Tibet: 'The oppression is palpable' &amp&amp

Wednesday, September 13, 1995

By Lolo Houbein

Recently I returned from my second visit to Tibet. The situation was much deteriorated. Not only are the main streets, Barkhor market and Jokhang temple in Lhasa under constant surveillance through cameras hung from the eaves of buildings, but policeman sit hidden between stalls every 20 metres or so in the market. Any gathering of more than four people in the plaza in front of the Jokhang temple is broken up. Traders surrounding tourists to sell jewellery are pulled or pushed away by policemen and told to go. The normally intrepid Kambha women traders melt away like snow in the sun when a uniform appears.

Townscapes are dominated by the military and police, their weaponry and establishments. Outside the garrison town of Tsedang are what appear to be a large number of prison barracks behind barbed wire-topped walls.

In the main cities and small country towns of central Tibet, there is massive Sinification in progress. Traditional Tibetan buildings disappear, modern Chinese ones go up. Practically all trade seems to be in Han Chinese and Hui hands, leaving only marginal street trading to Tibetans. Tibetan men and women are seen doing the hardest manual work everywhere.

Chinese authorities were racing to complete 62 projects in Tibet to impress the world during the September 1 celebrations of 30 years of the Tibet Autonomous Region.

Tsedang's town centre was entirely dug up for the festivities. There we saw a Tibetan woman dying in the main street, lying naked under a cover in a department store planter box. She refused money offered to her. When we left a few days later, her place had been taken by a wretched Tibetan man.

In Shigatse we witnessed troops in trucks wearing riot gear rolling up to Tashilhunpo monastery on July 12, the second day of the three-day Buddhist festival "Universal Offering". Earlier that morning we'd been allowed into Tashilhunpo's forecourt to photograph the unrolling of a giant thanka [representation of the gods] on the nine storey high display wall of the storehouse. But before long we were told by government officials to leave and manhandled out of a side door.

Later troops arrived, and the story pieced together from what various people told us was that inside the monastery several hundreds of monks were banging their heads on tables in protest against their abbot's (Chadrel Rinpoche) detention by Chinese officials and the disappearance of the newly recognised 11th Panchen Lama, Gedhun Choekyl Nyima.

During most of the life of the 10th Panchen lama, who died in 1989, Tashilhunpo monastery had to exist without its grand lama, as the Panchen was imprisoned between 1965 and 1979 and then ordered to live in Beijing, with only very occasional visits to Tibet.

As July 12 progressed, streets were cordoned off around the monastery, the great thanka display was called off and hundreds of people doing the circumambulation of the monastery across the hills were told to go home. Tourists were told to return to their hotels for their own safety.

The day before we had travelled on the same bus as the abbot of Shalu monastery, who had to attend a meeting in Shigatse. Three high Tibetan officials from Lhasa arrived at the hotel, also for a meeting. It seems Chinese officials feared that during the festival, with town and country people gathered in their thousands, the monks would attempt to demonstrate their grievances in public.

It has now been reported that on July 11 the police arrested between 20 and 40 monks for refusing to sign a document that denounced Chadrel Rinpoche.

This was the first time Tashilhunpo monks — usually regarded as pro-Chinese — have revolted. The crowds in Shigatse behaved quietly. We walked around markets and streets without seeing anything unusual, except military and police presence and fire trucks ready to pull out of a Chinese compound near Tashilhunpo.

That evening we were called to a meeting in the hotel, to be told there had been a meeting between representatives of the travel industry and security officials in Shigatse. Martial law had been declared in the city, and all tourists would have to leave on the morning of July 13 in the direction of their permits. China has since rejected as "groundless" a report that foreigners were expelled from Shigatse.

Whereas two years ago villagers would come to our bus out of curiosity, now they come out of poverty. In 1993 we divided the contents of lunch boxes between village children who looked at us from a distance. This year women and children rush any bus that stops, asking not for money but for food. Children claw and fight over a bun. Although there was no sign of food shortages in tourist hotels and truck stops, it appears that rural populations in central and southern Tibet are experiencing hunger.

Chinese settlers have now penetrated to rural areas, but we never encountered a Chinese woman or child begging. One Tibetan boy at a monastery gave all the food we offered him to an old woman and small child. But at Shalu monastery's settlement, the children were the thinnest and most ragged, fighting each other to sell clay tablets robbed from funeral sites, even fighting an old man for a piece of food. They were skin and bones, and their clothes grey rags.

In Kham, people seemed to live a more traditional life, better fed, clothed and boisterous. Infiltration of Chinese settlers is obvious on hillsides, where native pines are logged and on riverbanks, where Chinese and Tibetans alike dredge for gold. Prayer flags overhang such sites to appease the gods, for in independent Tibet such wholesale destruction of the environment was not tolerated.

In Kham tourists are not welcome, although some are being let in. But to get seven minutes to see Derge's 11th century monastery with ancient murals, with three police pushing you in the back and hissing "Hurry up!" may not be everyone's idea of cultural tourism!

We managed to double the time in Derge's famous printing press, where religious texts are hand printed on handmade paper, but were not allowed to take photographs. I was severely reprimanded for aiming my camera at a stack of blank paper in the courtyard.

There were daily meetings about our presence in Derge between security police and the mandatory guides for the duration of our stay, and in Kham country there were phone calls to security centres ahead about our imminent arrival. In Luho we were told to stay in our hotel. But after 12 hours of travel, we needed to walk the main street, protested and won that privilege.

It was supposed to be a "sensitive area". There were virtually no Tibetans in that town. In a silk shop I spotted a new snow leopard skin for sale — the animal is officially protected and rare. Other "sensitive areas" we could not visit were monasteries, or villages where on the way in we had actually talked or traded with inhabitants.

Kham is eastern Tibet to the Tibetans and western Sichuan to the Chinese. Since the Chinese are in power, it is only a matter of time before the Khambas too become a minority in their own land. Already traders and restaurant owners have set up in townships and around gold diggings. Bulldozers are a common sight, and logging trucks drive unceasingly as long as the passes are open.

The rape of Kham has been going on for more than 40 years. It is only because Kham must have been tremendously rich in resources and thinly populated that the Khambas have better managed to keep their own lifestyle than Tibetans in central Tibet. But an influx of Chinese and Hui migrants and traders could change that. The ancient town of Tatsienlu, called Kangding by the Chinese, was once a famous Tibetan border town where the Chinese came to trade. Now it is virtually a Chinese town, with only a few monasteries to indicate that it once had a thriving Tibet-driven economy and culture.

We had to have a Chinese escort to buy Tibetan bread, lest we talk subversively to the baker. All wayside restaurants appear to be Chinese. In Lhasa we were to stay in a Tibetan hotel, but that was later changed to the Holiday Inn for our "comfort".

Talking to Tibetans may obviously get them into trouble. The same may apply to Chinese people. The oppression is palpable. Restrictions on tourists seem to be increasing.