August 6, 2008

Shadows Flit Underneath Tibet Surface

By Calum MacLeod

The five Olympic rings, made out of flowers, stand near the Potala Palace -- the Dalai Lama's old residence -- in the Tibetan capital, Lhasa.

Nearby a giant slogan reads, "The united nationalities welcome the Olympic Games with one heart," according to photos on government websites. Tourism is recovering since the deadly riots in March, China's tourism bureau says, and Tibetan television shows Lhasa residents snapping up Olympic souvenirs.

Yet Lhasa's apparent calm hides a city of fear, Tibetan exile groups and researchers say. They say several hundred Tibetans remain in detention and thousands of others are undergoing "patriotic education" campaigns to denounce the Dalai Lama, the exiled spiritual leader revered by most Tibetans.

In distant Beijing, where the Olympic Games begin Friday, suspicions against Tibetans have cost several people their jobs and forced them out of the nation's capital, says poet Woeser, a leading Tibetan dissident who like many Tibetans uses one name.

The riots March 14 in the Himalayan region left 22 dead, according to the official Chinese count, and scores more died after the crackdown by police, exile groups say. The issue of Chinese treatment of the region sparked fierce protests during the Olympic torch relay in Europe and elsewhere and turned the spotlight on the Olympics host.

"Life in Lhasa is now normal, and we even managed to hold the Olympic torch relay," says Baima Chilin, vice chairman of China's Tibet government.

Yet getting a real picture of life in Tibet remains tough. Journalists and independent observers are not permitted to freely travel there. Tibet exists "under a cloud of uncertainty. It's in a shadow world where we don't know what's going on," says Robbie Barnett, an expert on Tibet at Columbia University in New York.

Normal life "on the surface is picking up in terms of business and institutions, even though there are very few tourists," says Barnett, who regularly talks with people in Tibet. "But from information leaking out very slowly, there is a significant number of people who have disappeared or are in prison."

Restrictions on movement and communication have tightened in recent weeks, says Tashi Choephel, a researcher at the Tibetan Center for Human Rights and Democracy in Dharamsala, India, which is home to the Dalai Lama's government-in-exile.

"Repression is getting worse; everything is locked up because of the Olympic Games," he says.

The center estimates that 6,500 Tibetans were detained after the riots in March, about 60 have been sentenced, and up to 2,000 may remain in custody. Verifying reports is difficult because of increased surveillance of telephone calls, Choephel says.


China's ruling Communist Party has reinvigorated its "patriotic education" campaign, Choephel says, "in monasteries ... villages and even school students." He worries that after the Olympics, the government will impose death penalties or life sentences on Tibetans still detained.

The International Campaign for Tibet, a Washington-based activist group, issued a report Tuesday, saying, "China has dramatically tightened security in Tibet and announced new 'anti-terror' plans" during the Olympics.

One Tibetan willing to talk is Tashi Tsering, 79, a passionate advocate for the Tibetan language and a sponsor of rural education programs. "Life is almost back to normal. On the whole, it is much better than before," he says.

His wife, who sells barley wine known as Chang to visitors near Lhasa's holiest temple, the Jokhang, recently resumed her business. "It is much more normal than it used to be. I hope it will continue," Tsering says.

When the Olympic torch briefly appeared in Lhasa on June 21, the streets were cleared, and only invited guests were allowed to watch the guarded procession.

"Myself and family members were kept inside," Tsering says, though his enthusiasm remains for the Games, and he looks forward to watching them on TV.

The Dalai Lama, whom the Chinese government accuses of masterminding the riots in March, has maintained his "support for the right of China to host the Games," says Thubten Samphel, spokesman for the government-in-exile in Dharamsala. "We firmly hope the Olympic spirit will trickle down and let the Chinese authorities view the issue of Tibet in a more sympathetic light," Samphel says.

Foreigners were banned from Lhasa after the riots, but tourist numbers are improving, China's deputy head of tourism Du Jiang said Tuesday -- though not enough to tempt travel agent Tian Yuchen to return.


"People say life is getting back to normal, but there are very few tourists now," Tian says.

Tian was among many Han Chinese, China's majority ethnic group, who flocked to Tibet in recent years, helping build the economy but also stoking antagonism among some residents.

Barnett worries that the Chinese public increasingly consider most Tibetans troublemakers. The Chinese government has said pro-independence Tibetans are a potential threat to the Olympics, along with Muslim separatists in northwest Xinjiang province, where 16 policemen were killed Monday in Kashgar.

Woeser, the outspoken Tibetan poet and blogger whose works are banned in China, says she recently left her Beijing home. Other Tibetans in the Chinese capital have also left, she says, and not by choice. "Several of my Tibetan friends in Beijing have been fired in the last three months, as local police put pressure on their employers," she says.

Woeser, who is suing a Chinese court after trying for five years to get a passport to travel overseas, says, "The government made many promises of expanding human rights. I had hopes (the Olympics) would change things."