Country Focus: Tibet

In Ruckus [Vol. 7, Iss. 4, February 2004]

Tibet – the roof of the world. A land of mountains and monks, where crumbling forts larger than the Husky stadium dot the dry landscape. One can explore the icy plateau for weeks, drinking from partially frozen streams, encountering only a handful of yak salt caravans and Tibetans on horseback. An immensely religious place, where the average impoverished Tibetan family still donates a large part of its meager monthly income to the nearest monastery. Once considered the indomitable spiritual center of the world, Tibet is now a buffer zone controlled by China – strategically useful during the sporadic clashes with adjoining India.

Anyone visiting Tibet expecting to find a bloody civil war pitting robed Buddhists with ceremonial swords against wave after human wave of Chinese soldiers will be disappointed. Chances are, in fact, that you wouldn’t see that many Tibetans at all (assuming the border guards even let you in, of course).
A highly successful repopulation campaign has insured that over half of Tibet’s population now consists of ethnic Chinese.

Most businesses are Chinese-owned. Mandarin, not Tibetan, is the compulsory language taught at schools. Banking, newspapers, television, education, and government bureaucracy are all little different from that encountered elsewhere in China.

It is in the countryside, away from the shiny new high-rise buildings and army checkpoints, that one can still taste the true Tibet. Mind you, the authorities are less than enthusiastic about foreign visitors roaming freely outside the neatly designated tourist region centered on Tibet’s former capital – Lhasa. Get caught, and you can expect to have your passport ripped up in front of your eyes and pay your way out on the earliest flight.

Manage to break out of the tourist circle, and you’ll see what all the fuss is about (Ruckus’ international correspondents always travel with two passports, by the way). Graveyards of stumps greet you where Tibet’s majestic forests once stood. Tibet’s turquoise highland lakes, whose effluent provides water for three quarters of our planet’s population, have become chemical dumping grounds. Uranium and Iridium mining operations, the size of Green Lake, scar the shades of purple and yellow. And everywhere are the surviving remains of Buddhist temples and monasteries which once characterized – nay, defined, Tibetan life – now fading into the dust.

Destruction of culture and language, rape of the environment, unsustainable short-term policy making… in short, the Chinese government is doing exactly what ‘capable’ governments have been doing to their weaker neighbors ever since the advent of agriculture. Life, wouldn’t you agree, is largely a matter of perspective?

To Liberate or To Occupy, That is the Question

The Bad Yellow Occupation Version:

October 1950. Some 40 000 PLA (Peoples Liberation Army = Chinese) troops cross the Drichu river into Tibet. A few Tibetans on horseback, wielding outdated muskets, provide negligible resistance. Within days the Chinese occupation of Tibet is complete. Human rights abuses abound! No democracy or freedom! Religious suppression! The CIA sets up a secret camp in Upper Mustang in northern Nepal, training partisan Tibetan freedom fighters. The desperate measure of western goodwill fails.

The Liberation from Evil Western Influence Version:

October 1950. After centuries of oppression, the Tibetan people are finally liberated from the evil clutches of feudal life. The threatening influence of the colonial powers – most notably the US and Britain – can finally be stamped
out. The end of a highly class-based hierarchical society! Equality for all! Long live chairman Mao! The CIA starts training imperialist terrorists over the border in Nepal, but the strength of the people – not to mention helicopter gunships and the help of the corrupt Nepalese government – win the day.

Whatever version you decide to go with, one thing is certain: Nobody noticed. Nobody cared. The world’s attention was focused firmly on Korea, where General MacArthur crossed the 38th parallel on the very same day of the invasion. The well-known mantra of the Buddha of Compassion, Om Mani Pad Ma Hum, is supplanted by Mao Tsetung wan sui.

What about all those peace-loving boys and girls at the United Nations? The matter would have been completely ignored if it wasn’t for an obscure representative from El Salvador bringing the matter to the forefront. (Trust those damn South Americans to always stand up for what’s right instead of focusing on the issues! They’re going to want to design their own trade policies next – imagine!) Thankfully, the Tibet situation was thrust back into obscurity by the British representative to the General Assembly: “the Committee [does] not know exactly what [is] happening in Tibet nor [is] the legal position of the country very clear”. Well, jolly good, that’s the end
of that, then…

The chaos and destruction of the 1966 Cultural Revolution also spread to Tibet, and the consequences of which are still clearly visible today. The revolution translated as a heightened struggle against the remaining old feudal practices. Red Guards roamed the cities and villages, demanding, amongst other things, that: (1) All observance of religious festivals be abolished; (2) People destroy all photos of the Dalai Lama; (3) No one recite prayers; (4) All monasteries and temples – save a handful protected by government – be converted for general public use; and (5) ‘Feudal practices’, which includes throwing parties and exchanging gifts, be abolished.

Ruckus travel advice #001-A(i): “Never, ever, ever photograph military personnel”

Tibet Today

Fifty years is a long time. On the whole, Tibetans are probably better off than Aboriginals in Australia, Hottentots in South Africa and Native Americans in the US. China has proven itself remarkably capable at assimilating new peoples and territories peacefully and quietly – more so than perhaps any other empire in history. Furthermore, the last few centuries in particular have seen the steady export of Chinese culture to all corners of the globe. Chinatowns are blossoming everywhere, from Seattle to Singapore to Sydney. The real question raised by Tibet and its sovereignity, and the Ruckus question of the month, is: would you prefer to live in a world with (1) China; (2) the U.S.; or (3) both simultaneously as the dominant superpower? If it’s any conciliation, it’s unlikely that you’ll have any say in the matter.

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