Like Fleas on a Dying Yak - China's gradual destruction of Tibet

By Daniele Pestilli on February 8, 2012
Tibetan Yak, by archer10 (Dennis) SLOW (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Tibet - one of the planet's most ancient, mistic, inaccessible regions, whose stupendous plateaus were once crystalized by a blanket of permafrost is rapidly disappearing along with its spirit.

It is a millenary treasure of humanity that has been ferociously ripped away from all of us, but especially from Tibetans, who were deprived of their own culture, language, and excluded from partaking in the region's tourism-driven economic exploitation. Five star hotels in Lhasa, satellite flatscreen TVs, high-speed trains, paved highways - this is the new “Tibet without Tibet“ - an unrecognizable fiefdom whose vassals are in the hands of Beijing's policies.

When the Chinese People's Liberation Army received Mao Zedong's command to enter Tibet in 1950 and then Lhasa in 1951, little else was left to do for Tibetans than pray. Although China never renounced its claim to sovereignty over Tibet, its people had unilaterally declared independence from the Qing Dynasty as early as 1913. Nevertheless, Tibet was powerless in the face of a Chinese menace, and the international community did little to help. In June 1950, the UK Government issued a statement that outlined its position on the matter: “[We] have always been prepared to recognise Chinese suzerainty over Tibet, but only on the understanding that Tibet is regarded as autonomous”. Unfortunately, despite a Seventeen Point Agreement signed “under duress“ between the Chinese authorities and delegates of the 14th Dalai Lama, although Tibet had been promised autonomy, nothing could have been further from the truth.

Article 7 stated, “the religious beliefs, customs and habits of the Tibetan people shall be respected and lama monasteries shall be protected.” On the contrary, the obliteration of Tibetan religion and culture was one of the most devastating in human history. It was conducted with meticulous atrocity and perseverance. So much so that it disfigured the Tibetan landscape. Hills with dzong (fortress architecture wherein religious figures lived) were razed, stupa (structures containing Buddhist relics) were shattered and thousands of Buddhist icons were hammered, defaced, covered with paint and erased from human memory. Of the 2,464 monasteries that existed before the Tibetan ravage, only about ten remain.

In one of his many books, Italian journalist Tiziano Terzani writes of Lobsan K., a young Tibetan teacher who secretively welcomed the journalist to his abode. There, he divulged

The (Chinese) Han have built roads, but they've destroyed our temples; they saved our people with their hospitals, but they killed our Lamas with their rifles. We Tibetans are like dogs with broken bones.

He goes on explaining how the sacred Tibetan mantra, “Om mani padne hum“ (often transliterated to: “jewel in the lotus”) was patiently and diligently effaced everywhere, and replaced by “Long Live Chairman Mao“. Within twenty years, the Chinese virtually rewrote Tibetan history. Millions of books were printed into Tibetan, but these were translations of Marxist-Leninist and Maoist texts. One of the few remaining books on Tibet's history was written by a Han Chinese. It (offensively) explains that the most sacred shrine, the Jokka Kang, had been built by the Chinese in celebration of the marriage between a Chinese princess and a Tibetan king.

Only when Tibet is joyful will China prosper

An old Tibetan prophecy cautions, “only when Tibet is joyful will China prosper”. There may be some truth to this.

In recent years, demonstrations by Tibetans have increased and the means of suppression on behalf of the Chinese forces has consequently become more stern. According to International Campaign for Tibet, the total number of self-immolations by Tibetans since February 2009 has increased to 20. As they set themselves on fire, the Tibetans call for freedom of their land and their people, and for the return of the Dalai Lama who, fearing for his life, went into exile in March 1959. The latest self-immolations occurred February 3, 2012. Three people set themselves ablaze in Sêrtar County (Seda in Chinese), in China's Sichuan Province.

Amongst the self-immolators is one Tibetan religious figure, Lama Sobha (died January 8). According to Wedge Infinity, a Japanese web magazine, because the Lama is considered to have a special existence his immolation is widely viewed as a powerful statement about the current situation in Tibet. Before sacrificing himself, he said he acted “not for his personal glory but for Tibet and the happiness of Tibetans“. Thus far, almost every victim of self-immolation has perished while reciting slogans such as “Free Tibet” and “Long live the Dalai Lama“.

Wedge Infinity explains that during one of these incidents, the Chinese public safety officers seized the corpses but this raised unrest amongst Tibetans who remained in prayer all night for the authorities to return the bodies. That time, the Chinese authorities gave in and agreed to return a body to avoid escalations. Recently, they have been more unrelenting in their decisions.

In another incident of violence that occurred on January 24, Tibetan demonstrators marched on government offices in Sêrtar. The situation escalated and Chinese authorities drew closer, shooting and imprisoning Tibetans. According to Free Tibet, Chinese security forces opened fire and killed a 49 year-old Tibetan man called Yonten.

China blames the Dalai Lama for spurring these separatist sentiments and calls the demonstrations acts of terrorism. An article by the New York Times reminds its readers that this is a sensitive period for China, as the Communist Party's leaders will change by the end of this year. China cannot afford instability on its borders or separatist movements. Besides Tibet, there are other regions such as Xinjiang and Inner Mongolia wherein ethnic minorities (such as the Uyghur) have been fomenting separatism.

Despite the information propagated by Chinese media, NGOs worldwide argue that this situation underlines the desperation caused by the religious and cultural repression that the authorities in Beijing conduct against Tibetans. To reinforce this view are many netizens, who have been posting incessantly on Twitter in the past few weeks. The netizen Tibettruth claims that the three objectives of the Tibetan struggle are:

  1. Tibet's independence
  2. Return of the Dalai Lama
  3. Protect Tibetan national/cultural identity.

According to a Facebook group called International Tibet Network, “solidarity vigils are taking place around the world today. Thousands of Tibetans and Tibet supporters are joining together to demand China acknowledge the growing crisis and immediately address Tibetan grievances before more lives are lost.” To find the solidarity vigil nearest to you, check this link.

“TibetanAn organization called freeTibet says Tibet support groups are organising a vigil outside the Chinese Embassy in London on 8 February between 4pm and 7.30pm to show solidarity with Tibetans. Tibetan monks will also be present to recite prayers.

Journalists are being harassed, detained and obstructed from covering the situation in Tibet, which has been virtually cut off from the world these days. Phayul.com writes that this is in violation of China's regulations governing foreign reporters. In the meantime, it is hard to get reports from Tibet since internet and phonelines are no longer usable within a 50-square-kilometer area of every protest site.

More pressure on behalf of the international community must be put on China. Yet this does not seem to be happening.

An article from 18 August 2011 in the Italian daily, La Repubblica, explains that the U.S. vicepresident Joe Biden underlined America's stance on the matter during a talk with his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping. Namely, the U.S. will firmly adhere to the one-China policy and will not support “Taiwan independence”. He said the U.S. fully acknowledges that Tibet is an inalienable part of the People’s Republic of China. Bloggers have commented, “let's face it, he knows who his real boss is". In July 2011, U.S. president Barack Obama received the Dalai Lama at the White House. He expressed his support of the battle for human rights in Tibet, but at the end of the encounter he confirmed the U.S.'s view that Tibet is part of China.

World leaders have proven to be helpless vis-a-vis the economic, military and political power that China has become: on the one hand, they embrace the Dalai Lama, on the other they abandon his followers by leaving them stranded like a dying yak. A loud and clear message must be sent to the Chinese government that violation of human rights and the killing of Tibetans is thoroughly unacceptable.