Tibetan letters from the underground
Lhasa, Tibet — A petition from the people of Tibet is unlikely to make its way to the hollowed portals of the United Nations. In this remote backward region, where the rate of illiteracy exceeds 80 percent, most people don't know about the UN and probably have not heard of its decolonization committee or the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Now that the veil is being partially lifted from this mysterious land and the Chinese are allowing in select groups of Tourists and journalists, visitors are beginning to find letters of petition addressed to the Security Council and the UN General Assembly.
Not that these letters are handed out darlingly at the street corners of Lhasa. Instead, in the crowded marketplace around the ancient Jokhang temple, where the devout are prostrate in prayers and peddlers are busy selling their wares, young Tibetans instinctively spot sympathetic reporters with their cameras and notebooks. They stick letters into their hands and disappear before the visitorsknow what has happened, and then disappear into the crowds.
This expression of dissent Tibetan style also takes place in the dark halls of other shrines where pilgrims muttering Buddhist sutras surreptitiously pull out the letters from under their long robes, taking care to avoid the gaze of Chinese and Tibetan functionaries who usually lurk behind the temple pillars. The letters, quickly scribbled notes or elaborately penned pages of Tibetan script, always express opposition to the Chinese rule in Tibet and support the Dalai Lama's government-in-exile.
Although the rest of the world has no illusions about the UN, the Tibetans seem to have implicit faith in the powers of the world body. The letters call on the UN and world opinion to grant the Tibetan people the right of self-determination.
Tibetan dissent or the more prevalent passive resistance simmers just below the surface. One young Tibetan told this writer in fluent Mandarin that when the temples were reopened early in 1980, the Chinese were shocked to see so many youngsters flocking to the shrines.
"That, too, is a form of protest," he added. Residents in Lhasa take care to display the portraits of Mao and Hua Guofeng in the living rooms, while the religious images and icons are conveniently hidden in the back room. "During the Cultural Revolution we had to hide these icons under lock and key," added the young Tibetan.
One model worker showed us his pictures of the Buddha and the Dalai Lama, hidden behind his framed certificates from authorities. "That is the real me," he said of the religious pictures. "If I have survived in this system I need two faces."
The other face, that of active dissent, is rarely seen these days. A group called "young tigers" was known to be behind the wall-poster campaign early last April. Diplomatic sources who monitor Tibet closely maintain there the regime faces no organized opposition of any significance. "There may be a few small groups, isolated and scattered is Lhasa or Shigatse, but they do not amount to much," said one such source.
Over the past two decades there have been sporadic clashes between dissident Khamba tribesmen and the Chinese. The Khamba used to operate from across the borders in Nepal, but the government in Katmandu has cracked down on those sanctuaries and jailed many Khamba. Chinese officials privately say they do not perceive any external threat to Tibet, either from exiled Tibetans or hostile nations.But internal discontent is one thing the Chinese have not been able to stamp out, although they can contain it.
An eight-page handwritten dissedent letter given to our group of reporters lists many spheres of Tibetan discontent of the Chinese rule. The letter says, "Countless number four people have died in prisons in central Tibet . . . where the inmates have backbreaking work and hardly enough to eat to sustain life." Dissedent sources estimate the number of Tibetan political detainees at 100,000. Losang Qicheng, the vice- chairman of Tibet, denied that there were any political prisoners of labor camps.
But dissidents point out the first thing the Chinese built in 1959 were three prisons in Lhasa and one each in every county town. Even the so-called state farms have forced Tibetan labor, they maintain. Mr. Losang, when pressed about political prisoners, said, "All acts against the government are counterrevolutionary: These people are criminals and only criminals are sent to jail." Our request to see a prison in Lhasa was not granted by the authorities.
The letter also alleges. "Numerous people were killed or jailed during the campaigns of class education, purification of the three [monks, nobility, and government officials of the Dalai Lama regime]."
During the Cultural Revolution when the Tibetans were forced to side with either Mao or Liu Shaoqui, the letter claims, "Many more were persecuted to death." Mr. Losang countered this remark by saying, "Fewer than 100 people died during the Cultural Revolution," while glossing over the loss of life between 1959 and 1966.
The Chinese news media now admit that more than 1 million died or were otherwise persecuted during the Cultural Revolution in all of China. "It was like civil war," Chinese strong man Deng Xiaoping said in a recent interview. There are no known cases of the culprits of those days being brought to books in Tibet, as there have been in other parts of China.
Counting the dead over a period of two decades in the murky, unrecorded history of Tibet may be difficult, but the destruction caused to Tibetan religious monuments is there to see. The dissident letter details the large-scale destruction, which has been confirmed by expert Western Tibetologists.
Out of 2,300 monasteries in Tibet less than 20 remain. Garden, one of the largest monasteries in Tibet is in total ruin, as it was destroyed, brick by brick, by the Red Guards in their zeal to destroy the "four olds." It was not until ordinary Tibetans began offering voluntary labor to clear the rubble at Gaden early last year, that the government announced recently its plans to spend half a million yuan (about $300,000) to restore the monument. The sum spent is a pittance compared with the task involved.
A glimpse into the scale of devastation was given by Mr. Losang himself. In one hour of mob frenzy, the Red Guards destroyed so much of the Jokhang temple in Lhasa that the government spent over 1.2 million yuan to restore it, he said. It should be added that there was no structural damage to Jokhang, which is open to visitors.
When asked if those responsible for wrecking the shrines had been punished, he answered "no." Mr. Losang made a lame excuse, "It is hard to find the culprits."
Even the much-publicized current religious tolerance is so full of obfuscations by the authorities that it is open to question. Religious belief and practice are legal, but the propagation of religion is not fully allowed. The authorities claim that laymen can become lamas now. But not one official nor any of the lamas from the days of the Dalai Lama's reign could tell us of a newly initiated lama. Next: the Tibetan economy