AP PHOTOS: Tibetan traditions threatened by politics, growth


LHASA, China (AP) – The name Tibet conjures images of snow-capped peaks, vermilion temples and prayer flags snapping in the Himalayan winds. These characteristics persist, but the religious and cultural bases on which they are based appear to be loosening.

The region, which has long been shaped by its Buddhist culture, is facing a drive for assimilation and political orthodoxy under the ruling Chinese Communist Party. Tibetans and other minorities are seeing the use of their languages ​​in schools being downgraded and old ways of living undermined to promise better quality of life through cell phones, online shopping, higher education and improved health care.

Political conformity is enforced through the relentless surveillance of people’s social interactions in real life and on the internet. Religious practices that once dominated the region have been banned from everyday life and the aging Dalai Lama, the exiled spiritual leader of Tibet since 1959, is portrayed as a figure of contempt, if recognized at all.

Chinese tourists flock to Lhasa, the capital and the surrounding area, despite the high altitude, which many rely on canned oxygen. They mingle with Tibetans on rare pilgrimages that include rounds of devotion around Jokhang Temple, the cathedral of Tibetan Buddhism.

A must for visitors is the cobbled square at the foot of the Potala Palace, the former home of the Dalai Lama and his predecessors, which is now a museum. While tourists pose and college graduates use it as a backdrop for class photos, its sluggish status is a reminder of the political problems surrounding Tibet.

Over the centuries, Tibet evolved from a collection of kingdoms to something of a unified state that accepted supremacy among successive Chinese imperial dynasties that ruled until 1912. Full Chinese control came after the Communist Party took power in 1949 and dispatched troops to overcome Tibet’s weak defenses in 1951.

The government says it brought development to a region that was long left behind. Critics say the exploitation of Tibet’s natural resources, environmental degradation and an influx of migrants from China’s Han-majority ethnic group cannot be sustained.

Lhasa has seen a spate of new construction, nomads have been settled in model villages, and the military presence has been stepped up to assert China’s claim to territory from India, with which China fought over its disputed border on Tibet’s southern border last year.

On a rare government-led tour of Tibet, Associated Press journalists saw the upgrading of highways and a railroad to the Chinese heartland, schools teaching Chinese under portraits of Chinese leader Xi Jinping, and signs of an emerging urban middle class that includes both Tibetans and Han people Chinese.

Under countless pressures, the identity of Tibet faces possibly the greatest threat in its history. Like the fluttering prayer flags, their fate lies in the wind.

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