Spotlight On: Tibet PDF Print E-mail
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Written by Julie Adler   

Fueling the Flame

Tibet and its people have withstood almost 50 years of repression, religious intolerance, the criminalization of reverence to their leader, a Chinese population boom and the appropriation by the Chinese government of their most sacred rite of identifying the next reincarnation of a Tibetan Lama. This began when the Chinese invaded Tibet in 1959, beginning the brutal occupation which has claimed up to one million lives and led to the destruction of over 1,000 monasteries.

With the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing, the world’s attention is drawn to China’s human rights abuses and oppressive policies. On March 10, 2008, in Lhasa, the Tibet Autonomous Region, the outlying Tibetan provinces and across the globe people protested in solidarity. What was supposed to be peaceful turned violent: shops were burned, facilities damaged, and communications were cut as tanks rolled in and sealed off Lhasa and locked down the largest monasteries in the region. "[The protests are] the biggest thing to happen to Tibetan history in 40 years,” according to Columbia University scholar Robbie Barnett.

The protests so far have only led to more repression. According to the International Campaign for Tibet (ICT), as many as 5,000 Tibetans are missing and at least 150 have died. This stands in contrast to official Chinese news of only 20 dead. Even Chinese reports are contradictory: Qiangba Puncog, Chairman of the Chinese government of the Tibet Autonomous Region, admitted that 953 people have been rounded up for questioning, and hundreds more have warrants against them.

The ICT reports: “there is a growing humanitarian crisis in Lhasa’s monasteries as food and water supplies are running low and monks are prevented from leaving.” Eyewitness reports from cell phones within Tibet describe severe beatings, distraught, starving people and even suicide attempts by monks. Cell phones are the only way to get news from Tibet (other than official Chinese broadcasts) as the border is closed. Only a handful of select journalists were allowed into Lhasa after the lockdown in a tightly controlled visit. Tourism is currently on hold and may continue to be so until well after the Olympics. The only people hiking Mt. Everest in May will be Olympic torchbearers and their minders.

Photo: Ken Lee
Photo: Ken Lee

This year’s Olympic torch has become a symbol of protest rather than peace. In London, it was put out repeatedly; in Paris the torch had to be removed altogether. In its only U.S. stop in San Francisco on April 9, none of those who gathered in the thousands caught a glimpse; the route was secretly changed for safety reasons.

At a vigil at the United Nations Plaza in San Francisco, Chairman of the ICT Board Richard Gere stated, “The harmonious society Chinese president Hu Jintao talks about is a fraud. There can be no harmony without freedom of religion and culture.” Yet the Dalai Lama, who has been demonized in the Chinese press, says China deserves these Games and we should respect the torch relay. Despite the Dalai Lama’s insistence that he seeks autonomy not independence, the Chinese are unwilling to negotiate with the person they see as responsible for creating disharmony in China.

As Richard Gere reflected in San Francisco: “You know I have this thought every once in a while, and it’s absurd, I know, but I think it’s going to happen one day – one day this Chinese leadership wakes up and they blink their eyes as if coming out of an enchantment and they look at each other and they go ‘Oh my God, what have we done?’ And they look at each other and say at the same time, ‘let’s go talk to the Dalai Lama. He will know what to do’.”

Julie Adler is the producer of The Tibet Connection which provides a radio connection to Tibet, on air and on the web. Get the news and support this vital resource at:

For more info:;;; (Tibetan Centre for Human Rights & Democracy)

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