Issues Facing Tibet* Today
Invaded by China in 1949, the independent country of Tibet was forced to face the direct loss of life that comes from military invasion and, soon after, the loss of universal freedoms that stemmed from Communist ideology and its programmes such as the Cultural Revolution (1966-76). However, it is erroneous to believe that the worst has passed. The fate of Tibet’s unique national, cultural and religious identity is seriously threatened and manipulated by the Chinese.
China’s policy of occupation and oppression has resulted in no more or less than the destruction of Tibet’s national independence, culture and religion, environment and the universal human rights of its people. Time and time again, the infliction of this destruction sees China break international laws with impunity.
With a written history of more than 2,000 years, Tibet existed as an independent sovereign state prior to Chinese rule. But having no representation in the United Nations, the world largely stood by and allowed China’s occupation and destruction to happen.
Tibetans in Tibet have repeatedly staged demonstrations in favour of independence from China. The Tibetan struggle has been non-violent in nature. Yet when Tibetan children as young as ten years old whisper the words “Tibet is independent” or “Long Live His Holiness the Dalai Lama”, the Chinese accuse them of trying to “split” the “motherland” and often sentence them to imprisonment. Possessing an image of the Tibetan national flag can lead to a seven-year jail term. There are today 116 known political prisoners (TCHRD, Annual Report 2006) in Chinese prisons and detention centres across the Tibetan plateau. 51 of them, which constitutes 43.95% of the total given above, are serving 10 or more years of prison terms on account of their political, religious or nationalistic views.
Culture and Religion
China’s relentless destruction of religion in Tibet saw the demise of over 6,000 monasteries and countless religious artefacts. Even today, China see the Tibetan religion and culture as the main threat to the leadership of the Communist Party. China’s Third Work Forum on Tibet in 1994 and the Fourth Work Forum in 2001 have called for an array of measures to wipe out the vestige of Tibetan religion.
Denouncing Tibet’s Spiritual Leaders
Forced to denounce His Holiness the Dalai Lama and the Panchen Lama recognised by him, Tibetans must pledge their allegiance to the Chinese government. Failure to do so can result in imprisonment or other forms of punishment. Possessing an image of His Holiness the Dalai Lama is today illegal in Tibet.
Since May 2005 Beijing has stepped up its efforts to attack the person of His Holiness the Dalai Lama by declaring a “fight to the death” struggle against him. Many describe this new round of vituperative campaign against the Tibetan spiritual leader as a throwback to the era of the Cultural Revolution.
In July 2007 a new regulation was introduced, according to which all incarnate lamas or tulkus must have state approval. As well as usurping the power to recognise the Tibetan spiritual figures, Beijing hopes - through the implementation of this regulation - to rule the land and people of Tibet through state-sponsored lamas or tulkus.
The continued population transfer of Chinese to Tibet in recent years has seen the Tibetans become a minority in their own land. Today the six million Tibetans are vastly outnumbered by Chinese immigrants, who are given preferential treatment in education, jobs and private enterprises. Tibetans, on the other hand, are treated as second-class citizens in their own country.
Under the guise of economic and social development, Beijing encourages the migration of Chinese population to Tibet, marginalising the Tibetans in economic, educational, political and social spheres.
The railway line between Gormo and Lhasa, which was officially opened in July 2006, has given further impetus to this vicious policy of flooding Tibet with Chinese migrants, and thus making it demographically impossible for the Tibetans to rise up as in the case of Inner Mongolia and Xinjiang. It is estimated that the railway brings some 5,000 to 6,000 Chinese to Lhasa everyday. Out of these, 2,000 to 3,000 return to their homes in China and the rest of them settle in Tibet indefinitely. If this trend continues unabated, it will not be long before what many perceive as Beijing’s “final solution” to the question of Tibet will have achieved its desired goal.
Chinese occupation of Tibet has seen the Tibetan language surpassed by that of the Chinese. The government is repressing Tibetan culture by making the language redundant in all sectors. Tibet’s education system, controlled entirely by the Chinese and their Communist ideology, is geared to suit the needs of Chinese immigrants. Tibetan students also suffer from prohibitive and discriminatory fees and inadequate facilities in rural areas.
The deprival of meaningful education in their own homeland has forced well over 10,000 Tibetan children and youths to escape to India, where the exile Tibetan community offers them educational opportunities unimaginable in Tibet. The records of the Tibetan Reception Centre in Dharamsala reveal that from 1991 to June 2004, the Centre had hosted a total of 43,634 new arrivals from Tibet. Out of these, 59.75% were found to be children (below the age of 13) and youths (between the age of 13 and 25). In 2006 alone, some 2,445 newly-arrived Tibetans were received at the Centre, majority of them being children below 18 years of age. The sole purpose of such a large number of young Tibetans fleeing their homeland - and more often than not negotiating a treacherous journey across the Himalayas - is to obtain a decent religious and secular education in a country far away from home.
In monasteries, Chinese government “work teams” are being sent to forcibly “re-educate” monks and nuns in their political and religious beliefs. Their methods are similar to those imposed during the Cultural Revolution. The “strike hard” campaign between 1996 and 1998 saw 492 monks and nuns arrested and 9,997 expelled from their religious institutions.
Zhang Qingli’s arrival at the helm in the “TAR” in May 2006 led to the scope of the “patriotic re-education” campaign being expanded from the confines of the monasteries and nunneries to encompass the wider population in Tibet, including schools. The main thrust of this campaign is to re-orient the Tibetan people’s religious faith and belief by requiring to pledge their opposition to His Holiness the Dalai Lama.
Universal Human Rights
By the end of 1998, the People’s Republic of China had signed the three covenants comprising the International Bill of Rights, but it is still far from implementing these domestically and in Tibet. Individual and collective rights abuses continue to challenge the Tibetan people and the future survival of their unique cultural identity.
A case in point is the Nangpa La shooting incident of 30 September 2006 - which claimed two Tibetan lives and the arrest of some 30 Tibetans, including 14 children. Not only does this incident show the height of human rights violations taking place in Tibet, but also the impunity with which the Chinese border police commit these rights abuses. Following this tragedy, the Public Security Bureaus (PSBs) in the “TAR” have been instructed to curb illegal crossings during the first half of 2007, calling it a part of their “strike hard” campaign against splittism to ensure stability in the region. As a result, border patrolling has been strengthened and stringent methods are employed to prevent any Tibetan from escaping repression.
The Central Tibetan Administration solemnly maintains that the Chinese government’s treatment of Tibetans in Tibet is in breach of the rights to life, liberty and security and the freedom of expression, religion, culture and education. Today, in Tibet:
- Any expression of opinion contrary to Chinese Communist Party ideology can result in arrest;
- The Chinese government has systematically covered religious institutions in an attempt to eradicate allegiance to His Holiness the Dalai Lama, Tibetan nationalism and any dissention;
- Tibetans are subject to arbitrary arrest and detention;
- Those imprisoned are often denied legal representation and Chinese legal proceedings fail to meet international standards;
- Torture still prevails in Chinese prisons and detention centres despite it being in contravention of the United Nations Convention Against Torture;
- Due to subsistence difficulties, inadequate facilities and discriminatory measures, many Tibetan children are denied access to adequate healthcare and schooling;
- The rate of imprisonment for political reasons is far greater than in other areas under Chinese rule;
- Children are not exempt from China’s repression of freedom of expression. There are Tibetan political prisoners below the age of 18, and child monks and nuns are consistently dismissed from their religious institutions;
- Enforced disappearances, where a person is taken into custody and the details of his detention are not disclosed, continue to occur;
- Gedhun Choekyi Nyima, recognised by His Holiness the Dalai Lama as the 11th Panchen Lama, has been missing since 1995;
- More than 70 percent of Tibetans in Tibet now live below the poverty line;
- Thousands of Tibetans continue to flee their homeland in pursuit of freedom, livelihood, and education in the exile community, where the Indian government gives facilities that the Chinese government cannot even think of, much less provide.
Continual international pressure is essential in encouraging the Chinese government to abide by the regulations of the covenants of human rights.
Situated at the heart of Asia, Tibet is one of the most environmentally strategic and sensitive regions in the world. Tibetans live in harmony with nature, guided by their Buddhist belief in the interdependence of both living and non-living elements of the earth. However, with the invasion of Tibet, the materialistic Chinese Communist ideology trampled upon this nature-friendly attitude of the Tibetan people.
The past 50 years has seen widespread environmental destruction resulting in deforestation, soil erosion, extinction of wildlife, overgrazing, uncontrolled mining and nuclear waste dumping. Today, the Chinese continue to extract various natural resources - often with foreign backing - without any environmental safeguards and consequently Tibet is facing an environmental crisis, the ramifications of which are felt far beyond its borders.
Tibet boasts some of the finest quality forest reserves in the world. Having taken hundreds of years to grow, many trees stand 90 feet high with a girth of 5 feet or more. China’s “development” and “modernisation” plans for Tibet are seeing these forest indiscriminately destroyed. In 1959, 25.2 million hectares of forest were found in Tibet, but in 1985 the Chinese had reduced forest-cover to 13.57 million hectares. Over 46 percent of Tibet’s forest has been destroyed and in some areas this figure is as high as 80 percent. Between 1959 and 1985, the Chinese removed US$ 54 billion worth of timber from Tibet. Deforestation, and inadequate reforestation programmes, has a profound effect on wildlife and leads to soil erosion and floods in the neighbouring countries, including China itself.
Soil Erosion and Flooding
Massive deforestation, mining and intensified agriculture patterns in Tibet have led to increased soil erosion and the siltation of some of Asia’s most important rivers. Siltation of the Mekong, Yangtse, Indus, Salween and Yellow rivers cause major floods such as those Asia has experienced in recent years. This in turn causes landslides and reduces potential farming land, thus affecting half the world population which lives downstream from Tibet.
Global Climate Effects
Scientists have observed a correlation between natural vegetation on the Tibetan Plateau and the stability of the monsoon, which is indispensible to the bread-baskets of South Asia. Scientists have also shown that the environment of the Tibetan Plateau affects jet-streams which are related to the cause of Pacific typhoons and the El Nino phenomenon, which has had adverse environmental effects world-wide.
Extinction of Wildlife
In 1901, His Holiness the 13th Dalai Lama issued a decree banning the hunting of wild animals in Tibet. Unfortunately, the Chinese have not enforced similar restrictions and instead the “trophy-hunting” of endangered species has been actively encouraged. There are at least 81 endangered species on the Tibetan Plateau of which 39 are mammals, 37 birds, four amphibians and one reptile.
Extraction of borax, chromium, copper, gold, and uranium is being vigorously carried out by the Chinese government as a means of providing raw materials for industrial growth. Seven of China’s 15 key minerals are expected to run out within a decade and consequently the extraction of minerals in Tibet is increasing in rapid and unregulated manner.
The new railway line to Lhasa is expected to provide easier means of exploitation of Tibet’s enormous natural resources. A survey conducted by the China Geological Survey (CGS), an agency responsible for mineral exploration under the Ministry of Land and Resources, reveals that their geologists have discovered 600 new sites of copper, iron, lead and zinc ore deposits along the route of this railway line. The survey further states that if these were exploited, it could meet China’s demands for mineral resources. Zhuang Yuxun, director of the CGS’s Department of Geological Investigation, has indicated that “the new supply [of these resources] can come to the market in two to three years”, as “the locations of the newly-discovered reserves are close to the ‘Qinghai-Tibet’ railway”.
Increased mining activities further reduces vegetation cover and thereby increases the danger for severe landslides, massive soil erosion, loss of wildlife habitat and the pollution of streams and rivers.
Nuclear Waste Dumping
Once a peaceful buffer state between India and China, Tibet has been militarised to the point of holding at least 500,000 Chinese troops and up to one quarter of China’s nuclear missile arsenal. The Chinese brought their first nuclear weapon onto the Tibetan Plateau in 1971. Today, it appears that the Chinese are using Tibet as a dumping ground for their and foreign nuclear waste. In 1984, China Nuclear Industry Co-operation offered western countries nuclear waste disposal facilities at US$ 1,500 per kilogram.
Mysterious deaths of Tibetans and livestock residing close to China’s nuclear sites have been reported, as too have increases in cancer and birth defects. In addition, there has been incidences of waterway contamination where the local Chinese population were officially warned against using the water but the local Tibetans were not. China continues to control the Tibetan Plateau without any regard for its fragile ecology or for the rightful inhabitants of the land.
*The term TIBET here means the whole of Tibet known as Cholka-Sum (U-Tsang, Kham and Amdo). It includes the present-day Chinese administrative areas of the so-called Tibet Autonomous Region, Qinghai Province, two Tibetan Autonomous Prefectures and one Tibetan Autonomous County in Sichuan Province, one Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture and one Tibetan Autonomous County in Gansu Province and one Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture in Yunnan Province.
# Information for this leaflet has been sourced from DIIR’s Environment and Development Desk and from the Tibetan Centre for Human Rights and Democracy (TCHRD).