Dialogue  April-June, 2010, Volume 11 No. 4

Western Tibet: A Pilgrims’ Impressions 

K.T.S. Sarao*


The author had the good fortune of visiting western Tibet thrice in the recent past. Two of these visits were via the Indo-Tibetan border-crossing of Lipu Lekh which is located at a distance of about twenty miles from the Tibetan town of Purang (known as Taklakot to the Indians). The impressions of western Tibet that have stayed permanently in the author’s memory are these:

      Extremely wide and open rocky and barren spaces with few nomads here and there  with their small stocks of yaks and sheep; ferocious and aggressive barking dogs; privileged Han workers in Maoist uniforms; soldiers and policemen almost all of whom are Han; arrogant Han immigration officials; check posts manned by military; Tibetan shanty huts on the outskirts of towns; remnants of inspiring Tibetan architecture and ruins of demolished monasteries; utilitarian Chinese-type apartment blocks under construction in large numbers; shops, restaurants, brothels, and discos owned by migrant Chinese; heaps of plastic bags and beer bottles; Tibetan beggars and porters; and unemployed Tibetan young men drinking Lhasa Beer and playing pool.

    Being an Indian one is used to meeting Tibetans who constantly remind one of their heart-breaking stories of extreme hardships and suffering, imprisonment, torture, flight across frigid mountain passes, and separation from family and friends. Tibetans are, indeed, a very brave people who have suffered not only the largest land annexation of the twentieth century through the bloody invasion by Communist China but have suffered a genocide which is perhaps the most widely ignored in history. The Tibetan people have suffered a fate comparable to the American Indians and the Australian Maoris. One wishes if somehow Tibet’s native population could regain what it has lost and its unique and spiritual culture could continue uninterrupted. Although many people at the individual level the world over have been working for the cause of the Tibetan people and the media has often drawn attention to the grave violations of human rights in Tibet, not a single country in the world has provided diplomatic recognition to the Tibetan-government-in-exile. Nowadays, many universities the world over, generously fund an in-depth study of the Tibetan culture, but unfortunately that very culture has been doomed in its place of birth by the realities of international economics and realpolitik. But the Tibetans are, however, luckier in one sense: their exiled leader, the fourteenth Dalai Lama, was awarded the 1989 Nobel Peace Prize for his message of non-violence and compassion. This has resulted in a change of world opinion. Now more and more people are beginning to see through the propaganda of the Chinese Communists, sympathize with the cause of the Tibetan people, and appreciate and listen to those who voice their concern over the violation of human rights of the Tibetan people.

      When the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) invaded Tibet in October 1950, they met with little resistance from the ill-equipped Tibetan forces. It took merely two weeks for the PLA to annex the whole of Tibet. The two crucial weeks during which the PLA was marching on to Lhasa, ministers in the Tibetan government were first kept busy by the routine picnics and then sprinting towards the Indian border. However, it was not the first time that the feudal rulers of Tibet had failed to put up any resistance to the invader. They had by now become quite habituated to dashing in the opposite direction whenever their country was invaded. One wishes, the Tibetan clergies had emulated their counterpart of ancient Sri Lanka who stood up to the invader (and even temporarily disrobed) whenever their land was invaded by the Tamils.

     Chinese Communists maintain that Tibet has been an integral part of China at least since the treaty of 1720 if not before. But historical facts prove otherwise. In front of the Jokhang Temple is a stone monument commemorating a treaty concluded between Tibet and China in 821-22 CE:

Tibet and China shall abide by the frontiers of which they are now in occupation. All to the east is the country of Great China; and all to the west is, without question, the country of Great Tibet. Henceforth on neither side shall there be waging of war nor seizing of territory... Between the two countries no smoke nor dust shall be seen. There shall be no sudden alarms and the very word “enemy” shall not be spoken... All shall live in peace and share the blessing of happiness for ten thousand years.”1

     Moreover, if the standards of international law were to be applied, then Tibet had certainly existed as an independent country between 1911 and 1950. Just because China once held suzerainty over Tibet does not, legally speaking, justify its holding sovereignty over Tibet in perpetuity. From the seventh to the eighteenth centuries the power relationship between Tibet on the one hand and Han and Mongol rulers on the other underwent endless changes. Periods of complete independence were interspersed with strong Han or Mongol influence in Tibet. Historically speaking, from the thirteenth century onwards, when Kublai Khan become the protector of Tibetan Buddhism, Mongol influence in Tibet was actually stronger than the Han influence. This pattern, which came to be known as yon-chod (patron-priest relationship), began when the dominant Sakya Lamas of the thirteenth century offered tribute to the Khan and who in return protected them militarily and allowed them to rule their isolated region as his vassals. This relationship was revived from time to time by the Tibetan religious authorities with different Mongol and Han emperors. The fifth Dalai Lama used the Patron-Priest relationship with Gushri Khan, leader of the Qosot Mongols, to elevate the interests of the Geluk-pa sect. Gushri Khan’s descendants, who had settled in Koko Nor region, attacked Lhasa with the help of Chinese emperor and kidnaped the sixth Dalai Lama. After the sixth Dalai Lama died in their captivity, they tried to instal the seventh Dalai Lama without the consent of the Tibetans. In this situation the Tibetans invited the Dzungars of Turkestan and with their help expelled the Qosot Mongols out of Tibet in 1717. Following this the Chinese forces occupied Lhasa and the Chinese emperor instated the real seventh Dalai Lama. In this situation, the treaty of 1720 was concluded which resulted in Kham (now apportioned to Chinese provinces of Gansu, Sichuan, and Yunnan) and Amdo (now Chinese province of Qinghai) being annexed to China and a Chinese protectorate being installed in Tibet which lasted until the end of the Qing (Manchu) dynasty in 1911. During this period, the Dalai Lamas were tacitly recognized as sovereigns of Tibet who ran its internal affairs while China provided protection against invaders. However, when with the end of the Qing dynasty in 1911 China became a republic, the Tibetans expelled the Chinese troops from Lhasa and the thirteenth Dalai Lama declared his nation free from Chinese vassalage. From this year until 1950,  many decisions and actions on the part of the Tibetan government show that Tibet was an independent country. For instance, during this period, it was the Tibetans (and not the Chinese) who took decisions in terms of giving permission to foreigners to enter Tibet.2 In 1949, after the defeat of the Kuomintang government, the Tibetan government instructed all Chinese government representatives to leave Tibet. Under the international law, this act severed all contractual ties restricting Tibet’s independence, if any still existed.

      However, after having got rid of Chinese vassalage, Tibet continued to follow its policy of isolation and did not seek membership either of the League of Nations or the United Nations. This proved disastrous for Tibet. As compared to this, China being an ally of the European powers in the two World Wars, the latter did not have the moral courage to dispute China’s assertion that its suzerainty over Tibet had never lapsed. After their country was annexed by the Communists in 1950, it was too late for the Tibetans to seek help from the international community. Nevertheless, there is no doubt that the Tibetans did not enter willingly into the Chinese federation in 1950. The later treaties imposed by China on Tibet must be seen as the outcome of latter’s military defeat and thus, made under duress.

     In the beginning, the Tibetans were left relatively unmolested. The 17-point agreement concluded in 1951 between Tibetan and Chinese officials in Beijing3 stated that Tibet’s internal administration would be left entirely in Tibetan hands. Point three stated, “The Tibetan people have the right of exercising regional autonomy under the leadership of the Central People’s Government.” Point seven guaranteed that “religious belief ... will be protected. The Central Authorities will not effect any change in the income of the monasteries.” Point nine promised to safeguard and develop the spoken and written language of Tibet, and point ten said that “Tibetan agriculture, livestock raising, industry and commerce will be developed step by step, and the people’s livelihood will be improved step by step in accordance with the actual conditions in Tibet.” None of these promises have in any way been carried out by the People’s Republic of China. Instead, the exact opposite has happened. However, from 1951 to 1959 Tibetans naively tried to work with China within the terms of the 17-point agreement. The traditional Tibetan government continued to function, although with varying degrees of Chinese interference. But in 1959 rumors spread through Lhasa that the Dalai Lama was about to be assassinated. A massive yet peaceful demonstration occurred in Lhasa, during which the Dalai Lama fled in secrecy to India. With the top leadership having gone into exile carrying with it over 100,000 people, there was very little hope for those left behind. According to the Chinese government’s own figures, in the massacre that followed, 87,000 Tibetans were killed. In the following years, the Chinese destroyed the Tibetan monastic system by razing to the ground over 6200 monasteries, nunneries, and temples. By some estimates, as a result of the actions of occupying authorities, as many as 1.2 million Tibetans  perished in the first forty years of occupation due to starvation, execution, and imprisonment.

    Till 1980 Tibet was kept closed to foreigners. But thereafter the Chinese felt confident of their control and began to lift some of the restrictions. Since then the Tibetans have enjoyed relative liberalization begun by the Communist Party Secretary Hu Yaobang. Under a treaty signed with India, the Chinese government allowed Indian pilgrims for the first time to travel to Mount Kailash and Lake Manasarovar in western Tibet in 1981. Since then a limited number of Indian pilgrims are allowed every year to directly enter Tibet from India via the Lipu Pass.

    These pilgrims are met by two Tibetan ‘guides’ at the border and escorted to Taklakot (Purang/Pulan). “The first view of Tibet from the Lipu Lekh Pass is magnificent... the impression on the beholder is that the scene before him is truly one of nature’s grandest handiworks.”4 The passports and group-visas of the Indian pilgrims are checked at the Taklakot Purang Guest House by the Chinese officials dealing with immigration. During both the trips in 2002 and 2004, the author found the immigration officials (always Han Chinese) extremely rude and arrogant. Both the times, pilgrims were not allowed to venture out of the guesthouse till their papers were checked. The officials invariably make the pilgrims wait for up to five hours, the checking of passports being done in the rudest possible way. The young official sits with his legs on the table, drinking beer and smoking cheap quality cigarettes. Pilgrims are made to stand up before him by his assistant one by one. The poor English of the official often adds to the woes of most of the pilgrims. In any case, the examination of passports turns invariably into a third degree interrogation and one has to generally go through everything but physical assault. The author faced the worst situation during the second trip. The moment the immigration official saw Taiwanese visa in his passport, he grew so furious that he threw the passport in one corner and started shouting abuse. It was quite a while before he cooled down when the author pointed out to him that teaching in Taiwan was not a crime at least as far as Indian law was concerned. Three pilgrims had already been threatened with deportation because they had tried to sneak out of the guest house and take pictures in the town. The next day when the ‘guides’ were requested to show us ruins of the famous Shimbling Gompa and the Jongpen citadel, we were told without mincing any words that those places were out of bounds for us. One was constantly getting reminded that one was in a land under seize. However, on the positive side, a simple ‘Tashi deleg’ to a Tibetan brought in a lot of sweet smiles, though unfortunately there did not seem to be too many of them in Taklakot. All important shops, businesses, offices are run by Han Chinese. The police and military are also almost completely made up of Han Chinese. Taklakot looks no more like a Tibetan town. Old style buildings have been totally replaced by Chinese-style apartments and office-buildings in Taklakot. Such building activity can be seen taking place wherever commercial/industrial/military activity is needed or possible. All-weather highways (with bridges and water-drainage) have been constructed all over and have given the landscape a completely new look. Wherever possible Tibetan pilgrims are now ferried in big sturdy trucks and the traditional form of pilgrimage done on foot seems to be a thing of the past. Thus, like everyone else, the Tibetans also arrive into Darchen by trucks from different parts of Tibet. This is in sharp contrast to the days when a typical Tibetan family would go on foot on pilgrimage with its animals, doing business and striking matrimonial alliances on the way.

    Taklakot is located on the Karnali river which flows from here to Nepal. With a mixed population of around 15,000 Chinese, Tibetans and the seasonal Nepalese and Indian traders, Taklakot is the furthermost outpost of Chinese officialdom in western Tibet. This town houses a military cantonment which is perched high on a hill commanding a view of the valley. About one square mile in area, it has mud bunkers and gun emplacements along the perimeter of the hill. Off the main street is located the Nepalese market. Earlier the Nepalese traders with their families used to live in the ruins of the summer palace spanning the Karnali and separating the newer section of the township from the market. Nepalese market is a permanent feature of Taklakot from mid-May till mid-October when the melting snow-passes between Nepal and Tibet become passable. Once the headquarters of the Jongpen, the Viceroy’s Agent in Taklakot, the palace built into an 800 feet high hillside is today a series of frightening caves with half-destroyed boundary walls. Overlooking the entire township and immediately above the ruins of the summer palace are the impressive remains of the Simbling Gompa, once the largest and richest in the region. Dynamited at the order of the Gang of Four, the Simbling Gompa had over 300 monks and was a treasure trove of rare scriptures, scrolls, and paintings. Amongst these treasures are said to have been 400 tankha paintings and four silk Buddha and Maitreya banners each measuring 60x30 feet. An Indian sadhu, who visited Taklakot in 1907, writes:

“There is a large Buddhist monastery on the hill on which the Zumpan’s residence stands. About three hundred lamas reside in the monastery and worship the image of Buddha kept there, with great pomp. The monastery also contains a large library.”5

     Alas! All that is gone now. Sometimes one wonders as to whether the Chinese Communists ‘liberated’ the Tibetans from feudalism, or they imposed ‘despotism’ upon them. The infrastructure may have raised the economic indicators, but they certainly do not seem to be of much help to a typical simple-minded Tibetan. Added to this, political suppression and Chinese migration into the country has certainly devastated traditional Tibetan culture. Geomorphic changes in Tibet definitely seem to have greatly affected access to, and the economic viability of, the region. As Tibet is not suitable for sustaining the large settled populations of humans, there is no doubt that the plateau is rushing towards a colossal disaster.

    After the liberalization, many monasteries (largely on the tourist routes) have been rebuilt and opened. Now many young men and women have come to live in them though government regulates their entry and puts various restrictions on them. However, majority of these monks and nuns of new generation are quite conscious of the fact that they are under seize and have acted as the focal point of Tibetan nationalistic movement. Despite some liberalization, persecution of Tibetans continues unabated and has become, in fact, more lethal in some ways.

     Though it is not possible to get accurate figures, there are credible reports that thousands of Tibetans are still languishing in Chinese-run labor camps, prisons, and detention centres all over Tibet. As a matter of routine, even peaceful demonstrations result in severe beatings, arrest, imprisonment, and torture.  Conditions in the prisons and detention centres are inhuman. Torture in most unimaginable ways of large numbers of Tibetans still continues to be an integral part of China’s effort to suppress Tibetan nationalism, even though, under Chinese law, “the use of torture is strictly prohibited.”6 Majority of the prison guards often derive sadistic pleasure in savaging prisoners. Many of the victims who have crossed over into India and Nepal have claimed that the Tibetan guards are much more cruel than their Han counterparts. Severe beatings and electric shock are part of the routine. Commonly used torture techniques include hanging prisoners by their wrists or thumbs, use of cattle prods in most brutal ways, submerging prisoners in freezing waters, and the breaking of bones. There are reports of prisoners being made to inhale the smoke of rubbish fires, and being made to eat human excrement. Prisoners are interrogated non-stop for days on end. Prisoners are kept in tiny cells and without bedding or warm clothes. Many prisoners are reported to have often died as a consequence of starvation, injuries due to torture, hypothermia, and lack of medical attention.

    Besides imprisonment and physical torture, the Chinese also use various other very effective methods in suppressing the Tibetan people and destroying movement for a free Tibet. One such method is the system of political monitoring. The Communist authorities exercise a very subtle and pervasive control over the Tibetans through the so-called Neighborhood Committees and Work Teams.7 Through these institutions the Tibetans are intimidated into obedience and submission. All Tibetans are compulsorily registered either at a work group8 or a neighborhood committee. Rationed goods are distributed through work groups, and thus, expulsion from work group invariably means withdrawal of all state sponsored services for the concerned person and his family leading to starvation. Work groups are also responsible for government policies such as family planning and enforcement of sanctions. Political activities are mainly detected and controlled through work groups as they are empowered to investigate into every tiny detail of the lives of their members. Attendance at regular political study sessions is mandatory. The usual agenda of the work group meetings is the denunciation of the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan independence. Work Teams exist in all monasteries and their job is to monitor political activities there and to impart ‘patriotic education.” Religious education remains prohibited in both public and private educational institutions. Philosophical discussions, debates, prayer ceremonies, and the oral transmission of learning are not allowed.

     It is mandatory for every Tibetan family to send one member to each meeting of the Neighborhood Committee. In the meetings of these committees announcements of government policies are made and current Party line is discussed. Slightest protests or disagreements are reported to the higher authorities which invite severe punishments. In the meetings, the Tibetans are constantly told that future independence is a mere fantasy and pre-1950 independence nothing more than a myth. Tibetan members of these committees are held responsible for political acts (such as, an independence poster appearing on a telephone pole) taking place in their locality. In the meetings of the Work Groups and Neighborhood Committees, political loyalties of the members are tested by asking them to voice their opinions on Dalai Lama, Tibetan independence, and Chinese sovereignty over Tibet. Besides singling out ‘suspicious characters’ and referring their names to the authorities, members are also encouraged to anonymously place a suspect’s name in a “denunciation box.” The work of these established structures for monitoring the political ideology of the Tibetans is supplemented through a well-knit network of informers in the urban areas. Informers are recruited through promises of awards and/or fear. Simple acts such as possession and display of the Dalai Lama’s photograph and/or things associated with him, conducting prayer ceremonies for his long life, and refusing to denounce him during political education classes leads to crackdowns. Four monks of a monastery in Sichuan province were sentenced to twelve years in prison in 2003 for possessing a posture of the Dalai Lama and for praying for his long life.9 The author remembers an encounter with a group of ten young Tibetans ( six men and four women) at Trugho/Qugu monastery on the shore of Lake Manasarovar. A co-pilgrim developed a fancy for the beautiful locket that one of the women was wearing and enquired if she wanted to sell it. The woman wanted to sell it but was quite hesitant for some strange reason. We later learnt that she had a small picture of the Dalai Lama inside the locket and did not want to get into trouble.

    Future becomes very bleak indeed for those who are caught by Chinese border patrols while trying to escape into India/Nepal or are deported back to Tibet by Nepal/India. Such people are detained without trial for as long as three years under the Chinese system of administrative detention called “re-education through labor.” The conditions in these detention centres are deplorable. Their testimonies reveal the horrific conditions the prisoners have to live in- conditions which do not reach even the minimum standards recognized by the international human rights instruments.10 The inmates in these labor camps are constantly subjected to harsh and menial labor in subhuman conditions. An unofficial report which reached the International Campaign for Tibet (based in Washington, DC), describes the horrific way in which 18 people deported by Nepal in 2003 were tortured and beaten with electric batons. Prison officials inserted sewing needles into the fingernails and flesh of one of the prisoners in an attempt to revive him from unconsciousness.11 

     Actually, the chilling reality of censorship under the Communist regime can be felt everywhere. There is no free access to TV, radio, and internet in Tibet. All long distance calls are monitored. The Chinese authorities continue to perpetuate their stranglehold on Tibetans through crackdown on activities deemed ‘splittist’ or ‘endangering state security,’ closer of schools that are suspected of teaching ‘splittist ideaologies,’ constant interference in the religious and administrative affairs of monasteries and nunneries and the ‘patriotic reeducation’ of the monks and nuns that teaches loyalty to the state above religion.

    The Communist authorities also use many other cunning and far more subtle methods to maintain their grip over Tibet. The Tibetans are separated into many categories and manipulate them against each other. For instance, a fundamental classification of Tibetans of ‘good stock’ and ‘evil stock’ has been in place since 1959. Landless people, shepherds, laborers, and the like are labeled as ‘good’ people.  Anyone, who had even a small piece of land or cattle, artisan’s workshop, any direct/indirect connection with the better-off classes or nobility, is branded as ‘of evil stock.’ Once branded as ‘evil,’ it is impossible to change that. Thus, with the institution of two castes amongst Tibetans- inherent friends and inherent enemies- the Chinese have introduced a kind of social racism.

      As always happens when a brutal power and at that a foreign one, takes control of people’s lives, they respond in different ways. A tiny minority of Tibetans within Tibet have become collaborators either out of conviction or calculation. However, a big chunk of the population generally try to stay out of trouble.  Then there are many Tibetans, who silently and quietly resist the occupation and are occasionally forced by circumstances to come out in the open. But such actions result in arrests or very long prison terms through mock trials which are hard to understand. Sometimes, the result is a death sentence carried out with the pistol shot in the back of the neck. Occasionally, of course, the victims become so despaired that they take their own lives.  In recent times, the Chinese government has begun to use the global campaign against terrorism to back up its campaign of suppression of peaceful Tibetan dissent. Remarks made by Chinese officials often suggest strongly the linking of Tibetans with acts of terrorism.12

    Contemporary China’s highest priority in developing Tibet under the PRC’s tenth Five-Year Plan and the Western Development Program, is harvesting of timber, minerals, gold, gas, oil, and electricity to take to distant Chinese factories and cities. The main purpose behind the building of the new rail corridor is the deployment of Chinese military and to facilitate access to Tibet’s resources. The urban bias and capital construction of the developmental program favors the urban populace dominated by Han Chinese and leaves the majority of the Tibetans living in the countryside as the real victims. China’s development policies in Tibet have completely failed. They completely ignore the ground realities  and needs of the people. They are resulting in increased income disparity and marginalization of the Tibetan people. What is most needed is the human development of the Tibetan people rather than development of resources, industry, infrastructure, and urban centres. Disregard to this has resulted in the erosion of the quality of life of Tibetans.

    Since the mid 1980s, the Chinese authorities have been viewing Buddhism and Tibetan nationalism as two sides of the same coin and thus adopting various measures to curb religious freedom. As a result, the Chinese authorities are single-mindedly trying to transform the Tibetan Buddhists into compliant Communists. Tibetan cultural identity is strongly Buddhist in nature; this, of course, conflicts with the atheistic weltanschauung of Communist rule in China. Added to this is the traditional Tibetan concept of merged secular and religious rule, with the Dalai Lama holding the position of both political and religious leader.13 This situation has adversely impacted Buddhist tradition in Tibet. The controls and restrictions imposed by the Chinese government on the limits and depth of Tibetan Buddhist transmission have resulted in the degeneration of Tibetan Buddhism. Despite the fact that some monasteries and nunneries have been rebuilt,  the actual teaching, study, and practice of traditional religious beliefs and rituals face deliberate restrictions. As a consequence of this, the monasteries and nunneries have become more like schools for atheistic indoctrination or museums for tourists than institutes for religious study and practice.

      Some visitors to Tibet have documented population control measures imposed by the Chinese on the Tibetans. One American doctor named Blake Kerr, for instance, informally surveyed population control practices ranging from abortions to mass sterilizations.14 He visited hospitals, observed several abortions and talked- sometimes in sign language, occasionally with the help of an interpreter—with doctors and patients, who described China’s two-child limit, one-child-preferred population policies and the grossly unsanitary conditions of medical procedures. The imposition on the Tibetans a punitive family planning program has resulted in abortions, sterilizations and infanticide.15 A refugee from a village near Shigatse told the Dalai Lama that a Chinese doctor had admitted to her that in order to fulfil his quota of abortions he was forced to kill the new-born.16 In April 1994, five hundred Tibetan women protested in New Delhi against forced sterilization and abortion programs launched by the Chinese authorities in their homeland. They claimed sterilization was practiced “under coercion and subterfuge,” and that women giving birth to a second or even first child without possessing a “certified to bear children” permit were often liable to have their baby killed at birth by injection.

      Tibetans identify the continuing influx of Han Chinese into Tibet as the single gravest threat to their group identity. Much of this influx has been to accommodate labor needs having to do with the exploitation of Tibet’s natural resources. Though China boasts of its huge investments and mammoth development projects in Tibet, yet the Tibetans are excluded from consultation or effective participation in these projects. The primary purpose of the urban development projects in Tibet is to consolidate China’s economic and political control over Tibet. The resultant influx of hundreds of thousands of Han Chinese settlers has not only denied the Tibetan people their livelihood but has threatened their very identity. As these development projects are assimilationist in nature, their acceleration will finally complete the cultural genocide of the Tibetan people.

       Though now the Tibetans are allowed to dress and build their homes in the traditional style, the absence of lack of interest on the part of the Chinese government in their lives has had the effect of making Tibetans isolated and marginalized. Rural Tibetans are thoroughly excluded from the dominant economic, social, and political spheres introduced by the Chinese. Schools in villages are schools in name only. In rural areas one can see children of school-going age “herding sheep watching passers-by from the roadside, hanging idly over bridges, fetching water, harvesting barley, gathering dung.”17 The educational system is geared in favour of the children of migrant Chinese to the extent that Tibetan is not even taught in some schools. In other schools children are taught primarily Chinese, and are then given the option of learning English or Tibetan as a second language. In short, the social and economic life of Tibet is subordinated to the interests of the Chinese and concentrates primarily on the extraction of Tibet’s natural resources.

     Through a new policy document called Ecological Improvement and Environmental Protection of Tibet released in 2003 the Chinese government claims that it pays great attention to the environmental protection of Tibet. But critics have pointed out that actually the opposite is true and that this document is nothing more than sheer propaganda. According to them, the economic development of Tibet in reality is actually irreversibly damaging the unique Tibetan ecology. However, the Chinese government dismisses the criticism by saying that environmental concerns should not come in the way of economic development. Thus, it is not surprising that Chinese Development projects in Tibet are causing serious concern among the local Tibetans. The problems are further compounded by the fact that in the name of environmental protection under the Western Development Program, many local Tibetans are forcibly evicted from their lands and resettled against their will. Often promises of compensation go unfulfilled and thus these poor people from the countryside are reduced to penury and beggary. Political sensitivities of the Tibetans, along with widely prevalent corruption and discrimination, have resulted in pushing the Tibetans further away from being able to enjoying the benefits of development projects. The cruel truth is that most of the development projects in Tibet are directed at supporting military needs and immigration, without reference to local needs, and without use of local labor.

      Credible statistics on Tibet consistently indicate that most Tibetans lead increasingly impoverished lives. Statistics show that more than 85 percent of Tibetans are rural and rural regions are exclusively inhabited by Tibetans.18 These Tibetans sustain themselves by agriculture and/or nomadic pastoralism. Chinese claims of huge annual subsidies and funds being pumped into Tibet to boost it economically are perceived as deceptive and harmful in many ways. Firstly, policies are seen as resulting in a highly artificial situation of deep dependence on external inputs. It has been pointed out that in the long run such a dependence would be impossible to sustain. Secondly, the economic growth, where it is in fact taking place is in only the tertiary sector. Tibetan participation in tertiary sector is almost negligible. Thus, as channelization of government subsidies is minimal in the primary sector, rural Tibet, largely populated by Tibetans, remains crippled by poverty. Thirdly, the development projects do not take into consideration the Tibetan people’s right to subsistence. With meager or no compensation, project-affected Tibetans are pushed into unsustainable livelihoods. Rural Tibetans, in order to make-up for decreasing per capita land-holding turn to off-farm labor. But, these uprooted farmers find themselves in a totally disadvantages situation in competition with large numbers of better-skilled and experienced migrant Han Chinese. Relocation of some rural folks has completely destroyed their lives. In recent years urban centres have been flooded with beggars from the rural areas. Most of these are victims of government urbanization and infrastructure drives which have forced them to come to cities to survive.  It is a not uncommon to see many Tibetans begging on the streets or whiling away their time doing nothing. The influx of Han migrants as a result of the  “Go-West” program launched by the Chinese government in 2000 has further exacerbated the situation. Fourthly, economic development that is taking place in Tibet is purely directed at urban areas which have been totally swamped by the Han Chinese. In such a development, the Tibetan people who are rural and non-salaried, are bypassed.  Fifthly, enough care has not been taken about the side effects of unbridled development in the urban areas. It is a common sight now to see the streets of Taklakot, Hore, and Darchen dirtied by plastic, raw sewage and prowled by mongrel dogs (whom the Tibetans believe to be reincarnated monks- gone-astray). In the name of better buildings, traditional-style Tibetan buildings are destroyed, instead renovating old monuments they are being replaced with ‘newer’ buildings. Many young women have taken to prostitution in the urban centres and near tourist spots.

     The Law of the PRC on Regional Autonomy (1984) includes the right of “minority” nationalities to conduct their own affairs in their own languages, and to independently develop education for nationalities.19 However, this is not true of what is being practiced in Tibet. The usage of Tibetan language actually continues to decrease. In practice, the Tibetans are being forced to write, speak, and study Chinese. Contradictory attitude of the Chinese authorities as well as distortion of policies has thrown the Tibetans into a difficult and complex situation. They have to choose between preservation of their age-old culture (which can only be transmitted through Tibetan language) and the possibility of a job in the new economy (Chinese being the dominant economic language). Either choice is to the exclusion of the other.  It is not surprising that steadily things are working completely to the disadvantage of Tibetan language. The educational and economic enforcement of Chinese as a language standard for Tibet is becoming a reality with every passing day. It is impossible to remedy the situation  under the existing circumstances as the Chinese legal system lacks the protection of an independent judiciary. It is impossible to successfully challenge the inconsistencies in the law or to the law that changes itself by dictated changes in its wording. Advocacy of Tibetan language is seen as ‘unpatriotic’ and invites trouble. Most rural Tibetan students study entirely in Tibetan to the end of primary school. However, all secondary education for Tibetans in Tibet has continued to be taught in Chinese. That is to say that, “while rural children are introduced to the system of education in the language of their homes, in order to climb the slope to secondary education and a job in the new economy, somewhere, somehow they must acquire acknowledge of Chinese that is not reinforced in their home environment. In practice, this means that rural children grow up to speak Tibetan in a marginal economy denied the assets of subsistence, while urban Tibetans make an educational choice between traditional culture or a job. The job only comes by embracing an alien culture.”20 Chinese language replaces Tibetan in all higher education, and the study of Tibetan is often viewed as being anti-Chinese and unpatriotic. The use of Chinese language is likely to advance an individual because “Tibetan language has been denigrated and ignored as inferior, and also is seen as promoting feelings of nationalism towards Tibet and against China.”21 

    Tourism is often referred to as the “pillar industry” of Tibet and given “great attention” at a top level.22 Market activities are designed to attract the tourist dollar during the six peak months of the tourist season beginning from May till early November. According to Chinese government statistics, tourism accounts for 26 percent of the Tibet Autonomous Republic’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) with a 20 percent rise in tourist numbers every year.23 Such impressive statistics leave one wondering as to who gains from Tibet’s expanding tourist industry. The tour guides are instructed to “enable domestic and foreign tourists to gain a more comprehensive and objective understanding of Tibet’s yesterday, today, and tomorrow, and resolutely struggle against all words and deeds that distort facts with an attempt to split the motherland.”24 Due to the Chinese fear of Tibetans not being ‘trustworthy’ as tour guides Han guides are regularly brought in after having been indoctrinated in ‘patriotism.’ China’s wariness over Tibetan tour guides who have visited or been schooled in India has been driving official policy for years. Thus, tour guides are kept under constant surveillance (are punished for the slightest ‘deviation’) since at least 1994, when the Chinese first swore to maintain vigilance to prevent exile returnees from “colluding with foreign tourists to harm state security.” Regular investigation and expulsion of Tibetan tour guides confirms an alarming pattern — the number of Tibetan tour guides left unemployed or exiled rises with each investigative sweep, and stems from the suspicion of the exiled Tibetan community in India. Tourist guides who stray from the officially-sanctioned tourist locations in Tibet are fired, detained, imprisoned, and legally prevented from working as guides.25 Tibetans lose their jobs because of their race, although the government logic is that ethnic Chinese serve as better guides because of their command over Chinese language in Tibet! Though the native-born guides have foreign language skills, knowledge of the Tibetan language, culture, and history, yet they are less employable than their Han counterparts. “Coupled with the fact that foreign tourists consistently request locals as guides, the layoff of the Tibetan guides only makes sense when viewed in the context of discrimination, suspicion, and paranoia characteristic of China’s ongoing attitudes and policy toward Tibetans.”26

     China’s state controlled media also plays its dirty role in painting the Tibetans in the darkest possible colors. In the media rural Tibet is generally presented as a wilderness inhabited by primitive societies who urgently need to be saved from their own primitiveness and uncompetitiveness. By describing Tibetans and their culture as ‘mystic’, ‘ancient culture,’ and  ‘Backward culture,’ the Chinese media presents China’s development of Tibet to its Han audience as an act of great benevolence. The Han migrants, including the military and police, are portrayed as some sort of messiahs who are making great sacrifices for the Tibetans. Such an approach obviously dehumanizes rural Tibetans in the eyes of ambitious urban Han Chinese.

    There is no doubt that Tibet is being developed by the Chinese government not for Tibetans but for the exploitation of Tibet’s natural resources to meet the needs of Mainland China, to settle surplus Han population in Tibet and thus to change Tibet’s demographic composition making it favorable to Mainland China, and for military purposes. Now roads, highways, bridges, high rise buildings are being constructed everywhere. One can see excavations taking place almost everywhere. This year a mineral water plant has been constructed right next to Mt Kailash at Ashtapada. In spite of Tibet’s vast land area it could not support the increase in population due to the fact that Tibet’s highland has less than 2 percent of arable land and more than 60 percent of land is grassland. The human population of Tibet now has passed 10 million, a substantial proportion of which are Han Chinese and it is not possible for Tibet to support such a huge population. Hundreds of thousands of Han migrants, including entrepreneurs and unskilled laborers who lack opportunities in their own home regions, have usurped development opportunities from legitimate residents and thus, monopolized the Han control over Tibetan development. As local Tibetan workers are unfamiliar with the modern road and urban building construction designs, techniques, and materials, migrant Chinese workers familiar with the techniques involved continue to monopolize employment in this sector. Thus, non-Tibetan settlers and imported labor dominate the higher-paying, government-funded infrastructure jobs. While development in Tibet is managed by and for the Chinese central government, these strategies will only further exacerbate income disparities between Chinese migrants and local Tibetans. Only a return to the guaranteed rights to development of Tibet by Tibetans can correct this uneconomical imbalance. As pointed by Fosco Maraini:

“The Chinese improved one thing and another, but they also left a whole lot of other things in ruins. First and foremost of the country, which was poor and scrawny, had to support a population of two hundred or three hundred thousand troops and as many civilians all from China: shortages built up and prices rose. Secondly there was the exploitation of primary resources. For the present this largely means the despoliation of Tibet’s primeval forests in the south-east, on the foothills of the Himalayas and the Burmese border. Further depredations are to follow: mineral exploitation in the high plateaux has just begun.”27 

     The result is that two distinct economies and cultures have developed in Tibet: a dominant Han culture which controls power and a subordinate Tibetan culture which is either controlled by it or ignored by it. “A people’s freedom is an asset that is of transcendent value, an asset that nobody is entitled to confiscate. It is one of the great paradoxes of our time that the “capitalist, reactionary, imperialist” world has fully recognized this fact for close on fifty years and acted upon it. All its colonial empires have been dismantled, dismembered, dissolved. The only colonial empire still extant is that of the Chinese “socialist and progressive” world, which, with its fine speeches and lovely doves of peace is in practice acting like the reviled colonial powers of the nineteenth century.”28 As in all socio-cultural cyclones, especially when they blow in from outside, there were countless individual tragedies, some echo of them may be captured in the accounts of the refugees, which are almost always touching, often desperately heart-rending. “The forces who occasioned such tragedies would seek justification in arguments familiar from earlier colonial eras... bringing them peace, security, well-being,... roads, railways, airstrips, teaching them the use of electricity and the telephone, building hospitals, schools, factories... Such is the capricious complexity of human activity that there is a grain of truth in all this. And it is thus correct to say that the Chinese brought in (and imposed) many benefits on the Tibetans. But colonialism it still remains, of that there can be no doubt.”29 The Dalai Lama, always a reasonable man, has proposed an autonomous region allied with China which could administer its internal affairs democratically. In his view:

     “It is my belief that the lack of understanding of the true cause of happiness is the principal reason why people inflict suffering on others. Some people think that causing pain to others may lead to their own happiness or that their own happiness is of such importance that the pain of others is of no significance. But this is clearly shortsighted. No one truly benefits from causing harm to another being. Whatever immediate advantage is gained at the expense of someone else is short-lived. In the long run causing others misery and infringing upon their peace and happiness creates anxiety, fear and suspicion for oneself... Brute force, no matter how strongly applied, can never subdue the basic human desire for freedom and dignity. It is not enough, as communist systems have assumed, merely to provide people with food, shelter and clothing. The deeper human nature needs to breathe the precious air of liberty.”30

      The Dalai Lama’s plan contains five basic components:31

       1.      Transformation of the whole of Tibet into a zone of peace;
      2.       Abandonment of
China’s population transfer policy,  which  threatens the very existence of the Tibetans as a people;
      3.       Respect for the Tibetan peoples’ fundamental human rights and democratic freedoms;
      4.       Restoration and protection of
Tibet’s natural environment and the abandonment of China’s use of Tibet for the production of                         nuclear weapons and dumping of nuclear waste;
      5.       Commencement of earnest negotiations on the future status of Tibet and of relations between the Tibetan and Chinese peoples.

       Thus, it is the vision of the Dalai Lama to turn all of Tibet (including Kham and Amdo) into a giant nature preserve as well as a human rights preserve. However, the Chinese, who have the power to implement this great vision, deride and oppose it, and continue their negative policies of despoliation, deforestation, and dehumanization. This has created an enormous amount of resentment among the Tibetan people who are helpless to do anything but martyr themselves in the hope of turning world opinion against their Chinese masters. Tibetan independence seems a long shot at this point, but the world should keep the pressure on until the Tibetans gain some measure of cultural and religious freedom. Supporting the development of the current state of the Tibetan economy, and enabling Tibetans to participate in the national and international economy would require only a fraction of the investment of current Chinese infrastructure construction. The realistic solutions are alien to the Chinese development strategy for Tibet which is urban-oriented, relies heavily on subsidies, and has resulted in growing income disparities not only between rural and urban populations but also between Tibetans and migrant Hans. Chinese policies have also resulted in the neglect of skills-training measures for Tibetans, and the effective exclusion of Tibetans from most job opportunities that offer higher wages. Then there is the question of the growing population pressure (mainly as a consequence of Han migration) on the fragile ecology of the plateau. This has resulted in open and disguised unemployment of local Tibetans. Most of the major infrastructure projects almost exclusively continue to employ Chinese laborers from outside the plateau. Thus, the fundamental question for the policy makers at the central government level should be how best to spread the benefits of development to the poor Tibetan population which depends upon subsistence agriculture and nomadic livestock production. It is of utmost importance that development activities in Tibet should give top priority to the needs, sensitivities, and capacity of the Tibetan people.

      Chinese Communist government has tried to politically legitimize its ‘peaceful liberation’ of Tibet through the People’s Liberation Army and the following ‘democratic reform’ and class struggle’ movements in Tibet by portraying traditional Tibet as a ‘hell on earth ravaged by feudal oppression.’32 This type of critiques of traditional Tibet continue till date to be the primary focus of Chinese rule in Tibet despite the fact that since the days of Deng Xiaoping widespread capitalist reform has taken place in mainland China.33 The actions of the Chinese Communist government have been criticized on the simple principle of international law that disapproval of a nation’s political and social system can in no way legitimatise the invasion and annexation of that country. The principle of self-determination (acceded to by Mao himself) has been relinquished. However, it has also been pointed out that those who are sympathetic to the Tibetan cause and have sought to counter China’s claim on Tibet,34 they often take recourse to ‘idyllic and mythical’ presentations of traditional Tibet.35 As Dawa Norbu has pointed out, such an approach has led to the ‘masterly evasion’ of the darker underbelly of traditional Tibetan life.36 Both sides of the dispute are often accused of having indulged in resolute ‘denial of history.’37.


 1.Part of the peace treaty signed in 821-22 CE by the kings of China and Tibet. Replicas were inscribed on obelisks set up outside the Chinese Imperial Palace and the Jokhang temple in Lhasa. (Quoted from Mary Craig, Tears of Blood: A Cry for Tibet, Washington, DC: Counterpoint, 1999: 23).

2.For instance, when in 1944, the Allies wanted to establish a trans-Tibetan convoy route from India to China, the Tibetans asserting their neutrality refused to grant permission.

3.Tibet Information Network (henceforth TIN), “17-Point Agreement,” at http://www.tibetinfo.net/publications/docs/spa.htm.  See also Melvyn C. Goldstein, A History of Modern Tibet, 1913-1950: Demise of the Lamaist State, reprint, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989: 765.

4.Charles A. Sherring, Western Tibet and the Indian Borderland, First Indian Edition, Delhi: Cosmo Publications, 1974: 166.

5.Bhagwan Shri Hamsa, The Holy Mountain: Being the Story of a Pilgrimage to Lake Manas and of Initiation on Mount Kailas in Tibet, London: Faber and Faber: nd.: 114-115.

6.Jianan Guo et al, “World Fact Book of Criminal Justice Systems: China,” at http://www.ojp.usdoj.gov/bjs/pub/ascii/wfbcjchi.txt.

7.”Work Team” (called “gongzou dui” in Chinese) is a specially formed unit of government personnel sent to conduct “patriotic re-education” in an institution or locality.

8.A work group is one’s basic unit of economic organization: one’s factory, office, or monastery.

9.Tibetan Centre for Human Rights and Democracy, “Four monks receive lengthy imprisonment sentence,” Human Rights Update, October 2003: 1.

10. Tibetan Centre for Human Rights and Democracy, “The penalties for escape,” Political Freedom: Annual Report 2001: 80.

11.International Campaign for Tibet, 23 December 2003.

12.Linzhe Shi “China ties dissent to terrorism,” Cox News Online.

13.Almost 90% of currently incarcerated political prisoners are monks and nuns. Clergy continue to be confined, tortured, imprisoned, and subject to other forms of ill-treatment on account of their religious belief.

14.Blake Kerr, Sky Burial: An Eyewitness Account of China’s Brutal Crackdown in Tibet, Ithaca, NY: Snow Lion Publications, 1997.

15.Mary Craig, Tears of Blood: A Cry for Tibet, Washington, DC: Counterpoint, 1999: 308.


17.Barbara Erickson, TIBET: Abode of the Gods, Pearl of the Motherland, Pacific View PR, 1997: 112.

18.TIN Special Report, Deciphering Economic Growth in the Tibet Autonomous Region, 9 April 2003.

19.Law on the Regional Autonomy for “Minority” Nationalities of the People’s Republic of China, 1984, Article 37.

20.Tibetan Centre for Human Rights and Democracy, Annual Report 2003: Human Rights Situation in Tibet at www.tchrd.org/pubs/2003/Annual_Report.pdf: 82.

21.An exile quoted from Tibet Information Network interview “Development and Education” at www.tchrd.org/pubs/2003/Annual_Report.pdf: 82.

22.National Bureau of Statistics, China Statistical Year Book: 2000, China Statistics Press.

23.TIN Special Report, Deciphering Economic Growth in the Tibet Autonomous Region , 9 April, 2003.

24.Borrowed from Tibetan Centre for Human Rights and Democracy,  Annual Report 2003: Human Rights Situation in Tibet at www.tchrd.org/pubs/2003/Annual_Report.pdf: 76.

25.Tibetan Centre for Human Rights and Democracy, “A nomad’s courage to challenge government relocation policy leads to exile,” Human Rights Update, August, 2003.

26.Tibetan Centre for Human Rights and Democracy, Annual Report 2003: Human Rights Situation in Tibet at www.tchrd.org/pubs/2003/Annual_Report.pdf: 77.

27.Fosco Maraini, Secret Tibet, London: The Harvill Press, 1998: 366.


29.Ibid. 366.

30.H.H. the Dalai Lama, “Human Rights and Universal Responsibility” The United Nations World Conference on Human Rights, Vienna, 15 June 1993 at http://www.tibet.com/DL/vienna.html.

31.”Tibet File No. 3: Five Point Peace Plan,” at http://www.freetibet.org/info/file/file3.html.

32.T. Shakya, The Dragon in the Land of Snows: A History of Modern Tibet Since 1947, London: Pimlico, 1999: xxii.

33.Martin A. Mills, Identity, Ritual and State in Tibetan Buddhism, London: RoutledgeCurzon, 2003: 333.

34.by referring to the industrial exploitation of the natural resources of Tibet, pollution of its environment, wholesale destruction of its religion and culture, and the starvation, decimation and dilution of its ethnic population.

35.D.S. Lopez, Prisoners of Shangri-La, London: University of Chicago Press, 1998. Of course, the Tibetan Government-in-Exile has mostly not employed as much mythification as its  supporters. See, for instance, the white paper of Tibetan Government-in_Exile in this connection where the Chinese claims have been rebutted in a well-argued manner (http://www.tibet.com/WhitePaper/white4.html,20/05/2001).

36.Dawa Norbu, Tibet: The Road Ahead, New Delhi: HarperCollins, 1997: ix. See also, P. Bishop, Dreams of Power, London: Athlone Press, 1993.

37. T. Shakya, The Dragon in the Land of Snows: A History of Modern Tibet Since 1947, London: Pimlico, 1999: xxii.


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Dialogue (A quarterly journal of Astha Bharati)

                                               Astha Bharati