Lingering boundary dispute clouds Tibet's future

By Jehangir S. Pocha, Boston Globe, August 20, 2006

How to define borders slows deal with China

HONG YA, China -- The plain-looking house with heavy wooden doors that overlooks this village is an unlikely shrine for Tibetan Buddhists.

"Come see, this is the place where the Dalai Lama was born," Gong Jiashi, the house's caretaker, said with a big smile as he pushed the doors open and gestured to a tiny room in the corner of a courtyard.

The house is where Tenzin Gyatso lived and played until 1939, when an entourage of monks came to tell his family that the 4-year-old was the 14th Dalai Lama. But the house isn't in what China calls the Tibet Autonomous Region; it lies in the central Chinese province of Qinghai.

That seeming contradiction is one of the main reasons the Dalai Lama and China cannot reach a deal on Tibet.

Since 2000, the two sides have held five quiet meetings to discuss the future of the former Himalayan kingdom. The negotiations have gone well and the Dalai Lama, 71, is so eager to return to Tibet from exile in India that he has forsaken previous demands of independence for an agreement to give the region genuine autonomy.

But further progress has been stuck on the question of how to define Tibet's boundaries, an issue that Tibetans say has great implications for the survival of their unique culture and identity.

Beijing defines Tibet as the province it calls the Tibet Autonomous Region, where 2.5 million Tibetans live.

But the Tibetan government-in-exile insists Tibet should be defined as the autonomous region, plus all the Tibetan regions of the neighboring Chinese provinces of Qinghai, Gansu, Sichuan, and Yunnan, which China carved out of Tibet over the years, and where an additional 2.2 million Tibetans still live.

"Oh, please don't go into that issue and get me into trouble," Gong, a cousin of the Dalai Lama's and the caretaker of his birthplace, said when questioned about this. ``It's too sensitive to talk about."

Forty-seven years after the Dalai Lama fled to India, fearing arrest after China crushed a Tibetan uprising, Chinese authorities continue to try to bury this town's history.

Its Tibetan name, Takster, has been changed to Hong Ya, and the area has also been flooded with ethnic Han migrants, as have other parts of Tibet. There is not a single sign or mention of the Dalai Lama around, not even outside his house.

Inside, a simple pagoda and prayer wheel mark the room where the man 6 million Buddhists consider a living god was born. Still, the Chinese government forbids taking pictures of the shrine, which is visited by about 50 devout Tibetans and tourists every day.

Official textbooks and state news media make no mention of the dispute over Tibet's borders, and foreign websites that do are blocked.

If the Chinese teenagers who try to hack free of China's Internet controls were able to access these blocked sites, they would learn that during the 18th century, the Qing dynasty emperors annexed Tibet's Amdo Province and renamed it Qinghai. Later, Chinese forces encroached on the eastern part of another Tibetan province, Kham, dividing off sections to the surrounding Chinese provinces of Gansu, Yunnan, and Sichuan. British India also nibbled away at the weakened Himalayan kingdom.

When Maoist China occupied Tibet in 1951, Tibet had only two provinces, western Kham and U-tsang. In 1965, Beijing united these areas to form the Tibet Autonomous Region, with Lhasa as its capital. The promises of autonomy that Mao made were soon broken.

``Historically, the whole Tibetan plateau was one unit," Thubten Samphel, the information secretary of the Department of Information and International Relations of the Tibetan government-in-exile at Dharamsala, in northern India, said in a phone interview. ``The area is still united by the same language, lifestyle, religion, and culture, and since we share this basic unity, we feel we should be reunited as one political unit."

There's no doubt where the loyalties of many Chinese Tibetans lie.

"We yearn for the Dalai Lama so much my father followed him to India when he went," said Lamuco, 74, a Tibetan woman in Xiahe, in southern Gansu. ``We're not supposed to say these things, but we feel them."

Most Tibetans in China also still speak mainly Tibetan, and live as their forefathers did, herding yaks, goats, and other livestock across the area's rolling hills and open grasslands. Although China's economic assistance to the autonomous region has substantially improved their lives, they resent the intrusions into their faith.

China's Tibetan areas contain some of Tibetan Buddhism's most important monasteries, including Labrang at Xiahe and Kumbum in Qinghai, and Beijing keeps these under tight control and surveillance.

"Even the abbot of this monastery is appointed by the Communists, so how can we worship freely?" said a Buddhist monk at Labrang named Lop Sang. ``People of my generation here don't remember the worst times of the Chinese occupation, but the older ones cannot forget how so many people were taken away and so much of our heritage destroyed."

Maoist policies led to the deaths of more than a million Tibetans and destroyed thousands of monasteries, the Tibetan government-in-exile says. Thousands of leading monks were jailed and killed.

Chinese persecution abated after the country began reforms in 1979. But then Beijing began inflicting Tibet with what Tibetans call the most serious threat to its survival yet -- mass migration.

About 6 million Han Chinese settlers, encouraged by Beijing with housing subsidies, loans, and jobs, have moved into the Tibet Autonomous Region. That has turned Tibetans into a minority in land even the Chinese government recognizes as theirs. Samphel said he hoped the Dalai Lama reaches a deal with Beijing quickly, so that the tide of Han migrants can be stemmed. But that's unlikely.

China's colonization of Tibet is driven by powerful imperatives. Tibet's vast and underpopulated expanse offers living space to China's 1.3 billion people, and Tibet's geography makes it so strategically important that Beijing has established a large military presence in the autonomous region.

Tibet is also the origin of four of Asia's largest rivers, the Brahmaputra, the Indus, the Sutlej, and the Yellow River. China, which faces increasing water shortages, needs to tap greater water resources to continue its soaring economic growth.

To try to woo Chinese Tibetans and undermine their desire for reunification, Chinese authorities appear to be giving Tibetans who live outside the autonomous region more religious freedoms than it gives those inside. For example, while pictures of the Dalai Lama are forbidden in the Tibet Autonomous Region, in Gansu and Qinghai many private homes and even some monasteries display pictures of the Tibetan leader on their walls.

Samphel said that reaching a deal with the Dalai Lama could help China reach a durable peace in Tibet and gain international support. ``We believe they will keep their promises of autonomy this time."