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March 10 marked the 60th anniversary of the failed Tibetan uprising against Chinese rule that forced the Dalai Lama to flee to India. Around the world, Tibetan supporters held rallies on Sunday with calls to “free Tibet.” Supporters also gathered in Dharmsala, India, home to the Dalai Lama and his government-in-exile.
“Tibet belongs to Tibetans,” exiled Prime Minister Lobsang Sangay said to the gathering. “Sixty years of the occupation of Tibet and the repression of Tibetans is too long.”
After the fall of the Qing dynasty in 1911, Tibet enjoyed de facto independence until 1951, when the People’s Republic of China sent troops into Tibet. The defeat of Tibetan troops led to the signing of the Seventeen Point Agreement, which affirmed Chinese sovereignty over Tibet. The 14th Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso, maintained a tense relationship with the Chinese Communist Party.
In 1959, the Communist Party asked the Dalai Lama to attend an event without his bodyguards, but many Tibetans feared it was a trap to kidnap or kill him. Thousands of Tibetans surrounded his palace on March 10, 1959, to protect him, leading to an uprising as Tibetans tried to overthrow their Chinese rulers. The People’s Liberation Army opened fire on the Tibetan rebels and regained the region two weeks later.
During the fighting, the Dalai Lama slipped out of Lhasa dressed as a soldier. About 100,000 refugees also fled to the northern Indian town of Dharmsala. The Tibetan government-in-exile estimates tens of thousands of people died in the uprising. Since then, the Chinese Communist Party has vilified the Dalai Lama. It also bans Tibetans from worshipping him or possessing his image.
In 1995, the Dalai Lama named 6-year-old Gedhun Choekyi Nyima as the Panchen Lama, the second highest religious authority in Tibetan Buddhism. Two days later, Chinese Communist officials arrested Gedhun, and no one has heard from him since. The Chinese government chose its own Panchen Lama, a Tibetan child living in Beijing whose parents are Communist Party members.
The crackdown on Tibet worsened after violent riots in 2008 that led Communist officials to deploy armed forces and open fire on protesters. Rights groups claim 140 people died. Since then, the government has tightened control of the region, transforming it into a police state. Under the leadership of Chen Quanguo, the former Chinese Communist Party secretary in Tibet, the government set up patriotic re-education campaigns in monasteries, banned religious festivals, restricted travel, and constructed “convenient police stations” every 550 yards to monitor activities. (Chen is now the party secretary of Xinjiang, where he has set up a similar surveillance system for Uighurs, more than 1 million of whom he has sent to re-education camps.)
Anger over their situation led 148 Tibetans to set themselves on fire between 2009 and 2017. In order to stop monks from undertaking this dramatic form of protest, officials in some areas canceled public benefits for the family of self-immolators or ended state-funded projects in their villages. Travelers and journalists need a special permit to visit Tibet, and all outside visitors are barred from entering the area during sensitive anniversary months like March.
“[Chen] seems to be recognized for pacifying one of the more restless areas in contemporary China, but I think that’s a misinterpretation,” said Kevin Carrico, Chinese studies lecturer at Melbourne’s Monash University. “None of the issues going on in Tibet has been resolved or improved, but somehow or other international attention is less focused on Tibet and things are controlled to such a degree that one doesn’t have really active opposition.”
Xu Xiaohong, the head of state-sanctioned Protestant churches in China, pledged to rid the religion of foreign influence. “[We] must recognize that Chinese churches are surnamed ‘China,’ not ‘the West,’” he said. The government’s five-year plan to Sinicize Christianity includes a new translation and annotation of the Bible to make it more “Chinese.”