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Tibetan Nomads Lose Ground to Development

June 28, 2012
by Michelle Tolson

Grasslands outside Langmussi, Amdo region (Tibetan name) on Gansu/Sichuan Province (Chinese name) in TAP. Photograph courtesy of the author.
On May 31 2012, the Tibetan Women's Association dutifully recorded the self-immolation of Rikyo, a Tibetan nomad woman and mother of three who set herself on fire near a monastery at a town in Ngaba County in the Amdo Tibetan region of China. Four days earlier, two men living in Lhasa and also from Amdo, set themselves on fire in front of a monastery. China suspended foreign travel permits to the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR) ten days after their deaths.

Though most people think of the Tibetan Autonomous Region within China as Tibet, it is actually three regions - U-Tsang makes up the TAR, Amdo is found in the Qinghai and western Gansu provinces of China, and Kham in northwestern Sichuan province of China. The nomadic and former nomadic populations live in Kham and Amdo, which are situated in the Tibetan Autonomous Prefectures (TAPs). The TAP areas are considered ethnically Tibetan areas within Western China and are home to the most politically minded Tibetans.

"Losang" has lived in the TAP the past ten years and agreed to share his insider's perspective on condition of anonymity. "In March 2008, tension boiled over and there was widespread violence and protests all across Tibet. While the violence in Lhasa lasted just four or five days, in other remote nomadic communities the violence lasted for over three months," he tells me.

"It is actually uncommon for fighting and protests to originate in Lhasa. The Tibetans who live in Amdo and Kham are far more patriotic and loyal to the Dalai Lama and cause exponentially more problems than Lhasa people do. About 60 percent of the Tibetan people live outside of the Tibet Autonomous Region and these 60 percent are very patriotic."

The deaths by self-immolation in Amdo illustrate the deep discontent in the regions of Tibetan Prefectures with the strongest nomadic roots - the site of intensive efforts to relocate the last Tibetan nomads. "For the past 10 years, there has been a huge push by the Chinese government to resettle most of the remaining Tibetan nomads. In the late 80's and early 90's the government made a statement that they wanted to resettle most of the nomads by the year 2000, but they were about 10 years off schedule," notes Losang.

Nomad tent on grasslands near Langmussi. Photograph courtesy of the author.
Environmental degradation of the Tibetan Plateau from over-grazing and erosion is the official reason for resettlement according to the Chinese government. Tibetan human rights groups blame the Cultural Revolution, which tried to make Tibetan yak herds into high-yield meat producing communes. According to nomad resettlement reports from the Tibetan Women's Association and Free Tibet, yak herds over-populated the Tibetan Plateau; only reducing in number after the revolution failed and communes disbanded. The reports - Purging the Treasure House and The Right to Food and Access to Land on the Tibetan Plateau - criticize the Chinese government for forcing resettlement, contrasting the more culturally sensitive measures taken within Mongolia. The government of Mongolia invests in herders, subsidizing in the event of loss. Thus herders are less likely to over-produce livestock, which keeps overgrazing in check. More to the point, Purging the Treasure House claims that nomads are being removed from the Tibetan Plateau to take advantage of the significant mineral wealth.

While Voice of America reported the resettlement intensification in 2009, the issue appears largely under-reported in international media. Being restricted from the most troubled regions by the Chinese government, the media relies on exile groups or NGO's for information. Losang says that religion is not as restricted as Tibetan exile groups claim.

"Tibetans in exile claim that Tibetans are heavily persecuted for their beliefs and that they can't be true Buddhists. I find this amusing! I feel of all the recognized religions in Tibet (Islam, Buddhism, Christianity), more money is spent on Buddhism that any other. There are always new monasteries being built or huge new additions being added to already large monasteries. The government does put limits on the amount of monks that can be in monasteries and pictures of certain exiled lamas are prohibited in some areas of Tibet, but overall Tibetans have quite a bit of religious freedom. They definitely do not have complete freedom of religion, but the situation is much better than most exile groups claim."

Labrang monastery in the town of Labrang (Tibetan name). Xiahe is the Chinese name for town. Photograph courtesy of the author.
Labrang, located in within the TAP in Amdo, is home to some 3000 monks led by the Dalai Lama. In April of this year, when I happened to visit and observed pilgrims making their way around the monastery, religious expression seemed fairly open. Touring the temples myself, I saw the Dalai Lama's picture proudly displayed within a couple of the temples.

I also met open curiosity from English speaking Tibetans. One gentleman asked what I thought of the Dalai Lama. Another young Tibetan man laughed when describing under-cover Chinese policemen trying to pass as Tibetan. "They have long hair and pretend to be Tibetan but we know who they are."

He himself had left another Tibetan town under scrutiny, Kanding, to avoid Chinese police because of his family connections overseas. "Anyone who is too different is suspect to them and gets taken in for questioning." Yet he felt safe in Labrang.

I found the openness of Tibetans a curious contrast to media reports which painted them as oppressed. A Tibetan man who works with monks sighed when I mentioned this. "That is because we haven't had trouble here in a few years so people aren't worried. The government uses this town to manipulate us sometimes though."

This freedom becomes sharply curtailed when Tibetans protest. In Aba, the monastery town at the epicenter of the self-immolations, foreigners have not been allowed for three years, and monks are restricted without access to the Internet. This illustrates how the Chinese government handles resistance. Protest appears to be met with a stifling force.

Tibetan prayer flags in Lagmussi. Photograph courtesy of the author.
According to human rights groups, this is seen as "splittist" by the Chinese government. "Tibetans are extremely proud of their culture and the fact that they have been able to preserve their culture, language, and religion much better than other minorities groups in China," Losang verifies. Tibetans are proud of the fact that despite large efforts by the Chinese government to assimilate the Tibetan people for 60 years, it hasn't happened like it has to other minority groups."

The issue of resettlements is destructive. Losang explains, "The resettlement villages are almost always in very remote villages that are many hours (12 to 24 hours) or even days away from cities. Very few resettled herders will be found living in urban settings. When nomads are told to resettle, they sell off most or even all of their yaks and sheep. In most cases, the herders are not given the full market value of their yaks because buyers know they have to get rid of all of their livestock. So they are given anywhere between 40 percent and 70 percent of the real value of the yaks. In most cases, they move to a small resettlement village along with other herders from the area. These resettlement villages have anywhere between 30 and 100 small concrete homes. The government builds them and sells them to the herders at a subsidized rate. Usually, the government will pick up between 40 percent and 60 percent of the bill on these resettlement homes and the resettled herders are responsible for the remaining percentage."

Yet, according to reports by Free Tibet and the Tibetan Women's Association, few see any resettlement money from the government after being promised it. Tibetan human rights organizations report that resettled Tibetan nomads face high unemployment because of their limited options owing to isolation and lack of education.

Losang agrees, "Tibetans have been herders for thousands of years. When they are resettled, they have no other job skills so finding a job is nearly impossible." They use their money from selling yak herds to buy technology items they have never had, going through the money within months.

The Tibetan Women's Association, summarizing a report by China Human Rights Defenders, states "The lack of education, educational facilities and job opportunities, coupled with the forced resettlements has resulted in growing evidence of a number of women turning to the sex trade to support themselves and their families. Tibetan nomad men have in turn too suffered from these conditions. Jobless and forced in cramped living conditions, many have turned to alcoholism which in turn is a common cause to the beginning of violence towards women."

Evictions and resettlement are rather common as developing countries redefine property rights and remove entire communities to lay claim to potential wealth—be it mining, timber, or property values— in the name of development. However, Tibetans are unique in having an internationally famous leader whose name they can invoke to draw attention to their cause.

On June 20, two more men from the Amdo in the Qinghai province self-immolated. One was a local herder, who died immediately. His name was Tenzin Khedup and he was 24 years old.

Michelle Tolson works and travels between Asia and the United States. She has an MSc in Social Psychology from the London School of Economics and Political Science. Michelle has written several articles for The UB Post, an English newspaper in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia about gender violence, civil society initiatives, and cultural topics.

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