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Truth from the Facts -- Fifty Years After The Revolt In Lhasa

March 11, 2009

Claude Arpi
The Statesman (India)
March 10, 2009

The Chinese have a problem. They are not able to look at facts straight. Already fifty years ago, on March 10, 1959, when the entire population of Lhasa, the Tibetan capital revolted against their rule, their mouthpiece,  Xinhua blamed Tibetan ‘rebellious bandits’ for attacking their ‘Liberation’ army. The communiqué said: “Betraying the motherland [China], the Tibetan Local Government and the upper-strata reactionary clique colluded with imperialism-assembled rebellious bandits and launched armed attacks against the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). The valiant units of the PLA stationed in Tibet completely smashed the rebellious bandits. Now, the units of the PLA, assisted by patriotic people of all sections, both monks and lay, are mopping up the rebellious bandits in other places in Tibet.”

The facts which had forced the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan temporal and spiritual leader, to flee his country a few days earlier were indeed different. The ‘bandits’  just wanted to preserve their way of life, safeguard their culture against the onslaught of the atheist neighbour and save the life of their revered leader.

The last straw

Tibet had been under occupation for the past nine years when in early 1959, the situation reached a climax. The last straw was the invitation by the commandant of the Chinese forces in Lhasa to the young Dalai Lama for a theatrical performance inside the Chinese camp. A strange condition had been added: he should come without his bodyguards.

On March 10, the population of Lhasa surrounded the Dalai Lama’s palace; they had decided to prevent him from attending the Chinese performance. The stalemate continued during the following days and finally during the night of March 17, the young Tibetan leader secretly fled his palace for India.

On March 21, the Chinese shelled the Norbulingka palace; thousands of men, women and children camping in the vicinity were slaughtered. The Dalai Lama’s bodyguard regiment was disarmed and publicly machine-gunned. According to the Tibetan government-in-exile, over 86,000 Tibetans in Central Tibet were killed by the Chinese during this period. The bandits had been smashed!

Fifty years later, how are these tragic days remembered by Beijing? A recent news item on Radio Lhasa in its Tibetan programme summarized the official line: “In 1959, democratic reforms were introduced in Tibet, giving ownership rights to peasants and nomads, abolishing the feudal serf system which blended religious and temporal authorities. [Since then] the Tibetan people have followed the socialist path; a new era started. For the past 50 years, under the correct leadership of the Communist Party of China, the liberated Tibetan people became the master of their own State; they exercised their power in the fields of politics, economics and culture, etc. The Tibetan people moved from darkness to light, backwardness to progress, poverty to prosperity, dictatorship to democracy and closed door to open door policy.”

It is not the opinion of most Tibetans who still deeply resent the occupation of their country. The recent unrest is the latest inconvenient proof of it.

Already in 1959, Nehru, the eulogist of an eternal friendship between India and China, was deeply hurt by the tone used by Beijing. During a debate in Parliament, he said that the Xinhua statement was written in a ‘cold-war language’: “To say that a number of ‘upper strata reactionaries’ in Tibet were solely responsible for this appears to be an extraordinary simplification of a complicated situation.”

The Chinese leaders have never considered it a historical truth, but the fact is that more than 90 per cent of the population of Lhasa participated in the demonstrations in front of the Norbulinka palace in March 1959. Beijing has always refused to acknowledge that its Tibet policy was wrong. The Tibetans had also revolted because for the first time in Tibet’s 2000-year history, the large number of occupying troops in Central Tibet had created hardship and famine for the local population. Perhaps worse, the people could not practice their religion anymore, the way they had done for centuries. These are hard facts. The Chinese saw only the hand of the “Dalai’s clique’, some imperialists and serf-owners: “These rebels represent imperialism and the most reactionary major serf-owners .… as the motherland is thriving and prospering day by day, the policy of the Central People’s Government toward Tibet is correct”. Adding that the PLA “enjoyed the warm support and love of the people of all sections in Tibet and the rebellious conspiracy of a handful of reactionaries had no support from the Tibetan people.”

Ironically, this year China celebrates the 30th anniversary of its ‘open door’ policy initiating by Deng Xiaoping, the paramount leader who based his campaign on the slogan of ‘seeking truth from facts”.

However, today like fifty years ago, ‘facts’ are thrown to the wind to suit the ideology of a totalitarian regime. The so-called liberated serfs, supposedly swimming in happiness, demonstrated their resentment once again in March/April 2008. On March 10, some 500 monks of the Drepung monastery marched to Lhasa to commemorate the 1959 uprising. Some were arrested. As repression immediately started, more and more lay people and monks joined the demonstrators. This culminated in thousands taking to the streets on March 14. During the following days, the unrest spread all over Tibet. More than 200 casualties and thousands of arrests were reported.

Wen Jiabao, the Chinese Premier, stated soon after: "On March 14, violence involving beating, smashing property, looting and arson broke out in Lhasa”. Like in 1959, he blamed it on the ‘Dalai clique’.

Zhang Qingli, party chief in Tibet, went a step further: he called the Dalai Lama “a wolf in monk’s clothes, a devil with a human face” and added: “Those who do not love the motherland are not qualified to be human beings”. For the past 50 years, this attitude has not helped in bridging the abyss between the Hans and the Tibetan population living on the Roof of the World. However, several Chinese intellectuals have begun to speak up against the vicious circle of blaming the Tibetans, demonizing the Dalai Lama and imposing more repression.

Beijing leadership

Zhang Boshu, a professor of philosophy at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences believes that the attitude of the leadership in Beijing will lead nowhere. In his essay entitled The Way to Resolve the Tibet Issue, he writes: “Chinese of my age grew up hearing songs like ‘The Red Sun is rising above the snowy mountains’ and seeing movies like ‘Serfs’. In those days we really believed that under the leadership of the Communist Party ‘the serfs have been liberated’ and were living happy lives. Later, after reading a lot of historical materials, I learned that there were many untruths in the propaganda.”

For him, the blame for the increasing resentment of the Tibetan population squarely lies with the Communist party. Another dissenting voice, Wang Lixiong, a known author married to a Tibetan, also believes that the way the Dalai Lama is demonized and the monks are treated by the Han authorities in Tibet, aggravates the issue. The beating and torturing of monks in March/April 2008, provided fodder for the civil unrest to spread further and in several cases to turn violent.

In an oped page article in The Wall Street Journal, Zhang Lixiong wrote: "When the Chinese government demands that [the monks] denounce their spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, monks are forced to choose between obeying (which violates their deepest spiritual convictions) and resisting.” This is not understood in Beijing which sticks to the old tune. Radio Lhasa aired a few days back: “Thanks to the Central Committee of Communist Party, the children of Tibetan Autonomous Region are leading a happy life at present”.

What about seeking truth from facts?

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