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One-time Tibetan serf now frontman for China

BEIJING (Reuters) - For many fellow Tibetans, Sitar is a Chinese government puppet, but for the Communist Party, the former serf is a model of loyalty and rising political star.

Sitar, who goes by one name and whose ancestors were serfs for generations until 1959, has risen to be a vice-minister of the Party’s United Front Work Department and a key defender of government policy in Tibet.

He has emerged as one of the most prominent ethnic Tibetans backing China’s fight against Tibet’s spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, and his government-in-exile based in northern India.

In that role, Sitar has come to embody the divide between a Tibetan political elite that has embraced China’s programme for controlling and developing the region, and discontented Tibetans and exiles who instead see exploitation and repression.

China blames the Dalai Lama “clique” for last month’s deadly rioting in Lhasa and anti-China protests which have dogged the international torch relay for the Beijing Olympics.

“It was the Party who nurtured me. I’m absolutely loyal to the Party and the motherland. This is firm and unshakeable,” an official document quoted Sitar, who turned down two Reuters interview requests, as saying.

“He has bathed in the Party’s sunlight since childhood,” the document said of Sitar, named one of the Party’s 50 outstanding members in 2006.

In launching a campaign to learn from Sitar that year, then Minister of United Front Liu Yandong praised him for rejecting overtures from the government-in-exile to defect when he was a diplomat at the Chinese consulate in Zurich in the late 1980s.

Liu held up “comrade Sitar as a model ... politically firm, loyal to the Party and dares to shoulder heavy responsibilities”.

A source with ties to the government-in-exile confirmed it had tried to lure Sitar to defect.


Sitar is also credited with obtaining intelligence that helped foil a plan by radical exiled Tibetans to attack the consulate in Zurich in 1989, according to the document.

During his eight-year stint in the Swiss city, Sitar scored a modest victory over the government-in-exile by arranging for some homesick exiled Tibetans to return home, the report said.

He also took the floor at a U.N. conference in South Africa in 2001 to rebut accusations that Tibetans had no human rights.

At a news conference this month, Sitar likened serfs to livestock and currency under the Dalai Lama’s rule.

“I read an archived letter by a Tibetan nobleman to another nobleman. It read something like this: ‘We gambled the other day and I lost three serfs, seven horses and 20 silver coins to you. I’m sending them over today’,” Sitar said, speaking in impeccable Chinese. He also speaks Tibetan, English and German.

Sitar was born in 1953 in Dege county, famous for printing Tibetan Buddhist scriptures, in the southwestern province of Sichuan, a gateway to the Himalayan region.

After graduating from a teachers’ college in 1968, Sitar taught briefly at a primary school and later at the Central University for Nationalities. He joined the United Front Department in 1984 and has a master’s degree in philosophy.

The United Front Department is the Party’s arm for courting and controlling non-Party forces, including intellectuals, ethnic minorities, religious groups and Taiwan and Hong Kong people.

Addressing the opening of a Beijing exhibit of 1,000 traditional thangka paintings of the legendary Tibetan hero Gesser in 2004, Sitar said the art was a “heavy slap in the face” for the Dalai Lama who had spoken of “cultural genocide”.

Sitar is a rising political star, but Tibetans can rise only so far. No Tibetan has ever served as the top official in the predominantly Buddhist region.

Last year the Party questioned the loyalty of Tibetan members, accusing many of swearing their true allegiance to the Dalai Lama, New York-based Tibetologist Robbie Barnett has said quoting an internal memo.

China says about one million serfs were emancipated when troops marched into the region in 1950. It is unclear how many former serfs joined the government because China has sought to play down their background to avoid hurting their pride.

The most senior former serf is Raidi, who retired in March as a vice-chairman of parliament. For hawks like Raidi, there is little to be gained from rapprochement with the Dalai Lama.

“Raidi derailed the sixth round of talks” between China and the Dalai Lama’s envoys last year, a source with knowledge of the fence-mending negotiations said.

Asked at the news conference to comment on serfdom in old Tibet, Sitar said: “Tibetans should protect their own human rights ... and absolutely not let the social system in which 95 percent of the people did not have human rights return to Tibet.”