Tibet's Davids meet China's Goliath. Lhasa's legacy of resistance

By , Staff writers of The Christian Science Monitor

DURING demonstrations against Chinese rule this month, boys joined some 2,000 older Tibetans incensed by the arrest of Buddhist monks. Armed with slings made from yak hair, the boys hurled stones at heavily armed police in Lhasa, the Tibetan capital. The boldness that these young, would-be ``Davids'' of the former Himalayan kingdom show in assailing the Chinese police ``Goliath'' highlights an anomaly of the Tibetan independence movement: It is renewed by youthful recruits struggling for a seemingly unattainable goal despite Chinese repression spanning 37 years.

Many of the monks and other Tibetan activists are under the age of 35, suggesting that the movement can count on new recruits for generations to come. Since it seems unlikely that the activists will win significant external support for their cause, the movement's appeal to Tibetan youth - more than any other factor - gives Tibetans the greatest hope of gaining a form of limited autonomy.

Deep-seated cultural and historical factors lie behind China's failure to prevent Tibetans from perpetuating their independence movement from one generation to another.

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With a 2,100-year-old tradition that has merged religion with matters of state, Tibetans have found Peking's enforcement of atheistic communism particularly repugnant.

Harsh Chinese rule has intensified Tibetan political opposition and enmity. Peking has acknowledged that during the Cultural Revolution (1966-76) Chinese Red Guards destroyed thousands of lamaseries. The Dalai Lama, Tibet's self-exiled spiritual and political leader, estimates that Peking has consolidated its control by killing some 1.2 million Tibetans.

Many Tibetans also remain alienated from China because they speak a different language and observe different traditions. Moreover, Tibetans show an awareness of the erstwhile kingdom's discrete, 1,500-year-old history - an awareness that tends to fuel resentment of Peking.

For most of the 8th century, Tibet extended more than 2,000 miles, from the Pamirs and Samarkand in the west to the captured Chinese capital of Xian in the east. In later periods (prior to the 1950 Chinese invasion and annexation), Tibet either enjoyed full independence or maintained nothing closer than a tributary tie with China.

Consequently, many Tibetans, speaking euphemistically, say they do not deal with Chinese from the heart. ``When we talk to the Chinese,'' one young Tibetan in Lhasa said, ``we do so only from the neck up.''

But Peking, for its part, has given no indications that it will ease its grip on Lhasa, much less consider the Tibetan appeal for greater autonomy.

Quashing sporadic demonstrations since Sept. 27, Police have killed at least seven Tibetans and arrested more than 120 monks and an undetermined number of other Tibetans.

Moreover, Peking has flown into Lhasa some 1,000 crack Chinese militia reinforcements armed with AK-47 rifles and electric-powered prods. The militia has proved more professional and decisive than the Lhasa police.

On the propaganda front, Peking has labeled the independence movement futile and reaffirmed its claim that it has ruled Tibet since the 13th century. And it has sought to discourage outside support for Tibet, expressing ``strong indignation'' Oct. 7 over a non-binding United States Senate amendment that condemned Peking for human rights violations in Tibet.

Chinese Minister of Justice Zou Yu early this month termed claims that officials have violated the human rights of Tibetans ``sinister slander.'' In an interview with the New China News Agency he denied that Peking has jailed some 20,000 Tibetans in 84 prisons in the region as reported by US author and Tibetan expert John Avedon. Rather, Mr. Zou said Tibet has just one prison and two labor camps with a total of 970 inmates, 27 of whom are serving sentences as ``counterrevolutionaries.''

(But Amnesty International reported that Chinese authorities have jailed dissidents in two prisons in Lhasa alone. The prisons include Drapchi, where one of Tibet's most well-known activists for independence, Geshe Lobsang Wangchuk, is serving an 18-year sentence for advocating a non-violent struggle against Chinese rule.)

Rich in uranium and troops

The strategic value and mineral riches of Tibet make Chinese appeasement all the more unlikely. Tibet has plentiful reserves of uranium and other key minerals and enables China, through the border deployment of some 350,000 Chinese troops, to limit the influence of India to the sub-continent.

While confronting harsh Chinese reprisals at home, Tibetans lack decisive allies overseas. The US House of Representatives in June passed an amendment similar to that backed by the US Senate in a 98-to-0 vote last week. Likewise, the West German Bundestag and British Parliament have taken up the issue of Tibetan human rights.

But because Western nations have recognized Chinese control of the region, they are hamstrung in their ability to uphold Tibetan rights. This contrasts sharply with the international outcry against the Chinese in 1959, when Peking quelled a widespread popular uprising by killing some 87,000 Tibetans.

In that year the United Nations passed the first of three resolutions condemning human rights violations in Tibet based on a finding by the international commission of jurists that China was guilty of ``the gravest crime of which any person or nation can be accused - the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group.''

Regardless of limited external support, Tibetans in Lhasa voice certainty that their ``god-king,'' the Dalai Lama, will return to a free Tibet.

``We believe that someday, maybe many years in the future, Tibet will be independent - the Dalai Lama is sure of it, in India, in Nepal they are sure. I think many people in Lhasa also believe this,'' said a Tibetan visiting Lhasa from Nepal, one of 100,000 Tibetan exiles.

Some Tibetans say that the struggle in this once-theocratic state is aimed as much toward religious freedom as self-determination. They have, for this reason, pressed Peking to grant Tibetan monasteries more administrative freedom, particularly in selecting novitiates.

Peking has eased restrictions on the monasteries since 1980 and allowed the number of monks to increase to 4,000. But Tibetan monks say the Chinese maintain control on the selection of new monks by sitting on a council that reviews applicants for the monasteries. This prompted an older prelate to say Peking has tried to plant informers within the monasteries.

Taiwanese precedent?

Meanwhile, leaders of the Tibetan exile community, based in Dharmasala, India, privately maintain a more realistic assessment of their chances of expelling the Chinese, according to Western diplomats.

These activists have voiced hopes that an unrelenting popular movement in Tibet could pressure China into granting the region the same political relationship it has offered Taiwan, namely an arrangement of ``one country, but two systems.''

Peking has declined to elaborate on this diplomatic enticement, but hints that Taiwan could, as a Chinese province, maintain its own economic, political and judicial systems.

The exiles have also called on China to stop producing nuclear weapons and dumping nuclear waste in Tibet, respect human rights, and halt the settlement of Chinese as part of a campaign to ``sinify'' the region.

In an effort to win greater religious freedom and limited autonomy, Tibetan exiles and natives have followed a strategy of skillfully attracting foreign attention.

The first demonstration on Sept. 27 added poignancy to the conclusion of the Dalai Lama's ten-day visit this past week to the US, where he gained the backing of the congressional human rights caucus for a plan curtailing Chinese rule. Monks have acknowledged that the rally was coordinated by exiles to add the weight of actions to the Dalai Lama's words.

In all the demonstrations, Tibetans have urged foreigners to photograph the unrest and publicize the movement.

Moreover, they have appealed to foreigners with a humanitarian concern. The three leading monasteries in Lhasa have urged the United Nations to support their call for independence. And they reportedly cooperated with three foreign medical doctors who said that at least five Tibetans were shot to death out of seven fatalities, contradicting a Chinese claim that only six police officers were killed in the Oct. 1 riot.

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