I am sure you have all heard about protests and demonstrations to “Free Tibet”. I had certainly heard about it – but did not understand it, until I visited Tibet.
My first indication of a problem came when I was researching getting a visa for China. Warnings everywhere, “Do not mention Tibet or your visa will be denied”. My friend from Ireland applied 3 times, with Tibet in his itinerary, and was always denied. He re-applied with his other passport – did not mention Tibet, and got his visa. I will try to give you a quick synopsis of my version of the situation.
In 1949 China invaded Tibet and has occupied it ever since. Tibetans do not have the same freedoms of speech, movement or religion as the Chinese living in Tibet. There are now more Chinese than Tibetans in Tibet. Chinese earn higher wages for the same work and have access to better education and health care etc. In an effort to calm the situation, in 2011 the Dalai Lama gave up his political leadership and moved in exile to India. Any Tibetan in possession of a picture of the Dalai Lama is subject to imprisonment (and torture). One of every five Tibetans have been killed by the Chinese.
Tibet is by far the most devout country I have ever visited. Buddhism is their life, and everything revolves around their religion. Our guide told us every Tibetan home puts out offerings on their shrine before sunrise every morning. I questioned “Every? home” and was given a very decisive “yes”. Our ten days in Tibet and our interaction and observances took away any doubts any of us had as to their devotion. Our hotel in Lhasa was large, and full of monks. The monasteries are the centers of resistance and the Chinese do whatever they can to control this. Every monastery now is full of surveillance equipment. The monks at our hotel were in Lhasa for a mandatory “political re-education”. Since 2015 they have been forced to prove their “Dedication to the Communist party”. Refusal means death. The number of monks at each monastery has been greatly reduced and is strictly controlled. A common form of protest is to set themselves on fire, and we saw fire extinguishers everywhere we went.
At the beginning of our tour our guide was able to get a message to one of our group. He had a “coded answer” to questions we asked that he was not free to answer. Some of our group were going to trek the 2 kms. from our guesthouse at EBC to the base of Everest. One of the guys asked our guide if he could speak freely then – and his message said “There are cameras and microphones everywhere” – and there were – even there! Our visas, permits, passports etc. were checked many times each day. We were forced to have a police officer with us at all times. I believe things we said on our bus were recorded. There are thousands of undercover police. Lonely Planet guidebooks were confiscated on arrival. Life in Tibet can certainly be described as “Big Brother is Watching”. Our guide did manage to get a message to us that said in spite of the situation a monk will always be more powerful to any Tibetan than any government official or police officer.
In Bangkok I met a Danish friend of mine who is much more well versed on Asian history and politics. I was discussing Tibet with him and he told me China “saved” Tibet. People would donate all of their food and supplies to the monasteries, then many starved to death. Monasteries were rich, locals were poor, no education or heath system. China’s control changed that. I guess there are two sides to every story…….Our wonderful guide asked our group to tell the world about Tibet – so this is my small contribution to him, and his country.