A favorite of travelers, the slogan even appears squeezed onto car bumpers already laden with other political leanings. But what does Free Tibet really mean?
Thousands of men and women have given their lives to support that fragile dream so haphazardly stuck on laptops and cars.
After spending 16 days surrounded by Tibetan refugees in Northern India, I was both overwhelmed with a burden for these friendly people and disgusted by the lack of international help they receive.
While the issue may be a real buzz kill, if you’re a traveler — particularly in Asia — you owe it to yourself to know the truth.
Here is the real story of Tibet:
The 14th Dalai Lama
In October 2012, I was lucky enough to be present for a teaching by Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama, at his home in exile: McLeod Ganj, India.
The Dalai Lama reluctantly fled to McLeod Ganj in Himchal Pradesh, India, in 1959. He left hoping to return home one day, but that dream realistically won’t be realized within his lifetime. Instead, he is labeled in China as a political criminal and risks his life to assassins each time he leaves his residence in the Tsuglagkhang complex.
So far, the 77-year-old Dalai Lama has outlived all of his 13 predecessors. His message of nonviolence may be the only thing preventing an all-out uprising in Tibet — perhaps with a grim outcome. Let’s hope that he continues to stay healthy.
Always smiling despite a ridiculously difficult life, the Dalai Lama’s famous, high-pitched giggle is infectious. The young Tenzin Gyatso was given rule over Tibet at the unexperienced age of 15; millions of lives depended upon how he handled confrontations with China.
While American 15-year-olds were throwing baseballs and kissing girls, he was confronting Chairman Mao in person.
The Dalai Lama pleaded that China leave Tibetans to live in peace and modernize at their own pace.
The Chinese Invasion
It didn’t work. After numerous diplomatic efforts failed, China crossed the Tibetan border and quickly overwhelmed the outnumbered and untrained Tibetan defenders.
Many documentaries, including the otherwise-excellent film Kundun by Martin Scorsese, leave out the fact that the peace-loving Tibetans, in a moment of desperation, did piece together an army and tried to resist the Chinese.
They were slaughtered and numerous monasteries along the border were destroyed. Monks who escaped testified that they were forced to publicly rape nuns while laughing soldiers held them at gunpoint.
When word reached Lhasa, the Dalai Lama cried.
Tibet made a plea to the Western world for help dealing with the Chinese; it fell on deaf ears. Having just dealt with, and lost to, Chinese human wave attacks during the Korean War, the U.S. wasn’t ready to jump back into another skirmish against the Chinese on their home continent.
Europe, Australia, and the rest of the world community only sent letters of support or apology.
The American Effort
Unknown to many people because it was hidden from the American public, the CIA did train and outfit guerrillas to help the Tibetans fight the Chinese. A secret training base was even constructed at Camp Hale, Colorado — former home to the famous 10th Mountain Division before they were moved to New York. The flight to Colorado was the first time that any of the Tibetan soldiers had ever seen an airplane, which they deemed “air boats.”
Around 259 resistance fighters were trained, outfitted with M-1 rifles, then returned to Tibet to train their countrymen. Because all knew that to be captured would mean torture then death, each was given a cyanide capsule sewn into their left sleeve. This is history, not Hollywood.
Nearly all died, either at the hands of the People’s Army or by biting down on their capsules which they held in their mouths during firefights in case they were overrun.
The heroic and patriotic Tibetan soldiers barely receive mention in books or film. No one even knows that there was once such a thing as a Tibetan soldier.
The Dalai Lama admitted to receiving secret financial support in 1998. He still receives criticism for not divulging the annual $1.7 million received in military aid from the U.S. earlier. In comparison, an estimated $1.6 million dollars was spent to refurnish the Executive residence at the White House in 2008. A single Tomahawk cruise missile costs an average $1.45 million.
The limited aid obviously wasn’t enough, and Tibet is now labeled as one of five autonomous regions belonging to the People’s Republic of China.
The Chinese Favor
To this day, China claims that their invasion of Tibet in the 1950s was to “liberate and modernize” them. That they did the Tibetan people a favor.
There aren’t many instances when people are willing to risk sniper fire, starvation, frostbite, and high altitude passes to escape a “favor” they received.
Many Chinese citizens name Tibet as a financial burden rather than blessing. They are unhappy over the amount of tax money their government invests in infrastructure there.
The new roads built in Tibet were mainly constructed to aid China’s ability to remove Tibet’s natural resources. The Himalayas are rich with iron, copper, gold, and even uranium. Endless convoys of trucks clog the winding highway to carry out virgin timber.
The 1,215-mile Qinghai-Tibet Railway completed in 2006 between Beijing and Lhasa serves two functions only: trains return to Beijing laden with plundered resources while trains coming into Tibet carry millions of Han Chinese who have now literally taken over Lhasa. With all business conducted in Mandarin, the Tibetans never had a chance for keeping an economic or social foothold in their capital.
An Endangered Species
As a member of various hiking organizations over the years, I donated money to keep endangered species from disappearing forever. Ask any Tibetan and they will tell you that they are the new endangered species, yet we all seem to know more about the plight of mountain gorillas than we do these mountain people.
Tibetans are systematically being made a minority in their own country. Although numbers vary depending upon whom you ask, an estimated 7.5 million Chinese now live in Tibet.
In fact, there were an estimated 6.3 million Tibetans before China invaded in 1959. Today, there are 5.4 million Tibetans. Strange that the Chinese modernization of Tibet somehow not only stifled population growth, but the number of Tibetans has decreased annually. Modernization wasn’t much of a favor after all.
They are literally a dying culture.
Recent reports from China to the United Nations boast of lowering child mortality rates in Tibet. It’s true, child mortality rates have dropped, but only because reproduction has declined equally.
I watched a gruesome documentary at the Tibet Museum in Tsuglagkhang about forced sterilizations of Tibetan women. It seems the Tibetans, who viewed having many children as a blessing, aren’t good at keeping China’s one-child policy. To ensure the numbers stay in their favor, China has been conducting forced, proactive sterilizations of women.
Without anesthesia or pain medicine and still very awake, Tibetan women are cut open and their fallopian tubes snipped. They receive no follow-up treatment and must look after the wound themselves. It may sound too horrific to be true in our ‘civilized world’ but this is happening daily and many women bear the scars.
All Tibetans share the opinion that their culture, identity, and language are soon to be lost. They are indeed an endangered species.
Tibetans in Exile
Despite thick books of documented human rights violations, Tibet is offered only limited support by many Western countries for fear of financial or political repercussions by China.
While India remains Tibet’s largest supporter by offering refuge for the Tibetan government in exile and more than 100,000 escaped Tibetans, that may change if and when cooperation between the two new world superpowers improves. In the meantime, Western countries come up severely lacking.
Switzerland, fitting because of the mountainous terrain, is Tibet’s largest supporter in Europe. By 2009 they were giving refuge to 1,600 Tibetans while the rest of Europe combined only accepted a pitiful 640 individuals.
Only 2,240 refugees could be fit into Europe’s 3.9 million square miles?
The USA and Canada combined were sheltering around 7,000 Tibetans, while Australia and New Zealand combined only accepted 220 people.
Raising Awareness About Tibet
While we slap ‘Free Tibet’ stickers on cars, Tibetans have a more extreme way of raising world awareness about their desperation:
They set themselves on fire.
From 2009 to April 2014, at least 125 individuals have set themselves on fire to protest China’s vision for their country. These aren’t old monks with nothing to lose: most of the self immolations were performed by people in their 20s who believed there was no hope for a future under Chinese control.
Signboards around Mcleod Ganj pay tribute to the men and women who died horrible and painful deaths to raise awareness of their people’s suffering.
Burning monks are kicked to the ground by police, then quickly whisked away before people can rally or process what they have seen. Some die on the spot, but many succumb slowly days later in a prison hospital. So far, only 10 have been know to survive; all are mutilated for life and in deep trouble with the Chinese.
A heart-wrenching, up-to-date list with photos of the martyrs can be found at: http://www.savetibet.org/resource-center/maps-data-fact-sheets/self-immolation-fact-sheet
People desperate enough to set themselves on fire obviously brings negative publicity. The self immolation count would actually be much higher, however, the police are ordered to arrest and often torture people who plan or attempt to burn themselves in public. If you only have one life to give, you obviously want to draw a crowd and make an international statement — hopefully a big one. Police disperse any gathered crowd in Tibet by force.
Imprisonments and Torture
While researching, I watched many documentaries in McLeod Ganj. A common theme shared by all were the beatings and torture received in decade-long prison sentences. Often, the convicted were simply caught with a concealed Tibetan flag — not even waving it around — as two crazy American travelers did in Lhasa one year.
The people in the documentaries weren’t paid actors and actresses, many escaped Tibet after their sentences and were sat around me at Tsuglagkhang when I saw the Dalai Lama.
Tibetans are willing to risk the month-long journey through harsh conditions to reach India, both to be in the presence of their beloved spiritual leader and to escape the occupation. Sadly, some refugees are turned away once they arrive at the border.
The Chinese keep sniper teams in the mountains along known passes to prevent escape. The Tibetans are willing to risk it anyway.
One film about an incident known as the Nagpa La Shooting in 2006 was particularly disturbing. In real footage captured by a Romanian climber in Tibet, a column of slow-moving refugees is picking its way through the snow at 19,000 feet — bound for McLeod Ganj and a new life.
One small, dark shape straggling in the group was a 17-year-old nun named Kelsang Namtso. A single rifle shot, fired by a Chinese border patrol, reverberates off the surrounding mountains. A second or two later you see Kelsang crumple to the ground. Later in the footage, you see the snow darken around her as she dies.
The remaining 32 refugees kept walking for a moment, not realizing what just happened, then hopelessly stop moving. More shots were fired at the unarmed group; another Tibetan was hit in the leg twice but survived to be arrested. They were rounded up, some imprisoned, and 17 remain missing to this day. One lucky boy escaped to the climbing camp, was hidden during a search, and made it out to India where he made a documentary. The Romanian climbers bravely smuggled their footage out of China.
When China was confronted about the incident, their official response was that the border patrol fired from a distance in “self defense.” Never mind the fact that the Tibetans were unarmed and weren’t even within snowball distance.
Sadly, the Nagpa La shooting was just one isolated event lucky enough to be captured by climbers.
How many other atrocities occur on remote mountain passes where no one is there to film?
The event made world headlines and is told in Jonathan Green’s book Murder in the Himalayas. How did the world respond? Less than a year later China was already preparing to host the 2008 Olympic Games.
The 2008 Olympic Games
Instead of holding China accountable for their actions in Tibet, the world community awarded Beijing the Olympics.
Who thought that was a good idea?
I happened to be in China toward the end of 2007 to study Shaolin and witnessed human rights violations myself — while not working as a journalist or even looking for trouble. Bus loads of homeless people from Beijing were dumped off in Yunnan province with only a duffel bag of clothes and little hope. The world wasn’t allowed to see Beijing’s problems on their television sets.
I wrote about what I saw. My blog (https://www.vagabondinglife.com) and this website, along with Facebook and the whole of WikiPedia, are blocked in China — for obvious reasons.
Slowly but Surely
Congressmen James McGovern (Massachusetts) and Frank Wolf (Virginia) urged Hillary Clinton in a letter sent on August 9th, 2012, to put more focus on Tibet.
And brought the Tibet issue up during the UN General Assembly meeting in New York again in September 2012. They were more concerned with resolving a long-standing island dispute with Japan.
The self immolations may be slowly working, but what a terrible price. It seems that no country dares to seriously rattle China’s cage about Tibet. After all, the shelves at Wal-Mart would be bare if we did so.
Not only would we see less plastic toys, the U.S. government depends on China’s gigantic teat financially. As of July 2012, the U.S. owed China more than $1.1 trillion dollars.
What Can We Do?
First, as the Dalai Lama teaches: Don’t blame the Chinese community for the suffering a government has caused. It’s no more their fault than it is ours. As a famous little green guy once said in Star Wars, anger leads to hate and we all know what hate leads to…
Aside from sticking that trendy sticker on your car, at least know the truth about Tibet — and don’t keep it to yourself! As the Dalai Lama said during my visit: “if 100 people tell 10 people each, then those people tell 10 people, quickly 10,000 people will know the truth”.
I doubt many politicians will be reading this, however, the money to gas up their limos and private planes ultimately comes from votes cast by you and me. Make enough noise and they eventually have no choice but to listen.
Tiny efforts throughout history have snowballed into monumental change in our internet-connected world; Arab Spring is one recent example of how social media helped bring about reform.
One billion Facebook users can make a hell of a snowball.
If you’re a blogger, do what you do best: write. Consider carving out a corner of your website dedicated to information about Tibet. If you’re a traveler, get yourself to McLeod Ganj in Himachal Pradesh, India, to see and learn the real story for yourself.
You’ll have no shortage of refugees to speak with.
Contact Magazine (http://contactmagazine.net) is a free publication covering the Tibetan issue in India. Check their site for news, events, and chances to volunteer. http://www.savetibet.org is a good place for donations and information.
Here’s to hope and a future for the Tibetan people: Free Tibet!
- Tibet at a Glance – made possible by Sarah Ferguson, Dutches of York.
- The CIA World Factbook
- Contact Magazine
- Numerous documentaries by the Tibet Museum in Tsuglagkhang
- Tibetan refugees
- The 14th Dalai Lama
Meet the Author:
Greg Rodgers is the editor of startbackpacking.com. He left Corporate America to begin traveling in 2006 and has been happily living from a rucksack since!