Day: April 22, 2017



Beneath the veneer of calm, Lhasa still remains a city divided despite Beijing’s grand development plans. And a silent prayer still goes out for the Dalai Lama.

uniforms, the Chinese military’s fire­fighters patrolled the square. Standing watch from a corner was a People’s Armed Police officer in uniform.

That tourists outnumber worship­pers in the halls of the Potala today is a result of China’s grand project in Tibet: a project of remaking Tibet in Beijing’s image. China says it is investing bil­lions to uplift one of the country’s most underdeveloped regions. This invest­ment is indeed evident: newly paved expressways sprout from Lhasa in every direction; roads that rim all the way to the Indian border in Sikkim are in immaculate condition, enabling a



312 million

Tibet Autonomous Region population


Han Chinese population of Tibet


Floating Han Chinese population in 2000

  • Floating Han Chinese population in 2010

$90 billion

The Chinese government’s investment in Tibet


Self-immolation protests in Tibetan areas since 2009

600-km journey in less than half a day; and Lhasa is connected to the Chinese hinterland with a geography-defying multibillion-dollar railway that cuts through “the roof of the world”—all unthinkable two decades ago.

Yet, interviews during a recent visit to Lhasa suggest that Beijing’s develop­ment efforts have not convinced many Tibetans, with the unresolved question of the Dalai Lama continuing to cast a long shadow. While many Tibetans continue to revere the Dalai Lama as their guiding spiritual leader, Beijing, in public statements, continues to vilify him as “a splittist”, banning images of


a popular figure. By doing so, Beijing appears to be undermining the good­will it may have otherwise engendered through its ambitious development plans for Tibet.

Underlining the Dalai Lama’s con­tinued prominence, in recent days, Tibetans have defied restrictions and threats of jail to hold quiet celebra­tions to mark his 80th birthday, which is on July 6 (or June 21 in the Tibetan calendar), in many places in Tibet and nearby Gansu and Sichuan, as photo­graphs made available show. As one Lhasa resident said, “For us, the Dalai Lama is most important.” Chinese officials dismiss the following for the Dalai Lama as a vestige of Tibet’s old “feudal” past. Yet in interviews, even younger Tibetans appeared just as proud of their religious and cultural history. Two young Tibetans said they planned to hold private commemora­tions for the birthday “even if we can­not do anything in public”.

At the Potala, there will be no com­memorations on July 6, even if the 14th Dalai Lama’s presence still hangs heavily. As one Tibetan tour guide told a group of tourists one recent morn­ing, “The greatest Dalai Lamas were the fifth, who made the Potala as it stands today, and the 13th.” What of his successor? “We think he is just as great,” the guide later said quiet­ly with a smile, “but we cannot talk about him.” Since February 2009,141 Tibetans—young and old, students and monks—have set themselves on fire to call for the Dalai Lama’s return. The Chinese government has accused exiled Tibetans of plotting the protests.

In the seven years since riots left Lhasa burning in March 2008, China has, with a carrot-and-stick approach, obtained a firmer grip on the city. In the city’s main squares, such as at the Jokhang, which was a centre of pro­test in 2008 and also witnessed two immolation protests in 2012, there is still a police presence: two large black buses for security personnel are parked beside the square. But gone are the snipers that until a few years ago were a permanent presence on overlooking rooftops. As a measure of its newfound confidence, the govern­ment for the first time allowed Indian


correspondents based in Beijing to travel to Tibet, to witness the opening of a new route for the Kailash yatra. Journalists are still not allowed to travel freely to Tibet. They can only do so on controlled government-or­ganised groups, where opportunities to speak freely with locals are limited.

Lhasa, the old capital, is today being transformed—from the lofty balconies of the Potala, a relentless sound of hammering and drilling fills the valley below. Outside the pal­ace, the streets are not unlike any tier-two Chinese city. Beyond the ever-shrinking old city of Lhasa, wide avenues carry street signs written in large Mandarin Chinese characters; signage in Tibetan, written in much smaller script, hints at the govern­ment’s priorities.

“There is not much of the old city,” says Zong Kyi, a Tibetan who makes a living as a tour guide taking Han Chinese tourists around the Potala. The centre of Tibetan life in Lhasa is the Barkhor, a neighbourhood of old streets that spreads out around the Jokhang monastery that is at


the centre of the city. The Barkhor, Tibetans say, is an ever decreasing speck in a fast-expanding Lhasa: a sprawling “new development zone” of factories is the priority project that is today being built on the city’s suburbs.

A government white paper pub­lished in April listed Tibet’s achieve­ments: double-digit GDP growth; 99.59 per cent enrolment in primary schools; life expectancy reaching 68.2 years, doubling what it was in the early 1950s; ending illiteracy, prev­alent in the 1950s, among the young and middle-aged; and providing free education and healthcare. China says since 1952—two years after the

PLA occupied Tibet—it has pumped around 544 billion yuan (close to $90 billion) into the region.

Conversations with half-a-doz­en Lhasa residents suggested that beneath the veneer of calm, Lhasa still remains a city divided. While there is agreement that things have improved since the riots of 2008, there are, among Tibetan residents, deep anxieties about the nature of China’s development. A continuing influx of Han Chinese temporary workers and tourists has changed the nature of the city, residents said, with the percep­tion that Tibetans are now a minority in Lhasa.

Zheng Wei, who, like others in this article did not want to be identi­fied by his real name for fear of ret­ribution by authorities, is among the growing number of migrant Chinese who have been encouraged by the government to move to Tibet to “help development”. From Sichuan prov­ince, Zheng said there was high eth­nic distrust when he moved in 2009, a year after riots. “Things are better now,” he said. But that wasn’t a feeling





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COVER STORY Modi. Have you met him as well?

  1. Yes. When Modi was the chief min­ister of Gujarat, some old relics were found in the state—they were like the Nalanda temple where monks used to live. It was then that I went to Gujarat and met him. He had also come to my room in the hotel. I was very much impressed. Even after he has become the prime minister, he remains very active.
  2. But you met him even after he became prime minister, didn’t you?
  3. Yes, one very brief (meeting).
  4. Was it indeed a brief meeting?
  5. It’s top secret, so it’s better if you ask him (laughs). I don’t know, I don’t want to elaborate on it.
  6. Do you think there is growing intolerance in India?
  7. I don’t think so. In Delhi, I have been asked the same question, if Muslims feel scared. But I said, no, maybe some individuals are creating some mischief, but overall in India, religious harmony is still being main­tained. But at the same time, we need to remind people that it should always be maintained.
  8. Last year at the World Hindu Congress, where RSS leader Mohan Bhagwat was present, you said the RSS should focus less on building temples and instead build schools. A. I say this to Buddhist leaders too. Once they invited me to speak when a statue of Padmasambhava was being installed. I said that I respect Padmasambhava, but for the next thousand years the statue will remain but he will not speak. So what we need is advice, not a statue. The way we pray to statues is old-fashioned.

I always tell all Buddhists—Chinese or Vietnamese or Burmese or Sri Lankans—that we should be 21st cen­tury Buddhists who are knowledge­able about the Buddha dharma.

  1. In Dharamsala recently, when we went to attend your 80th birthday celebrations, the monks were pray- inq for your long life, that you live up to 113 years. Why 113?
  2. One of my dreams indicated the dis­tillation of my life at 113 years. But now I doubt that. Increasingly, I feel tired. In Dharamsala also I had said that I’m looking forward to being 90


and then 100 years old but after th I have my doubts. According to phy – cians from Taiwan and Tibet, judgir.: my physical condition, it’s very p( – sible that I will live to be 100 years.

  1. So will you decide on who shou be the next Dalai lama?
  2. I have said this before, that th; decision whether the institution of th Dalai Lama should continue or n totally lies with the Tibetan people.
  3. It is not up to you?

A. I am not much concerned about th- 15th Dalai Lama. Sometimes it seems as if the Chinese government is mor- concerned than I am. Sometimes, i jokingly say that the ceasing or end c this institution should take place with the 14th Dalai Lama, who is quit- popular. If the 15 th Dalai Lama come; and he is a disgrace, that will be much worse! (Laughs.)



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