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Tibet Groups Petition UNESCO to Protect Lhasa


On June 14, two days before the opening of the 37th session of UNESCO's World Heritage Committee - which "has the final say on whether a property is inscribed on the World Heritage List" - taking place in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap-Angkor, Cambodia, a group of Tibet advocates submitted a petition with 85,000 signatures to the Committee to save Lhasa, the heart of the Tibetan capital's cultural heritage, from redevelopment by the Chinese government.

Started by Ngawang Sangdrol, one of the youngest former Tibetan political prisoners, the petition is still gathering signatures.

"There are strong grounds for Lhasa's Old City to be included on the 'List of World Heritage in Danger,' and I appeal to the World Heritage Committee to propose its inclusion on the list at the 37th World Heritage Committee Meeting," writes Sangdrol.

Dating back to the 7th century, Lhasa's Old City houses the Potala Palace, the Jokhang Shrine and its circumambulation path, and the Norbulingka Temple. All three are already part of UNESCO's protected "World Heritage Ensemble" in the heart of the Old City.

On the High Peaks Pure Earth blog, Tibetan activist, poet and writer Woeser documents Lhasa's transformation since these three sacred sites were designated as UNESCO World Heritage Sites in the last 20 years.

"Remember: in 1994, UNESCO placed the Potala Palace on the World Heritage List. But then, in 1996, the village of Shol, which had stood for 1100 years at the foot of the Potala Palace was moved and relocated. At the same time, the Potala Palace, now deprived of Shol, was fatally disfigured with a public square: a replica of all those identical squares found throughout China, that are meant to display and project supreme power and authority."

She writes of Andre Alexander, a German who founded the Tibet Heritage Foundation to restore the Old City in Lhasa and who has since been expelled for his work, and his warning that the city's cultural heritage has been at risk for many years:

“From 1993 on, each year an average of 35 historic structures have been demolished. At this rate the remaining historic structures will have vanished in less than 4 years.”

In 2007, the Potala Palace received a warning at the World Heritage Conference for its excessive use for tourist activities, which put it at risk of losing its already precarious protected status.

The Chinese government is planning to construct the Barkhor Shopping Mall within the Old City, with 150,000 square meters of retail space and an underground parking garage with 1,117 spaces. Not only would the project drastically alter the character of the district, part of the World Heritage Site's buffer zone, but it would also displace thousands of residents who are being offered subsidies to move to the suburbs.

The activist international organization Students for a Free Tibet highlights the importance of the Tibetan capital culturally, historically and spiritually, provides before and after photos of Lhasa under redevelopment and provides ready-for-action online tools for activism on the issue.

Alongside the petition, Tibetan advocacy groups submitted a report, Concerns and Questions about developments in Lhasa, compiled by the International Tibet Network, to the committee.

According to Woeser's blog, the report highlights in its introduction that in 2011 the World Heritage Committee submitted a request to the Chinese State Party for the Conservation Masterplans for the protected sites. There is no evidence to date that the masterplans have been submitted for review.