Jeremy Ball, a firm friend of Tibet, urges us to see the truth of Tibet as the world prepares to commemorate the Dalai Lama's 50 years of exile.
I wish this were good news. It is not, although it contains great lessons and the seed of all that is good.
Approximately 60 years ago, the Red Army of the Chinese Communist regime began to roll into Tibet, an invasion masked behind the banners of "welcoming the people of Tibet back to the motherland" and "liberating the people from their feudal overlords". This was spin doctoring to such an extreme that I don't think even either of the George Bushes would have dared attempt it. In fact, this was stone cold larceny of the highest order. An old fashioned yet compassionate system was being overthrown by a draconian power that, in the coming years, was to shoot and starve to death one in five of the population.
Tibet was never a part of China, as all of Tibet and the Chinese leaders knew. With the banners and rhetoric hiding the real intention of domination and theft of rich lands (full of minerals and strategically placed), the world looked on and mainly turned a blind eye. Of course, we should not have gone to war with China - I would not have wanted to leave my family to fight a war, nor send my sons. But it's irrefutable that Western governments have fed the giant for the purpose of growing our economies.
I say this not to open old wounds or shame a nation, but to state the facts. Tibetans, and not least their leaders, are incredibly compassionate and forgiving people, their culture steeped in wisdom and spiritual insight. You will very rarely hear a Tibetan bemoaning their fate - it is much more in their nature to look positively to the future, looking to educate and befriend their aggressors. Buddhist wisdom teaches them not to see any person as bad, but with ignorant thoughts locked in their mind. Revenge will bring yet more vengeance as the wheel of pain spins. It is one thing to absorb this wisdom in your mind, it is another thing entirely to live by it and in the face of such provocation. Of course, these virtues are not expressed by all Tibetans, but by an incredible percentage, under the continual encouragement of their leaders and at a time in history when the common wisdom of the world has been to whoop your citizens up into a fury preparing them for war.
The Dalai Lama and most Tibetans you will meet are cheerful, positive and full of life. They do not complain or bore you with their problems, often showing more concern for others than for their own problems. Many countries in a similar position to Tibet have sent their leaders to the world to beseech other countries to supply them with weapons. Instead, the Dalai Lama travels the world, as do many other lamas, helping to soothe our pains and worries with the balm of the Buddha's wisdom.
This Tibetan congeniality is a great attribute and has been their saving grace. Yet, in truth, it has blinded me and many others to the extent of their suffering. Tibetans do not harp on about problems, nor strap bombs to their chests and seek revenge. Yet an estimated sixth of their population was murdered and starved in the years during and following the Chinese invasion. Would you be quiet if four million Australians were killed?
The Chinese gradually stole Tibet from 1949 to 1959. Throughout this time, the young Dalai Lama constantly tried to make peace with the communists, using his spiritual practice to view his enemies as friends. Some people have dismissed this as naive, but I hate to think what would have happened to Tibet if he had not shown this immense spiritual maturity.
Worse was to follow during the so called Peaceful Liberation of Tibet in 1959, as the Chinese proclaimed it, when armies marched into Tibetan villages finding the chiefs and their families, dragging them by the hair out of their homes, beating them in the streets in front of everyone else, often shooting them and their brothers in front of their wives and children. Monks and nuns were dragged from their monasteries and nunneries, beaten and forced to commit degrading acts under threat of execution. Torture was rife and many events much worse than I wish to report here occurred. What the Chinese failed to understand that although Tibetan society was hierarchical, there was genuine compassion and respect between the different levels.
On March 10 1959, the Chinese Army demanded the Dalai Lama attend a concert at their barracks without any bodyguards. The Dalai Lama's advisors were reluctant to let him go. Chinese threats ensued. The Dalai Lama planned to attend to save trouble for his people, but someone leaked the information to the crowd outside, who feared this was a plot to abduct their beloved leader. Within moments, a crowd of 30,000 to 50,000 Tibetans surrounded the walls and barricaded the main gate of the Dalai Lama's summer palace, the Norbulingka, willing to give their lives to protect their 24 year old leader. It must be understood that this was not blind loyalty, enforced by culture and intimidation of stupid or broken people. Anyone who has heard the Dalai Lama speak or seen him in public will vouch for that. It was the deep love and respect of a people who knew they were being led by a wise and caring person.
The Chinese Army contacted the Dalai Lama's advisors one last time saying that if he did not join them by a certain time, they would bomb the Norbulingka. The deadline passed and, a little later, as bombs rained down smashing the building and killing many outside, the Dalai Lama fled into the night on his long and treacherous walk to India where today he continues his peaceful fight for the lives of his countrymen and the spirit of his nation.
In the crackdown that followed, the Chinese army sent tanks and bombs against the homeless and mainly unarmed Tibetan refugees, killing tens of thousands. Because of this oppression, thousands of refugees still travel each year in the wake of the Dalai Lama's departure. They risk being shot by Chinese border guards as they flee, dying of starvation or freezing as they sleep in the open on 7000 metre high mountain passes. Now India and especially Nepal are less willing to help these refugees as they look to cement their own economies and develop more profitable relations with Beijing. In Nepal, many refugees are handed back to Chinese soldiers for bounty payments.
It is 50 years since these dramatic events, yet the struggle for those living in Tibet remains. Last year, in the buildup to the Olympics, under extreme harassment some Tibetans retaliated with violence, smashing shop windows and looting goods. While not condoning violence, I appreciate the extreme pressure these Tibetans were subjected to, with hundreds of peaceful protestors being shot at, beaten and imprisoned and with virtually every Tibetan having family members and close friends illegally imprisoned, tortured or killed. Tibetans still languish in prisons and the secret police have a stranglehold on the country with most Tibetans in central Tibet living in constant fear and harassment from the secret police. It is illegal to own pictures of the Dalai Lama, or to express your views on Tibet openly (phones calls and emails are constantly monitored and the secret police are very active). Monks in monasteries have their activities severely curtailed and are forced to undergo regular "re-education" where they regurgitate communist party doctrine and denounce the Dalai Lama, under threat of imprisonment and beatings.
No one can talk out against the Government or its policies. As just one example, Jigme, a monk who spoke out on YouTube about the torture he endured when arrested and accused of organising a peaceful protest in March 2008, has again been arrested - 70 police coming to his monastery to drag him away - and he is still held in prison. For this and many more horror stories see www.savetibet.com. I am awed by how the Tibetans reported of here remain so objective despite all the torture and degradation.
This is not a call to incite vengeance against China or Chinese people - many have also suffered greatly at the hands of their leaders in recent history and many more are completely unaware of the facts or hear only propagandised versions. Instead, it's a call for you to see the truth of Tibet for there can be no freedom in a lie or in sweeping a problem under the carpet. It's only when truth is acknowledged that the possibility exists for resolution.
But despite this the spirit of Tibet is still free. Tibet is much more than the high plateau where 8000 metre mountains look like hills, and yaks graze the steep mountain passes; where monasteries cling to the most precipitous cliffs and the vast open plains inspire peace and poetry; whose leader travels the world more to help the suffering inhabitants of these lands where attachment to shiny cars and personal prestige brings pain than to seek handouts for his cause.
Tibet is free in the smile of the lamas who teach at your local dharma centre and the eyes of the monks and nuns throughout Tibet who, despite having their religious practice curtailed, still keep the flame of the dharma alive in their hearts. They know that even the hardest of times, like the flame of a butter lamp, is impermanent and will pass.
This spirit remains in the young people of Tibet who, although dislocated from their culture by distance or time, still cling to the virtues of peace, trust and compassion. So many people around the world are drawn to this small nation of just six million people, for it awakens us all to the possibility of a world built around compassion and virtue. But for this world to become more than an unrealised ideal, we need to act.
On Tuesday March 10, the 50th anniversary of the Dalai Lama's flight into exile, join your local Tibetan group in solidarity for the values their people represent. Marches and peaceful rallies are planned around the globe. In Western Australia, there will be a 10 day peace trail from Bunbury to Perth, a walk of 220km culminating with handing a petition of support to the WA Parliament on March 9 and the Chinese Consulate on March 10. See www.tagwa.org.au for more details.
In eastern Australia, hundreds of Tibetans and their supporters will gather outside the Chinese Embassy in Canberra. There will be many walks and gatherings at capital cities around the globe. A vote of your energy and intention is the most important and effective vote we have for a world of peace and harmony. This does not come from hiding in your homes as injustice flares around you, but by supporting those carrying the light of peace into the darkest corners.
Postscript: In a NOVA article last year, I praised Kevin Rudd, the newly elected Australian Prime Minister for his courage in addressing the human rights issues of China while in Beijing. This is of course admirable, but he did not continue in this vein. While Mr Rudd met the Dalai Lama before his election victory, he avoided the Dalai Lama on his visit to Australia in June last year and, worse still, referred to the Dalai Lama as "the Dalai" on camera, a phrase propagated by the Chinese leadership with the intention of denigrating the Dalai Lama and his office.