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Sun. April 02, 2023
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IA-Forum Interview: Professor Donald S. Lopez
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International Affairs Forum: Can you tell me the reasons behind the Tibetan protests in China? Why are they protesting now, after all this time? Donald S. Lopez Every year on March 10, the Tibetan exile community celebrates Tibetan National Uprising Day commemorating events in 1959, when a large segment of the population of Lhasa surrounded the summer palace of the Dalai Lama, fearing that he was going to be kidnapped by the Chinese Peoples' Liberation Army. During the unrest, the Dalai Lama escaped into exile in India. This past March 10 was the 49th anniversary of the uprising, the last before the upcoming Olympics in Beijing in August. Several hundred Buddhist monks from Drepung monastery, a few miles outside Lhasa, began to march toward the capital to protest the treatment of monks who had celebrated the Dalai Lama's receipt of the Congressional Gold Medal last October. Before they could reach central Lhasa, the marchers were intercepted by Chinese security forces; there was an altercation in which monks were tear-gassed and beaten. This incident seems to have sparked the protests and riots that have occurred across the Tibetan ethnic regions. IA-Forum: What kind of life do the Tibetans have in China? Lopez: Over the past half-century, Tibetans have seen many of their cultural and religious institutions either suppressed or destroyed. They suffer from poor education, unemployment and underemployment, and economic deprivation. The political administration of Tibet at the local level is overwhelmingly Chinese. After the invasion of Tibet in 1950, the Chinese established the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR). This region was smaller than the old Tibet, with the remainder of Tibetan territory incorporated into four neighboring Chinese provinces. Relatively speaking, ethnic Tibetans living in these regions have suffered less repression than those in the TAR (with some notable exceptions). The fact that protests have spread so quickly in these areas over the past week suggests a strong sense of Tibetan identity across provincial borders, and a widespread frustration. IA-Forum: Do you think the upcoming Olympic Games will affect China’s leniency toward the protesters? Lopez: In the first few days, the Chinese seem to have tried to show some restraint because they wanted to avoid negative publicity while there were still foreign tourists in Tibet. However, reports coming out of ethnically Tibetan regions in the past few days, despite the Chinese news blackout, indicate that the response has been brutal. IA-Forum: Do Tibetans want independence? Lopez: Yes, most Tibetans, both those living in Tibet and those living in exile, would like to live under Tibetan, rather than Chinese, rule. Although this appears to be a distant goal at the moment, the aspiration remains very strong. IA-Forum: The Chinese government has said that the Dalai Lama is behind the protests. What are his views about the protests and about the Tibetan people’s plight? Lopez: There is no evidence that the Dalai Lama has instigated the current protests. In fact, he has urged Tibetans to refrain from violence. He has long sought a measure of true autonomy for Tibet within the PRC, rather than independence. He has long sought to negotiate for better conditions for Tibetans, both within and outside the TAR. IA-Forum: What do you think maintaining control over Tibet has cost the Chinese government? How does China benefit? Lopez: China increased its territory, its strategic position, and its mineral resources considerably by incorporating Tibet into the PRC. The Chinese government has made substantial investments in Tibet but the direct benefit of this investment for the Tibetan people has been difficult to measure. Tibet remains a major public relations problem for the PRC. IA-Forum: What has the US done about these riots and will it ever step in to mediate? Lopez: US presidents since Carter have urged the Chinese government to negotiate with the Dalai Lama, but direct negotiations have not occurred. In the past few days, U.S. Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice has called for direct negotiations. Yesterday, at the urging of British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, Hu Jintao expressed some willingness to speak directly with the Dalai Lama. It remains to be seen if, when, or where such discussions would take place IA-Forum: Do the Tibetans have any outside, foreign support? Lopez: There is certainly a great deal of sympathy for the Tibetan cause, but I don’t know of any financial support from any outside sources. IA-Forum: The Dalai Lama and many of his followers reside in exile in India. Do you think these recent events will effect China-India relations? Lopez: Given the Dalai Lama’s long residence in India and his good relations with the Government of India, it is unlikely to have any profound effect. Donald S. Lopez is the Arthur E. Link Distinguished University Professor of Buddhist and Tibetan Studies in the Department of Asian Languages and Cultures at the University of Michigan.

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