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Tibetans keep tensions under surface 10 years after riots

Suicide protests have waned but fear persists over China's Dalai Lama stance

Heavy security was not much in evidence during a recent annual festival around a Tibetan Buddhist temple in Tongren County in Qinghai Province.

BEIJING -- Ten years after riots raged across parts of China with large Tibetan populations, there are now few signs of ethnic tension. Since Chinese troops suppressed unrest in both the Tibet Autonomous Region and neighboring Qinghai Province in 2008, stability -- or at least the appearance of it -- has returned.

Notably, acts of self-immolation to protest Chinese rule have become rare.

At the Taer Monastery, a holy place for the predominant Yellow Hat sect of Tibetan Buddhism located in a suburb the Qinghai provincial capital of Xining, many people were recently offering their services to visitors as "guides."

One woman in her 30s, who explained the historical and religious significance of the many Buddhist images within the temple, said all photos and materials concerning the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, had been removed, banned by the government. China considers the Dalai Lama a separatist and an enemy of the state.  

Asked what Tibetans think about the ban, the woman said in a low voice, "Let us talk about that topic later."

Away from the temple, with few people around, she was ready to answer the question.

"I respect the Dalai Lama, but we cannot display his photo because of political reasons," she said. "Since the government will not allow it, there is nothing we can do," she added with little emotion.

The woman, who earned her living guiding mainly Han Chinese tourists, said she could speak standard Chinese, but not much Tibetan, and could not read it at all.

Most people living near the temple have lost the Tibetan language, said a man living in another part of Qinghai Province. "We distinguish them (from other Tibetans) by calling them 'the Tibetans of the Taer Temple,'" he said.

He added that his own child had lost the ability to speak proper Tibetan while attending a Chinese-language elementary school.

"It is sad to lose tradition, but I have no choice but to have my child get an education in the Chinese language for his own future."

At a temple in Tongren County about 150km from Xining, around 2,000 local residents had gathered for an annual Buddhist festival, the deep moans of trumpet shells reverberating in the background. There did not appear to be much of an official security presence, with only two police vehicles parked in front of the gate.

A local resident said heavy security measures are rare these days, unlike several years ago, when armed police vehicles were often on patrol on such occasions.

The security situation in Qinghai Province has been generally more stable than in the Tibet Autonomous Region, the man said. The number of self-immolations, which had been frequent until several years ago, has dropped sharply.

Such protests have waned not because of tighter government monitoring, but because the Dalai Lama and other high-ranking monks have spoken out against suicide, he said.

About two years ago, one young man died after setting himself on fire in front of a Buddhist statue to protest for freedom of worship. Around 1,000 people from the village gathered for his memorial service in accordance with Tibetan Buddhist tradition.

"The service made me realize that the people all had the same feelings. I too want to worship the Dalai Lama," the man said, quietly wiping away tears.

The Dalai Lama has played a key role in restraining hard-line separatists by preaching nonviolence and calling only for greater autonomy for Tibet rather than full independence. While the number of self-immolations has declined, the Chinese government has shown no willingness to ease its hard-line position toward the Dalai Lama.

With the Dalai Lama now 82, many Tibetans worry about his succession. For centuries, the position has been filled through a system of supposed "reincarnation." Beijing has been keen to be in charge of this process, and Tibetans fear the government may use the traditional ways to asset its control. If that happens, it raises the question of whether protests will flare up again.

"We are facing so many tough questions about our future, for which we cannot find answers," one Tibetan lamented.

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