By Steve Lonegan
Tibet, the broad, high plateau between India and China, is bigger than Western Europe and the source of the great rivers of Asia. Mysterious and exotic, the "Roof of the World" is the place of Tantric Buddhism, seers and mystics capable of levitation and astral travel.
I visited Tibet in summer 2001, landing at Gonggar Airport. The emotionless faces and starched uniforms of the Chinese military officials who supervised my arrival were the first reminder of Tibet's political oppression. Outside, communist party tour guides awaited their assignments. My official communist guide, "Will," worked for the government-run tourist agency.
Americans are always anxious to tour sites in exotic places, but never ready for the shock of traveling under the shadow of an oppressive regime. My guide's goal was to indoctrinate me into the communist view of Tibet. Because I was a mayor of an American town, he assumed I could assert influence on public opinion. The public opinion the communist Chinese propagandists promote is not a flattering picture of the Tibetan people.
Since the Red Army invasion of Tibet in 1949, hundreds of thousands of Tibetans have been exterminated and thousands of ancient Buddhist temples destroyed. "Religion is poison," Chairman Mao told the Dali Llama in 1954, just before the Dali Llama and more than 150,000 followers fled to permanent exile in India. After the invasion, China began a policy of ruthless repopulation, moving millions of Chinese into Tibet.
"Will" slandered the Tibetan people from the moment we climbed in the Land Rover until I left the country. The Dalai Lama, Will claimed, was responsible for having the airport placed 60 dangerous miles from Lhasa, the world's highest capital city at 15,000 feet, decades ago, saying the religious leader proclaimed airplanes should not be flying over the heads of Buddhists.
Will continued a carefully rehearsed diatribe about the evils of the Dalai Lamas, describing heinous methods of torturing their enemies. There was no discussion of the message of peace that is the center of the Buddhist faith. Tibetans are small, smiling frequently. They flock to monasteries on pilgrimages to pray and offer gifts and incense.
As we headed cross country over rugged terrain, at points the dirt roads stopped altogether. He pointed to the side of a mountain to what he said was a road. "Beijing is building a modern road system that the Tibetans could never build. They need us here" he said.
I asked him why we were not driving on the modern roads. There were no modern roads the entire trip. He told me they were still under construction. "The Chinese have been here for 50 years. How long does it take them to build roads?" I asked. He ignored my question.
My personal propaganda machine, courtesy of Beijing, continued attacking Tibetan family structure, accusing them of polygamy, polyandry, and wife swapping among brothers, husband swapping among sisters. He proclaimed his horror over Tibetan funeral rituals, accusing them of mutilating bodies in broad daylight. He claimed Buddhist monks would ask for sexual favors from women of their choice. If these women failed to submit, the monk could point a finger, declaring her a "ghost." The townspeople would believe the woman to be an evil spirit and she would spend the rest of her life shunned from society.
As peaceful as the Tibetan people are, they do not lack the desire to be free. Isolated from the rest of the world, it has been easy to ignore their tragic plight. Media are tightly controlled, and access is difficult. Expanded trade with China leaves world leaders reluctant to complain about the violations of human rights.
With the Olympics only weeks away, the world will get a closer look at Tibetan suffering.
Steve Lonegan is the former mayor of Bogota.