June 30, 2004

Tibet: Envoy visit puts spotlight on Tibet policy

Australia's ambassador to China, Allan Thomas, begins a rare visit to Tibet tomorrow amid concern that Canberra is backing away from political and human rights issues in the restive Chinese-ruled territory
Australia's ambassador to China this week begins a visit to one of its most disputed territories. Hamish McDonald reports from Lhasa, Tibet.

Australia's ambassador to China, Allan Thomas, begins a rare visit to Tibet tomorrow amid concern that Canberra is backing away from political and human rights issues in the restive Chinese-ruled territory.

Dr Thomas will lead a delegation of aid officials, which coincides with the start of a number of Australian-funded health projects for ethnic Tibetans.

The visit marks a shift in Australian attention to Tibet, revealed last year when a human rights delegation from Canberra did not, according to Chinese officials, raise specific cases of political prisoners. The delegation also proposed that programs such as health and education should be seen as part of human rights aid.

The emphasis worries groups such as the Australia Tibet Council, which wants Australia to remain in step with other Western countries in pushing China to talk seriously with the Tibetan spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, who has been exiled since 1959.

"We of course support aid that benefits Tibetans, especially in areas like primary health care," said Australia Tibet Council spokesman Paul Bourke. "But our concern is the problem of Tibet. We would hope the ambassador will take advantage to make the point with the people he meets that it's in China's advantage to enter dialogue with the Dalai Lama's representative for a solution to the Tibet problem."

Chinese officials said it was likely Dr Thomas would be received by at least one of the highest officials in Tibet, either the region's Governor, Jampa Phuntsog, who is the highest-ranking ethnic Tibetan, or regional communist party secretary, Guo Jinlong.

The Australian visit comes a month after Beijing issued a white paper on Tibet that seemed to indicate a hardening against the Dalai Lama's proposal for internal self-rule. The proposal, first made in 1984, relinquishes the aim of independence and instead proposes effective internal self-rule within China.

The Beijing document rejected the idea that Tibet could enjoy the same "one country-two systems" arrangement as Hong Kong and Macau as these two territories had been colonies but China had "always" exercised effective jurisdiction over Tibet "since ancient times".

"It is hoped that the Dalai Lama will look reality in the face, make a correct judgement of the situation, truly relinquish his stand for 'Tibetan independence' and do something beneficial to the progress of China and for the region of Tibet in his remaining years," the white paper said.

Despite the apparent toughness, Mr Bourke said there were rumours that representatives of the Dalai Lama would hold a third informal meeting with Chinese officials around October this year. Previous meetings took place in China in September 2002, and over June-July last year.

This suggests there is still some fluidity in Chinese thinking about Tibet. But some Tibetans fear that Beijing is just using delaying tactics, looking to the eventual death of the Dalai Lama and the search for his reincarnation with the aim of installing a compliant successor.


Source: The Age

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