10 Mar 2009

Dalai Lama demands autonomy for Tibet

10:21 pm on 10 March 2009

The Dalai Lama marked his 50 years in exile on Tuesday by demanding "meaningful autonomy" for his Tibetan homeland, where Chinese authorities tightened security to stifle protests against their rule.

Speaking before an estimated 10,000 Tibetans from around the world, the 73-year-old leader criticised China for bringing "untold suffering and destruction" to

Tibet and turning the region at times into "hell on earth".

"From time immemorial, the Tibetan and Chinese peoples have been neighbours," the Dalai Lama said from the courtyard of the main Buddhist temple in Dharamsala, the north Indian hill town where the Tibetan government-in-exile is based.

"We Tibetans are looking for a legitimate and meaningful autonomy."

Tibet, and ethnic Tibetan areas in neighbouring provinces of China, are under a security clampdown aimed at stifling protest against Chinese rule.

The Dalai Lama mourned what he called the suffering and destruction wrought by Chinese Communist policies and campaigns.

"These thrust Tibetans into such depths of suffering and hardship that they literally experienced hell on earth," he said.

Many in the crowd were seen crying with folded hands as he said: "Even today, Tibetans in Tibet live in constant fear."

The Tibetan anthem was played and a minute's silence was observed in the memory of victims of last year's Chinese crackdown in Tibet.

Shortly after the speech, thousands of Tibetans, many among them children, marched through the narrow streets of Dharamsala carrying "Free Tibet" posters and protesting against a Chinese security clampdown in Tibet.

Though decrying China's crackdown on unrest 12 months ago and a lack of progress in talks between his envoys and Beijing, the Dalai Lama said the two sides must find a way forward together.

The tense anniversary passes amid muted speculation about the Dalai Lama's longevity and the future of his cause after recent stays in hospital.

On Monday Chinese President Hu Jintao warned his government would not relax its control of the mountain region Mao Zedong's Communist forces took in 1950, calling for "a sturdy Great Wall against separatism".

China says the Dalai Lama's calls for Tibetan high-level autonomy are tantamount to a demand for independence.