By Shir Haberman
KITTERY, Maine — Former town Councilor Matt Brock describes himself as a "cultural traveler." As such, he has visited a number of places in the world where things are much different from how they are here in his hometown of Kittery.
Tibetan monks pray at a protest rally against alleged oppression by Chinese authorities during recent crackdowns on Tibet in Bangalore, India, last week. The Dalai Lama is displayed on a poster. (AP)
However, he recently became a spectator to history. He arrived in Lhasa, the capital of Tibet, on March 10, the first day that Buddhist monks began demonstrating against the Chinese government for religious and political freedoms.
"From the roof of the Jokhang, Tibet's most sacred temple, we looked down to a broad square with hundreds of people moving about," Brock wrote in a recently published letter to the editor. "Several people in the Square began calling out. Our guide said the message from the monks was 'Free Tibet.'
"Soon, several dozen police converged on the monks. The monks were arrested; at least one may have been beaten," he wrote.
The protests on that Monday, first reported by the Tibetan-language service of Radio Free Asia, marked the 49th anniversary of the uprising in 1959, which led the Dalai Lama to flee into exile, where he has remained ever since.
Brock was in Lhasa as the conflict escalated through the week. Dressed in riot gear, members of the Chinese Army blockaded major monasteries.
"We left Lhasa on March 13, the day before widespread rioting was reported in the city," Brock wrote. "By the time we left Tibet on March 15, China acknowledged that a number of people had been killed, although it claimed that the Tibetans had initiated and provoked the violence."
That, however, was not what Brock said he observed earlier in the week. Instead, what he saw was the Chinese government using force to deny the people of Tibet their civil right to peaceful assembly and the ability to openly express their religious and political views.
What concerns Brock, now that he has seen the situation up close and personal, is what will be the U.S. government's response to this situation. He is so concerned that he has written to Maine's two U.S. senators, Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins, as well as the state's 1st District Congressman Tom Allen, who has indicated he will run against Collins for U.S. Senate this year.
So far, Brock said he has not received any response from the two senators and only a confirmation of his inquiry from Allen. Kevin Kelley, Collin's press secretary, confirmed receipt of Brock's letter and said a reply has gone out to him.
"Mr. Brock's first-hand account of the violence that erupted in Lhasa last month is simply astounding," Collins said Friday. "I appreciate hearing from him.
"The developments in and around Tibet are very troubling," the senator said. "China's occupation of Tibet has marginalized a Tibetan national identity that dates back more than 1,600 years, and its efforts to limit the succession of Tibetan spiritual leaders and to suppress the Tibetan language and culture are a fundamental violation of freedom of religion and belief."
Collins said that during her time in the Senate, she has consistently voiced her opposition to the Chinese government's record on democracy and human rights and will continue to urge the Chinese government to take all necessary steps to bring about a peaceful resolution to the current crisis in Tibet.
Snowe, in an April 2 letter to Chinese President Hu Jintao, signed by 27 other Republican and Democratic senators, called for a timely, peaceful resolution to the current crisis in Tibet and respect for the human rights of the Tibetan people.
"The violent crackdown perpetrated against the Tibetan people last month has already shattered the illusion that China's economic development, without political liberalization, is synonymous with modernization," Snowe said, following the release of the letter. "It is in all of humanity's interest to now ensure that, when the world turns its gaze to this summer's games in Beijing, the Olympic flame is not obscured by a curtain of smoke rising from Tibet."
However, for Brock, it is not just about ending the violence in time for the Olympics, which will be held in Beijing this year. The current situation brings up the much bigger question of America's response to the kind of human rights violations that have consistently taken place under the Communist regime, he said.
"If human rights is to have any meaning in United States policy for Tibet, the U.S. must respond promptly and directly to these violations," Brock said. "A good place to start is for the U.S. to join with other nations to demand an accounting of Tibetans that have been the subject of violence in recent days and the release of imprisoned monks."
The Kittery Point resident said other actions could include conditions on trade negotiations with China or greater recognition for Tibet's government in exile in India.
"But the current easy, empty policy by the United States of expressing concern for Tibet, while conducting business as usual with China, must change," Brock said.