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Keeping the roof on the roof of the world.

Before the Chinese invasion, Tibet was a large country -- covering an area roughly the same size as Western Europe. Before that, it was even larger.

In the seventh century, Tibet was a major power. From the capital of Lhasa, its domain extended far beyond its present borders, south into India and west into China. When the Tibetans spoke even the Chinese Emperor listened; he was required to pay an annual tribute to Tibet of 10,000 rolls of silk.

At the height of Tibet's strength its people took to Buddhism in a big way. That religion has defined the people of Tibet ever since. A major feature of Buddhism is its pacifism. So, the warlike Tibetans gave up violence and withdrew from the lands they had conquered. By the end of the 10th century, the kingdom began to break apart. In 1206, soldiers of the Mongol warlord Genghis ]Khan came to town. He added Tibet to his vast empire which stretched from Korea, across China, through central Asia, and into Europe. But, as with all empires before and since, the Mongol Empire reached its peak and then toppled over. The Chinese Qing Dynasty was on the rise and it replaced the Mongols in Lhasa in 1720. Two centuries later, the corrupt Qing Dynasty crumbled. The Tibetans seized the opportunity, in 1912, to declare themselves an independent nation once again.

By Western standards, living conditions inside Tibet were primitive. The social structure belonged more to the Middle Ages than the 20th century -- again, judged by Western standards. Feudal landowners and powerful monasteries controlled all aspects of life. However, nobody went hungry as the governing elites looked after everyone.

In 1950, the newly installed Communists in China declared it was their duty to "liberate" the Tibetans from the tyranny under which they lived. With a massive invasion force, the Chinese moved in. In 1951, they forced a helpless 15-year-old Dalai Lama to sign over his country (see sidebar). Many Tibetans took to the hills and began resisting the Chinese takeover.

By 1959, the occasional guerrilla activity exploded into a full-scale revolt in Lhasa. The Dalai Lama and tens of thousands of his followers fled into India and set up a community there. The Chinese crushed the revolt with incredible ferocity and set up their own "Panchen Lama" as head of state. The Panchen Lama is second only to the Dalai Lama in religious authority.

Since then, Chinese rule in Tibet has been marked by its brutality. The usual methods of arrest, torture, illegal imprisonment, and execution have been used to keep the population quiet. A systematic program was launched to stamp out Buddhism. Thousands of monasteries were destroyed. Every home was entered and all images of Buddha seized and replaced with pictures of Chairman Mao Zedong. Holy texts were used as toilet paper. Occasional uprisings of Tibetans have been squashed with much bloodshed.

China's program has involved changing the balance of population in Tibet. Today, there are probably about 5.5 million Chinese in the region, while there are only roughly 4.2 million Tibetans. The Tibetans have become a minority in their own land.

China seems to operate a policy of preference for the Chinese living in Tibet. The school system is segregated and the Chinese get better teachers and facilities. The rate of semi-literacy is three times higher among Tibetans than it is among Chinese.

But, still the Tibetans resist the Chinese occupation; they refuse to let their ancient culture die. Buddhist monks and nuns are still imprisoned by the hundreds; the human rights group Asia Watch reports that, in terms of political arrests, 1993 was one of the worst years in Tibet.

And, in December 1995, the Chinese took a further step that seemed guaranteed to cause more friction. Six-year-old Gyaincain Norbu was installed as the reincarnation of the Panchen Lama. However, the Dalai Lama had already selected another six-yearold, Ghedun Choekyi Nyima, as the reborn Panchen Lama. This young boy and his family have disappeared.

China is hoping to have its own man at the top of Tibetan Buddhism. The education of the new Panchen Lama will be controlled by China. This may well be a dress rehearsal for the installation of a Beijing selected Dalai Lama when the current exiled leader dies. But, it's unlikely Tibetans will follow a leader picked by China over one selected by Tibetans themselves in the traditional way.

A spokesperson for the London-Tibetan Information League says: "This is a battle for the hearts and minds of Tibetans. The Chinese see this as their High Noon. It's their showdown with the Dalai Lama. There's bound to be an increase in tension within Tibet."


1. The Dalai Lama maintains that any protest against Chinese occupation of his homeland must be non-violent. This pacifist approach is causing some friction with younger Tibetans who feel the Chinese will only deal with their grievances if they become more aggressive. Discuss your feelings about these two approaches.

2. Contact the Canada Tibet Committee, 4675 Coolbrook Ave, Montreal, PQ., H3X2K7. Phone: (514) 487-0665. Fax: (514) 487-7825.
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Copyright 1996, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:history of China's oppressive policies towards Buddhist Tibet
Author:Veerasingham, K.
Publication:Canada and the World Backgrounder
Date:Jan 1, 1996
Previous Article:Punch-up politics.
Next Article:The joining of church and state.

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