinese People’s Liberation Army troops march in less than a decade before, rebelled against communist rule on the high plateau. The revolt was quickly crushed and in the mayhem, Tibet’s spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, escaped by horseback to India, where he has remained in exile every since. Four years ago, Tibetans again rose up in the month of March. Again, their insurrection was flattened.

On the 53rd anniversary of National Uprising Day, the attitude on the Tibetan plateau shows no sign of submissiveness. Over the past year, some two dozen Tibetans have lit themselves on fire to protest Chinese rule and call for the return of their exiled spiritual leader; most have died as a result. Even as the flames are doused, other less incendiary protests are proliferating. Practically each week brings news of yet another outbreak of dissent, from rallying monks and nomads to students calling for the right to study the Tibetan language. Many of these demonstrations have been met with an iron fist. Over the past two months, at least eight Tibetans are believed to have been shot to death by Chinese security forces, according to overseas Tibetan groups. In the most recent case, three Tibetans in Pema county were shot on March 6 after having been associated with a January rally in which protesters tore down a Chinese flag. One of the three is believed to have died, says Free Tibet, a London-based campaign organization.

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Hundreds of Tibetans — who live not only in Tibet proper but also in the neighboring provinces of Sichuan, Qinghai, Gansu and Yunnan — have been detained by security forces this year. Rights groups allege widespread beatings and so-called patriotic re-education campaigns in which Tibetans must denounce the Dalai Lama and pledge allegiance to the Chinese state. “More and more Tibetans are becoming politicized as a result,” says Stephanie Brigden, director of Free Tibet. “Students are joining protests, a mother of four and a teenage boy self-immolated just this week.”

Beijing has consistently blamed the Dalai Lama for orchestrating the dissent within Tibet, a charge he denies. The Chinese government contends that Tibetans enjoy full freedom of faith and that their economic standing has increased dramatically since the days when Tibet was ruled by a monastic leadership. Tibetans retort that they endure an environment in which they cannot openly worship their spiritual leader for fear of arrest. Tibetan monasteries are also being either emptied of clerics or flooded with security forces for fear that the Buddhist sites are nests of dissent. Furthermore, Tibetans complain about an influx of migrants from China’s ethnic Han majority, who they say are deluging the high plateau and endangering their culture.

In the Indian hill station of Dharamsala, where Tibetan exiles have coalesced around the Dalai Lama, the mood is equally somber. On Saturday, Lobsang Sangay, the Tibetan Prime Minister in exile, released a blunt statement on the series of self-immolations that have shocked the world. “Fault lies squarely with the hardline leaders in Beijing,” he said. “We hope that China’s upcoming leaders will initiate genuine change, and that they find the wisdom to admit the government’s long-standing hardline policy in Tibet has failed.” Sangay called for the U.N. to name and send a special rapporteur to the region, which has been mostly closed to foreign media and human-rights organizations for months.

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In Beijing, where the National People’s Congress is currently meeting for its annual confab, China’s President Hu Jintao met on Friday with Tibetan delegates to the largely rubber-stamp body. “Stability and harmony should be maintained in Tibet, while social management [is] being enhanced and improved,” he told the Tibetan legislators, according to Xinhua, China’s state-run news agency. The Chinese President also said that “a prolonged educational campaign should be step[ped] up to promote ethnic unity,” reported Xinhua. Back in the 1980s, as he climbed the ranks of the Communist Party hierarchy, Hu was assigned a job as the party secretary of Tibet, the region’s highest position. (Tibetan has never had an ethnically Tibetan Communist Party chief.) In 1989, Hu oversaw a fierce crackdown on a Tibetan uprising that reached its apex in March. More than 100 Tibetans lives were cut short then, according to Tibetan rights groups. The Chinese government says fewer than a dozen died.

On Thursday, Woeser, a well-known Tibetan poet who is essentially under house arrest, released a letter with other Tibetan activists urging an end to the self-immolations. “Staying alive allows us to gather the strength as drops of water to form a great ocean,” said the letter co-signed by Woeser. “It depends on thousands and more living Tibetans to pass on our nation’s spirit and blood.” It was a desperate plea two days before National Uprising Day.

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