8 years ago I lived in Dharamsala, the Indian Himalayan town that is the base for the Tibetan Government in Exile. I was working with newly arrived Tibetan refugees, many of whom would arrive after an incredible journey over the Himalayas directly from Tibet into Nepal, all the while dodging the Chinese army’s hawk-eyed surveillance of these strategically located mountains. Once in Nepal, some refugees would choose to stay and others would go further afield after some months, into India.
I began to learn about the Tibetan struggle for sovereignty through a close friendship I struck with Thupten, who I met through my work in Dharamsala.
Thupten had once been a monk in the famous Se Gompa, in the Tibetan county of Ngawa in Amdo province. He fled his monastery in the middle of the night in 2000, when the police stormed through in search of monks who had published and distributed leaflets calling for Tibetan Independence.
Like his Tibetan counterparts over 5 decades, Thupten was driven to forgo the warmth of his family and the familiarity of his homeland, in unshakeable defense of an ideal he believed in with every part of his being — sovereignty.
6 decades since the Dalai Lama left Tibet, the world is being confronted by the still-resonant Tibetan cause, now in the fiery form of self-immolations. The spate of recent self-immolations take the death toll since 2009, to 114. Many of the deaths have been in that special town etched in my heart — Ngawa.
To immolate oneself is an act of sheer and unfathomable despair. It is the selfless act of people calling on the world to act on injustice. The stifling of Tibetans’ fundamental rights by the Chinese government underscores every aspect of daily life of a historically independent and resilient people, for whom self-sacrifice is the very last resort to have their pleas heard.
With China’s intensifying strangle-hold on the culture, demographic distribution and local economy of the Tibetan population, thousands so far have been displaced or sidelined in their pastoral homelands — and that’s not only the Tibetan Autonomous Region(TAR), but in ethnographically Tibetan provinces like Sichuan, Gansu and Qinghai.
By 2014, it’s said that 1.4 million Tibetans will have been forcibly resettled away from their pastures by the Chinese Government. Their land, rich with natural resources and minerals is being pillaged before their eyes without their approval as cultural and historic custodians of that land. 70% of the small businesses in Lhasa are owned by Chinese who’ve been settled through support by the government, while 40% of local Tibetan school graduates remain unemployed. The very bedrock of Tibetan culture — the language, has already been replaced by Mandarin in several schools. One can say that Tibetan culture is purposefully being diluted and pushed to the brink, while the intention of creating malleable homogeneity is manifest in a wave of Chinese governmental reforms in Tibet.
Over a period of year and a half, I lived in north-west China and was lucky to spend a lot of time in the Tibetan regions of Gansu, Qinghai and Amdo. After working with Tibetan refugees in India, this time spent in China offered precious insight into the other side of the prism.
In Langmusi, an enigmatic Tibetan town nestled between hills whose barren peaks are peppered with vultures assisting locals’ ‘sky burial ritual’, a simple moment shared with an aging nomad made the extent of the oppression truly hit home.
He wore a weathered, ancient yak-leather coat, fastened at the waist with meters of rope. His long hair was dreaded, brown and contrasted sharply with the smoothness of the turquoise beads threaded through his ears. Spinning his prayer wheel, the old nomad shuffled alongside me as I walked the kora, the circumbulation of the stupa. He smiled, his gold teeth glinting in the high-altitude afternoon sun. Recognizing me immediately as Indian, the man extracted a yellowed and tattered photograph from his coat, showing it to me discreetly. He asked, "Do you know him, have you seen him in India?" Of course I did, and of course I have. In fact, I’d lived in the same town as he did, fortunate to feel the very shade of his incredible presence. It was an old photo of his Holiness the Dalai Lama, who has been living in exile in India since 1959.
For Tibetans in India, seeing His Holiness is a blessing each and every time. Here in the middle of Tibetan China, public display or even personal ownership of his images is an unspoken no-no. The very mention of his name and any association with him can spell trouble. And any calls for his return to Tibet can land supporters in jail, be persecuted or simply disappeared.
Talking with the old nomad, I realized the struggle was not just about political ideologies, intellectuals or monastic control over communties — it trickles down to people at the grassroots who may not even harbor any strong political views but who worship Dalai Lama as a living god. It was about ordinary people who look to him for spiritual guidance in this life. It was about a man who represented and articulated the Tibetan struggle for human rights in it’s entirety — their right to make sovereign decisions for and with their people and traditional homelands. The Dalai Lama’s enforced absence from the Tibetan homeland meant a gaping hole in the lives of all there. Consequently, their fundamental rights to freedom of expression, belief and association have been steadily and deliberately eroded since 1959.
Through the prism of time spent in Tibetan China, I witnessed the layered spectrum of this human rights denial that has become systemic in the lives of Tibetans. Every attempt to speak out by the Tibetan community in these volatile parts has so far been met with crushing suppression from the state. Stories of torture, violent interrogation and enforced disappearance are so common, nearly every family in some towns, have a tale of tragedy to tell.
In Ngawa, I managed to meet with my old friend Thupten’s aging mother. She came riding down her donkey while I waited across the road from Se Gompa, the controversial monastery where Thupten had studied. In her heavy leather overcoat, her bulky coral and turquoise neckpiece framing her kind, weatherbeaten face, the weight of her life’s burdens under Chinese rule came trickling down through deep furrows on her cheeks. I filmed her talking to my camera with the intention of passing on this video to Thupten. Fighting back maternal longing to see her son, she asked for Thupten to never even attempt returning for the fear of reprisals — he and his relatives remain on one of those ‘blacklists’. Their crime — being boldly vocal against inequality and exercising their right to free expression. Her loss and that of thousands of other Tibetans — a family fragmented and a way of life subjugate to persecution and oppression.
When Thupten’s 17 year-old cousin joined a peaceful protest in Ngawa in 2008, he had no idea that that would be the last day he’d ever see. He was shot and killed as the police broke fire onto the crowd.
And in 2009, 39 year-old Jamyang, another one of Thupten’s cousin was detained without fair trial, under the accusation of communicating with exiled Tibetans in Dharamsala about the worsening human rights situation in Ngawa.
And it goes on, the list of atrocities against fundamental rights is long and Tibetan families that suffer the consequences — countless.
Stifling and disproportionate presence of police all around Tibetan regions in China, tight restrictions on religious practice and hardline policies of Beijing have pushed to the brink Tibetans young and old. And the spate of self-immolations these past few months simply reflect this strangle-hold reality.
In the face of this wave of fiery protests sweeping the region, Beijing has further forbidden any local Tibetan fundraising for “community or social welfare”, or activities of the Tibetan community that call for protection of the environment or Tibetan languages, culture and identity.
Instead of opening dialogue to address Tibetan human rights concerns, since October 2012 the government has been responding to immolation with broad collective punishment — punishing family members of immolates. Some prefectures have ordered the “cancellation of benefits received by the households of self-immolators under public benefit policies” and announced that “all projects running on state funds in self-immolators’ villages must be stopped.” The officials extended those cancellations to any families, monks, or monasteries who take part in “instances of greeting and making contributions to family members of self-immolators,” and ordered criminal investigations to begin against any “laypeople and monks who organize to greet family members of immolates.”
This cruel and collective punishment in itself breaches international human rights precepts. Treating immolation as a criminal offence will add to the already complex quagmire of human rights abuse in Tibetan China. Beefing up Chinese fire-fighting forces in towns where self-immolations occur will not quell the burning desire of the Tibetan people to have their fundamental rights upheld in true practice.
We have now reached a stage in our collective history where the Tibetan struggle is staring us in the face, unfolding like gruesome theatre as monks burn in their maroon robes, prostrate in their despair. The time now is to stop being passive audience and demand that China address long-standing Tibetans human rights concerns at their very root.