A rash of self-immolations by Tibetan monks. Chinese troops streaming into the eastern part of the Tibetan Plateau. Yul Kwon speaks with the leading Tibet scholar in the US, Professor Robert Barnett of Colombia University, about unrest in Tibet and China's reaction.
Professor Robert Barnett founded and directs the Modern Tibetan Studies Program at Columbia University in New York City. Thanks for joining us today. Now, there seems to be a greater crackdown this year on Tibetans. What's going on?
Professor Robert Barnett, Columbia University:
They seem to be in two modes. In the eastern part of the Tibetan plateau, they're in panic-reaction mode. They're sending in troops to lock down the eastern area, because there've been a number of protests there and the immolations that we've all heard about.
In the western part of Tibet, what they call the Tibet Autonomous Region around Lhasa, there still haven't been any protests there, but they're stepping up regulation. They're bringing in many new regulations to tie down monasteries and to send officials to be permanently stationed in monasteries.
So what are these officials supposed to do?
Prof. Robert Barnett:
It's very interesting. They've been given six orders, six guidelines for their work. They have to make one friend each. They have to each befriend a monk, so that every monk has an official who is his friend. They have to make a file on that monk. They have to find out who the monk's best friends are in the monastery, his personal network. And they have to carry out education with that monk. And they also have to attend for his welfare.
We have to remember that everything in a communist system is a balance of carrot and stick. We tend to read in the press about the very heavy-handed approaches of the party and the security forces. At the same time, from the Chinese point of view, there was already also helping these monks with payouts for their welfare, building roads for their monasteries and giving them electricity, so on.
Now the dramatic self-immolation of monks and nuns and other protests seem to be occurring outside of Tibet proper. Do you have any sense about why that's going on?
Prof. Robert Barnett:
Well, this is really the most significant part of the whole story. We've seen Tibetan resistance and discontent with Chinese rule there for some 50, 60 years, on and off. But in the last 30 years, it was mostly quiet in these eastern areas. They were much more relaxed. They had much less controls from the Chinese. They were basically allowed to practice their religion, and they were allowed to worship the Dalai Lama until 1998.
Much stronger rules were already in place in what the Chinese call Tibet, the western part around Lhasa, but it was only in the last 10 or 12 years that the Chinese decided to impose these very strict controls and this campaign against the Dalai Lama, forcing monks to denounce him in these eastern areas. And they were completely quiet until then. And now they're in turmoil.
So it looks like China has lost even the compliance, even the tacit compliance of the more than half of the Tibetans who live in the eastern areas. And now, in the last couple of years, security units, paramilitary troops stationed near monasteries, sometimes surrounding monasteries, this seems to be the final straw for many of the monks in those monasteries. And I think that's why we're seeing these immolations and protests now.
Tibetans have been urged by the exile community to mark the New Year without celebration, to keep it prayerful and solemn. Do you have any information about how Tibetans have reacted to that request?
Prof. Robert Barnett:
Well, we have to remember that Tibet is a vast area, the Tibetan plateau, about the size of Western Europe, and it's more or less locked off in communications terms. If people do get through by phone, most Tibetans don't dare to tell them any news, so we don't yet know much about what's happened there so far today.
What we do know is that Tibetans will have been carrying out religious ceremonies, going to monasteries if they're allowed to, and only certain parts of the population are allowed to practice religion there. They will have been carrying out religious rituals at their homes, but we don't know whether they've been showing any signs of resistance to the government by deliberately avoiding some ceremonies or celebrations.
What we do know, as you can see in this footage, is that the Chinese government is very energetically producing images showing happy Tibetans, showing Tibetans respecting Chinese leaders, showing Tibetans wearing new clothes, which is a New Year custom, a kind of celebration.
And we see here we're in a kind of propaganda war between the Chinese government on one side, saying that Tibetans are happy and celebrating, and the exiles and many other Tibetans sending signals, which we won't receive yet, we may hear in a few days, showing that people refuse to celebrate, refuse to publicly show any kind of happiness during what they see as a period of mourning.
Thank you, Professor Barnett. Robert Barnett has written and edited a number of books on modern Tibet, including Lhasa: Streets with Memories.