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Tibet's Tense Anniversary

Author: Jayshree Bajoria
March 9, 2009

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Fifty years after the failed Tibetan revolt against Chinese rule, prospects for resolving the dispute over the Himalayan region remain remote. China treats Tibet as an inalienable part of the country and vilifies the region's spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, as a "splittist." The Tibetan government in exile in India, under the leadership of the Dalai Lama, refuses to give up its demand for "genuine autonomy" for the Tibetan people. At the same time, China's growing global influence makes many states reluctant to offer more than lip service to the Tibetan cause. Now, uncertainties surrounding the succession of the 73-year-old Dalai Lama are fueling fears about the future for Tibetan autonomy as well as China's stability. The fate of about 120,000 Tibetans exiled in neighboring India also remains uncertain, experts say, as India looks to better relations with China.

To prevent the recurrence of protests that roiled the region last year, China has imposed a curfew on Tibet's capital, Lhasa, deployed thousands of Chinese troops (NYT), and denied entry to foreigners. Last spring, Tibetan mobs attacked Chinese shops and clashed with police, killing at least twenty ethnic Han Chinese, according to authorities in Beijing. Tibetan exile groups say the ensuing Chinese clampdown on Tibetan monks killed more than two hundred Tibetans. The violence overshadowed parts of the torch procession in the run-up to the Beijing Olympics, with protests in support of Tibet in a number of Western countries stoking Chinese nationalism.

China views Tibet as a backward, feudal, and superstitious society, which has progressed democratically and economically under Chinese rule. Yet human rights watchdog groups regularly cite Chinese abuses in Tibet. The latest U.S. State Department report on human rights said China's "level of repression of Tibetan Buddhists increased significantly during the year." It remains unclear whether such criticisms will have any effect. Beijing dismissed (Xinhua) the report and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, on her trip to Beijing last month, chose to sidestep the issue. She said pressing China on Tibet and human rights "can't interfere with the global economic crisis, the global climate change crisis, and the security crises." While many governments around the world support the Dalai Lama's cause, no government recognizes his government in exile.

Beijing's unwillingness to negotiate with the Dalai Lama has also left the dispute in limbo. China accuses the Dalai Lama of fomenting separatism. The Dalai Lama has long espoused a middle-way approach, calling for genuine autonomy for Tibet within the framework of China, where Tibet has full control over its domestic affairs but China could remain responsible for Tibet's defense and foreign affairs. Experts say China is waiting for the Dalai Lama to die so that it can appoint its own successor. Tibetans are unlikely to accept such a leader, notes the 2008 report (PDF) by the Congressional-Executive Commission on China, created by the U.S. Congress to monitor governance issues in China. The report warns this "could result in heightened risks to local and regional security for decades to come." In an interview with Newsweek last year, the Dalai Lama also expressed fears that there is a possibility of greater violence after he passes away. Groups such as the Tibetan Youth Congress and the Tibetan People's Uprising Movement--launched by Tibetans in exile--seek complete independence, rejecting the Dalai Lama's middle approach.

Experts say there are still ways of restoring confidence and building toward a resolution of the dispute. But Chinese government policies in Tibet--restrictions on cultural and religious freedoms of Tibetans and attempts to change the demographics of the region through migration of ethnic Chinese--have fed the conflict. Robert J. Barnett, a Tibet specialist at Columbia University, tells CFR.org that China should separate "the difficult talks about autonomy and the Dalai Lama's status, which they're nervous about, from the easy issues, which are about religion, and migration, and development." He argues the Chinese will have to do this eventually because the alternative, "keeping one-third of your country under military garrison every so often" is unsustainable.

CFR Adjunct Senior Fellow Jerome A. Cohen recommends Beijing look to the resolution of Hong Kong's future as a model for resolving the dispute with Tibet (South China Morning Post). "That would be a wiser course than betting that Tibetan resistance will wither after the Dalai Lama's demise," he writes.

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