Friday, June 30, 2006

HHDL Urges "Wait and See" on Beijing-Tibet Railroad

Deutsche Presse-Agentur; June 29, 2006

As activists call for a boycott of China's controversial railway to Tibet, the Dalai Lama has urged Tibetans to "wait and see" what benefits the new line might bring to them, a spokesman for the Tibetan spiritual leader said on Wednesday.

The Dalai Lama welcomes the building of the world's highest railway, "conditioned on the fact that the railroad will bring benefit to the majority of Tibetans," said Thubten Samphel, the information secretary for the Central Tibetan Administration.

"We would need to wait and see what use the Chinese authorities make of the railway line," Thubtan Samphel told Deutsche Presse-Agentur.

"Our concern is that the railroad might facilitate the transportation of increasing numbers of Chinese settlers onto the Tibetan plateau," he said.

The 2,000-kilometre rail link to Lhasa, the capital of China's Tibet region, makes it possible to travel from Beijing to Lhasa by train in just 48 hours.

Construction began in 2001 on the section to Lhasa from the remote town of Golmud, 1,142 kilometres to the north. The new stretch extends an older 714-kilometre line to Golmud from Xining, the capital of China's Qinghai province. About 80 per cent of the line is over 4,000 metres high, with some 550 kilometres of track resting on permanently frozen ground.

Its highest point, at the Tanggula Pass, is 5,072 metres above sea level. The 33-billion-yuan (4.1 billion dollar) project could play a key role in helping China's ruling Communist Party to integrate the region, where most Tibetans favour independence, with the rest of the country.

Tibetan exile groups and other critics say it will only hasten China's economic and cultural assimilation of Tibet. They say an influx of ethnically Chinese migrants is likely to follow the opening of the line, as happened after China completed a rail link to its mainly Moslem, far western city of Kashgar in December 1999.

The Dalai Lama fled to India in 1959 after an abortive uprising against the occupation of Tibet by Chinese troops since 1951.

He and his followers promote a "middle way" of avoiding direct confrontation with China, but more outspoken Tibetan groups are urging a complete boycott of the railway.

The London-based Free Tibet Campaign, Students for a Free Tibet and other Indian-based groups argue that the main purposes of the railway are to increase the number of Chinese settlers in Tibet, strengthen China's military presence and exploit natural resources.

"Tibetans inside and outside Tibet see the railway project as the last step in China's efforts to consolidate its political, economic and military power over Tibet," said the Free Tibet Campaign, which is urging tourists to boycott the line.

"A symbol of China's occupation of Tibet, the railway will change Tibet's unique cultural and natural landscape forever and lead to what the Dalai Lama described as 'cultural genocide'," it said.

In China's one-party state, Tibetans had no say in the decision to build the railway. Many analysts and Tibetan exiles believe that most Tibetans would prefer to have improved road links to Nepal and India.

The Communist Party sees the railway as part of a long-term socio-economic "liberation" of Tibetans from "feudal theocracy".

It claims that more than 90 per cent of the region's 2.7 million people are Tibetan, but this figure does not include hundreds of thousands of Chinese troops and migrant workers, none of whom are counted as permanent residents of the region.

"The railway is a landmark project of China in implementing the grand strategy of exploring the western region," foreign ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu said last week. "It is of great significance for the development of Tibet Autonomous Region," Jiang said.

"It will fundamentally change its backward transportation, raise the living standards of the people of various ethnic groups there, and accelerate the development of tourism there."

The first passenger train will set off from Beijing on July 1 carrying a few hundred tourists, journalists and Chinese officials to the most heavily controlled region of China.

Tibet is the only region for which foreigners need a separate permit, in addition to a Chinese visa, and the only one that foreign journalists and diplomats are not allowed to visit without special permission.

Foreign tourists must join expensive tours to get their permits, and most of the tourists' cash is shared between foreign and Chinese state-run tour operators.

Firms in the United States, Britain and other countries are already offering tours including the "great railway journey" to Lhasa for prices from about 3,000 dollars to 9,000 dollars per person.

Tibetan groups in India, London and other Western cities plan to hold more protests to coincide with the opening of the line and are urging tour operators and individual tourists to boycott the railway.

But the Dalai Lama and the official Tibetan exile leadership remain optimistic that tourism can benefit ordinary Tibetans. "Our position is that we welcome tourism in Tibet," Thubten Samphel said, adding that visiting the region allows an "opportunity for foreigners to see the real conditions in Tibet."

Despite Chinese controls, some tourists are able to stay in Tibetan-run hotels and spend money at small shops and restaurants, he said. "There is some degree of filtering of tourism to ordinary Tibetans."