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Kate Saunders is the Communications Director of International Campaign for Tibet.

Dalai Lama birthday turns deadly for Tibetans

Chinese troops crack down on merry-making eastern Tibetans in Tawu, indicating that repression still rules China’s Tibet policy.

he Dalai Lama, who has recently begun a meditation retreat in Ladakh, was 78 on 6 July. In his homeland, despite the dangers of openly celebrating his birthday due to the Chinese authorities' insecurities over the erosion of their authority, many Tibetans gathered quietly to pray for his long life.

In one area of eastern Tibet, Tawu, there was a searing reminder of the risks for Tibetans of daring to express their devotion to their exiled leader. Tibetans were celebrating the Dalai Lama's birthday in traditional style, picnicking, making incense offerings, draping white blessing scarves around a photo of the Dalai Lama on the lower slopes of a holy mountain.

But then troops moved in, displeased by the celebrations. Police smashed the window

of a car as some Tibetans sought to leave. Senior monks tried to calm the situation. In one telling photograph, Tibetan monks under floral umbrellas, men, elderly women and children stand as if frozen,

surrounded by armed police and special forces with riot shields and automatic weapons. And then the troops opened fire.

One photo, sent clandestinely out of Tibet, shows a wound at the back of a monk's head, a gaping hole gouged into the skull. In another, a man's back is marked with ugly wounds that look as though they were made by rubber bullets at close range. At least ten Tibetans were critically injured and it is not known if they will survive. One of them was the younger brother of a Tibetan nun in Tawu who set fire to herself and died recently in the wave of self-immolation protests that have swept Tibet since 2009.

It was a horrifying end to a birthday gathering in honour of a religious figure respected globally for his leadership on non-violence. While there are known precedents of Chinese soldiers firing at a crowd of unarmed Tibetans, this has usually happened during demonstrations, not at what was essentially a peaceful family picnic. Even if the decision to open fire in Tawu on 6 July was made by local military alone without higher orders, which seems likely, what happened reveals the dangerous culture of impunity that exists in Tibet.

Tibetans took some care to pass on the name of the commander of the troops who apparently ordered them to open fire; he was Tibetan. It made me think about a story told by the Tibetan writer Woeser. After the former East Germany collapsed, a former soldier who had shot someone trying to climb the Berlin Wall argued in his defence in court that he had just been a soldier following orders. But he was still sentenced by the judge, who commented that his superiors had not ordered him to not raise his gun by one centimetre.

Woeser wrote: "What this story illustrates is that even under a repressive authoritarian system, those within the system that try to protect themselves and their interests are not devoid of any conscience."

There have been indications in recent weeks that some officials are mindful of the possibility of new approaches in Tibet. While top leaders maintain a hardline position in public statements, indicating that the anti-Dalai Lama campaign is still at the core of Tibet policy, there is some evidence that discussions about a more nuanced and less aggressive approach are taking place in China and Tibet. It is a sign of hope, if fragile, that in some areas, Tibetans were allowed to celebrate the Dalai Lama's birthday this year without the repercussions that occurred in Tawu.

An influential scholar in Beijing, Professor Jin Wei, recently called upon the Party to engage with the Dalai Lama, and was critical of the government for failing to take into account genuine Tibetan grievances.

Meanwhile, in some areas of eastern Tibet, meetings were held about Tibetans being allowed to display the Dalai Lama's image, and of an end to Tibetans being compelled to denounce their religious leader, an act described by Tibetans as "a knife through the heart".

There is no sign yet of concrete change on the ground, which is where it counts. And now the debate appears to have been shut down. Policy shifts are not the same as a debate about an experimental approach. But at least there is some indication of a conversation, fragmented and incomplete as it is.

Progressive Chinese scholars and lawyers have criticised the "stability maintenance" (Weiwen) approach — associated with a dramatic expansion of powers of China's policing and military apparatus, and based on crushing dissent to one- party rule — across the PRC as a fundamental failure in policy. In Chinese political language, "stability" is a coded reference to the need to prevent any form of "social disorder". In Tibetan areas of the PRC, "stability maintenance" has effectively been carried out on a war footing.

Few Chinese can know the extent of spending on "security" in Tibetan areas, which is kept a closely-guarded secret, but is undoubtedly a huge burden on the state. And it is not without a human cost for the Chinese, too. A rare internal document published recently by the Dharamsala-based NGO the Tibetan Centre for Human Rights and Democracy acknowledged that Chinese armed police involved in the crackdown in Tibet "may suffer recurrent flashbacks of the merciless response [by security forces], which [...] can cause long-term mental disturbance."

The same telling document, a psychiatric health manual about security personnel serving in Tibet, shows that the Chinese government portrays itself as being engaged in a protracted and demanding counter-insurgency in Tibet. As the example of Tawu on the Dalai Lama's birthday shows, this is despite the absence of any armed insurgents or any substantial threat to Chinese personnel or individual citizens.

Kate Saunders is the Communications Director of International Campaign for Tibet.

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