Loory: When it comes to a desire for individual freedom, the right to speak, to write or to practice religion according to one’s beliefs, the world knows no bounds. And so at its top, in the shadow of its highest mountains, the Himalayas, along plains that are sparsely populated, in cities and towns few Westerners will ever see, a small number of Tibetans have been protesting for freedom from the People’s Republic of China. The Communist Chinese, shortly after they won the civil war that gave them control of their country in 1951, invaded Tibet. They repressed the Buddhist religion, disbanded monasteries and have tried to force assimilation of ethnic Tibetans with the Chinese. The Tibetan leader, the Dalai Lama, fled the country in 1959 and now lives on the other side of the Himalayan Mountains in Dharamsala, India. He is a spiritual and political leader and is recognized as the reincarnation of authority that goes back to the 14th century. He preaches nonviolence in the search for freedom. In 1989, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. With international attention on China as it readies for the opening of the Olympic games in Beijing this summer, Buddhist monks in Tibet renewed demonstrations for freedom from the Chinese. Authorities put down the demonstrations with force, and some monks and others have died. It’s not possible to know specifics because Tibet is closed to international journalists. The world has watched with fascination the events in a country known for its serenity and peacefulness even while oppressed, but the world knows little about what is happening. What is going on in Lhasa and other cities in Tibet?
Dordee Dhondup, reporter, Tibet Times, Dharamsala, India: It started with a small incident on March 10. Some monks went to the police and wanted a peaceful demonstration, but the Chinese government took it seriously. That’s why other Tibetans got hurt, and slowly more Tibetans were involved. Tibetans are demanding freedom because Tibet is politically and historically theirs.
Loory: How does the situation look from Beijing?
Lin Shaowen, journalist, China Radio International, Beijing: The materials I’ve gathered point to a different picture. It wasn’t a peaceful march because people were carrying dangerous things. They burned shops. They looted, ransacked and targeted civilians. That points to a violent riot rather than a peaceful demonstration. These people are well organized. Chinese authorities say the Dalai Lama’s supporters plotted it.
Loory: How much attention are these incidents getting in New York?
Linda Fasulo, U.N. correspondent, NBC News, New York: The protests in Tibet are receiving little official attention. The United Nations Security Council has been characteristically silent. Part of that is explained by the fact that China has veto power on the Security Council. The Security Council presidency rotates each month from member to member. Currently Russia holds the presidency, and Vitaly Churkin went so far to say that it isn’t a matter for the Council. A guiding principle at the U.N. is that countries like to remain as far as they can from getting involved in the internal affairs of another country, and at the U.N., Tibet is still viewed legally as a part of China.
Dhondup: The Tibetan government and even the Dalai Lama have made it clear Tibet is not seeking independence from China, but it’s time to listen to the people inside Tibet. People are fed up and they want independence, not autonomy. Autonomy didn’t work for many years, and they don’t want to waste time and energy on things that aren’t going to work.
Loory: The Chinese have granted the Buddhist monks the right to do their thing, and they’ve granted the right to use the Tibetan language. It seems China has gone out of its way to grant some autonomy to Tibet. Why is that wrong?
Dhondup: My opinion is different because when I was in Tibet I had to learn Chinese as my first language and Tibetan as my second. My younger sister is studying at a university in China, and she has the same problem. When we talk with each other, we use our local Chinese language. So the Chinese aren’t giving Tibetans autonomy. It’s impossible to find a job if one doesn’t speak Chinese when Chinese is used as the only medium for teaching.
Lin: I stayed for several months in Tibet as a reporter. When we interviewed the locals, we had to hire a Tibetan to act as an interpreter because most of our interviewees spoke Tibetan rather than Chinese. The language is quite popular and widely used. I also heard people practicing Buddhism, so from my account, religion is practiced freely. The Dalai Lama’s previous speeches in the 1980s indicate he wanted greater autonomy rather than independence, meaning a region that incorporates the Tibetan region and other Tibetan-populated areas. Other ethnic groups have been living in those areas for hundreds of years. They want those non-Tibetans to leave and that kind of cleansing from one ethnicity to the other.
Loory: Is there any possibility the Chinese and the Tibetans can work things out so peace can be restored?
Fasulo: The U.N. probably won’t do anything direct unless things deteriorate to where there’s a real international outcry. Private diplomacy is going on, and perhaps it’s the best way to get things settled, whether it’s U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon meeting with the Chinese ambassador to express concern or others privately talking to the Chinese government.
Dhondup: In the past few years, the people were passionate because they thought something was going on between China and the Tibetan representatives of the Dalai Lama. Now we see that isn’t going anywhere, so people are fed up. We have to be true to ourselves. Tibetans want independence, nothing else.
Loory: From the Beijing perspective, is there any chance of reaching a settlement with Tibetan authorities that might bring peace to the area?
Lin: For the Chinese government, the door is always open. The negotiations have been going on through others. For example, the Dalai Lama’s older brother has visited China several times. The Tibetan local government has received several delegations of the Dalai Lama’s followers, which were organized to see what’s happening on the ground in Tibet. As long as the Dalai Lama gives up the independence cause, everything can be negotiable so that some settlement is reached for the benefit of the Tibetans.
Fasulo: The timing of this is interesting. While most nations are loathe to confront China because of its economic and military clout, China is in a vulnerable position because it doesn’t want to jeopardize the Olympics. There’s a chorus of activists in the Western world calling for a boycott of the Olympics. If China comes down harder in Tibet and if international public opinion turns against China, China could be very vulnerable. These Olympics are important to China, and China is under greater scrutiny and may have to go easy.
Loory: Years ago when we thought of Tibet, we thought of Shangri La, the mythical paradise in the misty mountains where a peaceful serenity prevailed. It’s now almost 50 years since Shangri La toppled to earth and that is sad not only in the mountains and for Tibetans, but for all of us.