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Dharamsala, Feb. 13: The US Wednesday expressed its concern on situation in Tibet, but did not specify if the issue would definitely be taken up by the Secretary of State Hillary Clinton during her visit to China later this month, according to a media report.

“You know, the situation in Tibet is something the US government has been concerned about for some time. We’ve raised that issue with the Chinese in the past,” PTI reported the State Department spokesperson, Robert Wood, as saying.

“The Secretary (of State) will be having a wide-ranging discussion with the Chinese when she is in China. I am not going to get beyond what we have said publicly about our engagement with China,” he said.

“But human rights issues are something that will be at the top of the Secretary’s agenda, no matter where she goes,” Wood said.

Wood was reportedly responding to a question about the latest statement from the Tibetan spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama that the situation in Tibet is very tense and there could be a popular uprising any moment.

“The issue could very well come up. I just don’t want to get into specific subject areas at this point. But you can expect that the Secretary is going to be bringing up human rights issues throughout the trip, where she deems it necessary to do so”, he said when asked about whether the issue would come up or not.

Mrs. Clinton, only a month into the job, as announced by the State Department last week, would be travelling on her first overseas trip in this position to Japan, Indonesia, South Korea and China during her week-long trip beginning February 15.

Meanwhile, seven prominent organizations, mostly based in US, Tuesday issued a joint press statement asking Mrs Clinton to put Human Rights on top of the agenda in her visit to Beijing next week.

In the statement, Amnesty International USA, Freedom House, Human Rights First, Human Rights in China, Human Rights Watch, the International Campaign for Tibet, and Reporters Without Borders urged Secretary Clinton to speak publicly about Tibet and Xinjiang, torture in police custody, domestic press censorship, extrajudicial detention, and abuses of human rights defenders.

The statement recalls the secretary’s own past comments on human rights in China, in which she stressed: “not taking citizens away from their loved ones and jailing them, mistreating them, or denying them their freedom or dignity because of the peaceful expression of their ideas and opinions.”

“If Secretary Clinton remains silent on these issues – as the US did earlier this week during China’s review at the Human Rights Council in Geneva – the Chinese government is likely to get the wrong message,” said Sophie Richardson, Asia advocacy director at Human Rights Watch.

“We ask the secretary to stress human rights, the rule of law, and protections for civil society as a centerpiece of US policy going forward,” she said.

Chinese government has moved some 300,000 Tibetan farmers and herders from 57,800 families into permanent brick houses in Tibet this year, under a government-led program, Chinese state-controlled news agency said Saturday, a controversial practice rights groups say has been marked by gross abuses.

“Another 312,000 farmers and herders from 57,800 families moved from shanty homes into new solid brick houses in Tibet this year under a government-subsidized housing project aimed at improving living conditions,” China’s Xinhua news agency reported Saturday.

“I only spent 18,000 yuan (2,647 U.S. dollars) on the construction of my new house, and the rest, totaling more than 40,000 yuan, were all granted by the government,” the report cited Drolkar, a resident of the Yamda Village near Tibetan capital Lhasa as saying.

The report said, like Drolkar, all 208 families in the village moved into new brick houses this year.

To date, 860,000 farmers and herders from 170,000 families have moved into the new houses, the government statistics show, the report said.

The report said the five-year housing project was started in 2006 with a plan to build “solid homes for 220,000 families”

Once finished, it would mean housing for 80 percent of the region’s farmers and herders by the end of 2010, the report said of the controversial resettlement program that recalls the socialist engineering of an earlier era.

China calls the project the “comfortable housing program,” and its stated aim is to present a more modern face for Tibet, which China has controlled since 1950 after sending troops to occupy the region.

It claims that the new housing on main roads, sometimes only a mile from previous homes, will enable small farmers and herders to have access to schools and jobs, as well as for the sake of ecological conservation and for the health of the farmers and herders.

Saying Tibet has been experiencing double-digit economic growth for the last 16 years; the Xinhua report quoted a communist official as saying: “Farmers and herds people re the beneficiaries of the economic development” under China.

Independent reports however, indicate otherwise.

China’s broader aim seems to be remaking Tibet – a region with its own culture, language and religious traditions – in order to have firmer political control over its population.

Forceful resettlement of nomadic Tibetans in Tibet and in adjacent ethnic Tibetan areas of Sichuan, Gansu and Qinghai provinces actually began way back in 2000 and have taken place more intensively since 2003.

Observers say the massive mass relocation is linked to Beijing’s effort, launched in 1999, to develop China’s poor, restive west and bind it to the bustling east. Since then, human rights groups say, China has also been forcing nomadic Tibetan herders to settle in towns to clear land for development, while leaving many unable to earn living.

To prepare for an influx of millions of tourists in the run-up to the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games, the resettlement drive was more vigorously implemented across the Tibetan plateau.

Ahead of the Beijing Olympics, Chinese state media reported of increasing relocation of nomadic herdsmen in Qinghai, Sichuan and Gansu provinces and the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) into fixed residences, but said they were done so to help protect the environment and boost their living standards.

Between 2006 and 2007 alone, Chinese government relocated some 250,000 Tibetan farmers and herders, nearly one-tenth of the population, to resettle to new “socialist villages” from scattered rural hamlets. Reports show they were often ordered to build new housing largely at their own expense and without their consent.

In doing so, these Tibetan nomads have been forced to abandon their traditional lifestyles with many driven to frustration and despair, unable to cope up with the pressures of earning their livelihood through means alien to their traditions and upbringing.

Also resettlement often involve the slaughter of animals belonging to the mostly nomadic herders, relocation to poorly built accommodation and inability to find work due to lack of skills, US-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) said its June 2007 report.

Others are forcibly evicted to make room for public works projects, like dams and roads, the group said in the report.

China says its presence in Tibet has resulted in modernization of the predominantly Buddhist Himalayan country.

Critics rubbish the claim and say modernisation in Tibet has been crushingly imposed by the Chinese authorities along with draconian measures that restrict freedom of expression, freedom to follow a religion of choice and curtailment of opportunity.

While pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into road-building and development projects in Tibet, China is maintaining a large military presence and keeping close tabs on the citizenry through a vast security apparatus of cameras and informants on urban streets and in the monasteries to contain its tight grip on the restive Himalayan region and to quell any impending demonstrations, like the one that broke out in March, against its rule.

Xinhua’s latest report on relocation of Tibetans appears to be part of a major propaganda drive on Tibet launched by China last month to highlight what it calls the “social and economic development of Tibet over the last 30 years.”

Chinese media report last month said starting November 5th China’s top nine state-run media, including the official Xinhua news agency and People’s Daily Online, will start “a series report on the last 30 years of Tibet after the reform and opening-up policy in China.”

The massive state-sponsored drive was described as a move to “help international readers to better understand Tibet”. The report said the purposeful coverage activity on Tibet would be jointly sponsored by the Publicity Department of Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) and the Publicity Department of the Party Committee of TAR, with the network sponsorship of China Tibet Information Centre.

The international community should protest the imprisonment and secret sentencing of Paljor Norbu, an 81-year-old Tibetan traditional printer, and seek his immediate exoneration and unconditional release, Human Rights Watch said yesterday.

According to HRW, Norbu was taken by the police from his home in Lhasa on October 31, 2008, on suspicion that he had printed “prohibited material,” including the banned Tibetan flag. During his detention, judicial authorities refused to inform his relatives that he was being detained, or to reveal the charges against him, HRW said on its website. “He was tried in secret in November and sentenced to seven years in prison. A letter informing his family of the sentence was then hand-delivered to them. His current whereabouts are unknown.”

“Just about any material on Tibet that lacks the Chinese Communist Party’s explicit blessing is ‘prohibited material,’” said Sophie Richardson, Asia advocacy director at Human Rights Watch. “But no one should be jailed for printing flags, books, or pictures just because a government would prefer to suppress those ideas – that’s why freedom of expression is a basic right.”

Although the authorities have not made public the details of the verdict, the nature of the initial accusations leveled against Norbu and the length of the sentence suggest that he was tried on charges of “inciting separatism” (article 103 of the Criminal Law). This vaguely defined crime has been used repeatedly to silence Tibetans resisting the tight and often arbitrary limits imposed on their freedom of expression by Chinese law, said Richardson.

A descendant of a family with a long history of printing and publishing Buddhist texts for monasteries, Norbu is an internationally renowned master printer. He used both modern and traditional woodblock printing techniques in his workshop, which employed several dozen workers. In addition to religious texts, the shop printed prayer flags, folk reproductions, books, leaflets, and traditional literature.

After Norbu’s arrest, the police closed his shop, affixed notices of official closure on the door, and prohibited employees from returning. The police also confiscated books and woodblocks from the shop’s collection.

“Instead of persecuting Paljor Norbu, the Chinese government should prize his contributions toward historical and cultural preservation,” said Richardson.

Human Rights Watch said that Norbu was not granted even the minimal rights that are supposed to be provided under Chinese criminal procedures. Violations included the failure to notify his family of his formal arrest or of the trial date; the refusal to reveal where he was detained; the failure to allow him defense representation of his choice in court; the failure to communicate the full verdict of the trial; and, the refusal to inform the family of his current whereabouts and of where he will serve his prison term.

Human Rights Watch said it has observed an increase in the number of arrests and convictions related to exercising the freedom of expression in recent weeks, indicating that the crackdown that Chinese authorities threatened after Tibetan protests in March 2008 was extending beyond the people suspected of involvement in those demonstrations. Other recent cases include:

· Jigme Gyatso (lay name Jigme Guri), a senior monk from the Labrang monastery, who was re-arrested on November 4 after he described how he had been tortured by the police during his detention in March and who is now in custody in Lanzhou (Gansu province);

· Norzin Wangmo (Chinese name: Longzhen Wangmu [龙真旺姆]), an employee of the Judicial Bureau of Hongyuan county (Sichuan province), sentenced on November 3 to five years of imprisonment after he told relatives abroad of the situation in Tibet; and

· Dhondup Wangchen, who had been detained in March in Tong De (Qinghai province), for his role in filming a clandestine documentary in the Tibetan areas. He is being held in the Ershilipu detention center in Xining.

“The Chinese government will almost certainly say that the charges brought against Paljor Norbu were ‘in accordance with the law,’” said Richardson. “But, by definition, those laws restrict free speech, and until the government brings its laws into conformity with international human rights norms, we will continue to see peaceful critics like Norbu incarcerated for alleged ‘separatism.’”