Political struggle in the Land of Snows (Tibet)

By Yeshua Moser | 1994-09-01 12:00:00

In March Tibetan refugees everywhere observed the 34th year of their uprising against the invasion of their homeland and their life in exile. During these observances I spoke with some recent arrivals from Tibet about their lives and their journey to Dharamsala, the current residence of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, and headquarters of the Tibetan government in exile (CTA).

Choepal, a middle-aged, dark, weathered man with bright eyes and a face of old leather, greeted me with the openhanded gesture of his people. He spoke in quiet rhythmic tones about his three-month journey by foot across the world's highest mountain range. Often he had walked at night to avoid detection by Chinese troops, only to have all his possessions confiscated by Nepal border police after he crossed the frontier. He was then taken into custody, fearing that he would be sold to the Chinese, as has reportedly happened, but his release was obtained by a Tibetan support group who came to know of his incarceration. He risked this journey solely to catch a glimpse of the spiritual leader of his people, the Dalai Lama, and to hear Buddhist teachings from him.

Eighty thousand Tibetan refugees have left Tibet by the route Choepal travelled, and now live in 34 communities scattered throughout 34 India and Nepal, where they have worked hard to keep their culture alive. They have rebuilt and improved the Tibetan education system, and now have an institution authorized to grant doctorates. Institutes of art and theatre keep their communities alive. The school of Tibetan medicine provides them with doctors to keep them healthy. In India they are free to participate in trade, and they are prospering. Their own democratically-developed governmental structure keeps all this organized, and represents their struggle to the world through 13 foreign missions. Their very survival as a living and vibrant community is, in itself, the Tibetans' most potent act of defiance to continued occupation and subjugation of their land by the Communist Chinese.

I asked Choepal, "How well known within Tibet today is the Tibetan government in exile?" He answered, "Everyone knows the Dalai Lama is here, and that there are Tibetans living with him outside Tibet. We have learned this from our papers. The Chinese print many stories of how horrible the conditions are for Tibetans living outside Tibet. They print them so often that the opposite must be true! Also, many people can receive the Tibetan language radio broadcasts from abroad, even though the Chinese try to jam them."

Tibetan Buddhist teachings guide the refugees' development as a community. To support the continued understanding of these teachings, the refugees have built more than 200 monasteries in exile in which nuns and monks receive teachings no longer available in their homeland. One of the highest Buddhist teachings is compassion. When asked how this applies to the Chinese, the Dalai Lama told me: "If we have compassion, we can build a peaceful and truly fair society. This is the difference between a Buddhist society and a Communist one. Communism is based on hatred and therefore, by nature, is destructive. It was good that Communism destroyed the old system. The liberation of serfs from feudal exploitation may have been the final victory for Communism. Although we oppose Communism, we do not hate the Chinese. The Chinese are a great people. If you look at their accomplishments, you can only respect them. Buddhism teaches us to send our Metta (feeling of loving kindness) to all beings, everywhere, in all realms. The realms may be a bit distant," he laughs, "but the Chinese are our Eastern neighbors. We must send them our compassion, for they too are suffering."

His Holiness is not only concerned for the liberation of Tibet, but sees their struggle as a process whereby an independent Tibet can contribute to a more peaceful Asia. Impressed by his visit to Costa Rica two years ago, he proposes that Tibet be a land without military forces or armed police-a de-militarized zone between the nuclear weapon-armed states of India, China, and Kazakhistan in former Soviet Central Asia, a frontier from which all their neighbors can be assured of security.

Since the pro-democracy demonstration in China in 1989, the CTA has attempted to forge solidarity links with Chinese pro-democracy groups living in and outside of China. "It was difficult," said Tempa Tsering of the CTA's International Relations Department. "At first they related to us as barbarian, which is how we are portrayed in the Chinese press. Gradually through visits they came to know us, and now we actively campaign for each other's cause."

While the CTA coordinates external campaigns and serves the refugee community, direct nonviolent struggle continues to be waged within Tibet itself. Another refugee, Tenzin, tells me, "Not a month goes by without a demonstration. Leaflets are distributed and posters condemning the occupation are put up on walls." It is impressive that these activities continue despite the risk of arrest, in a country without public printing facilities. Tenzin described to me how small numbers of leaflets are painstakingly reproduced by carbon paper on typewriters, or by hand. Posters and Tibetan flags are made by hand, then hung during the early morning hours. Photographic surveillance devices, and reconstruction of the cities provide the police with advanced methods of detection of mass actions. Today demonstrations involve only a few courageous participants per act. The CTA aids them by sending in printed matter and video and audio tapes, which are copied and distributed underground.

Besides an intensive military and police presence, the main weapon in Beijing's arsenal against an independent Tibet is, ironically, people. The Communist government has implemented a policy of migration from other areas within China into Tibet. Non-Tibetans now outnumber Tibetans in their own homeland. Many of the new arrivals are Muslims, and it is suspected by people watching the situation closely that the Chinese authorities will use this fact to justify their continued presence. In the future Beijing may portray conflicts in Tibet as differences between Buddhists and Muslims, not Tibetans and Communist Chinese.

International solidarity and understanding of the aspirations of the Tibetan, as well as East Turkistani and Mongolian people, will be important in the nonviolent resolution of these struggles. Refugee people have fewer resources to work with than most other human societies, and I was inspired to see what the Tibetan people have accomplished in exile. Gifted spiritual leadership and good friends have been vital to their efforts. Emphasizing their understanding of the interconnectedness of their struggle with others, Tenzin said to me as I was leaving, "We cannot forget your visit. The actions of people like you who visit us and learn about our hopes will accumulate. With good friends like you we can survive and one day welcome you to our own homes, in Tibet."

Yeshua Moser was a member of a delegation of the International Network of Engaged Buddhists who visited H.H. the Dalai Lama, and the Tibetan community in exile in Dharamsala, India in March of 1993. Moser lives in Bangkok, Thailand, where be serves as Southeast Asia Representative for Nonviolence International.

Peace Magazine Sep-Oct 1994

Peace Magazine Sep-Oct 1994, page 6. Some rights reserved.

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