UPDATED at 11:00 P.M. EDT on 2019-05-19
U.S. Ambassador to China Terry Branstad will travel to Tibet from Sunday for official meetings and visits to religious and cultural heritage sites, in the first such trip by a U.S. envoy to China since 2015, the State Department said.
Branstad will visit the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) and Qinghai Province, a historic region of Tibet known to Tibetans as Amdo, from May 19 to 25, a State Department spokesman told RFA’s Tibetan Service.
“This visit is a chance for the Ambassador to engage with local leaders to raise longstanding concerns about restrictions on religious freedom and the preservation of Tibetan culture and language,” the spokesman said.
“He will also learn first-hand about the region’s unique cultural, religious, and ecological significance,” said the spokesman.
“The Ambassador welcomes this opportunity to visit the Tibet Autonomous Region, and encourages authorities to provide access to the region to all American citizens,” the spokesman added.
Branstad’s visit is the first by a U.S. official to Tibet since the approval by U.S. lawmakers in December of the Reciprocal Access to Tibet Act, which requires Washington by the end of this year to deny visas to Chinese officials in charge of implementing policies that restrict access for foreigners to Tibet.
A report by the State Department in March said that China “systematically” impedes access to Tibet for U.S. diplomats and officials, journalists, and tourists, and when visits to the region are granted, they are “highly restricted.
In 2018, the TAR was the only area of China for which the Chinese government required diplomats to request permission to visit, and Beijing denied five of the nine official requests for the U.S. diplomatic mission in China to visit the region, including one from Branstad, said the first annual report on U.S. access.
China dismissed the report, which was mandated by the reciprocal access act, as being “full of bias” and harmful to bilateral relations.
Max Baucus,, President Barack Obama’s envoy to Beijing, was the last U.S. ambassador to visit Tibet, in May 2015.
On Thursday the Dharamsala, India-based Tibetan Centre for Human Rights and Democracy (TCHRD) issued a report that said the human rights situation in Tibet took a sharp downward turn last year with tightened restrictions on travel by Tibetans and a new campaign against “organized crime” targeting Tibetan civil society and cultural practices.
Calling 2018 a “pivotal year” for human rights in the TAR and other Tibetan areas of China, TCHRD said that new policies and regulations have led to “an increased restriction on human rights and lives of the Tibetan people.”
A nationwide campaign against “crime” and “black and evil forces” introduced at the beginning of the year resulted in the detention, arrest, and torture of human rights and environmental activists and of ordinary Tibetans promoting the use of the Tibetan language, the rights group said in its report.
“Peaceful dissent of any kind and degree was met with harsh penalties,” TCHRD said.
In December, two young Tibetans set themselves ablaze in Ngaba (in Chinese, Aba) county in Sichuan province in opposition to China’s rule, as well as political and religious repression in the TAR and other Tibetan areas.
They raised to 157 the number of self-immolations by Tibetans since the wave of fiery protests against nearly 70 years of Chinese rule of their homeland began in 2009.
China maintains that it peacefully liberated Tibet from feudal rule, and that Tibetans enjoy the economic development it has brought to the region.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported that Gary Locke was the last U.S. ambassador to visit Tibet.
Reported by RFA’s Tibetan Service. Written in English by Paul Eckert.