TAKTSER, China (Reuters) - It may have been six decades since the Dalai Lama fled into exile, but in the isolated mountain hamlet where he was born, he remains very much on the minds of devotees and Chinese authorities alike.
On the northeastern edge of the Tibetan plateau, Taktser, in Qinghai province, where the Dalai Lama was born in 1935 to parents who farmed buckwheat and barley, is a magnet to worshippers and foreign tourists - and security personnel.
During a recent Reuters visit to Taktser, known in Chinese as Hongya, police armed with automatic weapons blocked the winding road leading into the village of some 60 houses.
Police and more than a dozen plain-clothed officials who declined to identify themselves refused Reuters entry, saying the village was private and not open to the public.
The Qinghai government and China’s State Council Information Office, which doubles as the Communist Party’s spokesman’s office, did not respond to requests for comment.
Beijing views the Nobel Peace Prize laureate as a dangerous separatist and has denounced the 83-year-old spiritual leader as a “wolf in monk’s robes”. The Dalai Lama denies espousing violence and says he only wants genuine autonomy for Tibet.
Many of China’s more than 6 million Tibetans still venerate the Dalai Lama, despite government prohibitions on displays of his picture or any public display of devotion.
This Sunday marks 60 years since the Dalai Lama, disguised as a soldier, fled the Potala Palace in Lhasa, the Tibetan capital, after rumours that Chinese troops were planning his abduction or assassination fomented an abortive popular uprising.
The Dalai Lama crossed into India two weeks later, and has not set foot in Tibet since.
Despite the passage of time, during sensitive political anniversaries China’s security apparatus routinely restricts access to the village where the Dalai Lama’s old family is located, behind a pair of wooden doors and high concrete walls.
One 29-year-old Tibetan man in the largely ethnic Tibetan town of Rebkong, set in a precipitous valley in Qinghai with a large monastery adorned in rich colours, enthusiastically recounted to Reuters his pilgrimage to Taktser years ago.
He said Tibetans were well aware of the upcoming 60th anniversary of the Dalai Lama’s exile, even if public commemorations of any sort were banned.
“You can only bury it in your heart, we just don’t speak about it,” he said, declining to be identified due to the sensitivity of the matter.
“We have no ability to go against politics, we can only just go with society.”
Born Lhamo Thondup, the Dalai Lama was just two years old when identified by a search party as the new incarnation of Tibet’s most important spiritual leader, and was whisked from the family home to live in Lhasa.
The anniversary of his escape over the mountains into exile in India is one of several politically sensitive dates in China this year, including the 30th anniversary of the crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators in Tiananmen Square in June, that the ruling Communist Party wants to ensure passes without controversy.
Speaking on the sidelines of China’s annual meeting of parliament this month, Tibet’s Communist Party chief Wu Yingjie said the Tibetan people felt greater affection toward the government than the Dalai Lama, who “hasn’t done a single good thing for the people of Tibet”.
As the Dalai Lama ages, many Tibetans fear that Beijing will simply appoint its own replacement.
The Dalai Lama has suggested that his incarnation might be found outside Chinese-controlled territory, or that the centuries-old Dalai Lama institution could die with him.
Reporting by Philip Wen; Editing by Tony Munroe, Robert Birsel