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Tibetan political leader seeks official Canadian visit to region

Lobsang Sangay, leader of the Tibetan government-in-exile, is calling on Ottawa’s religious freedom envoy to visit Tibet.

Dave Chan/The Globe and Mail

The head of Tibet's government-in-exile has called on Canadian officials to visit the contested Chinese region, saying that a large military buildup and new security measures have made life intolerable for locals.

Lobsang Sangay, head of the exiled administration, said Chinese officials have not spoken with the Tibetan government in four years, longer than Mr. Sangay has been in his position. Decrying China's "hard-line measures," Mr. Sangay, who was in Canada last week, visiting Vancouver and Calgary, stressed that Western support would be instrumental while Chinese President Xi Jinping drafts a new foreign policy.

"Canada should push China on human rights more strongly and the ambassador for religious freedom should go to Tibet and look at the claims of the government," said Mr. Sangay, whose title is Sikyong, equivalent to prime minister.

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Andrew Bennett, Canada's ambassador for religious freedom, has not visited Tibet. No one from his office could confirm whether he had plans to do so.

On Feb. 20, Mr. Bennett met the Dalai Lama during the Tibetan Buddhist leader's trip in the United States. Religious freedom in Tibet was one of the main points of conversation.

"Canadians are concerned about the restrictions placed by the Chinese government on the right to freedom of religion of Tibetan Buddhists, especially on their ability to worship in peace. We are also concerned by the self-immolation by some Tibetans," Mr. Bennett wrote in a statement at the time.

According to Carole Samdup, the head of the Canada Tibet Committee, the communiqué was the first mention of Tibet since Mr. Bennett's office was created in early 2013.

"We've made a number of requests that he should visit personally and we've yet to receive any replies," she said. "This is what we thought his office was for."

The Tibetan Plateau sits in a strategically important area in the centre of Asia, between China's lush valleys, the metropolises of India and a dozen other countries. A large infrastructure program has opened up the previously remote region, allowing more troops to be stationed along the mountainous border.

"I just spoke with a woman who had returned from Lhasa," said Mr. Sangay, who has never been allowed to visit Tibet. "The area is quarantined. Locals can stay a few days for pilgrimage and then they are thrown out. There are checkpoints every 30 metres with sharpshooters on the roofs. A walk to go pick up vegetables that used to take five minutes now takes 30."

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One of the impacts of the restrictions has been "resentment" by locals, leading to 126 self-immolations since 2009.

Despite calling for Mr. Bennett's visit, Mr. Sangay praised Canada's commitment to Tibet and called for it to be more widely adopted. "In Europe, you see some countries speaking out and some hesitating, a co-ordinated effort by Europe and North America would be very helpful."

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About the Author
Ontario legislative reporter

Based in Toronto, Justin Giovannetti is The Globe and Mail’s Ontario legislative reporter. He previously worked out of the newspaper’s Edmonton, Toronto and B.C. bureaus. He is a graduate of Montreal’s Concordia University and has also worked for CTV in Quebec. More

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