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CRS: Tibet: Problems, Prospects, and U.S. Policy

Author: Kerry Dumbaugh
April 10, 2008

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Summary

On March 10, 2008, a series of demonstrations began in Lhasa and other Tibetan regions of China to mark the 49th anniversary of an unsuccessful Tibetan uprising against Chinese rule in 1959. The demonstrations appeared to begin peacefully with small groups that were then contained by security forces. Both the protests and the
response of the PRC authorities escalated in the ensuing days, spreading from the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR) into parts of Sichuan, Gansu, and Qinghai Provinces with Tibetan populations. By March 14, 2008, mobs of angry people were burning and looting establishments in downtown Lhasa. Authorities of the People's
Republic of China (PRC) responded by sealing off Tibet and moving in large-scale security forces. Beijing has defended its actions as appropriate and necessary to restore civil order and prevent further violence. Still, China's response has resulted in renewed calls for boycotts of the Beijing Olympics opening ceremony on August
8, 2008, and for China to hold talks with the Dalai Lama.

China sees itself as having provided Tibet with extensive economic assistance and development using money from central government coffers, and PRC officials often seem perplexed at the simmering anger many Tibetans nevertheless retain against them. Despite the economic development, Tibetans charge that the PRC interferes with Tibetan culture and religion. They cite as examples: Beijing's interference in 1995 in the choice of the Panchen Lama, Tibet's second highestranking personage; enactment of a "reincarnation law" in 2007 requiring Buddhist monks who wish to reincarnate to obtain prior approval from Beijing; and China's policy of conducting "patriotic education" campaigns, as well as efforts to foster atheism, among the Tibetan religious community. The PRC defends the campaigns as a tool to help monks become loyal, law-abiding citizens of China.

Controversy over the role of the Dalai Lama and the impact of PRC control on Tibet's language, culture, and religion have prompted recurring actions by Congress in support of Tibet's traditions -- actions routinely denounced by Beijing. Members of the 110th Congress have responded to the March 2008demonstrations and crackdowns with legislation requiring U.S. government officials to boycott the Beijing Olympics opening ceremony (H.R. 5668); proposals condemning the crackdown and asking Beijing to hold talks with the Dalai Lama (H.Res. 1075 and H.Res. 1077); and the formation of a new Tibet Caucus.

Many fear there is little hope that Beijing will make significant changes in its Tibet policy, despite even the urgent advice of China's friends. Beijing appears to have calculated that it can out-wait the 72-year-old Dalai Lama, and that his demise will result in the Tibetan movement's disintegration. But many see the Dalai Lama and his influence within the Tibetan community as the key to unlocking China's difficulties in Tibet. They see China's rejection of the Dalai Lama's "middle way" approach as having undercut his ability to influence younger, more militant Tibetans. They believe his death, without having reached an understanding from Beijing for greater Tibetan autonomy, would remove an important source of restraint on more ideological elements in the Tibetan community. This report will be updated as events warrant.

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