There is a powerful presence in Bodhgaya of ex-pat Tibetans. There are booths along the streets to the main venue for various Tibetans causes. Students for Free Tibet, a very effective and long-standing global presence for Tibetan Freedom is sponsoring a series of lectures, panel discussions and films throughout the week. I attended a panel discussion with a man, Michael Buckley, who probably knows more about Chinese dams in Tibet than anyone other than the Chinese themselves. He was joined by Tsechu Dolma of the Mountain Resiliency Project and a member of Forbes Magazine’s “Thirty Under Thirty,” and a research fellow of the Tibet Policy Institute, Zamlha Tempa Gyaltsen. The conversation oriented around the environmental impact of the Chinese in Tibet.
Damming Tibet’s rivers is huge, relentless and profoundly damaging, all to create power for the Chinese. Meanwhile, downstream, silt levels, critical to wetland ecology, drop radically. Fish populations fall and mangrove forests begin to fail. The geo-political significance of China damming and regulating the water flow of the Brahmaputra, Salween, Mekong, Irrawaddy and Indus rivers on whom 1.2 billion people depend, is also huge. Upriver, Chem China (China’s Monsanto) is aggressively introducing GMO seeds into the village life, with the same familiar results in Tibet as we see in other areas: the loss of native seeds, the reduction of small farm communities to profit centres, a resource to be extracted.
Most alarming is the pollution of Tibet’s rivers by Chinese mining operations (lithium for your cell phone being one of the notable resources) with no prior notification, no public hearings, no recourse for those damaged by ingesting heavy metals. Along with the pollution, China is now decimating the fresh water aquifer of Tibet, transporting trainloads to supply eastern China with potable water since it has already destroyed its own sources of fresh water. Bottled water from Tibet commands a high price in China, but is also known to be reliably pure. How long can this go on?
As far as environmental issues are concerned, Tibet has long been regarded by China as a mere repository of desirable resources that justifies the repression of all speech by native Tibetans. The most stirring exhibit in Bodhgaya was a “museum” honoring the life of the Dalai Lama as well as addressing the question, “Why are Tibetans self-immolating?”
During our time own Bodhgaya, we also attended a screening of the documentary, Flames of Bodhicitta here, produced by a Tibetan ex-pat, Lhaksam, chronicling the conditions that have led to self-immolation.
In the 50’s, Tibetan lost their country to the Chinese invasion. In the 60’s, they lost political power. In the 70’s, they lost much of their religious heritage (3000 monasteries) to the merciless and relentless ideology of the Chinese Cultural Revolution. In the 80’s, they lost their economy to the mass colonization of Chinese citizens. They now suffer as second class citizens in their own country, marginalised, completely powerless economically, politically or socially. The teaching of the Tibetan language is restricted. Children are indoctrinated to believe they are Chinese and have always been Chinese. Monks and nuns are still tortured and imprisoned, as they have been for decades, for possessing a picture of the Dalai Lama, or for even possessing a cell phone that can transmit to the world at large. And now, in increasing numbers, Tibetans, both monastics and laypersons, have taken to self-immolation as a final resort.
The exhibit in Bodhgaya included a wall of heart-breaking statements from those who chose this path, along with thumbnail photos of every man, women, young, old, monastics and laymen who chose this path. They range from political statements of resistance, hopelessness and despair, a refusal to live lives of walking dead in their own land, to the most principled religious determination to, by their own deaths, relieve the suffering of their people; the ultimate tonglen.
China’s answer to self-immolation is not to address any of the Tibetan concerns, but to repress speech even more, to criminalize self-immolation and those who are deemed to be its accomplices. Penalties for “encouraging” this act include imprisonment. The Dalai Lama is considered one of the prime culprits encouraging self-immolation. I passed through this this small exhibit in silence, my heart breaking. It brings tears now in the writing. Where on earth has any one people been systematically repressed to this extent, endured such suffering, so completely, for so long, in their own homeland? Palestinians? Perhaps, yes. South African apartheid? Another possibility. But in neither of these cases was there also religious repression and the systematic destruction of culture.
The last statement of Sonam (which means “benefit”) Topgyal:
To the leaders of the Chinese Government and particularly to the local heads of the minorities; I am the twenty-seven-year-old son of Tashitsang of Nangchen, Yulshul in Tso.ngon region. Currently, I am a monk studying at Dzongsar Institute. As people within the country and outside are aware, the Chinese government does not look at the true and actual situation of the minorities but practices only harsh and repressive policies on them. At a time when the government is carrying out policies to stamp out our religion, tradition and culture, and destroy our natural environment, there is absolutely no freedom of expression for the people, and there is no channel to talk about our situation and file our complaints. Furthermore, every time the people try to report truth about their situation and file any complaint, instead of providing solutions, the authorities retaliate with more crackdowns and arrests. Through various deceptive regulations, the government also prevents monks and nuns from joining religious institutions. In a nutshell, they are carrying policies to completely wipe out the minorities. Our chief goal is for His Holiness the Dalai Lama to be able to return to the Potala Palace. I sacrifice my life to prove to the world and especially the people of China and the Chinese authorities that we have absolutely no power or channels to talk about injustices being done to us. My Tibetans brothers and sisters of the same blood, please do not remain aloof as if you have seen or heard nothing. Be united, be strong and work hard for our just struggle so we win in the end. Written on 1 July 2015 just as the sun was rising: Sonam Topgyal
China is deathly afraid of what Tibet has to offer the world. And ironically, it has been China’s fear of Tibet that has facilitated the Tibetan diaspora and a greater global proliferation of Buddhist teachings than might never have been possible otherwise.
In this time, as corporate-state militarism and corporate-driven environmental destruction present the greatest threats to humanity, Tibet represents, as Robert Thurman puts it, “the canary in the coal mine.” Both of these threats are no longer acceptable. Business As Usual is over. Tibetans are taking desperate measures that can only arise when there is no alternative. They are also showing us the way through. Unfortunately, China, hell-bent on its “remorselessly pathological”* path of repression and destruction, may be the last to see the light.
*A new acquaintance, Meenakshi Negi, with the assistance of Robert Thurman, has published her brilliant book of poetry, Mystical Mountains, Rivers of Blood, which she calls a “Monologue on a Remorseless Pathology.” Not yet available in the US. Look for it soon.