Tibetans hopeful for Dalai Lama's return and help preserving their culture

Chinese government policy and population trends have many Tibetans worried that their culture might be dying.
A map of Qinghai
By Keith B. Richburg
Wednesday, September 8, 2010; 12:47 PM

TONGREN, CHINA - In China, the Dalai Lama is officially a dangerous separatist and a "criminal," and his supporters are prohibited from discussing him or even displaying his picture. But here in the ethnic Tibetan areas of Qinghai province, nominally autonomous while under strict Chinese control, the exiled spiritual leader remains a ubiquitous presence, despite his long physical absence.

The Dalai Lama's beaming visage gazes down from the temple altars of Buddhist monasteries. His likeness adorns a popular artist's workshop and a small convenience store selling bottled soft drinks, beer and snacks.

And everywhere, it seems, the fervent wish is that the Dalai Lama might return soon, to help save the Tibetan language and culture that many believe could soon be overwhelmed by the presence of China's ethnic Han majority. Even the Tibetans' centuries-old tradition of herding yak, cattle and sheep across the Tibetan plateau's grasslands appears threatened as Chinese officials move increasing numbers of semi-nomadic herdsmen into "resettlement towns," where jobs are scarce.

"We long for the Dalai Lama to come back, to solve the issue of religious freedom and to help Tibetan culture come back," said Gen Ga, a 24-year-old monk at a monastery in nearby Wutong village. "If we look ahead 10 or 20 years, if the Dalai Lama fails to come back, I do think Tibetan culture will die."

Asked to comment on the calls for the Dalai Lama's return, a spokesman for the Chinese Embassy in Washington, Wang Baodong, said in an e-mail: "We've been dealing with the Dalai Lama for decades, and we know him well. His personal future depends on whether he'll abandon his separatist positions on Tibet-related issues in real earnest, as this is a matter bearing on China's sovereignty and territorial integrity."

Wang went on to write, "There's been the cry of 'the wolf is coming' on the dying of the Tibetan culture and religion. The undeniable fact is that the Tibetan traditions are prospering thanks to the joint effort of the Chinese government and the Tibetan people."

A three-day trip through the ethnic Tibetan areas of Qinghai province, where the Dalai Lama was born, showed that the Beijing government's efforts to vilify the revered leader have had no discernible effect. When government inspectors come, many Tibetans said, they usually get advance notice, and they simply hide or cover the Dalai Lama's photo.

The vilification efforts escalated after the Tibetan areas, including this province, exploded in rioting in March 2008, the most serious resistance to Chinese rule in decades. Thousands of monks and others were arrested, and outside groups, including Human Rights Watch, accused the government of systematically abusing detainees while looking for evidence that the Dalai Lama was responsible for the unrest.

Chinese officials have strongly denied those allegations and said authorities operated lawfully to maintain order. "The judicial rights of the defendants were fully guaranteed, as well as their ethnic customs and personal dignity," Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang said in July in response to Human Rights Watch's allegations.

Here in Tongren, a monk in his 30s who said he participated in three protests in March 2008 said he was detained for six months after the riots, describing how he was suspended from the ceiling, beaten repeatedly and tortured with electric rods.

The monk, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals, said the beatings ended only when he agreed to make a videotaped denunciation of the Dalai Lama.

"They made me agree to a confession saying all the things I did was because I got instructions from the Dalai Lama," the monk said. He said he believes he was singled out because of his support for a group of 13 monks who drafted a 2007 proposal calling for the preservation of Tibetan language and culture.

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