We are currently in Bangkok, about to head up to Mae Sot to work with the Karen refugees from Burma on a photography project. For the last few days we've been watching the news about the protests in Tibet and Gansu. Below are some observations about the time we spent in Tibet and with Tibetan exiles in India.
When we were in Tibet last October we both felt the oppression of the Tibetan people was incredibly visible. There was a heavy military presence throughout the country with check points and surveillance cameras in sensitive areas such as the Jokhang and Potala Palace. Businesses seemed to be mostly owned by Chinese people and we heard reports that it is very hard for ethnic Tibetans to find work in Tibet because jobs are usually given to Han Chinese. Its important not to demonize Chinese people in this situation. Han Chinese come to Tibet looking for work. Also it seems like Chinese schools teach a very strange version of Tibetan history, one that fosters extreme racism towards Tibetans. I am not sure how the human rights abuses get justified, but there are clearly human rights abuses against the Tibetans.
We happened to be in Lhasa the day that His Holiness the Dalai Lama received the Congressional Gold Medal from the United States. We heard from several Tibetans that the Chinese government had prohibited any kind of celebrations that day. As you know, images of the Dalai Lama are illegal in Tibet and monks in monasteries are forced to officially denounce him in writing. Despite numerous threats from the Chinese police Tibetans throughout Tibet held celebrations. Many of these events were creative and quiet. For example we saw hundreds of Tibetans making celebratory offerings at the Jokhang before dawn. Many Tibetans were arrested that day and monasteries including Drepung were surrounded and closed down by the police.
It was hard to talk to Tibetans about their situation while we were in Tibet. Tibetans seen talking with foreigners are watched closely. We were advised that provoking a political conversation with Tibetans can put the Tibetans at risk especially if either party says something disparaging about China. However once we returned to Dharamsala we were free to talk with Tibetans in great detail about what is going on in Tibet. Through the community work we did we were able to talk with scores of Tibetans and hear dozens of stories about the oppression. Some of the people we talked with had lived outside of Tibet for nearly a decade while others had left Tibet within the last year. We met Nuns who were imprisoned and tortured in ways I don't even feel comfortable writing about. We met young people who came to India to learn Tibetan language and history because they were not allowed to do so inside Tibet. We met monks who came to be close to His Holiness the Dalai Lama and to get Buddhist philosophy teachings which were not available in Tibet. And the stories went on. There are a lot of good resources out there to learn about the situation inside Tibet. The International Campaign for Tibet puts out a really good report called Paradox Lost and their site has up to date information.
The most important thing we gained by going to Tibet was a sense that Tibet can be free. When you hear about Tibet in American media there is a sense of hopelessness. However visiting Tibet filled me with hope. Tibetan culture is still strong and vibrant throughout the region. Being in Dharamsala led us to believe the Tibetan government could make the transition to a free Tibet in a responsible way. However the transition needs to happen soon. Last year China built a train from Beijing to Lhasa which has made it much easier for Beijing to control Tibet. Han Chinese are using the train to migrate in large numbers possibly enticed by tax breaks and job offers. Tibetans are now becoming second class citizens in cities like Lhasa. His Holiness the Dalai Lama is getting old and without his strong leadership the momentum for a free Tibet could be lost. What a free Tibet would look like is obviously up to the Tibetan people. It could mean that Tibet becomes an independent nation as it was before China invaded and forcefully annexed it in 1951. Or it could look more like the Dalai Lama's "Middle Way"approach that secures basic civil rights for Tibetans while remaining a part of China.
If we do not support Tibet now there will be no changes made to improve human rights in Tibet. When the world media coverage stops China will crack down hard. Now is the time to act and we can see from this weeks news that the Tibetans are acting. We have heard from friends in Dharamsala that the community is mobilizing. It is an exciting time and an important time for those of us in solidarity with Tibet to speak up. The International Campaign for Tibet suggests that Americans contact their congresspeople to put pressure on China to let media into Tibet. It is also important that we learn as much as we can about what is going on there and educate our communities with fliers, workshops and articles. On April 9th the Olympic torch will stop in San Francisco offering a strategic time for demonstrations in the United States. The US presidential election also gives us a chance to put pressure on the candidates to support human rights in Tibet as Senator Obama did on March 14.
The world will be watching Beijing during the 2008 Olympics. This is an important opportunity for Tibet and we can help by keeping the pressure on and letting China know we support a free Tibet.
Some Recent Articles
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Curbs on Protest in Tibet Lashed by Dalai Lama
Dalai Lama Calls for Tibet Inquiry
Violence in Tibet as Monks Clash with Police
Monk Protests In Tibet Draw Chinese Security
Tibetan News Source: Phayul.com
San Francisco Restricts China Protests for Torch Relay
Students for Free Tibet: How You Can Help
International Campaign for Tibet