For centuries Tibet, a vast high altitude plateau between China and India, remained remote from the rest of the world with a widely dispersed population of nomads, farmers, monks and traders. Tibet had its own national flag, its own currency, a distinct culture and religion, and controlled its own affairs. In 1949, following the foundation of the Chinese Communist state, the People’s Liberation Army invaded Tibet and soon overpowered its poorly equipped army and guerilla resistance.
Tibet is important to China for strategic and economic reasons and because of the Communist Party’s imperialist ambitions. In China today, it is a serious offence to say that Tibet is separate from China.
In March 1959, Tibetans rose up against the Chinese occupiers. The uprising was brutally crushed and the Tibetan leader, the fourteenth ‘Dalai Lama’, escaped to India, followed by more than 80,000 Tibetans. Tens of thousands of Tibetans who remained were killed or imprisoned. Untold numbers, but at least hundreds of thousands, of Tibetans have died as a direct result of China’s policies since 1949 - through starvation, torture and execution.
MARGINALISATION AND EXCLUSION
Fifty years after China’s invasion, Beijing is intensifying its control over Tibet and its approximately six million Tibetans.
Tibetans are facing increasing marginalization as their economy becomes integrated with China and its population of 1.3 billion. They are losing out under the ‘Western development’ strategy, a massive campaign launched in 1999 to improve infrastructure in China’s thinly-populated west, including Tibetan areas of China. The Chinese government has constructed a railway across the Tibetan plateau to Tibet’s capital, Lhasa, which will increase the numbers of Chinese commercial migrants into Tibet, resulting in the further militarization of the region and accelerating the exploitation of Tibet’s natural and mineral resources
China’s fast track economic policies in Tibet, based on a political agenda, are directly linked to the repression of the Tibetan people. They are the most serious modern threat to the survival of Tibet’s unique religious, cultural and linguistic identity.
The Chinese government claims that it is pouring money into health and education to benefit Tibetans. But the majority of Tibetans who live in rural areas do not have access to adequate or affordable health care and are still suffering from easily treatable conditions such as malnutrition, diarrhea, pneumonia, or even the plague.
Education facilities and opportunities for the Tibetan children are minimal and many Tibetan parents cannot afford schooling So they send their children into exile to study at Tibetan schools in India. Often education that is available in Tibet suppresses Tibetan religious or linguistic identity.
RELIGION AND CULTURE
Approximately 6,000 monasteries, nunneries and temples, and their contents were partially or fully destroyed from the period of the Chinese invasion and during the Cultural Revolution
The repression of Tibet’s culture and religion continues today. Tibetan Buddhism is an integral element of Tibetan national identity, and measures used to implement Chinese government religious policy have been harsh.
China, which promotes atheism, aims to undermine the Dalai Lama’s influence in Tibet and maintains strict control over monasteries and nunneries. Political campaigns or “patriotic re-education” require forced denunciations of the Dalai Lama, and there are restrictions on religious pilgrimages. Obtaining a religious education remains extremely difficult or impossible in Tibet.
Tibet’s religious heritage has made a profound impact worldwide and has a unique contemporary relevance. The Dalai Lama has pioneered a dialogue with scientists on human consciousness, drawing on ancient Buddhist texts, and Tibetan Buddhist lamas teach across the globe.
The tradition of peaceful co-existence in pre-occupation Tibet among Tibetan Buddhists and Muslims serves as a model of religious tolerance, and the Dalai Lama’s efforts to promote interfaith understanding continues to this day.
Over the past 50 years, Tibetans have expressed their resistance to Chinese rule through the assertion of their cultural and religious identity. Following the Cultural Revolution, they rebuilt monasteries and temples in Tibetan communities. Today, Tibetans worship at secret shrines to the Dalai Lama, express their dissent through pop music or poetry and protect their Tibetan identity by keeping their language and traditions alive.
The Chinese government severely restricts the rights of Tibetans to exercise human rights as provided in the Chinese constitution, including the freedoms of speech, press, association, and religion. Reading an autobiography of the Dalai Lama or talking about freedom to friends in Tibet can be classified as ‘endangering state security’.
Tibetan political prisoners endure harsh prison conditions, including torture, deprivation of food and sleep, and long periods in isolation cells.
“When they were torturing us it was literally as if they were trying to kill us. Prison guards would hit and beat with all their strength. Once after we all shouted ‘Long live the Dalai Lama’ they started to kick and beat us so much that the ground was covered in blood.”
- Ngawang Sangdrol, 28, paroled in 2002 after 11 years in prison for peaceful protests
With an average elevation of 14,000 feet, Tibet is the highest country on earth. Tibet’s fragile high-altitude environment is increasingly endangered by China’s exploitative policies.
This matters to the rest of Asia and the world. Five of Asia’s great rivers have their headwaters in Tibet and nearly half the world’s population lives downstream. Deforestation in Tibet has already been linked to severe floods in the lower reaches of the Yangtze in China.
The high plains, forests and mountains of Tibet are home to rare and endangered wildlife such as the snow leopard, blue sheep and Tibetan antelope (chiru). Due to extensive resource extraction, poaching and unsustainable development, these ecosystems and many of their species are now endangered.
The forced settlement of nomads is wiping out a unique way of life, increasing poverty and contributing to grassland degradation.
Human rights conditions in Tibet remain dismal. Under the Chinese occupation, the Tibetan people are denied most rights guaranteed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights including the rights to self-determination, freedom of speech, assembly, movement, expression and travel.
China’s consistent use of excessive military force to stifle dissent has resulted in widespread human rights abuses including multiple cases of arbitrary arrests, political imprisonment, torture and execution. Human rights groups have documented at least 60 deaths of peaceful demonstrators since 1987.
Human rights groups have confirmed, by name, over 700 Tibetan political prisoners in Tibet, although there are likely to be hundreds more whose names are not confirmed. Many are detained without charge or trial for up to four years through administrative regulations entitled “re-education through labor”.
Also, over the past year unrest has spread from urban areas into the countryside. Credible reports of mistreatment and torture of detainees and political prisoners in Tibet are widespread, including beatings, shocks with electric batons, deprivation of sleep or food, exposure to cold and other brutalities. Human rights and humanitarian organizations are denied access to prisons and detention centers in Tibet.
In recent years and especially since the Dalai Lama was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989, the concern shown by the governments in Europe and the U.S., in particular, has grown considerably.
A number of parliamentary bodies have passed resolutions condemning human rights violations in Tibet and calling for peaceful resolution of the conflict in accordance with the Dalai Lama’s plan.
This is the most critical time for the Tibetan people. Tibetans urge the world to support the Dalai Lama’s proposal and put pressure on the Chinese government to begin negotiations with the Tibetan government-in-exile, the true representatives of the Tibetan people.