- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 19, 2006

BEIJING — Tibetan followers of the Dalai Lama have clashed with Chinese authorities after an unusual series of organized burnings of animal skins and fur-lined clothes, campaigners said.

The Dalai Lama made a seemingly innocuous call last month for Tibetans to stop wearing the skins of protected animal species. Tibetans often have worn animal skins as decorations. Clothing lined with furs, some from tigers, leopards and otters, has become fashionable in the past few years.

The call was taken up with such alacrity that the Chinese saw it as a political statement of support for the Dalai Lama, whose continued popularity remains one of their greatest sore points.

The Wildlife Trust of India, which was shown a smuggled tape of the burnings, said nine persons were arrested and charged with “public unrest and colluding with the Dalai Lama.”

Relations between the Chinese government and the Dalai Lama — who is living in exile in Dharamsala, northern India — are in an uncertain phase. A group of the Dalai Lama’s emissaries are in China on what is assumed to be the latest in a series of contacts with communist authorities.

Supporters say the Dalai Lama’s statement about protected animals was not intended to be political but was a response to calls from environmental groups concerned about a surge in the smuggling of rare animal skins into China and Tibet. The smuggling had caused anger in India, which has suffered from extensive poaching of tigers and other wildlife.

The Tibetans responded with enthusiasm. “An estimated [$75 million] worth of animal skins have been burned in eastern Tibet alone,” Lobsang Choephal, the monk who smuggled the videotape, told reporters in Dharamsala on Friday.

“These events are significant for us, as they show the world and especially China that Tibetans all over listen to the Dalai Lama and are willing to make sacrifices if he wishes so,” he added.

Kate Saunders, of the International Campaign for Tibet, said bonfires had been ignited in Lhasa, the Tibetan capital, and on hillsides near monasteries in Tibet and Tibetan-occupied parts of neighboring provinces. Reports say hundreds of people have been digging through their wardrobes and attics for fur-lined fashion garments and dumping them onto the fires.

She said authorities had stepped in to block a mass burning planned at a monastery in the town of Rebgong. She said she had been told of eight arrests.

“They are letting them burn skins in their own homes, but the situation is very tense,” Miss Saunders said. “This is not going to go away.”

She said neither the Dalai Lama nor the Tibetans had political motives, despite the Chinese response.

“What they are doing is not anti-Chinese,” she said.

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