BEIJING — China's controversial choice as the Panchen Lama said Tuesday that Tibetans had never been freer, just days ahead of the third anniversary of anti-government riots in the Himalayan region.
The Panchen Lama -- the second highest Tibetan Buddhist leader -- was chosen by China in a 1995 ceremony overseen by the Communist Party, which had rejected a boy selected by the Dalai Lama, Tibet's exiled spiritual leader.
"The Tibetan people now enjoy religious freedom and are much better off," Gyaincain Norbu told the official Xinhua news agency, speaking of the 60 years since China "liberated" the region in 1951.
"People can freely choose to start a business, study or become a Buddhist monk. They are free to do whatever they aspire to, which was impossible in old Tibet. The peaceful liberation of Tibet has made people the real master of Tibet."
The Panchen Lama is a delegate to the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), which in theory advises the main rubber-stamp National People's Congress (NPC) that opened its annual session on Saturday.
China says there has been marked improvement in Tibet since it started ruling the region, including a doubling of life expectancy since the 1950s and billions of dollars in spending on infrastructure and development projects.
But resentment against Chinese rule runs deep in the Himalayan region, where many Tibetans are angry about the increasing domination of China's majority Han population, and accuse the government of trying to dilute their culture.
That resentment spilled over into violent demonstrations in March 2008 in Tibet's capital Lhasa, which then spread to neighbouring areas. Authorities have increased security in the region since then.
The Dalai Lama's choice for Panchen Lama, Gedhun Choekyi Nyima, has disappeared from public view and is believed to be under a form of house arrest.
Chinese authorities closed the troubled Tibetan region to foreign tourists, travel agents said Monday, ahead of the third anniversary of the anti-government riots.
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