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"I believe that to meet the challenges of our times, human beings will have to develop a greater sense of universal responsibility. It is the foundation for world peace."

Tibet, China and the Olympics - The Last Requiem

August 4, 2008

by Tim O'Rielly
August 2, 2008
Vision Magazine (San Diego, CA)

As we approach the opening of the XXIX Olympic Games in Beijing,
China, the event brings with it —more than any other in recent
history—a reason for pause. As nearly 1.3 billion people represent
the largest nation on earth as a place of progress and modernity,
human rights abuses, environmental disregard and gross materialistic
consumption have reached levels of grave concern. The Olympics are
meant to exhibit the highest aspirations of human achievement in a
wide variety of athletic expressions. The slogan for the Beijing
event is "One World, One Dream" and these words do indeed call us,
globally, to unite in the Olympic spirit. Without humanity and
freedom, how can any country, in good conscience, conduct any forum
for legitimate expression?

There still exist many inconsistencies in China, not least of which
is Tibet. Recently when the Olympic torch was carried on its longest
journey of 85,000 miles around the world, there was very little
festivity and a different slogan was murmured: "Chinese receive the
gold medal for torture." To be recognized as a legitimate world
power, China must begin to view itself not just as a military and
economic force but also as a country that values a democratic,
diverse and open society. This can be achieved by entering into a
dialogue with the Dalai Lama for non-violent change and mutual
benefit. Until that happens, China will not be able to claim itself
as the great nation it aspires to be.

Historical Context

The Tibetan-Chinese conflict began in 1949 when the People's Republic
of China, led by Mao Zedong, was formed. Shortly thereafter in 1950,
the Communist Chinese, led by the People's Liberation Army (PLA),
conducted a military occupation for the "liberation" of Tibet, a
country that had previously been led by their spiritual and temporal
leaders—the Dalai Lamas—since the 17th century. The 14th Dalai Lama,
Tenzin Gyatso, was found by a search party when he was two years old,
recognizing him as the reincarnation of the 13th Dalai Lama. His
parents were farmers, living just outside the current boundaries of
Tibet. By age four, he was brought to a monastery for his formal
education. He received his Geshe Lharampa Degree, a doctorate in
Buddhist philosophy. Tenzin Gyatso was 15 years old in 1950 when the
occupation took place. In March 1959, after nearly 10 years of
repressive occupation, an uprising took place. Fearing for his life
and still in his mid-twenties, the Dalai Lama was forced into exile
to Dharamsala, India with 80,000 Tibetans. It is estimated that
nearly one million Tibetans have died under Chinese rule and 100,000
Tibetans have been tortured to death. Prior to the occupation, there
were 6,000 monasteries spread throughout the Tibetan region with over
500,000 monks and nuns. Now over 90 percent of all the monasteries
(along with centuries of historical relevance and priceless religious
artifacts) have been destroyed.

The Dalai Lama has worked tirelessly to find a peaceful, non-violent
solution to the Tibetan-Chinese conflict. In 1989, he was awarded the
Nobel Peace Prize because of his stance for peaceful resistance. The
Norwegian Nobel Committee expressed that "it would be natural to
compare him with Mahatma Gandhi, one of this century's greatest
protagonists of peace." His solution for a constructive future for
both the Tibetan and Chinese people is "the middle way" where Tibet,
maintaining its spiritual and cultural heritage, could peacefully
co-exist within China. He has specifically said that he is not
seeking "separation" from China and that, in fact, it is in both the
Chinese and Tibetan people's interests to stay together. He would
like to see "defense and foreign affairs be handled by a central
government, but the balance of education, environment and
religious/cultural affairs be handled by Tibetans." The Dalai Lama
believes that "Tibetan Buddhist culture can be a great contribution
to enrich the cultural heritage of the People's Republic of China."

The World's Youngest Political Prisoner
Recently, two senior monks, both 71 years old, Gyaltsen Tsepa Lobsang
and Yangpa Locho, were found hanged in Tashilhunpo Monastery, the
official seat of the Panchen Lama, the second most revered position
in Tibetan Buddhism. In 1995, the 11th Panchen Lama, a 6-year-old boy
named Gedhun Choekyi Nyima, disappeared from public view. While the
Dalai Lama is revered as the emanation of Avalokisteshvara, The
Buddha of Compassion, The Panchen Lama is believed to be the
emanation of Amitabha, The Buddha of Infinite Light. Known as "The
Great Scholar," the Panchen Lama is one of the foremost teachers in
Tibetan Buddhism. There exists a unique relationship between the
Dalai Lama and the Panchen Lama—whoever is the elder will be the
mentor to the other; one is the "spiritual father" and the other the
"spiritual son." With the diaspora of the Tibetan community in 1959,
the 10th Panchen Lama, Lobsang Trinley Choekyi Gyaltsen, then 21
years old, remained in Tibet. He continuously worked to help the
Tibetan people. When he reported his outspoken positions to the
Chinese authorities, he was consequently imprisoned for 14 years.
Gyaltsen was released in 1977 and continued to work quietly for
reform. In 1989, at age 50, he died suddenly under strange
circumstances. Subsequently, his successor, Gedhum Choekyi Nyima, was
placed under house arrest for 12 years, prompting human rights groups
to call him, "the world's youngest political prisoner." Today the
majority of political prisoners continue to be monks and nuns. Any
statements that "endanger state security" are treated as crimes
without due process. The average prison sentence is nearly nine
years. Tibetans in positions of leadership receive sentences of 12 to
19 years. Outside the Ministry of Justice, (the normal Chinese legal
system), the prisons in Tibet are run by the Ministry of Public
Security. Torture is common during interrogations and if a confession
and guilty plea is not given, the prison sentence is extended. The
means of torture include; kicking and beating, electric shocks to
genitals and mouth, sexual abuse, heated objects to the skin,
self-tightening handcuffs and confinement cells with extreme isolation.


It is estimated that there are approximately 6 million Tibetans
spread throughout the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) and beyond.
Significant tensions have risen largely due to a huge influx of Han
Chinese, the dominant ethnic group in China. In Lhasa itself, this
rapidly changing demographic of indigenous Tibetans to Han Chinese
now stands at around 50/50. In 2006, the world's highest railway
(called the Lhasa-Gormo Railway) was completed, connecting Tibet to
the rest of the Chinese railway grid. It brought 2.45 million
tourists and commercial migrants to Tibet that year, 93 percent of
whom were Chinese, and by 2020 it is expected to increase to 10
million. The railway has largely been seen as a political means to
import more ethnic Chinese to the region and to consolidate China's
position militarily and economically. The head of propaganda for
Tibet, Lie Que, stated in the June 2, 2008 edition of The Tibet
Daily, "we must clean out the monasteries and strengthen the
administrative committees. After that we will completely control them."

At this juncture today, the Tibetan people have been completely
marginalized as the country is controlled by the party and the army.
Tibet is the poorest part of China, with the annual per capita income
not even at $100 per year. Health conditions are abysmal with many
areas having no water, electricity or schools. Malnutrition,
diarrhea, and pneumonia are common. The average life expectancy is
65, according to Chinese statistics which are considered suspect.
Literacy or semi-literacy stands at 44 percent. Natural resources are
being exploited as Tibet is seen as a panacea of economic opportunity
with its vast deposits of copper, iron, lead, zinc, uranium and other
minerals for the resource-starved eastern parts of China.
Hydroelectric dam projects are in the works with 10 of the world's
great rivers originating in Tibet. This has serious ramifications for
nearly half the world's population which lives in South and Southeast
Asia. Lastly, there is significant nuclear activity on the Tibetan
plateau with one nuclear waste dump and several dozen nuclear
warheads located in the Qinghai Province.

On March 14, 2008, the demonstrations in Lhasa, which additionally
spread to the outer provinces, were the latest expressions of the
repressed rage of a population of people who have been brutally
dominated militarily, economically and culturally for nearly 50
years. Over three days, it is estimated that over 200 Tibetans and
200 Chinese police were killed and nearly 1,000 Chinese businesses
were destroyed. It has also recently been reported that 1,000 monks
from the three main monasteries in Lhasa have been imprisoned in
jails and detention centers in eastern Tibet.

Lhadon Tethong, Executive Director of Students for a Free Tibet said,
"the Chinese government has locked up over 1,000 Buddhist monks in
Tibet, to crush any sign of dissent during the Olympics." Not since
the massacre of hundreds of students in 1989 at Tiananmen Square and
the last major uprising in Tibet earlier that same year have tensions
reached such a heightened level. Most recently in Nepal, over 8,000
arrests were made by Nepalese authorities as a result of the
rebellion in Tibet. This is undoubtedly sponsored by the Nepalese
Maoists who have been brought into the mainstream of the Nepalese
political process after seven years of armed revolution. Jim
Aplington, the owner of the Lotus Galleries in Katmandu and San
Diego, recently returned from Nepal. He said that after the uprising
in Tibet, he went to Bhodonath with a picture of the Dalai Lama and
he was assaulted by three Nepalese thugs who were paid several
hundred rupees a day to disrupt rallies by Tibetans. He then went to
the United Nations building in Katmandu and joined the Tibetans who
were protesting, only to see well over 1,000 people beaten.

Tibet, the Olympics and the Future

Much of what is said here focuses on the microcosm of Tibet and its 6
million inhabitants. Needless to say, there is a population of well
over 1 billion Chinese throughout the country who are also suffering
from starvation, cultural genocide, slave labor and no environmental
regulations. With business interests leading the way, the U.S. has,
for several decades, looked the other way in our headlong rush to
material gain by indirectly exploiting Chinese labor and lax
environmental standards. The Olympics being held in China hopefully
makes us pause and consider how we might work together with this
resource-rich country and play a part in promoting healthy internal
development which will lead us to a better global future.

Perhaps the most important aspect of the Tibetan-Chinese conflict is
the fact that we know much more about the priceless spiritual
heritage and lineage that Tibetan Buddhism brings to our modern
world. The Tibetan Buddhists believe that the ultimate goal of human
life is to become a bodhisattva, or one who is motivated by
compassion to return again and again to this earth for the
enlightenment of all beings. Over a period of a thousand years, from
the early 7th century until the 17th century, Tibetans went through a
transformation from an animistic Bon religion to a spiritual and
peaceful Buddhist culture. They have shown amazing resilience to
adapt and assimilate elements of their past to create a more
progressive future. In essence, the Tibetans have been disarmed for
the last 300 years. In our current, ever-increasingly complex and
conflicted world, the Tibetan culture offers inestimable value. In
contrast to our extremely "outer" focused world of material
development, the spiritually rich "inner" worlds explored by Tibetan
Buddhism just may hold the key to rediscovering planetary balance and
spiritual sanity. Tibetan Buddhism and its spiritual heritage is a
priceless treasure for mankind. The Dalai Lama is firmly committed to
a non-violent solution for Tibet and China. At 72 years old, I pray
he will someday be able to return to his homeland to see peace
between Tibet and China realized, not only for the sake of the people
impacted most profoundly by this conflict, but also for the wellbeing
of all nations. Maybe this is the real Olympic spirit we should be
paying attention to in 2008.

Tim O'Rielly is a San Diego-based photojournalist who travels
extensively and writes about different world cultures.

Contact him at

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