Thursday, March 12, 2009

return to rightful owners.

Fifty years ago today, Tibetans in Lhasa were erecting barricades as part of the March 10th 1959 uprising against the Chinese invasion of Tibet. Around 86,000 Tibetans died in the badly outnumbered and short lived rebellion.

(Click here for a current statement by H.H. the Dalai Lama on the anniversary.)

In memory of the most incredible and beautiful country I have been to I want to add some notes from my journey there in 2002.

Often in defence of China, people will state that the Chinese have brought improved education, health and other benefits to the people. They also say the people were living a downtrodden feudal existence before the Chinese "liberated" them. These spurious arguments are naive and often made by people who have never even set foot in the country and have not witnessed the reality of the lives of Tibetans both in the past and the present day.

The truth is - Tibetans are third class citizens in their own country. During my trip across part of Tibet I witnessed several things that made me realise just how subjugated the Tibetans have become to their Chinese masters.

One was the subsidising of Chinese restaurants and businesses in order to make Chinese goods and services much cheaper, thus trying to price Tibetan businesses out of the market.

Another being the Tibetan written language, with regards public signage etc, which has been relegated to a very small scale in comparison to the Chinese characters. Also Chinese is now the official spoken language.

spot the Tibetan script (photo source)

lhasa shop

Once when driving across the Tibetan plateau we stopped to spend the night in a small town called Tingri - basically 40 - 50 mud brick dwellings scattered either side of the highway. On telegraph poles either end of the town were loudspeakers. All day long these blared out Chinese music, news and radio. You couldn't avoid it.

It reminded me of a scene from Scorsese's amazing film KUNDUN where immediately after the Chinese invasion of Lhasa, loud speakers are set up all over the city playing Chinese propaganda.

The young Dalai Lama comments "They have even taken our silence".

edge of tingri

tingri - the one horse town

Another moment during the trip, our group was waylaid on a coach back from visiting some ruined monasteries by some very officious looking Chinese officials. We were shepherded by them out of the coach and into what can only be described as an almost finished, newly built monastery. We were then all led around by officials into various parts of the buildings including a place where around a dozen monks were seated going through the prayer rituals.

However, the entire building and grounds felt horribly fake and sterile, and the monks looked uncomfortable and unhappy. As we, by that stage, had already visited numerous genuine and very old monasteries, the whole experience left everyone in the group feeling unpleasant and wanting to get the hell away from there.

This structure and our forced viewing was clearly meant to represent the generous nature of the Chinese in promoting and rebuilding Tibetan culture. It felt as plastic and as cheap and soulless as Disneyland.

a genuine one - ganden monastery

and another - samye monastery ( we stayed overnight here)

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