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EU urged to do more for Tibet ahead of China summit

ANDREW WILLIS, 09.11.2009, EUOBSERVER / BRUSSELS – As officials prepare for an EU-China summit in three weeks´ time, the Dalai Lama is urging the European bloc not to forget the human rights question inside Tibet.

Kelsang Gyaltsen, an envoy of the Tibetan spiritual leader, was in Brussels last week (5-6 November) to update EU officials on the current situation in the Chinese autonomous region, and told EUobserver in an interview that the 27-member union must step up its pressure on China.

The Tibetan flag (Photo: The Government of Tibet in Exile)

"The Tibetans inside talk about an atmosphere of intimidation and fear. The EU can do much more than it has done so far on human rights and the Tibetan issue," he says.

Much of the ongoing tension in the region relates to riots that took place in the Tibetan capital of Lhasa in March 2008, which saw at least 18 people die following violence directed at the city´s growing population of Han Chinese.

The EU condemned last month´s execution of two Tibetans accused of involvement in the riots and questioned the murky conditions under which the trials were conducted.

It has also raised the issue of China´s poor human rights record at previous summits and lower-level meetings, but critics say Europe´s growing trade relationship with China means it is increasingly reluctant to offend the Asian giant.

While the EU rejects this idea, Mr Gyaltsen also feels there is no intrinsic clash between growing commercial relations and the EU´s ability to put pressure on China.

"The generally good relationship in the field of trade allows you to also raise issues on which you differ with your counterpart," he says. "The important thing to remember is that China is as dependent on the European Union as the EU is dependent on China."

Inside Tibet

Nevertheless, since the March 2008 riots the Chinese authorities have greatly stepped up the level of restrictions within Tibet, according to human rights NGOs.

A recent report by the US congressional-executive commission on China says at least 670 Tibetans have been jailed in 2009 for activities that include peaceful protest or leaking information to the outside world.

Corinna-Barbara Francis of Amnesty International told this website that travel restrictions on Western journalists and NGOs make it very difficult to get exact numbers, and that local Tibetans are reluctant to talk for fear of reprisals by the Chinese authorities.

She also backs up claims made by Mr Gyaltsen of a process of ´patriotic re-education´ in the region, under which religious figures and school children are forced to denounce the Dalai Lama, and carrying a photo of the spiritual leader or the Tibetan flag is considered a crime.

Another cause of tension, and a chief factor behind the March 2008 riots, is the growing population of Han Chinese in the city of Lhasa, where Mr Gyaltsen says ethnic Tibetans are now outnumbered by three to one.

While China questions the numbers and argues that its citizens are free to move wherever they wish within the country, others such as Amnesty say active policies to lure Han Chinese to the region, including higher salaries and housing benefits for teachers, are designed to undermine the traditional Tibetan culture.

"Chinese authorities are going through a stage of intensified confidence internationally and are increasingly willing to punish countries that even appear to be supporting the Dalai Lama," says Ms Francis.

EU leaders backing down?

This international pressure is highlighted by the decision of several EU leaders not to meet the Dalai Lama over the past year.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy turned down an opportunity to meet the spiritual leader while he was in Paris in August 2008, and their subsequent meeting in December of that year caused the Chinese government to cancel a EU-China summit planned for the same month.

Both the Italian prime minister and foreign minister refused to meet the Dalai Lama last November in Italy, while this June saw Dutch Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende send his foreign minister Maxime Verhagen instead.

In contrast the Czech, Polish and Belgian premiers have all met the Dalai Lama relatively recently.

Asked to explain the different policies within the EU, Mr Gyaltsen says it is a question of ´old´ versus ‘new´ Europe.

"With the exception of Belgium, eastern European countries appear to have more political will to meet with His Holiness and this I think is based on their past experiences of living under a totalitarian regime," he says.

He said he hopes EU officials will be less spineless when they sit face-to-face with their Chinese counterparts at the end of this month.

"Making the issue of human rights and Tibet dependent on Chinese political sensitivities would amount to an undermining of the credibility of the EU´s basic values," he says.