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Development

Lhasa Railway Exiles' Biggest Nightmare

[The Telegraph, London. Monday, January 15, 2001.]

New Delhi: China is to build the world's highest railway across the frozen wastes of the Tibetan plateau in a move Tibetans fear will hasten the destruction of their culture and religion.

The first railway across the Tibetan plateau would be a considerable feat of engineering, crossing the forbidding ice-bound Kunlun mountains through 30 kilometres of tunnels and two 4,864 metre-high passes before making a hair-raising descent to the Lhasa plateau.

The project has already attracted protests from the Dalai Lama's government in exile and Tibetan activists who believe it will result in Tibet being overrun by Chinese settlers and troops while devastating the environment with increased mining and logging.

China's ambition to build a railway to Lhasa, Tibet's capital on a 3,600-metre-high plateau ringed by towering peaks, was born soon after China invaded eastern Tibet in 1950.

Railway ministry officials, who met in Beijing last September to consider the project, are said to favour a route via Qinghai, which will stretch for 1,080 kilometres and cost about $A 4 billion.

Recent statements from Beijing have made clear that the main reason for the project - due for completion by 2010 - is strategic. The Qinghai Daily described the railway as "the political front line" in consolidating border defences, particularly in the wake of India's nuclear tests, and as a means to subdue unrest by the "Dalai clique" within Tibet. Beijing is also keen to exploit Tibet's vast untapped natural resources, increase migration from China's over-populated cities, and accelerate Tibet's "assimilation into the motherland".

Mr Thubten Tsamphel, a spokesman for the Dalai Lama's government in exile in Dharamsala, said: "It is our biggest nightmare. It will greatly increase the number of Chinese workers and fundamentally change Tibet's natural environment with no benefit to Tibet's people."


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