Riots a setback to Tibet’s social, economic uplift

Mute witness: A school attacked during the riots in Lhasa on March 14.

Mute witness: A school attacked during the riots in Lhasa on March 14.   | Photo Credit: — Photo: Parvathi Menon

Parvathi Menon

Lhasa: The majestic Potala Palace, once the winter palace of the Dalai Lamas and now a tourism-cum-religious centre, presides over Lhasa like a reigning deity. Set in a valley watered by the sparkling Lhasa river, the city, with its broad-tree lined roads is a beautiful capital where large Soviet-style architecture and traditional Tibetan buildings co-exist, where prayer-wheel twirling Tibetans in traditional attire mingle on the busy streets and shopping areas with youngsters in branded fashion wear.

While on the surface the city would appear to have recovered from the disturbances that shook it on March 14 and the days that followed, during which 18 people were killed, and shops, schools and homes burnt, the scars lie just beneath the surface.

Reliving the horror of that day, Deji Joka, principal of the No.2 Middle School that lies in the heart of the area affected by the riots, recalls: “We heard shouting from outside at around 12 p.m. while the children were in class, and then saw burning torches being thrown over the wall and onto the roof of the school building.” The school has 842 students, 80 per cent of whom are Tibetan. The charred and roofless building, with burnt and twisted desks, chairs and school textbooks scattered in classrooms and corridors, stands testimony to the violence. “We closed the gates and herded the crying and frightened children into a safe area in the school,” she said. When asked why the mobs targeted a school in which a majority of the children were after all Tibetan, she said: “The children here are from urban families. The mobs did it to disrupt education and create chaos. We don’t see children as Chinese or Tibetan. Once the parents leave them with us, they are our children.” Seven such schools were attacked during the riots.

Clear policy towards Dalai Lama

Losang Champa, known as the Great Living Buddha, is Vice-Chairman of the Tibetan Branch of the Chinese Buddhist Association. Along with Awang Dongje and Awang Quzha, two leading monks of the famous Drepong Monastery, he answered questions on July 11 from a group of Indian journalists on the support among Buddhist monks for the Dalai Lama and his demands. “Those who participated were a small number of monks, and taking part in such violence is both illegal and against the teachings of religion,” said Awang Donje. “I think the Chinese government’s policy towards the Dalai Lama is clear and consistent,” said Losang Champa to a question on whether the Dalai Lama has a role in Tibet today. “If he recognises that Tibet is part of our motherland and that the unity of the country must be safeguarded, the government will reserve a place for him. But there is no sign of him doing that.”

At the famous Sera Monastery in Lhasa, one of the six major monasteries of the Gelupa or Yellow sect of Tibetan Buddhism, there are over 500 monks in residence engaged in religious studies. It is said the monks of the Sera Monastery found the reincarnation of the present 14th Dalai Lama. According to Nembola, a monk at the monastery, those monks who formally belonged to the monastery did not participate in the riots, but a “small number from other monasteries who were here took part in the violence.” For him, the robed participants are those who “do not understand the law nor do they follow the practice of inner cultivation of Buddhism.”

It is difficult for a foreigner, given the problems of language, access and time, to penetrate the social, political and religious complexities of a society such as Tibet’s that is on the fast-track of modernisation and change, a process so evident in every walk of life. However, even the most sceptical visitor will recognise that the March 14 riot was not a mass popular uprising for independence. Indeed, for the average Tibetan, whether a shopkeeper, taxi-driver, hotel-receptionist, or teacher, March 14 is seen as an unforgivable attack on normal life, on schools and children, on homes and businesses, an incident that represents a setback to the social and economic advancement of Tibet.

In the Linzhi Prefecture, an ecological treasure house of the Tibet Autonomous Region, 460 km from Lhasa, tourism — one of the mainstays of the region — has been badly hit by the disturbances. “Last July by this time I had earned 7000 yuan. This year I have only earned less than 3000 yuan,” said Zhou, who drives a taxi in Linzhi town.

“A bad scene,” is how Wang Mu, a professor in Plant Pathology at the Tibetan Agriculture and Animal Husbandry College in Linzhi describes the events. “I don’t think that the events in Lhasa have affected young people here,” said this leading woman Tibetan scientist and researcher. “I go to remote villages for my work, and have seen how living standards of Tibetans have improved in the last three to four years. The disturbances just damaged people’s lives.”

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