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"As long as human rights are violated, there can be no foundation for peace. How can peace grow where speaking the truth is itself a crime?"

We must not ignore suffering of Tibet

July 20, 2008

By Steve Lonegan, NJ
July 18, 2008

Tibet, the broad, high plateau between India and China, is bigger than
Western Europe and the source of the great rivers of Asia. Mysterious
and exotic, the "Roof of the World" is the place of Tantric Buddhism,
seers and mystics capable of levitation and astral travel.

I visited Tibet in summer 2001, landing at Gonggar Airport. 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.

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. Because I was a mayor of an American town, he assumed I could
assert influence on public opinion. The public opinion the communist
Chinese propagandists promote is not a flattering picture of the Tibetan

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," Chairman Mao told the Dali
Llama in 1954, just before the Dali Llama 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

"Will" slandered the Tibetan people from the moment we climbed in 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, saying the
religious leader proclaimed airplanes should not be flying over the
heads of Buddhists.

Will continued a carefully rehearsed diatribe about the evils of the
Dalai Lamas, describing 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, smiling frequently. They flock
to monasteries on pilgrimages to pray and offer gifts and incense.

As we headed cross country over rugged terrain, at points the dirt roads
stopped altogether. He 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. They need us here" he said.

I asked him why we were not driving on the modern roads. There were no
modern roads the entire trip. He told me they were still under
construction. "The Chinese have been here for 50 years. How long does it
take them to build roads?" I asked. He ignored my question.

My personal propaganda machine, courtesy of Beijing, continued attacking
Tibetan family structure, accusing them of polygamy, polyandry, and wife
swapping among brothers, husband swapping among sisters. He proclaimed
his horror over Tibetan funeral rituals, accusing them of mutilating
bodies in broad daylight. He claimed Buddhist monks would ask for sexual
favors from women of their choice. If these women failed to submit, the
monk could point a finger, declaring her a "ghost." The townspeople
would believe the woman to be an evil spirit and she would spend the
rest of her life shunned from society.

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 are 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 only weeks away, the world will get a closer look at
Tibetan suffering.

- Steve Lonegan is the former mayor of Bogota.
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