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The Dark Side of the Moon

By Dave Lather

January 18, 2011


We pulled into the military checkpoint just behind the convoy of brand new black Land Rovers with tinted windows that nearly forced us off a switchback Himalayan mountain road minutes earlier.  A group of svelte Chinese Government tourists exited the vehicles and without hesitation our Tibetan guide [name withheld for obvious reasons] got out of our group’s Toyota Land Cruiser in full view of everyone and gave his enemies a passionate, patriotic one fingered salute.

After we passed the checkpoint I asked our guide why he did that, why he didn’t fear repercussions, why the tourists deserved that, why he lived with such hatred?  His vitriolic response took me aback, but opened a window into his and the Tibetan people’s soul.  “You have no idea.  You come here for one or two weeks and see the sights and go home but you can not imagine.  Can’t even imagine what they have done to us, to our people.”

Tibet’s sublime vistas are reminiscent of the moon.  Barren rocky landscapes with no sign of civilization or life permeate the Tibetan plateau.  It is an island in the middle of the largest continent on Earth, isolated by impassible mountains, desert, and infertile grasslands.  The Tibetan Autonomous Region possesses a wealth of natural resources.  Copper, gold, graphite, iron, lithium and fresh water are especially plentiful.  China needs resources to help its booming economy and to lift its people out of poverty.  But resource extraction from Tibet has been problematic.

The 5100 Company says that 7.5 million liters of water shipped off from a factory in Tibet’s Damxung glacier has no impact on the wetlands.  Fortunately my guide during my ten day stay in Tibet just two months ago is the son of nomadic yak herders.  He learned English and obtained his certification as an official guide because his family was forced off of the traditional pastoral lands due to Chinese water usage.  He claimed his family received no assistance from the government for their hardships due to the drying up of grasslands.  A cynic might say that this is part of an extremely effective policy of Sinicization by the CCP in an attempt to more fully control nomads.  Whether this is true or not, my guide’s personal testimony points the finger directly at the CCP.

The propaganda from the Chinese Government is astounding.  “50 years of peaceful governance,” reads one sign in the Tibetan Museum.  “Since the peaceful liberation of Tibet, particularly since the reform and opening up [a nod to Deng Xiaoping], by the tender care of the CCP Central Committee, and the highly concern and correct leadership of the Tibet Autonomous Region Party Committee... The Northern Pla-teau [spelling unchanged] has undergone a remarkable change in its protection and establishments.”  But perhaps most intriguing were the blatant lies.  To paraphrase the first sign in the museum, ‘Tibet has been under Chinese control for over 800 years spanning the Yuan, Ming and Qing dynasty.’  False. That would be like Pakistan claiming sovereignty over Bermuda because they were both ruled under the British Empire.  If you’re going to lie that egregiously give me some hardcore facts, or at least doctored maps of dynastic control.  Kublai Khan founded the Mongol Yuan dynasty that controlled China for nearly 100 years.  The Ming never controlled Tibet.  The Qing were a Manchu founded empire.  During their respective periods of dominance the Mongols and Manchus were considered barbarians by the Chinese.  Interesting how perceptions can change when you need them to fit a certain ideology.

“You can not change history,” my exasperated guide said in the Tibet Museum in Lhasa.  I saw in his expression the pent up frustration of the shepherded, disenfranchised Tibetan people.  Unfortunately though, my guide is wrong.  You can change history.  History is a narrative based on a chain of events with a few facts to back it up.  As the wise Homer Simpson said, “Facts are meaningless.  You can use facts to prove anything that’s even remotely true.”  The CCP is proving that on a daily basis.  Apt students are fed the above tripe with a “here comes the airplane spoon” and swallow it easier than mashed carrots.  Hide a couple facts lose a couple facts create a few facts and voila!  You’ve got your own historical narrative fit for propaganda.

The stories and statistics shed more light on the lies of the CCP.  Since Mao’s 1959 Cultural Revolution, or Cultural Liberation depending on which side of the Great Wall you grew up on, over one million Tibetans lost their lives as a direct result of CCP policies and orders.  In the 1960’s the all-knowing CCP Bureau for Stupid Ideas decided it would be better if Tibetan farmers planted wheat and rice instead of barley.  Tibetans knew those crops don’t grow at high altitudes.  A disastrous famine resulted in the deaths of 1.2 million Tibetans.

But Mao could not stop at destroying human lives.  As with the rest of China, Tibet’s cultural and religious institutions were attacked and destroyed.  Monasteries, temples, shops, cities, offices, homes and anything resembling religion were put to the sword, axe, crowbar, knife, bat, paddle, adz, hoe or fist.  Unless your guide a government mouthpiece, tours of major Tibetan sites include the obligatory notes, ‘this is missing because it was taken, or destroyed, in the Cultural Revolution.’

Today Tibetans are second class citizens in their own land.  They have no passports, only ID cards.  Many young Tibetans escape through the Himalaya to India or Nepal to learn English and work to make money for their families.  The Dalai Lama has set up a free school in Dharamsala where Tibetans can study English, Math, and traditional Tibetan cultural studies

For Tibetans living in their homeland the heinous crime of mentioning the name of the Dalai Lama [codename Big D] or having his picture on your cell phone lands a Tibetan in jail for one year.  The CCP views the The Dalai Lama, as a political dissident and a rogue separatist leader.  They spread scandalous lies about his character and actions through the media.  The Big D narrowly escaped the Cultural Liberation with his life by sneaking out of Potala Palace dressed as a soldier and then hightailing to exile in India.  In 1995, as part of his traditional responsibilities the Dalai Lama identified the Panchen Lama as a six year old Tibetan boy.  The CCP kidnapped the young Lama and his family, making the six year old boy the worlds youngest political prisoner.  He has not been seen or heard from since.

But those are all lies and Western Propaganda.  Right?

The People’s Army maintains a high profile in Lhasa.  Soldiers patrol the Jokhang, Tibet’s holiest circuit, in a counter-clockwise rotation as everyone else ambulates in the traditional clockwise direction.  Soldiers with blankets and fire extinguishers stood on every corner to dissuade self immolating monks.  Shotgun toting teams of 5 patrol inner Lhasa regularly.  Dressed in full riot gear these soldiers are not to be messed with.

During my time in Lhasa I saw a policeman walk over to the little Tibetan girl in the Potala Palace Park, take her balloons away and pop them all right in her face.  The girl cried hysterically.  A group of Tibetans, probably family, angrily protested.  The policeman produced what looked like some sort of weapon and the small crowd quickly dispersed.

Or try talking to Tibetan girls in Potala Palace Park.  They love to come over and say hello and practice their English.  Most likely you will be separated by the police as I saw at Potala Palace when two girls tried to talk to my German and Dutch friends.  On the Barkhor circuit, like an old spy movie, you have to walk and talk.  Make minimal eye contact.  Always keep moving.  That does make conversation slightly difficult.

Or visit the Muslim Mosque in Lhasa.  Tourists are understandably not allowed to enter the mosque.  I can not imagine a scenario when it is acceptable for a Chinese soldier to enter.  Yet armed Chinese military personnel with loaded weapons patrol the upper floor to keep watch over the public square in front of the mosque.  

This is not the first time a stronger nation has imposed its will on a weaker nation, and it will not be the last.  Colonial rule is pleasant for just a handful of people.  Ask Native Americans, Gauls, Indians, or Incans.  The conquered culture is lost to history or altered forever and with it we lose a vital part of the human mosaic.  Change is difficult, but it can bring incredible growth. It is part of the human experience.  Shifting tectonic plates produce devastating faults and earthquakes.  But they can produce majestic soaring mountains and life giving glacial water.  Before our eyes we see the horrors and wonders of colonization.  Tibet is changing rapidly as modernization and Sinicization uproot and supplant old traditions.  Today many Tibetans are living in homes powered by electricity that provides television, Internet and efficient heat.  We are on our way to the “New Tibet” the CCP promises, but once there we must remember the price paid by many innocent Tibetans and the culture lost to the continuous grind of modernization.  Otherwise the beauty of the Tibetan people may be as visible to our progeny as the dark side of the moon.

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