Sunday, 23 March 2008

Tibet, a slice of heaven at stake

The death toll to-date is at 19, as announced by the Chinese government in Beijing. Although the Tibetan government in exile has claimed that more than 80 were killed, earlier this week.

While I followed the media coverage of the unrest in Tibet as closely as I can, I came to a point of frustration on the 3rd or 4th day after the riots broke out as the news reports were confusing and contradicting; the Chinese media's limited footage on violent acts of the Tibetan mobs in streets of Lhasa and the Western reports of largely exaggerated witness accounts. No one will, or perhaps is capable of telling the whole truth. As if high altitude is not a big enough challenge, the high-handed measures taken by Chinese government to deny entry of foreign journalists into Tibet and block some internet access, suffocated more truth than the thin level of oxgyen in the Himalayas did.

The only clarity so far is that the riots started out with peaceful demonstrations by monks on 10 March 08, which marked the 49th anniversary of Tibet's failed uprising against the Chinese government (the event that led the Dalai Lama to fleed Tibet and go into exile in India). It is unsure what sparked the violence as stories diverged. Some said that the police injured/killed monks while trying to put down the protestors, although the Chinese government suggested that monks slashed their wrists and deliberately injured themselves and then accused the police of initiating violence.

The colourful streets of Lhasa now totally transformed as shops are burnt and security personnels stationed everywhere.

Sorry sight at the sacred Johkang Temple and once bustling Barkhor.

Tensions and grievances have been brewing between the Han Chinese and the Tibetans, probably from the day the People's Liberation Army (PLA) marched into their sacred homeland in the 1950s. Tibetans claimed that with the influx of Chinese immigrants into Tibet, job opportunities are being taken away and traditions are eroding. More importantly, many Tibetans felt that the real autonomy that the Chinese Communist Party have promised (when Tibet was "liberated") was never delivered.

Source: Phoenix TV. Read reports here.
This sign was said to have appeared outside shops in Lhasa on 10 Mar. It was initially thought of as meaningless grafitti by children. However, after the riots broke out, people recalled that this sign appeared on most shops that have later been burnt down.

I don't know much about autonomy, but while in Tibet last year, I witnessed the disparities in lifestyles of the Han Chinese living in Tibet and the local Tibetans. I often think of my Sichunese driver, who owns a Toyota Land Cruiser and my Tibetan tour guide, who owns nothing but his motherland; and the Chinese family who runs a large souvenir shop having dinner in a restaurant frequent by American tourists versus the elderly lady mending her small stall at the Barkhor and the way she prayed and thanked the Buddha after we spent a mere Rmb100 on some cheap jewelleries. I will also never forget that Tibetan boy who grabbed our ankles and was crying, whom we dragged as we tried to walk away, and who evenutally let go of us after being told off by the Tibetan lady I asked help of.

The completion of the Qing Zang Highway in the 1980s and now the new railroad which connects Qinghai and Tibet have made the mystical kingdom more accessible to the outside world than ever. I recalled having long discussions with my Tibetan cabin mate on board of the Lhasa Express, for a 36 hour ride from Lhasa to Xi'an, about the damages (to my Tibetan friend, he sees benefits) that would be brought onto Tibet as it opens up to the world. I was concerned about the negative impacts of modernisation on the landscape, traditional values and ways of life as we have seen in many developed cosmopolitan cities. But my Tibetan friend(1), who is a teacher, is more optimistic. He has a vision, which is one that the Tibetan children could see and know the outside world, instead of just having to imagine it. And these, he believes are only possible with economic and social developments and better education. To keep up with the rest of the world, Tibet has to change, he said.

I reflected on his words long and hard. At first, it was hard to embrace them completely but eventually, I relented. For the better future of children who now have to walk many miles everyday to attend school, and for that bottle of Coke, in the hands of the granddaughter of a restaurant keeper, as well as other modern comforts to make way to the Tibetan people, it seems like progress and thereby changes are inevitable. I thought Tibet would just have to find ways to deal with the "side effects".

And so, they are staring at us blatantly today, some of the "side effects". Who could have guess that the very means of connecting Tibet to the world would become the cause of the discords and rifts between the Han Chinese and Tibetans? Is this a price too much to pay? Or someone needs to be blamed for forcing changes on Tibet faster than it could sustain?

Photos from Reuters

It is a pity to see the unique characteristics of Tibet slowly fading away as the Han Chinese population replace Tibetans as majority in Tibet, introduced ways of life in great contrast to the traditional values of the Tibetans and stifles the deeply entrenched Tibetans' Buddhist faith - where portraits of their respected spiritual leader are not allowed, where monks are forced into exile leaving holy monasteries deserted, where Panchen Lama is still missing after being held in "protective custody" by the Chinese authority... these are sad events and no wonder the Dalai Lama talks about a "cultural genocide".

As an on-looker, a tourist, Tibet is a place where my city drenched soul calls a paradise. To me, these series of events did no more than put my slice of heaven at stake. But to the Tibetan people, it is their pursue for greater freedom, for their future and for a country they will like to see. Yet irregardless of what is at stake, violence should never be the way to resolve issues. And boycott the Olympics, I say no no, at least for now. I look forward to the day when the Olympic torch reaches the summit of Mt Everest. That will be a great pride to all Chinese people and me alike.

A video clip released on YouTube in the early days of the riots. It is one of those few that have more than the official images released by CCTV.

(1)Ami won a teacher's award presented by Intel. He wrote a touching speech which I heard him rehearsed several times on the train. Watch video about Ami and hear part of his speech here. (Warning: Takes a long time to buffer)

No comments: