By Val Sweeney
WITH the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympic Games just one month away, China's human rights record is set to come under intense scrutiny — particularly in Tibet which lies high in the Himalayan mountains.
Since troops used force in March to suppress anti-China demonstrations in Tibetan communities — allegedly resulting in the deaths of scores of protesters — there has been increasing vocal disquiet across the globe.
One Highland councillor, who visited Tibet last year, is now urging people in the Highlands to light a candle on the eve of the Olympics as a symbolic gesture in support of this once independent kingdom which is now a part of the People's Republic of China.
Hamish Wood is a practising Buddhist who cycled from Lhasa to Kathmandu as part of a holiday.
"I was fortunate in some ways," the 65-year-old said. "We were cycling along roads where people had tea shops and sometimes we had the opportunity to speak to people who were not being directed by officials.
"It became obvious they were commenting on Tibet and from the little information we could manage to get from them, they do feel persecuted.
"It is quite horrendous how many people have been killed by the Chinese and how the forces mark out the monasteries and make the monks do menial tasks."
Mr Wood also feared there was a move to dilute the indigenous population and culture in Tibet.
"In some villages, they are building tenement buildings and whittling down the population and transporting people from other parts of China," he said.
But he felt much of the world remained unaware of what was happening. "Because it is a closed country, they are very strict about issuing visas to get in," he said. "The Tibetans have problems getting their message into the world about what is happening."
During his trip, he was aware of the presence of Chinese officials and the possibility of compromising any Tibetan people by speaking to them. "When they weren't there, the people couldn't have been more welcoming."
When he stopped at a tea shop, a man revealed a picture of the Dalai Lama — the spiritual and political leader of the Tibetan people — who has lived in exile in Dharamsala, in northern of India, since fleeing from Tibet in 1959.
"He was completely shaking — if it was known he had a picture of the Dalai Lama, he would be whisked away," Mr Wood said.
He added the idea of lighting a candle, which has been inspired by an internet campaign called candle4tibet, represented a gesture of solidarity.
"Where there is light, there is life." he said. "The basis of this campaign is to take this opportunity after 56 years of Chinese rule and to say to the Tibetan people, 'you are not forgotten'."
His hope was for Tibet to be given its independence. "It would be such a good will gesture for China," he maintained. "They would get so much out of it."
While he would like to see the Dalai Lama allowed back to his homeland, he felt it would not happen. "I believe while it might not happen with this Dalai Lama, it might with the next one," he said. "It would take the next one for China not to lose face. But unless there is constant pressure on China, it will never happen."
Practising Bhuddist Hamish Wood supports Tibetan independence. (Gary Anthony)
Asked whether China should be allowed to host the Olympic Games, he replied that it was open to any country to apply. "I see it as an opportunity to try to get change in some ways," he said. "The focus is on China."
He disagreed, however, with the protests and disruption caused by pro-Tibet demonstrators as the Olympic torch travelled around the world earlier this year. "I am a pacifist," he said.
"I think there are other ways to show your displeasure. I think a candle is a symbolic way of showing protest.
"It says you are protesting but without throwing yourself down in front of vehicles. There are pacifist ways of getting your message across instead of playing up to the media."
He accepted, however, the coverage given to the torch protests had resulted in highlighting the issues.
"The Dalai Lama is a pacifist. He believes there are other ways of protesting without it coming to physical violence. He is also concerned as a world leader what effect it will have on the remaining people in Tibet."
Mr Wood, a widower, has a son and a daughter. He is a former assistant principal of Inverness College and has also worked for Victim Support which offers practical help and information to victims, witnesses and others affected by crime. The Liberal Democrat was elected to represent the Aird and Loch Ness ward in May last year.
Although it was his first visit to Tibet, Mr Wood has visited Nepal for the past six or seven years. It was during those visits he became interested in Bhuddism although he found it difficult to explain what first attracted him to the religion.
"It is like if you ask someone why they suddenly become a Christian, it is often difficult to put into words," he replied. "You just know that is it. It is like when you look for a house and look at a whole range and suddenly see one and that is it.
"Like lots of people of my age, I attended a Church of Scotland Sunday school. It was the traditional thing on a Sunday. But I never carried on and took the faith. It was just something which was not for me."
But the more he has delved into Buddhism, the more he has come to appreciate the way of life it offers. Consequently, he has joined a group, Rokpa Highlands, a branch of Rokpa Trust, a charity initially established by Dr Akong Tulku Rinpoche to help the indigenous peoples of Tibet.
Along with other group members, he takes part in weekly meditation classes and is also planning to take part in a Buddhist refuge.
Mr Wood feels Scotland is becoming a more diverse country. "People who have been in Scotland for many years are now looking at other faiths. I think we are exposing ourselves to more cultures.
"People also go abroad and because of that they see other things. I think it is good. People are not just following something because it is what they are expected to follow."
A yellow wrist band indicates his faith. "I feel comfortable wearing it. If people query it, I tell them about it — that is what I believe."A few facts and figures about Tibet
• Tibet lies at the centre of Asia, with an area of 2.5 million square kilometres.
• It borders India, Nepal, Bhutan, Burma and China.
• It is split into three provinces Amdo, Kham and U-Tsang, which together with western Kham is referred to by China as the Tibet Autonomous Region.
• Around 6 million Tibetans live in the mountain region, the earth's highest at 13,000 feet above sea level. There are a further estimated 7.5 million Chinese, living mainly in Kham and Amdo.
• The main language is Tibetan, although the official language is Chinese.
• The staple food is Tsampa (roasted barley flour) while the national drink is salted butter tea.
• The economy is dominated by subsistence agriculture, although tourism has become increasingly important.
• Its political and religious leader is the 14th Dalai Lama, who is in exile in Dharamsala, India.email@example.com