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Freedom of travel, history has shown, is as much a means of diversion and entertainment as it is a tool of control. From Castro’s Cuba, where until recently Cubans needed an exit permit to travel outside the country, to Ahmadinejad’s Iran, where lawmakers are considering legislation limiting women’s right to travel, authoritarian regimes often employ stringent travel restrictions as a means of controlling a population.

The latest example comes from China, where authorities are cracking down on dissenters by refusing to re-issue passports to Tibetans.

According to a report by the Washington Post, Chinese authorities instructed Tibetans to turn in their old passports, ostensibly to be replaced by electronic ones during a paper-to-electronic conversion. But the new electronic passports never materialised, leaving many Tibetans without any passports and unable to travel. The move has severely limited Tibetan travel to Nepal, where Tibetans often travel for business, religious and political reasons.

“Since February or March of last year, there has been no issuing of new Chinese passports to Tibetans, and those in the TAR [Tibet Autonomous Region] were hit hard by the move," Office of Tibet in Taiwan researcher Sonam Dorjee told Radio Free Asia.

The Tibetan passport move follows a rocky year for Tibet-China relations. 2012 saw a slew of Tibetan freedom demonstrations followed by a crackdown by the Chinese government, including the confiscation of thousands of satellite dishes and the introduction of Chinese security forces to monitor activity in the region. Tibetans embarked on a series of self-immolations in protest of China’s increasingly tightening grip, a highly-publicised measure that gained overseas attention and sympathy – and further inflamed the Chinese.

China’s new official passport, released in 2012, also includes a small watermark map that includes Taiwan, disputed territory claimed by India as well as islands claimed by the Philippines, Vietnam, Brunei and Malaysia – a move that stirred regional ire in more ways than one. The watermark has renewed fears of China’s heavy-handedness and brought about fresh diplomatic tensions, with Vietnam and India refusing to stamp the passports and Taiwan and the Philippines lodging formal complaints.  

Even under normal conditions, Tibetans face more complicated and stringent travel procedures than their Chinese brethren. “They may have to wait for years for their applications to be processed and may have to pay bribes along the way,” Dorjee said.

What’s more, Tibetans must sign waivers agreeing not to engage in “illegal activity” or “activities harmful to the nation” while abroad, must surrender all travel documents to authorities within seven days of their return home and report to police upon return, where they may be subject to interrogations – restrictions not imposed on Chinese nationals.

“It shows that even though all are considered Chinese citizens, TAR passport applicants do not have the same rights as guaranteed in China for other applicants,” Dorjee said.

Thus far, Chinese authorities have shown no signs of lifting the passport restrictions, leaving many Tibetans stuck in the TAR. As it has in other countries, the travel restrictions will likely exacerbate existing tensions between China and Tibet.

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