TAKTSER, CHINA – It has been six decades since the Dalai Lama fled into exile, but in the isolated mountain hamlet where he was born, he remains very much on the minds of devotees and Chinese authorities alike.
Lying on the northeastern edge of the Tibetan plateau in Qinghai province, Taktser is where the Dalai Lama was born in 1935 to parents who farmed buckwheat and barley and is now a magnet to worshippers and foreign tourists — and security personnel.
During a recent Reuters visit to Taktser, known in Chinese as Hongya, police armed with automatic weapons blocked the winding road leading into the village of some 60 houses.
Police and more than a dozen plain-clothed officials who declined to identify themselves refused Reuters entry, saying the village was not open to the public.
Beijing views the Nobel Peace Prize laureate as a dangerous separatist and has denounced the 83-year-old spiritual leader as a “wolf in monk’s robes.” The Dalai Lama denies espousing violence and says he only wants genuine autonomy for Tibet.
Many of China’s more than 6 million Tibetans still venerate the Dalai Lama, despite government prohibitions on displays of his picture or any public display of devotion.
This Sunday marks 60 years since the Dalai Lama, disguised as a soldier, fled the Potala Palace in Lhasa, the Tibetan capital, after rumors that Chinese troops were planning his abduction or assassination fomented an abortive popular uprising.
The Dalai Lama crossed into India two weeks later and has not set foot in Tibet since.
Despite the passage of time, during sensitive political anniversaries China’s security apparatus routinely restricts access to the village where the Dalai Lama’s old family is located, behind a pair of wooden doors and high concrete walls.
One 29-year-old Tibetan man in the largely ethnic Tibetan town of Rebkong, set in a precipitous valley in Qinghai with a large monastery adorned in rich colors, enthusiastically recounted his pilgrimage to Taktser years ago. He said Tibetans were well aware of the upcoming 60th anniversary of the Dalai Lama’s exile, even if public commemorations of any sort were banned. “You can only bury it in your heart, we just don’t speak about it,” he said, declining to be identified due to the sensitivity of the matter. “We have no ability to go against politics, we can only just go with society.”
Born Lhamo Thondup, the Dalai Lama was just 2 years old when identified by a search party as the new incarnation of Tibet’s most important spiritual leader and was whisked from the family home to live in Lhasa.
The anniversary of his escape over the mountains into exile in India is one of several politically sensitive dates in China this year, including the 30th anniversary of the crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators in Tiananmen Square in June.
At China’s annual meeting of parliament this month, Tibet’s Communist Party chief, Wu Yingjie, said the Tibetan people felt greater affection toward the government than the Dalai Lama, who “hasn’t done a single good thing for the people of Tibet.”
As the Dalai Lama ages, many Tibetans fear that Beijing will simply appoint its own replacement.
The Dalai Lama has suggested that his incarnation might be found outside Chinese-controlled territory, or that the centuries-old Dalai Lama institution could die with him.