Dharamsala: The Dalai Lama marked his 50 years in exile on Tuesday by demanding “meaningful autonomy” for his Tibetan homeland, where Chinese authorities tightened security to stifle protests against their rule.
Speaking before some 10,000 Tibetans from around the world, the 73-year-old leader slammed China for bringing “untold suffering and destruction” to Tibet and turning the region at times into “hell on earth”.
“From time immemorial, the Tibetan and Chinese people have been neighbours,” the Dalai Lama said from the courtyard of the main Buddhist temple in Dharamsala, the north Indian hill town where the Tibetan government-in-exile is based.
“We Tibetans are looking for a legitimate and meaningful autonomy.”
Tibet, and ethnic Tibetan areas in neighbouring provinces of China, are under a security clampdown aimed at stifling protest against Chinese rule.
The Dalai Lama mourned what he called the suffering and destruction wrought by Chinese Communist policies and campaigns. “These thrust Tibetans into such depths of suffering and hardship that they literally experienced hell on earth,” he said, as the crowd listened with rapt attention.
Many were seen crying with folded hands as he said: “Even today, Tibetans in Tibet live in constant fear.”
The Tibetan anthem was played and a minute’s silence was observed in the memory of victims of last year’s Chinese crackdown in Tibet.
About 20 young men and women, dressed mostly in black Tibetan dress to mourn victims of the crackdown, came in before the speech playing drums and bagpipes and singing “Rise up, rise up”.
Shortly after the speech, thousands of Tibetans, many among them children, marched through the narrow streets of Dharamsala carrying “Free Tibet” posters and protesting against a Chinese security clampdown in Tibet.
“Whatever the Dalai Lama said is right, we totally believe in him and will follow him,” Rinzin Choedon, a 12-year-old school student, said.
“Today it is not an ordinary day for us, today we can make a remark to the whole world as Tibet is an international issue and China has to agree that Tibet is a free nation.”
Yet while decrying China’s crackdown on unrest 12 months ago and a lack of progress in talks between his envoys and Beijing, the Dalai Lama said the two sides must find a way forward together.
SECURITY CLAMPDOWN IN TIBET
In the high plateau of Qinghai province which borders Tibet, meanwhile, riot police with signs banning firearms blocked roads and turned back reporters trying to enter the monastery town of Tongren, known as Rebkong in Tibetan.
“Can’t you see? It’s so tense. What can I say about 10 March? Look at all these soldiers and police here,” said a farm woman named Manang.
Armed police do not expect unrest but are ready to “deal with any situation”, a police commissar said on the eve of the speech.
“There will be no problems this year. It’s all very stable,” Danbainima, a Tibetan delegate to a parliamentary advisory body, said on the sidelines of parliament in Beijing.
The tense anniversary passes amid muted speculation about the Dalai Lama’s longevity and the future of his cause after recent stays in hospital.
On Monday Chinese President Hu Jintao warned his government would not relax its control of the mountain region Mao Zedong’s Communist forces took in 1950, calling for “a sturdy Great Wall against separatism”.
Communist Party mouthpiece the People’s Daily carried an editorial on Tuesday extolling Tibet’s development in the last 50 years and slamming what it called the misery of the old feudal society, in which people fought dogs for food and illiteracy was widespread.
“Nobody hopes to go backwards in history, and only a few slave owners dwell on the life that once was. Tibet’s happiness today is the happiness of the people, not that of the slave owners,” it said.
Beijing says the Dalai Lama’s calls for Tibetan high-level autonomy are tantamount to a demand for independence.
But many exiled Tibetans would like to go further than the conciliatory approach of their spiritual leader. A meeting of exiles last November reaffirmed his “middle way” path, but many said their patience with Beijing may not last.
The Dalai Lama’s message is sure to make its way quickly to his homeland, where he is widely revered despite years of official vilification. Beijing blames his “clique” for the unrest that erupted across the region last year — a claim he rejects.