By Steve Lonegan
Tibet, the broad, high plateau between India and China, is bigger than Western Europe and the source of the great rivers of Asia: The Indus, the Yangtze, the Yarlung Tsangpol and the Salween.
Mysterious and exotic, the roof of the world is the place of Tantric Buddhism, seers and mystics capable of levitation and astral travel. At least, it is to those who do not understand a civilization where tradition and religion are living forces and whose peoples radiate a serenity and gentleness long extinct in other societies.
I landed at Tibet’s Gonggar Airport July 2001 on a private visit. The emotionless faces and starched uniforms of the Chinese military officials who supervised my arrival were the first reminder of Tibet’s political oppression.
Outside, Communist Party tour guides awaited their assignments. My official Communist guide, Will, worked for the government-run tourist agency. Bilingual banners, on which Chinese ideograms dwarfed elegant Tibetan script, proclaimed Tibet as part of the rapidly advancing Chinese motherland.
Americans are always anxious to tour sites in exotic places, but never ready for the shock of traveling under the shadow of an oppressive regime. My guide’s goal was to indoctrinate me into the communist view of Tibet. As the then-mayor of Bogota, New Jersey, the Chinese apparently assumed I could assert influence on U.S. public opinion.
The public opinion the communist Chinese propagandists promote is not a flattering picture of the Tibetan people. Since the Red Army invasion of Tibet in 1949, hundreds of thousands of Tibetans have been exterminated and thousands of ancient Buddhist temples destroyed. Religion is poison, the founder of the People’s Republic of China, the late Communist Party Chairman Mao Zedong, told the Dalai Lama in 1954, just before the Dalai Lama and more than 150,000 followers fled to permanent exile in India.
After the invasion, China began a policy of ruthless repopulation, moving millions of Chinese into Tibet. Will slandered the Tibetan people from the moment we climbed into the Land Rover until I left the country. The Dalai Lama, Will claimed, was responsible for having the airport placed 60 dangerous miles from Lhasa, the world’s highest capital city at 15,000 feet, decades ago. Will said the religious leader proclaimed airplanes should not be flying over the heads of Buddhists.
He gloated that now the Dalai Lama flies in first-class seating, collecting huge speaking fees while staying in luxury hotels.
After destroying thousands of ancient sites and artifacts, the Chinese government reluctantly admitted to the excesses of the destruction of Mao’s Great Leap Forward and began restoring and packaging Tibet for tourist purposes. Will continued a carefully rehearsed diatribe about the evils of the long line of Dalai Lama spiritual leaders, describing their heinous methods of torturing their enemies. There was no discussion of the message of peace that is the center of the Buddhist faith.
Tibetans are small and smile frequently. They flock to monasteries on pilgrimages to pray and offer gifts and incense.
As we headed across country over rugged terrain, at points the dirt roads stopped altogether. Our guide Will pointed to the side of a mountain to what he said was a road. Beijing is building a modern road system that the Tibetans could never build, he said. They need us here, he contended.
I asked him why we were not driving on the modern roads. There were no modern roads on the entire trip. He told me they were still under construction.
The Chinese have been in Tibet for 50 years. “How long does it take them to build roads?” I asked. He ignored my question.
High in Tibet is a town called Shigatse, site of a military installation. To visualize what the country is like at this height, imagine being on Mars. Rugged, sparse vegetation and no air. Across the narrow street from our simple hotel was an establishment where very young girls in far too glamorous dresses sat and stood under a sign that read “Massage Service.”
China is attempting to develop and modernize Tibet, taking it into a glorious future, tourists are told. There was no getting away from this message, which was prominently advertised on the welcome arches and billboards along every road. But the youth of the prostitutes was proof that while the future might be glorious, the present was hopelessly miserable for many.
I was curious why Beijing needed a military base in the middle of nowhere. Will told me it was for defense. I asked, what defense? Was the Chinese government afraid of the Tibetans seeking independence? He ignored the question.
It appeared the base served to keep the Tibetans oppressed and to filter more Chinese into the country.
Against the backdrop of a civilization being methodically eradicated, these stories had one goal — to demolish Tibetan society.
Long for freedom
As peaceful as the Tibetan people are, they do not lack the desire to be free. Isolated from the rest of the world, it has been easy to ignore their tragic plight. Media is tightly controlled and access is difficult. Expanded trade with China leaves world leaders reluctant to complain about the violations of human rights.
With the Olympics scheduled to start Friday, the world will get a closer look at Tibetan suffering. It will be a sad reflection on humanity if Tibet slips into oblivion once the Olympics end. Tibet will not survive another 50 years of repopulation, persecution and lying propaganda.
The writer, a former mayor of Bogota, is executive director of the New Jersey chapter of Americans for Prosperity.