I have spent the last few weeks in the Tibetan settlement of Mcleod Ganj in Northern India, the home of the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan Government-in-Exile. It’s a beautiful place, nestled in the mountains with cool temps and a bit of altitude. Before coming here, I knew very little about Tibet, Tibetan people, the Tibet-China conflict, etc. I knew there would be Buddhist temples, momos (delicious Tibetan dumplings), and the Dalai Lama. What I didn’t know astounds me. As I prepare to depart after 3+ weeks here, I know I am leaving with an education. An education in resilience, courage, and understanding.
The story of Tibet brings to mind the vivid imagery of the Native American plight of the 1800’s. Having just read Empire of the Summer Moon: Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the Comanche’s this past fall, I am constantly reminded of the similarities between what we, the Americans, did to the Native Americans, and what the Chinese, in the 20th and 21st centuries, are doing to the Tibetans. I think it’s easier to view the “Tibet Situation” (as it is referred to in these parts) through the lens of our own experience with our Native Americans. Words like: land grab, meaningless treaties, coercion, excessive force, persecution, and culturally genocide come to mind. Here’s what I know:
Unlike the Americas, China and Tibet have had a complicated and intertwining history for thousands of years. But I don’t have enough details on that. My Tibet education begins in the early 1900’s, with Tibet recognized as a country in its own right. Increasing military and political pressure from China intensified during the reign of Mao Tse-Tung post-World War II as China slowly encroached upon Tibetan lands. (Based on my limited knowledge, this seems to be China’s preferred method of land-grab: the silent kind. Read here for more Chinese territorial disputes- there are many!) In 1950, the Tibetan government supposedly negotiated the Seventeen Point Plan, essentially incorporating Tibet into the People’s Republic of China, but the basic understanding by Tibetans is that this agreement was reached through coercion. Later that year, as the Chinese presence continued to intensify, when the current Dalai Lama was a mere 15 years old (instead of the traditional 18), he was confirmed as the sitting leader of the Tibetan government. In 1959, during the Tibetan Revolution, when his safety in Lhasa, the capitol of Tibet, was no longer assured, he and his entourage escaped to India, crossing the Himalayas with Tibetan soldiers and monks in tow.
After fleeing to India, the Dalai Lama set up long term residence here in Mcleod Ganj in 1961 and unfortunately has been here ever since. Since that time, thousands of Tibetans have fled Tibet, and are now spread throughout India and the world. In the past 60 years, the Tibet Situation has become increasingly dire. Tibetans are persecuted based on their religious beliefs, language, and culture. In the late sixties and seventies, during the Chinese labelled “Cultural Revolution,” (read: cultural decimation), the Chinese destroyed thousands of historically significant buildings, temples, monasteries, and cultural art, sculpture, and artifacts. The Chinese have resettled (think: American Pioneers and Manifest Destiny) millions of Chinese people in Tibet through a massive incentivized resettlement program (exact census data is hard to find, but according to Tibet.org, 7.5 million Chinese now inhabit Tibet compared to 6 million Tibetans).
Tibetans have become disenfranchised in their own country: paying more to send their children to Chinese schools, receiving lower wages than Chinese natives, and living without the freedom to express their religious and cultural beliefs or traditions. Tibetans are not allowed to have a photo of the Dalai Lama in their homes, and monks are forced to renounce their allegiance to him as part of a massive “re-education” campaign occurring across monasteries in Tibet. China has encroached on traditional nomadic grazing lands (most Tibetans have traditionally lived a nomadic lifestyle, with few residing permanently in villages), pushing Tibetans into cities (where they lack the education and ancestry to succeed) and eventually into poverty. This particular land grab has resulted in large-scale destruction of what is still the world’s largest non-artic watershed in the world, through mining, deforestation, and nuclear storage and testing.
All of this stinks of the American movement to settle the Middle and Western USA in the 1800s. As China claims to be “educating” the “ignorant,” nomadic peoples of Tibet, so did America claim to be “educating” the “savage,” mostly nomadic Native Americans. While there is less blood-shed in the current China-Tibet conflict, no arrows flung, no scalping, no newly introduced pathogens, the result is the same: widespread decimation of a thriving, beautiful culture. Instead of arrows and bullets, the Chinese rely on intimidation and the indiscriminate jailing of monks (yes- monks!) and Tibetans accused of anti-government activities, widespread poverty, and massive surveillance and police state activities to keep their population demoralized and dehumanized. Any why not retaliation? This peace-loving people is so dedicated to the principles of Buddhism and non-violence that the main form of protest within Tibetan borders is self-immolation, or the setting of oneself on fire.
And yet, the Tibetans I meet here are not bitter. They do not burn with anger. They do not wallow in self-pity. They have journeyed the hundreds of miles through steep and inhospitable mountain terrain and Chinese border patrol, leaving their homes and families in search of education, freedom, tolerance, and of course, a chance to meet the Dalai Lama. And they have found what they sought here in India- the largest democracy in the world, lest we Americans forget…
So what can be done? What can they do? What can I do? These are the questions that have been rumbling in my brain since my new Tibet education began. After many discussions with Tibetans and foreigners here, perhaps the Dalai Lama himself summed it up the best at a recent talk he gave at the Temple:
I paraphrase: “The world always focuses on ‘We’ and ‘They’ – but these are secondary or tertiary differences. We are all human. All of us. We are all the same. We need to remember this if nothing else. We are all humans. There is no ‘We’ and ‘They.’ ” – His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama
China will never ‘give up’ Tibet. But it could work to create a more tolerant culture of acceptance. One where Tibetans and Chinese alike have access to freedom of religion, expression, and cultural preservation. The world could do a better job of putting pressure on China to respect its people, Tibetans and other minority groups included. If the West cares so much about Crimea, and the border disputes between Israel and Palestine, we must hold ourselves accountable to the same moral compass throughout the world. America has its own torrid history. But we can change. The world CAN change. America can do better. And so can China.
Until then, we owe it to our Tibetan friends to educate ourselves about the world around us. We are constantly reminded to “Think global, act local,” but rarely do we take heed of the first part of that mantra. To me, thinking global means taking the time to understand the complexity of the world around us. It means thinking with a moral compass. It means standing up to injustice, no matter how futile or impossible it seems. My Tibetan friends do this every day. And they do it without malice in their hearts, but with love.
We may not be able to bring back the buffalo hunts of the Native Americans. We may not be able to save the nomadic lifestyle of the Tibetan people. But we can hold ourselves to a higher standard. An ethical, just, and educated standard. And I urge you to join me in trying.