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Curious about Tibet? Look, listen, see for yourself

BEIJING, March 27 (Xinhua) -- I wonder if Saturday will see a new round of worldwide debate over the Tibet issue, which always seems to happen on the dates of major occasions in the plateau region.

Gratitude, regret, reminiscence, controversy ... the new Serfs Emancipation Day, being marked for the first time this year, is likely to be greeted with more reactions than any newspaper could or would want to cover.

But this time, before the war of words breaks out again, let's calm down and try to understand the real life of Tibetans.

Stroll the streets of Lhasa. On any given day, you can see hundreds or even thousands of pious people prostrating themselves on the ground or spinning prayer wheels around well-preserved religious sites like the Jokhang Temple and the Potala Palace amid the fragrance of Tibetan incense.

You could also see modern clothing stores, including many famous brands like Etam and Vero Moda, flanking the roads. Fashionable local girls, Tibetan and Han alike, dart in and out of shops, walking to the beats of popular songs by Westlife or Groove Coverage.

Talk to native Tibetans.

Losang Yonten from Kongpodargye County, Nyingchi Prefecture will tell you about the happiness of fulfilling his 30-year-old wish: moving into a new 200-square-meter apartment. What he may not talk about is that in the past two years, governments at all levels have allocated more than 8 billion yuan (1.17 billion U.S. dollars) to help 600,000 farmers and herders move into new buildings.

Sonam Dondrup from Khesum Village, Shannan Prefecture will tell you about the changes in his village.

"In the past, this village was a manor owned by a landlord," said the 66-year-old village head, recalling how the serfs in heavy debt competed with dogs for food." Now, they've set up the first farmers' association in Tibet, and the per capita annual income has reached 6,380 yuan."

Emancipation of serfs or slaves is not uncommon in the world.

Great Britain outlawed the slave trade in 1807 within the country and 1833 in its colonies.

Perhaps the most famous anti-slavery campaign was in the United States, where President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation in 1862.

This move was hailed as a giant leap for human rights, but a similar case in China hasn't received as much positive attention. Conditions for serfs and slaves in old Tibet have been documented in many historical records and traveler's tales.

Russian traveler Gombojab Tsebekovitch Tsybikoff went to Lhasa in the early 20th century. In his book, "A Buddhist Pilgrim to the Holy Place of Tibet, " he described in detail the gruesome punishments meted out to poverty-stricken Tibetans before 1959.

Tom Grunfeld, a Tibetologist based in the United States, warned people in his 1996 book "The Making of Modern Tibet" that life in the old Tibet was by no means pleasant.

On March 28, 1959, the central government announced it would dissolve the aristocratic local government of Tibet and replace it with a preparatory committee for establishing the Tibet Autonomous Region.

That meant the end of serfdom and the abolition of the hierarchic social system. About 1 million serfs and slaves were thus freed. Half a century has passed since the event, and the pages of documents from that time have yellowed, but the controversy has never ceased.

From China, the story has been one about development and progress in Tibet, although admittedly the region still lags the rest of China due to historic and geographic reasons.

From the West, the vitriol about human rights has been unceasing.

But seeing is believing, even if news reports are often biased.

During my stay in Tibet this past winter, I talked with several lamas in the Sera Monastery in Lhasa and the Pelkor Chode Monastery in Xigaze. They expressed their wish to have the 14th Dalai Lama, who they still regard as their religious leader, return to his homeland in Tibet.

In 1959, Tenzin Gyatso, then 24, fled to India after the failed riot. Having been away from home for so many years, maybe it is time for the gray-haired monk to recognize the development of Tibet and the needs of the people there: peace and a better life.

Those who doubt the situation in Tibet should go there and see for themselves, as I did.

Be sure to ask everybody you meet: who among you wants to return to the old society and serfdom?

In 2005, the United States set up the National Slavery Museum in the state of Virginia, the first such facility in the United States.

In 2006, then French President Jacques Chirac announced that from that year forward, on each May 10, there would be commemorative events held "in the places of great significance in the history of the slave trade and slavery."

In 2007, the British city of Liverpool held an event to mark the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade.

In 2008, the U.S. Congress formally apologized for the "fundamental injustice, cruelty, brutality and inhumanity" of slavery and the legal segregation of African-Americans.

In 2009, the first Serfs' Emancipation Day will be celebrated in Tibet. This day should be recognized by people around the world as no different from those events in other countries: as a date to mark the end of what was, for many, a "hell on Earth."



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