When we think of Tibet we may think of a mysterious Shangrila, remote and hidden from the world—a land of magic and mystery, a dream-place. But the reality of Tibet today is more nightmare than dream, as the Tibetan people struggle under a brutal reign of terror by Chinese who have occupied their country since 1949.
Before 1949, Tibet was a free and independent country. Protected by its fortress-like natural borders—the Tsaidam Desert, the Kunlun and Himalayan Mountains, and the jungles of Kham—and by its powerful Mongol neighbors, Tibet was closed to the outside world for most of its history. Because of these reasons, and also because of the difficult living conditions that prevailed in this country whose lowest regions lie more than two miles above sea-level, foreign powers with designs upon Tibet became quickly discouraged.

Over thousands of years of peace and isolation, Tibet developed a distinct and complex Buddhist culture and philosophy of nonviolence. Before the 1950s, there were over 6,000 monasteries and nunneries in Tibet, where hundreds of thousands of monks and nuns studied philosophy and meditation. These centers of learning and culture were filled with painting, sculpture, and books on religion, medicine, philosophy, history and literature. The people were free, living simple lives as farmers, nomadic herders, traders, craftsmen, artisans, and monks. Hunger was unknown in Tibet before the Chinese occupation, and government unobtrusive.

This changed in 1949, when the Chinese marched into Tibet. By 1959 they had extended military and administrative control throughout the country, annexing some parts directly to China and naming the rest the “Tibetan Autonomous Region”, under total Chinese control. The monasteries were first closed, then dismantled, their contents destroyed or removed to China. Monks, nuns, and resisting civilians were imprisoned, tortured and killed. Although the Tibetans believe strongly in nonviolence, there were uprisings and other forms of resistance against the Chinese. But, having such a small population (7.5 million in 1950) and being virtually unarmed, the Tibetans had no chance against the Chinese Army.

The invasion culminated on March 10, 1959, when the Tibetan people rose up against the Chinese occupation to protect their beloved Dalai Lama, the political and spiritual leader of their country, from being kidnaped from his summer palace in Lhasa. During the next few weeks, over 87,000 Tibetans were massacred by the Chinese. The Dalai Lama with 80,000 refugees escaped into India, where they formed an exile community which continues to this day as the center of Tibet in exile.

The following decades saw a deliberate genocidal policy in Tibet. All remnants of Tibetan culture were brutally suppressed, including the Tibetan language, and huge numbers of ethnic Chinese colonized Tibet. The plentiful wildlife was virtually exterminated. A disastrous agricultural policy was forced upon Tibet, which led to the first famine in its history, during which hundreds of thousands of Tibetans died from starvation. The Cultural Revolution of the 1960s was vigorously enforced in Tibet, and over one million Tibetans died, either by direct murder by the Chinese, deliberate genocidal policies of forced abortion, sterilization, and infanticide, brutalization in concentration camps, or by the slow death of starvation.

During the 1980s, there seemed to be a loosening of China’s iron grip in Tibet. A few monasteries were partially rebuilt, a minimal amount of religious practice permitted, and the country was opened to foreign tourists for the first time in its history. But then, in 1987, Beijing showed that this had been a temporary digression from its policy of control and destruction in Tibet.

In September of 1987, the Dalai Lama visited the U.S. Congress and presented his 5 Point Peace Plan to make Tibet a “Zone of Peace” in Asia, autonomous and self-governing in all but foreign policy. In direct response to this proposal, the next day, Chinese officials in Lhasa rounded up 15,000 Tibetans into a sports stadium, and forced them to watch as three of their countrymen were executed for being splittists (advocating independence).

The following day, a group of monks with signs marched around the Jokhang Cathedral in Lhasa in peaceful protest of the killings. Western witnesses, of which there were many (that summer over 40,000 tourists visited Tibet), watched and photographed as Chinese soldiers beat, shot and arrested the unarmed monks. A few days later, tourists witnessed a larger demonstration at the Barkhor (Lhasa’s outdoor market) where hundreds of unarmed monks, nuns and civilians were killed.

Because of the many tourists present at these events, eyewitness reports and photographs poured out of Tibet and into the world press. For the first time, there were outside witnesses to Chinese atrocities in Tibet, and the story burned across front pages all over the world.

Since 1987, there have been a continuing series of demonstrations in Tibet. Disturbing reports continue to leak out via tourists and escaping Tibetan refugees. When the events of Tiananmen Square exploded into the headlines in 1989, many were surprised and saddened by the brutatility of the Chinese government. But such policies have been business as usual in Tibet since 1949.

Recent Developments in Tibet
One of the most disturbing developments of recent years is the Chinese environmental devastation of Tibet. This includes the cutting of forests in Eastern Tibet, which is already causing terrible flooding to the south in Bangladesh, the increased use of Tibet as a toxic waste dump, and the testing of nuclear devices on the Tibetan Plateau. Any pollution to this part of the world threatens the water supply of all of Asia, as the four largest rivers in Asia originate in Tibet.

A second, and terrifyingly genocidal, development is the recent Chinese escalation of the rate of colonization of Tibet. Visitors report that, if the current level of immigration is continued, within a few years Tibetans will no longer be a significant population in their own country. This policy of ethnic dilution was used effectively by the Chinese in Mongolia, and if it continues,Tibet will cease to be Tibetan.

Hopeful Signs
There is some evidence that the world community, which virtually ignored Tibet’s plight for over 30 years, is finally beginning to take notice. His Holiness the Dalai Lama, who continues to be Tibet’s spiritual and political leader-in-exile, was awarded the 1989 Nobel Peace Prize in recognition of his efforts toward a peaceful solution to the Tibetan problem. This gave Tibetans, and people everywhere who care about the future of Tibet, cause for hope.

There are also other signs (resolutions passed by the U.S. Congress, and by the parliamentary bodies of other nations, condemning Chinese human rights and environmental abuses in Tibet, for example) that a real interest in finding an equitable solution to Tibet’s situation is growing throughout the world. More recently, the widespread uproar about, and subsequent defeat of, the World Bank’s plan to fund a Chinese project which would have sent tens of thousands of Han Chinese settlers into Tibetan areas and displaced the indigenous Tibetan nomads shows that the world is becoming more aware and active in supporting the cause of Tibet. Most recently, campaigns against BP Amoco for investing in China, outrage over Chinese plans to build a trans-Tibetan railroad, and resistence to China’s bid to host the 2008 Olympic Games also give us hope.

Why Should We Care About Tibet?
Tibet is suffering a deliberate genocide, both literal and cultural. We cannot turn a blind eye to this. But we have a selfish interest in Tibet’s survival as well. The interdependent nature of all life on this planet is becoming more and more evident. An environmental disaster in Tibet will affect all of us—indirectly at first, but directly in the not-too-distant future. We can no longer afford to consider Tibet to be an insignificant country somewhere on the other side of the earth—it is now in our backyard. The only way the world can survive is if we all take responsibility for everything everywhere—this is what Tibet has taught for centuries, and what it can teach us now. And unless we listen, and listen soon, it may be too late, not only for Tibet, but for all of us.

What Can We Do to Help?
We can see to it that Tibetans no longer suffer alone behind the Chinese wall of secrecy which has isoated them more effectively than any mountains. We can urge our elected officials, the United Nations, and the press, to reopen the case of Tibet in the court of world opinion.

To become active in the Tibetan cause, check the following links for information on current campaigns, upcoming demonstrations, and more details on the situation in Tibet.