DHARAMSALA, India – Tibet’s exiled spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, told his followers Tuesday that the Tibetan culture, religion and identity face “extinction” and that residents of Tibet were living in “hell on earth.”
The Nobel Peace Prize-winning pacifist made the unusually pointed comments in a speech on the 50th anniversary of a failed Tibetan uprising. He spoke to thousands of Buddhist monks and nuns, young mothers with babies on their backs and Tibetan schoolchildren who gathered in this Himalayan town, which is home to the Tibetan government-in-exile.
Followers also held somber candle-light vigils to mark widespread protests last year that became the most violent revolt by Tibetans since the 1980s.
“Even today, Tibetans in Tibet live in constant fear, and the Chinese authorities remain constantly suspicious of them,” the 73-year-old Dalai Lama said. “Their religion, culture, language, identity are near extinction. The Tibetan people are regarded like criminals deserving to be put to death.”
While his words were strong, he was also careful to say that he continues to be hopeful about the Tibetan cause. He said he still believes in nonviolence and wants only “meaningful autonomy” under Chinese sovereignty, known as the “Middle Way.”
The Tibetan government-in-exile says 220 Tibetans died in last year’s March protests and nearly 7,000 were detained in demonstrations in Tibet and in Tibetan communities in three surrounding provinces. The Chinese government says 22 people died in Lhasa.
Although it was difficult to know what was happening inside Tibet, because there is little access for journalists, Chinese state media reported that paramilitary police and soldiers fanned out across cities and villages in Tibet and restive western China, on the alert for possible unrest.