OPINION: The changing tide in Tibet

Beijing (The Star/ann) - No matter what the Dalai Lama or Tibetans in exile say about Tibet, it has transformed from a feudal society and closed economy into a modern and open society which is no longer influenced by religion.

The debate on how to develop the disputed territory of Tibet has remained contentious among observers and critics over the past few decades.

Social unrest and religious friction in the Tibet autonomous region in western China have been magnified by the international community that claimed the economic reform had sacrificed the environment and Tibetan peopleâ¿¿s rights to religion.

The Chinese governmentâ¿¿s policies have also been blamed for the change in demography of the region with the natives feeling the pressure and competition from the Han Chinese and other ethnic groups.

However, policymakers have defended this, saying that the development model for Tibet might not be perfect but it has been the best in Tibetâ¿¿s history. They said the policies had improved the peopleâ¿¿s livelihood and brought an end to the serfdom era.

Tibet University Prof Tanzen Lhundup, who has visited Tibet countless times in the last two decades for his research, said Tibet had transformed from a feudal society and closed economy into a modern and open society which is no longer influenced badly by religion.

â¿¿Significant changes to its social structure have taken place in Tibet. Currently, there are three social structures: The first being the divide between the rural and urban areas; the second is that Tibet has 75% of nomads and farmers and 25% of urban dwellers; and the third structure is that we can see a difference between the source of its peopleâ¿¿s income.

⿿Some of them enjoy the pay from the government and state-owned enterprises while others don⿿t,⿝ he said in a recent interview.

Prof Lhundup said despite its rapid development, Tibet was still one of the few places in China where both traditional and modern societies co-existed.

He said the traditional values embraced by Tibetan society, such as the worshipping of national heroes, should not be encouraged in the new era.

â¿¿This is a classic example of a traditional society. We have gone through this during the Cultural Revolution when we lauded: Long live Chairman Mao!

⿿When a nation places all its hope and destiny on a single person or religious leader, the society will not be rational and this is a dangerous phenomenon,⿝ he added.

Historically, Tibet is a controversial territory as it has existed as a separate sovereign area, an independent entity and as a vassal under Chinese sovereignty.

After the fall of the Qing dynasty in 1912, the 13th Dalai Lama, the highest-ranked religious leader in Tibetan Buddhism, declared himself as the ruler of an independent Tibet.

In 1950, the Chinese Peopleâ¿¿s Liberation Army attacked Tibet after the Tibetan local government delayed sending its delegation to Beijing to negotiate Tibetâ¿¿s liberation.

The following year the 14th Dalai Lama sent a delegation which eventually signed the Seventeen Point Agreement, affirming Chinaâ¿¿s sovereignty but granting Tibet autonomy.

The Dalai Lama repudiated the agreement and fled to India to set up the government of Tibet in exile after its failed attempt to gain independence from China in 1959.

Since his move to Dharamsala, Tibet has remained in the hands of China while the Dalai Lamaâ¿¿s status has grown in the area.

China Tibetology Research Centre researcher Lian Xiangmin said in recent months although there had been recurrences of self-immolation incidents and racial unrest in protests against the suppression of Tibetan Buddhism in Sichuan provinceâ¿¿s areas near Tibet, the Chinese government did not need to review its development policies in Tibet to maintain peace and order in the area.

⿿It is not right to put the blame on the central government⿿s policies just because of the incidents outside Tibet. The most important thing to do now is that those behind the incidents must stop orchestrating and inciting the people to set themselves on fire and the Dalai Lama group should issue a statement objecting against such suicidal acts,⿝ he said.

Lian said the occurrence of social problems was inevitable as Tibet was undergoing rapid economic development but he was optimistic that such problems would gradually be resolved with the improvement of the livelihood of its people.

â¿¿The Dalai Lama has left Tibet 53 years ago and there is a huge difference between the Tibet he used to rule and todayâ¿¿s Tibet. As researchers, we study the real Tibet, which is going through a transitional period, and provide input and references for the governmentâ¿¿s decision-making process.

⿿No matter what the Dalai Lama or Tibetans in exile say about Tibet, nothing will change in Tibet,⿝ he said.

According to Prof Lhundup, as part of its Western Region Development Strategy initiated in 2000, the government has invested heavily in the construction of infrastructure in Tibet.

Now, Tibetans in rural and urban areas enjoy full connectivity in terms of water, electricity, telephone, cable television, Internet and natural gas. About 1.4 million nomads were given subsidies and low-interest loans to build their homes.

Tibet is also the first in China to provide free education from kindergarten until senior high school. The native Tibetans have a lower passing mark than Han Chinese to enter universities.

⿿There is no doubt about the consistency of the government⿿s policies to care for the Tibetans⿿ welfare and freedom of religion. I have benefited from all these policies after growing up in Tibet,⿝ he said.

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