Tibetan Leader Warns Of Cultural 'Extinction' -- Dalai Lama Marks Uprising's Anniversary

Authorities in Tibet were on heightened alert Tuesday for possible unrest on the 50th anniversary of a failed uprising against Chinese rule as the Dalai Lama said Tibet had become "hell on earth" under Beijing's control. Video by AP
By Emily Wax
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, March 11, 2009

DHARMSALA, India, March 10 -- Tibet's exiled spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, told his followers Tuesday that the Tibetan culture, religion and identity face "extinction" and that residents of Tibet were living in "hell on earth."

The Nobel Peace Prize-winning pacifist made the unusually pointed comments in a speech on the 50th anniversary of a failed Tibetan uprising. He spoke to thousands of Buddhist monks and nuns, young mothers with babies on their backs and Tibetan schoolchildren in this Himalayan town, which is home to the Tibetan Government in Exile.

Followers also held somber candlelight vigils to commemorate widespread protests last year that marked the most violent revolt by Tibetans since the 1980s. "Even today, Tibetans in Tibet live in constant fear, and the Chinese authorities remain constantly suspicious of them," the 73-year-old Dalai Lama said. "Their religion, culture, language, identity are near extinction. The Tibetan people are regarded like criminals, deserving to be put to death."

Although his words were strong, he was careful to say he continues to be hopeful about the Tibetan cause. He said he still believes in nonviolence and wants only "meaningful autonomy" under Chinese sovereignty, known as the "middle way."

The Tibetan government says that 220 Tibetans died in protests last March and that nearly 7,000 were detained during demonstrations in Tibet and in Tibetan communities in three surrounding provinces. China says 22 people died in Lhasa, most of them Chinese civilians.

Immediately after the Dalai Lama's speech, the town's narrow alleyways and steep mountain streets were jammed with champions of the Tibetan cause: maroon-robed monks and nuns, young Tibetan activists with spiky, streaked hair, wrinkled market women hoisting Tibetan flags and prayer bead-twirling Buddhist enthusiasts from Takoma Park, Md., and Berkeley, Calif.

Although it is difficult to know what was happening inside Tibet, because journalists are given little access, Chinese state media reported that paramilitary police and soldiers fanned out in cities and villages across Tibet and restive western China, on the alert for possible unrest. Internet and mobile phone text-messaging services were also cut.

In Washington, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a longtime supporter of Tibet, introduced a resolution in Congress urging China to end its "repression" of the Tibetan plateau.

"The situation in Tibet challenges the conscience of the world," Pelosi told Tibetans and their backers.

Here in Dharmsala, many young Tibetans shouted such slogans as "China, get out of Tibet" and "China, give us human rights." Others wore buttons that read: "We share the suffering and the happiness of our fellow Tibetans inside Tibet."

Last year's protests shook the Dalai Lama's peaceful movement, exposing the impatience of many young Tibetans. Although he has received international acclaim, turning Tibet into a celebrity cause and writing best-selling books, his movement seems stuck, some analysts say.

In his comments Tuesday, the Dalai Lama tried to project confidence.

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