Trouble in the Land of Eternal Snows

March 10th is the Tibetan National Uprising day commemoration, reads the email sent by San Francisco-based Friends of Tibet ( Most of us never heard of this, but “since March 10, 1959, 1.2 million Tibetans have been killed directly or indirectly as a result of the Chinese rule in Tibet. Over 150,000 Tibetans were forced to flee Tibet to freedom in exile and thousands attempt to escape every year. A cultural genocide ensued; Tibetans are now a minority in their own homeland, where 6,000 Tibetan Buddhist monasteries were destroyed and Tibet’s top religious leaders forced to live in exile”, another email from the same organization recounts.
The children in my family, between 3 and 17 years of age, will probably never know how the ongoing tragedy afflicting the Land of the Eternal Snows started six decades ago and seems far from over. China is not retrieving, nor is it giving Tibet the autonomy Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama, requested for his country and people. Our children will never know Tibet was a free country one day – they will see it as a mere mountainous area belonging to China. Unless the young generation resorts to books and Web research, soon Tibet, its people and culture, will sound as far-fetched as the legend of Atlantis.
Seven Years in Tibet (1997, starring Brad Pitt; Netflix, of course, has it), by Austrian mountaineer and author Heinrich Harrer was already old when I read my grandfather’s copy, in Portuguese, in Brazil. I was ten or eleven. Grandpa, a devout Catholic as the majority of my family and friends were, explained in simple words, prior to my reading of the book, that the boy that lived in a huge palace atop a rocky mountain (the Potala Palace in Lhasa, Tibet’s capital city), full of empty rooms and no toys, who had a shaved head and wore yellow and crimson robes, had been highly trained in Buddhist psychology and philosophy to lead his country one day, spiritually and politically. When five year olds around the world were playing with dolls and toy cars, Tenzin Gyatso was about to be initiated in complex rituals of mind training, meditation and recitation of incredibly long sacred texts from memory.
Grandpa left out the boy grew up to flee his country and escape assassination and now resided in Northern India, in exile. He left out any comments on the bloody details about the Chinese military invasion (People’s Liberation Army, they called themselves) and the systematic destruction of temples that were hundreds of years old, lost in his own admiration for the young Buddhist leader, and maybe to protect me from the cruelty of the facts. I grew up mesmerized by this new concept, that a young man in exotic colorful robes and large reading glasses could at the same time be supreme priest, a saint, and secular president of his country. How can one function well with one foot deeply set in the spiritual realm and another in the political world? It would take me years to answer my own question. All I knew was Tibet was near the Everest and that was pretty high and far away. Grandpa passed away in 1989 and it was not until I came to America that Tibet again entered my thoughts.
How would you feel if a foreign army, armed to their teeth, over night crossed your borders, forcing your beloved leader to flee or die, destroyed the temples of the faith and deities you worshipped since time immemorial, murdered or imprisoned monks and nuns and started pouring into your homeland millions of their own people? Your language is no longer the official language; some of your friends and family will just be imprisoned if they protest too loud. They will be captured, tortured and killed, disappearing for long years if not forever. You are no longer Tibetan. You are a member of The People’s Republic of China and there is nothing anyone outside will do because everybody is either scared to death of China’s power or has too many economic interests at stake to defend Tibet. The United Nations itself won’t move a finger to help. Now, really, is that a real country? I thought Tibet was a fake name, a make-believe place somewhere in the Himalayas, the Land of the Eternal Snows, the Xangri-La in James Hilton’s Lost Horizon (the book was published in 1933; turned into a motion picture in 1937 by director Frank Capra). Who cares whether they are Tibetan or Chinese, right? They all look the same to me. We just don’t verbalize our feelings, fearing to sound politically incorrect. But I don’t have to read minds to know that the cause of Tibet can’t compete with American Idol or Desperate Housewives.
Isn’t it amazing how communist countries just think they can walk into anybody’s yard and take it over? This type of encroaching upon people’s liberties and rights, with total disregard for life, is bone-chilling. Could be the theme of one of those futuristic horror movies, where government controls every step you take and individual liberties are something from a distant, almost forgotten past. Tibetans wished China’s uninvited presence could be only a horror movie, a nightmare from which they could just wake up one day. Things that we often take for granted in America – freedom of religion, freedom of speech, freedom to equal opportunity, and freedom to carry on our traditions and maintain our identity – are no longer prerogatives of the people of Tibet.
Rendered powerless, crossing over to India (over the Himalayas it is, on foot!) is the only way out the nightmare. Should you and your loved ones survive, you will then be a refugee in India, who was kind and brave enough to house most of the immigration from invaded Tibet, including its most illustrious son, the Dalai Lama. But you may contract a respiratory disease (refugees often die of TB – tuberculosis), or have to amputate your toes. How about the post-traumatic stress disorder we are so fond of in America? We should ask the Chinese government who is treating Tibetans for the PTSD caused by the brutality of the communist invasion.
But let’s suppose you endured and survived the Himalayan crossing. You will now live for the rest of your life in a country that as diverse and generous as India may be, won’t grant you citizenship. You are still a political refugee, with no passport – your country does not exist anymore.
For a taste of what it means to live as a refugee, with no passport or any other type of documentation required by foreign diplomatic agencies, check out the movie The Forbidden Team. The story of how the first official Tibetan soccer team was formed and trained in India, to play once only in Europe (Denmark) and the sheer pain of not being accepted by neither all mighty FIFA nor the AFC (Asian Football Confederation), therefore not allowed to participate in international tournaments. Now can we be any crueler? China, needless to say, did not want this match to happen and threatened to cut off all its trade with Denmark if the match went on as planned. Denmark did not back down and the game took place on June 30th 2001, when the Tibetan National Football Team played its first and only international match, against Greenland (Last time I checked, curiously, Netflix did not carry The Forbidden Team. Available up to late 2011 on demand at Verizon Fios).
In his incredibly moving book The Story of Tibet – Conversations with the Dalai Lama (available at Barnes & Noble and or visit the book page: took one decade to complete, author Thomas Laird conducts very candid interviews with Tenzin Gyatso in his northern Indian residence – Dharamsala – now the home of Tibetan’s government-in-exile. It’s a monumental work –almost five hundred pages -filled with maps and color photos. If I had to pick one only topic among the historical facts the author exposes, to best illustrate the tragedy of Tibet, it was how some temples, after been reduced to shambles, were intentionally turned into slaughter houses in Lhasa; their artistically decorated and sculpted walls smeared with animal blood by the new Chinese rulers. And how Tibetans picked up little pieces and fragments from what had one day been magnificent Buddha statues, smuggling the tiny treasures out of the country, among the scarce luggage of the refugees who crossed over to India, hoping the relics would survive the journey and be finally united with the community that slowly started to grow around the Dalai Lama in exile.
When the current Dalai Lama is gone, China will be appointing its own Dalai Lama version, which they already say, will be the only and legitimate Dalai Lama. As if such a title and position could be assigned to anyone by decree. I found the entire idea laughable and idiosyncratic, if not tragic and disheartening. A communist country, mostly Godless and non-spiritual, will be appointing its own spiritual leader for Tibet, a country invaded and enslaved by the Chinese government itself. How will this future communist/Chinese dalai lama feel about the fact his very bosses issued the orders to the soldiers who destroyed the thousands of temples which used to hold the essence of the Dalai Lama life and faith? Sounds like China will place another of its political goons to pose as Dalai Lama. Instead of training the mind and leading others to live inspiring lives, the future Chinese dalai lama will probably be a mid-rank yes-man – just another puppet to the massive Chinese government.
Tell a lie often, say it with conviction, and sooner or later the masses will believe you. This has been the communist mantra for ages. This time our blindness or lack of interest cost the existence of an entire country, its people and cultural heritage. In the meantime, we seem to enjoy saying how much we care for children’s welfare around the world. We pride ourselves in protecting the children, in all situations, through all types of crises, in America and around the world. How come no one ever mentioned the Tibetan children? We worry about the polar bears being (allegedly) decimated in the Arctic. Are polar bears so much more important than the human lives wasted in Tibet since 1959 by the Chinese government? Apparently so. Hope I can write about something more cheerful next time.
Liv Lugara

About livlugara

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