More Tibetans flee homeland
The Karmapa Lama fled China last week because he wants to pursue
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As hazardous as escaping from Tibet is today, passage to exile carried far greater risks 40 years ago, when the Dalai Lama and thousands of his followers made their way to India after Chinese troops crushed a popular Tibetan uprising.Skip to next paragraph
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The Dalai Lama, the 15-year-old head of Tibet's Buddhist theocracy when Chinese troops crossed into the remote Himalayan region in 1950, initially tried to cooperate with Beijing's leaders when they said they wanted to construct a socialist utopia that would preserve Tibet's Buddhist culture. Yet the execution or imprisonment of senior Tibetan clergy, the attacks on Tibet's monasteries and the harsh communist propaganda campaigns that followed the Army's march across the region triggered the area's first "counter-revolutionary rebellion" against Chinese rule in 1959, along with the first of many waves of refugees into surrounding countries.
The Chinese authorities have long viewed monasteries as the nerve centers of Tibetan nationalism, and "when China attacks Tibet, it is our monks and nuns who usually take the brunt of the assault," says Tsering. Mao Zedong attempted to forcibly obliterate Chinese and Tibetan traditions and beliefs during the radical Cultural Revolution from 1966 to '76, which was ostensibly aimed at paving the way for a pure communist society.
After Mao's passing in 1976, his more moderate successors promised Tibetans religious freedom, but not political autonomy, and began financing the rebuilding of some of the region's devastated monasteries. Yet the era of limited liberalizations unleashed new calls for an end to Chinese rule, which were largely silenced when heavily armed troops opened fire on protesters - many of them monks and nuns - in the Tibetan capital 10 years ago.
In the latest phase of this clash of civilizations between Chinese Marxists and Tibetan Buddhists, Beijing has largely replaced its arsenal of tanks and bullets with much more subtle means of controlling the region's temples and clergy.
The party, officially atheistic, has manipulated the appointment of Buddhist leaders, installed ideological watchdogs in monasteries across Tibet, and used police and prisons to silence any dissent. Beijing also now bans the teachings of the Dalai Lama within Tibet.
Most Tibetans believe the Dalai Lama is an incarnation of a Buddhist god who was sent to Tibet to head its government and church. The current Dalai, the 14th in a succession of lamas to rule over Tibet until the communist takeover, has created a "micro-Tibet" for the tens of thousands of refugees who have followed him to northern India. A network of schools and temples in India act as a powerful magnet for Tibetans. Despite his flight 40 years ago, the Dalai Lama remains the most revered figure within communist-ruled Tibet. Although the Dalai Lama has called for a democratic federation between Tibet and China, Beijing still labels him a would-be "secessionist."
The US State Department said in its most recent annual human rights report on China that "There were reports of imprisonment and abuse or torture of monks and nuns accused of political activism, the death of prisoners, and the closure of several monasteries." Human rights abuses, it added, are worst in Tibet's prisons, and are usually focused on Buddhist figures and pro-independence activists.
Bhuchung Tsering says "Buddhism is at the heart of our culture - by attacking the church, the Chinese government is endangering our identity and our future."
Refugee camp director La says that if the exodus continues, Tibet's cultural and ethnic identity could slowly fade into oblivion. He says he sometimes finds himself pleading with refugees who have just scaled cloud-capped peaks and fled from armed border guards to turn around and go back into Tibet. "I say to young Tibetans 'if you don't go back, a Chinese could take over your land. Tibet is your homeland, the land of your ancestors, and you must return to protect its future,'" La says.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society