Saturday 28 December 2013

Living at Gunpoint

Review of Voices from Tibet: Selected Essays and Reportage by Tsering Woeser and Wang Lixiong

For over nine thousand years Tibetan nomads have skilfully managed their lives in the fragile environment of the high plateau. They raised limited numbers of livestock, which provided them enough to sustain their mobile civilization. This symbiotic relationship between nature and man never tipped to either party’s disadvantage.
That’s until the red flag began to flutter against the blue sky of the Tibetan Plateau.
The year 2009 marked half-a-century of China’s occupation of Tibet. In the same year, according to cables leaked by Wikileaks, the Dalai Lama told the then US ambassador to India that the international community should focus on the critical state of Tibet’s environment for five to ten years; the Tibetan leader reportedly said this was far more crucial than the political situation. ‘Melting glaciers, deforestation and increasingly polluted water from mining are problems that cannot wait,’ the Dalai Lama said.

Despite the Tibetan Nobel Laureate’s emphatic appeal little is being done. In fact the scale of mining on the plateau has increased manifold and since 2008 China has effectively banned the international media’s entry into Tibet. Today North Korea is more accessible to foreign journalists than Tibet said professor Carole McGranahan of the University of Colorado and the author of Arrested Histories: Tibet, the CIA, and Memories of a Forgotten War.
At such a worrying time, the voices of Beijing-based Tibetan author and blogger Woeser – and her Chinese husband Wang Lixiong – are crucial in creating a vital communication link between Tibet-under-China and the free world.
Voices from Tibet: Selected Essays and Reportage by Woeser and Wang Lixiong, jointly published by Hong Kong University Press and the University of Hawai’i Press, is an urgent and timely book. The authors’ courage in expressing their dissenting views on Tibet is matched by the authenticity of their reportage on wide-ranging concerns such as demolition of historical buildings in Lhasa, forceful resettlement of nomads, mining, self-immolation and flooding of Chinese migrants into Tibet – many of whom engage in crass and barefaced appropriation of Tibetan culture and religion to make quick and easy money.
Forty essays are thematically arranged in five sections – Old Lhasa Politicized, Economic Imperialism with Chinese Characteristics, Religion Under Siege, Wrecking Nature, and Culture Twisted, Trampled – to provide a clear picture of daily Tibetan experiences under the machinery of authoritarian rule that Woeser and Wang describes as ‘grounded on rigid structure and ruthless logic’.
The defining appeal of the book is the legitimacy of the couple’s writing. The authors are no armchair commentators. They have put their lives in danger by travelling to many places on the Tibetan Plateau to gather accounts of people and places most affected by dictates from Beijing.
Soon after Tenzin Delek Rinpoche was sentenced to death in December 2002 with a two-year reprieve for his alleged possession of explosives, Woeser made a trip to Rinpoche’s homeland deep inside Kardze in Kham to find out about the Chinese authorities’ claim to have found ‘bombs’ hidden a ‘secret compartment’ in his house. Woeser found out that to build his new residence, Rinpoche – like many others who constructed houses in that region – used explosives to level a piece of land located at a ravine. Some unused sticks of dynamite were stored in a ‘space between the rugged slope and the wall panels of the house’. These were what the police found which led to Rinpoche being handed down the death sentence, later commuted to life in prison.
This year, from his prison in China’s Sichuan province, Tenzin Delek Rinpoche said, ‘There are some people who say that taking up my case will make things worse for me. At this point, I have fallen to the lowest point. Nothing worse can come. So, you can make appeals and initiate campaigns for me.'
Woeser and Wang also write about ‘charlatan lamas’ and tulkus stationed in monasteries charging exorbitant prices from unsuspecting tourists for phony future predictions and fake puja ceremonies. When visitors ran short of cash, they would say, ‘No problem, we take credit cards here.’ These operatives are Tibetan-speaking Chinese from tour companies that have colluded with local religious bureaus which issue them permits to set up bases and business in major monasteries.
For exile Tibetans and the international community, Woeser and Wang’s essays are perhaps the most reliable source of information on Tibet that still continues to flow through many channels such as books, blogs, press interviews and social media. Many other Tibetan writers such as Theurang, Dolma Kyab and Kunchok Tsephel who have articulated national aspirations are serving various sentences – some as long as fifteen years – in Chinese prisons for their writing.
Though Woeser and Wang are facing threats, harassment, house arrest and being tailed daily, they have managed to avoid being put behind bars thus far. There is however real danger that, like their friend and Nobel Laureate Liu Xiaobo who is serving eleven years in jail for his role in drafting Charter 08, their days may be numbered.
But for the moment they bear witness and chronicle issues facing both Tibet and China today under the Communist Party. Woeser writes that ‘for the powerless, the pen can be wielded as a weapon – a weapon honed by the Tibetan faith, tradition and culture,’ and that ‘[i]n the face of the devastation Tibet has endured and the aspirations of Tibetans who have gone up in flames, I shall redouble my strength to resist oppression; I simply will not concede, or compromise.’
It is long overdue that the CCP listens to the voices of this brave couple and realize that their articulation carries the weight of every person on the plateau whose voice is stifled and whose aspiration for freedom rebutted with bullets and armoured vehicles.
Voices from Tibet is an incisive and an urgent book that must be read by anyone who has an interest not only in Tibet and China but also in the struggles for freedom elsewhere in the world. If any record of oppression can fend off state-sanctioned collective amnesia, it is this.

the book is available from:

Thursday 26 December 2013

Better Gun than God

Chushi Gangdruk fighters in Mustang, Nepal - 1960s
When a posse of the occupying People’s Liberation Army shot dead his root lama in the middle of the Kyichu River on 10 March 1959, Jedung Jampel Lekmon joined a small underground resistance group in Gyangtse, a strategic town in central Tibet. His group soon joined Chushi Gangdruk and engaged in numerous fights against the Red Army.
After his escape into exile Lekmon enlisted himself with the Tibetan guerrilla fighters and received training on wireless communication, air signalling and heavy weapons engagements from CIA operatives in Colorado. Immediately after the training they were airlifted to Bangladesh from where they sneaked into Mustang in Nepal via India. This small band of men proved themselves worthy of their warrior ancestors whose spears pierced holes into the Chinese empire over the seventh and eighth centuries. However, in the early 1970s the Tibetan guerrilla movement came to a sad and painful end due to circumstances beyond the leaders’ control.
Today the history of the Tibetan resistance is down-graded, unrecognized and often intentionally cast aside by all parties involved, including the exile Tibetan government. A handful of surviving former fighters are at the tail end of their lives, thumbing rosaries and reciting holy mantras to wash away sins they may have committed while fighting for their country. Irony can’t be more acerbic.
No good deed, however, goes unremembered. Not in the world of literature, at least.
Kaushik Barua’s novel Windhorse is a fitting tribute to these Tibetan resistance fighters. In his delightful prose, Barua has recounted their lives – what was at stake and why so many were ready to forego so much to pick up arms and face death.
Barua is a natural storyteller. His book follows the tales of two central characters – Lhasang, who was born in eastern Tibet and grows up soaked in Tibetan culture, myth and folklore; and Norbu, who was born in India’s capital Delhi to a well-off Tibetan merchant but had no idea about his people and their way of life.
While Lhasang was entrenched deep in the struggle from childhood, Norbu discovers his roots much later in life. Norbu’s future is fluid, as Barua writes, his vision ‘nameless and barely visible – like a lighthouse in a fog’. It is Dolma, his girlfriend, who clears the fog and shows Norbu his destination. ‘You can join, Norbu’ Dolma says referring to the rebel group being put together in exile by Thupten, Lhasang and others.
Four years later Norbu writes to his girlfriend from Mustang, from where the guerrillas were carrying outs raids into occupied Tibet. ‘Today I killed a man. I pulled a trigger and a bullet pierced his skin… I don’t know if he expected it. If he knew what happened. I was far away. If this ever happens to me, I might think of you.’
Windhorse is a powerful human story. Despite the fact that the narrative is based on the real-day actions of the resistance fighters, it has so many elements of personal stories woven in to create a deep emotional impact. This is a story of dislocation, love, loss, betrayal, conflicts and frustration making it a potent representation of a people who are ruthlessly driven out of their ancestral homeland.
Barua’s moving account of the freedom fighters is also likely, in my mind at least, to clear two invalid assumptions about Tibet’s struggle for freedom: that it has been nonviolent throughout and that Tibetan people are always peaceful, compassionate and happy. Characters in Windhorse are such average, everyday people that many – whose minds are overstuffed and saturated with prevalent images of Tibetans – will have hard time accepting that the story is in fact about recent history of Tibet and the people involved in it.
This universal tale, evocatively told in a language that reflects the ordeals of people still lingering in refugee camps, will tug at any reader’s heart.
For the Tibetans, Barua’s story appeals to us, in the words of imprisoned writer Theurang – ‘to call upon the courage of our conquering ancestors / to raise their warriors’ swords / to invoke their martial spirit...’ There have to be more Gesars, Milarepas, Lhasangs, Norbus, Athars and Ratus to ignite the embers of freedom.

And, there will be more.

Thursday 19 December 2013

Last Words of Tsultrim Gyatso

(My rough translation of Tsultrim Gyatso's last words. As you can see some parts are hard to read. If anyone comes across a picture in which the texts can be read clearly, please share and I will improve on the translation. Thanks, BDS)

I, Tsultrim Gyatso, the warrior of the snows, set myself on fire for the welfare of all Tibetans.

The golden teardrops.

Alas Tears. Heart break. Brothers, do you hear? Do you see? Do you hear? To whom should should I tell about the suffering of six million Tibetans? In this the brutal Chinese prison, all our precious treasures such as gold and silver are stolen. People are made to suffer. Tears fall down thinking about all these. Precious human body engulfed in flames.

I set myself on fire for the return of His Holiness the Dalai Lama to Tibet, to free Panchen Rinpoche from prison and for the welfare of six million Tibetans.

May all sentient beings residing in the three realms be free from three poisons and attain Buddhahood. May the lama and the  Three Jewels hold dear those who are downtrodden and without refuge.
Brothers and sisters of the Land of Snow, for the sake of Tibet's unity, do not fall under deceitful ways of the foxes. 

From Tsultrim Gyatso, the warrior of the snows.

At around 2:30 p.m. (Tibet time) on 19 December 2013, Tsultrim Gyatso (40s) , a monk from Amchok Monastery in Labrang Tashi Kyil, Amdo, northeastern Tibet, set himself on fire to protest against the Chinese rule in Tibet. Gyatso passed away from burns, according to media report.