Tibet has long been the “swept under the carpet” foreign policy issue. The media is quiet and the voices of world leaders are queit despite turmoil in Tibet. In 2008 China suspended ties with France after
President Sarkozy met with the Dalai Lama and there have since been multiple instances of foreign
policy being conducted in a careful manor that will avoid antagonising Chinese diplomatic relations. Lewis Porter steps inside Tibet to tell the story, that you might not have heard.
As devout Buddhists make pilgrimages around the many deeply spiritual and holy sites of Yamdrok Lake, Mount Kailas and Potala Palace, the political friction between Tibetans and the Chinese government is spiralling out of control. There have been a reported 23 self-immolations by Tibetan Buddhists since last March and the situation is both worsening and widening.
There have already been 10 cases of people setting fire to themselves since the New Year in objection to the oppressive regime against Tibetans and the number of people protesting is increasing in the western areas of Sichuan Province, China.
The latest case occurred in the Dzamthang County of Tibet where an 18 year old man set fire to himself in the aftermath of a series of shootings by the Chinese army on unarmed protesters in the area. Posters were distributed in the township blaming the oppressive Chinese for the increasing numbers of suicides. When the army tried to arrest the man responsible for distributing the posters they were met with protests by the locals and one innocent man was shot to death while a rumoured four others sustained shot wounds. Authorities attempted to locate and remove the body, which had already been moved to a nearby monastery. This is often the reaction by the police: to remove the bodies of dead protesters in order to cover up the event and prevent publicity to the Western world. Such was the defiance of the latest martyr that as he was in flames he was praying: “May His Holiness the Dalai Lama live thousands of years! Freedom for Tibet!”
The Dalai Lama, who is the head of the Buddhist faith, has been in exile in Dharamshala, India since 1959. This came after a period of uprising and bloodshed as Tibetan leaders were forced by the Mao government to accept the ‘Seventeen Point Agreement’ which supposedly gave the Tibetans political and religious autonomy. However, the installation of permanent Chinese military positions in Lhasa was seen as a constant sign of oppression and observation of the day-to-day lives of peaceful people. Big brother was watching.
Scrutiny of the nationals continues in the region with a real sense of fear and helplessness. It is sometimes difficult for Westerners to be allowed to be able to enter Tibet so it was through fortune of asking the right people that I was granted access last April. This was just a couple of weeks after the first case of self-immolation which has since lead to more than 20 following this excruciating example. Parts of the border were closed near this protest in Aba, Sichuan Province, and one Westerner that I spoke to in Beijing told me that as he was trying to enter Tibet he was turned around by the police.
Luckily I managed to depart with a few other Westerners from Chengdu with a special permit along with the Chinese visa. We were told that we must give this to our guide who would meet us in Lhasa, the capital of Tibet. China’s instance that travellers must be accompanied by a guide while in Tibet and carry the necessary official paperwork is just a small example of the ironic contradictions that surround the Tibetan ‘Autonomous’ Region: it is at the same time China and not China depending on which is most convenient.
There is a striking military presence on the main street in Lhasa which has checkpoints on every corner with barricades and soldiers stood on pedestals wielding machine guns. Locals appear to be going about their normal lives but there must be a great sense of surveillance. We were told by our guide-cum-chaperone that it is forbidden to take photographs of the marching soldiers as one member of our party soon found out. He was taking a photo of the Jokang Temple in the centre of Lhasa when a casually dressed policeman ordered to look on his digital camera and delete any sensitive images.
Despite these tirelessly watchful eyes, the people of Tibet were incredibly friendly and welcoming to us outsiders, greeting us gracefully in the abundant tea houses and temples from Lhasa to Mount Everest. It was not until slightly political questions were asked to our guide that signs of genuine fear were evident. She was a Lhasa-born woman in her mid-twenties. In her broken English she made it quite clear that she was uncomfortable discussing certain matters. For example in the centre of the city is Potala Palace, residence of the Dalai Lama since 1645 until the 14th Dalai Lama’s exile in 1959. One of the members of our group’s question fell on deaf ears when he asked the guide from within the incense-smelling chambers of the mountainside palace whether the next Dalai Lama will return to Lhasa. She basically ignored his question and walked out onto the rooftop terrace which overlooks Lhasa and is the centre point to the mountains that circle the basin-like city. She explained that she did not want to answer these questions while other tourist and officials were in earshot as she feared for the possible repercussions.
Later in the day I asked her what the structure was opposite the palace. It is a large rectangular stone slab that stands at the far end of a large public square. The Chinese flag is surrounded by soldiers at the near end, identical to the pedestal and flag pole at Tiananmen Square thousands of miles away in Beijing. This stone structure, the guide explained, is the Monument to the Peaceful Liberation of Tibet. I pointed out to her that this is effectively a memorial, in the capital city of Tibet, to the soldiers who died fighting and killing the local Tibetan people. I asked her if there was a similar monument to the Tibetan soldiers. She said no. When I asked her if she thought there should be one she made a similar gesture to the one above, as if to say ‘no comment’, or more accurately, ‘I cannot comment’.
The helplessness that these people feel in that they cannot comment on certain matters and feel the need to ignite their bodies as the only action possible to show a clear message of the oppression that they sense is in stark contrast to the collective civilised countries of the world, especially those of the UN, who have the power to make an impact on such regimes. It has been witnessed in the previous year with the uprisings in North Africa and the Arab Spring how protest sometimes needs the guidance of other nations in order to make a peaceful step in the right direction.
Beijing has been known to react harshly to any sense of intervention. In 2008 China suspended ties with France after President Sarkozy met with the Dalai Lama and recently Xi Jinping, the Chinese Vice-President, asked that the US respect their one state policy on Taiwan and Tibet. However, these blatant infringements on the rights of Tibetans and Buddhists should be discussed and considered by the international community without the current trepidation on what the reaction might be.