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A First-Hand Account: Cultural Invasion Leaves Lhasa Angry, Bitter

[WTN-L World Tibet Network News. Published by The Canada Tibet Committee. Issue ID: 02/10/29; October 29, 2002.]

By Vijay Kranti
Published in: 'Border-Affairs' Oct-Dec. 2002 (N.Delhi)

(A Tibet watcher for three decades, VIJAY KRANTI, is the first ever Indian journalist and photographer who recently traveled inside the China-controlled Tibet as an ordinary tourist without Beijing's patronization or direct control. He assesses the ground situation in Tibet in the main article and reviews the reaction in the refugee community to the visit of Dalai Lama's delegation to Beijing in the accompanying box.)

To those who have been used to seeing a China that has been keeping Tibet under an iron wrap, the opening of Tibet as an international tourist destination has come as a surprise. As if this was not enough, Beijing has undertaken yet another step that was quite unimaginable until only a few years ago. From early August this year Beijing has started taking selected foreign journalists on conducted tours of the same very 'Roof of the World' that it has been hiding from media for over 50 years now. However, the most dramatic of all these steps was the renewed contact between Beijing and Dalai Lama which remained snapped since 1993. The renewal of this contact was marked by the visit of the exiled Tibetan ruler's elder brother Gyalo Thondup to Beijing and Lhasa in early August and that of a four-member Dharamsala delegation to Beijing and some parts of Tibet within a month of Gyalo Thondup's visit. (See details of this contact in accompanied write-up - Editor.)

As far as the opening of Tibet as an international tourist destination is concerned, the effort has more than one aims. One is the showcasing of what Beijing claims 'the economic progress and religious freedom' being enjoyed by the Tibetan masses under its 51 year rule. And the other is to rake in a few billion dollars from teaming tourists from abroad. A brilliant example of making political and financial capital out of an issue that has, so far, been a mill stone around Beijing's neck since it sent in its People's Liberation Army (PLA) in 1949 to occupy Tibet.

One section of these tourists comprises of the faithful and rich Buddhists from Taiwan, Hongkong, Mainland China, Singapore, Korea and Japan etc. who leave behind heaps of Yuans in front of statues of Shakyamuni Buddha and Avalokiteshwar in Tibetan temples and monasteries. The other section, interestingly belongs to the same very westerners who know Tibet mainly because of Dalai Lama's fight for human rights and self rule for his countrymen.

The third reason, as presented by Prof. Samdong Rimpoche, Prime Minister in Dalai Lama's government-in-exile, is Beijing's eagerness to present a Tibet friendly face in its run up towards Beijing Olympics-2008. Going by what one sees inside China's Tibet or what one has heard following Dalai Lama's delegation's visit to Tibet, Beijing leaders appear to be succeeding in their latest Tibetan game.

DECEPTIVE VISUALS The very first visuals that China's Tibet presents to an outsider in a city like Lhasa or Shigatse are quite overwhelming. Wide, open, geometrically running roads flanked by some of the most fashionable shopping complexes and multistoried buildings offer an unexpected shock to those who expect Lhasa still to be a poor town of rain washed mud houses. The very next shock comes from the crowds of Tibetans circumambulating Potala Palace, Jokhang temple and Tashi Lhumpo monastery to those western tourists who believed that China 's role in Tibet during past 50 years was limited only to destroying monasteries, temples, Chortens (Stupas) and arresting anyone who dare holds a 'Mani' (prayer wheel). Many among these crowds are villagers from distant places who travel to Lhasa for pilgrimage in the best of their traditional costumes. Holding their rosary and traditional prayer wheel in their hands these pilgrims offer a perfect picture post-card image that Tibet has been popular for among the western world.

However, this is the last meeting point of those tourists who are overwhelmed by what they see in China's Tibet and those who are keen to go beyond what is easily visible. One needs to take only a 10-Yuan ride in a taxi in any direction away from Potala to discover who are the real beneficiaries of this progress -- local Tibetans or the Chinese who arrive by thousands every month to settle in Lhasa is search of new jobs that are being created regularly by the Chinese masters of Tibet? Just a peep into the multistoried houses, government offices and glittery shopping arcades will tell you that a large majority of houses, jobs and businesses belong to the Chinese. Tibetans get the crumbs viz. low menial jobs like street sweepers, drivers and, of course, junior and meaningless positions in the local civic bodies.

TOURIST GUDES Interestingly, the job of a tourist guide is one that the local Tibetan boys and girls get easily just because western tourist hate to have Chinese guides who talk more political propaganda than anything else while taking the tourists around Potala palace of Dalai Lama or the Tashi Lhumpo monastery of Panchen Lama in Shigatse. However, the most common complaints about Tibetan guides' poor English language because the licenses of almost all good English speaking Tibetan guides have been cancelled as most of them were educated in India in schools run by Dalai Lama's Tibetan government-in-exile.

One can not fail to notice a remarkable change in the Chinese strategy on religion that used to be expressed only through brutal denial of religious freedom in past decades. Today Tibetans in tourist cities like Lhasa and Shigatse have freedom to go to temples and prostrate in open places like the Barkhor square in front of the Jokhang temple. Daily debate sessions of monks in Drepung monastery in Lhasa are well tuned with the arrival and departure of tourist buses. They present a perfect photo opportunity to all those foreign tourists who come with the hope of seeing a traditional Tibet. But once the photo session is over, no tourist is interested in finding if all the young men dressed in maroons were genuine scholars. Tourists witness a similar theatric ritual in the government run majestic Tibetan handicraft store opposite main entry gate of Potala. After your tourist guide has almost forcibly pushed you inside the store, Chinese girls dressed in unusual golden Tibetan gowns take you through well presented sections of Thanka paintings, metal crafts and carpet weaving. In her enthusiasm to tell you that the design shop of the carpet section is a serious business, the pretty Chinese designer girl starts giving fine touches to a carpet design on her easel with a fine brush. The real fun is yours provided you could notice that brush had no colour in it.

But still no one can not deny that almost all visual aspects of Tibetan Buddhism are being preserved and presented to the visitors in their most glittering colours. It is a different matter that no Tibetan has the freedom to open mouth on issues unpalatable to the Chinese masters. Five monks of Drepung monastery were arrested early August this year for listening to pro-independence songs on tape.

It is quite interesting to notice that Chinese soldiers are conspicuous by their absence in important places like Jokhang temple and the Barkhor street along its circumambulation. Pot bellied Tibetan policemen dominate prominent public places including the Barkhor street. But the real vigil on every movement of Tibetans and tourists is kept by the video cameras installed inside almost each room of Potala, monasteries, house tops and on trees and lamp posts in other sensitive places.

CHINESE GRIP I had a first hand feel of this Chinese grip in the Barkhor street which became famous like Tien An-Men Square of Beijing for the 1987 public uprising against the Chinese rule in Tibet. Nearly twenty Chinese agents of notorious Public Security Bureau (PSB) appeared from nowhere within two minutes after a petty fight broke out between two Tibetan stall owners. Both were quickly whisked away and pushed behind a huge gate which opened dramatically in a nearby room of Jokhang temple. In less than five minutes the street had no leftover signs of the melee. Everything appeared as normal and quiet as if nothing had ever happened there.

However, it will be unfair to conclude that ordinary Tibetans have fully surrendered to their Chinese colonial masters, or they don't express their mind on the prevailing political situation. Beijing authorities have strictly banned the Photos of exiled Tibetan ruler Dalai Lama and Gedhun Choeky Nyima, the incarnate Panchen Lama recognized by him. Hence no one would dare to display their pictures in today's Tibet. Particularly in Shigatse, the city famous for Panchen Lama's religious seat at Tashi Lhumpo Monastery, people don't display the pictures of the two great religious leaders who are always the subject of an unending hate campaign of local political administrators. But not a single shop, restaurant, house or private vehicle I saw during eight days of my stay in Tibet, displayed the photo of Gyaltsen Norbu, the Chinese sponsored 11th Panchen Lama. As a middle way, people buy and display big posters of the late 10th Panchen Lama who was acceptable to the Beijing regime as well as ordinary Tibetans - albeit for just opposite reasons. While Chinese masters of Tibet used to present him as an alternate to the exiled Dalai Lama, common Tibetans remember him for the bold anti China stand that he took twice during his life time.

RESEMBLANCE TO LADAKH The landscape and architecture in the Tsang region of Tibet that houses famous cities like Shigatse, Gyantse and Tingri, resembles dramatically to India's Ladakh region in Jammu & Kashmir state. The only element that reminds a visitor that one is in Tibet and not in Ladakh is the total absence of Buddhist Chortens (Stupa) in the Tibetan countryside. While almost all stupas in the countryside were destroyed during fateful days of Cultural Revolution the two giant stupas guarding the front of Potala are among those handful ones that appear to be preserved by the Chinese masters. However, the strategic placing of these two religious structures is enough to explain how much respect Beijing masters hold for the religious sentiments of their Tibetan subjects. In Tibet it is considered to be sinful and inauspicious to cross a stupa from the anti-clockwise direction. But the two holy structures in Lhasa have been positioned in the middle of the majestic 'Beijing Road' in such a manner that every vehicle must cross them the wrong way. No wonder you see old Tibetans closing their eyes and raising folded hands in prayer when their bus or rickshaw crosses each stupa from the anti-clockwise direction.

A tourist can not miss this unambiguous patriotic statement of local Tibetans as one watches them going around inside Tashi Lhumpo monastery, the supreme seat of Panchen Lama in Shigatse. One would rarely see a Tibetan bowing or offering scarves before the Chinese sponsored Panchen Lama's photo whereas the empty seat of Dalai Lama can be marked from a distance because of full length prostration by the Tibetan pilgrims and the abnormally large heap of scarves they leave in front of the seat. In the vast cemented square in front of Potala too, people crowd around the photographer stalls to get their photos with Potala in the backdrop. But during two hours of my visit to the place I did not see a single Tibetan getting oneself photographed with the tall white Chinese memorial which was installed early this year to commemorate 50 years of 'peaceful liberation' of Tibet.

Vijay Kranti Vijaykranti@vsnl.com

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