One of the more poignant moments in the movie Kundun, Scorsese’s Biopic of the 14th Dalai Lama, is the scene where his holiness meets Mao. After the gracious Tibetan leader concedes to enact China’s socialist agenda, Mao contemptuously preaches that “Religion is Poison… like a drug it retards the minds of people and of society.” Of course, all the best lines are given to the young Lama whose faith to the Buddha, it is implied, is enough to liberate his people and ensure their survival. Mao is just a shallow ideologue, trampling brutishly on the sacred beliefs of a sect he cannot possibly understand.
There is good reason against choosing your political sympathies based on Hollywood movies. State propaganda agencies aren’t very helpful either. Last year, March 28th was marked as ‘Serf Emancipation Day’ in the People’s Republic of China, marking the anniversary of Chinese control of the Tibetan government which, or so the PRC claims, freed over a million serfs from generational debt slavery. Meanwhile, today’s Tibet is ranked 7 (the worst possible score) for both Civil Rights and Political liberties in Freedom house’s ‘Worst of the Worst’ list.
So which propaganda are we to believe, Hollywood’s or Beijing’s? You probably already know the Hollywood version.
Mao in Kundun
At the time of the Chinese invasion they argued that Tibet had historically always been a part of China, that the Himalayas were China’s natural defensive barrier and that Tibet, then a British protectorate, was falling under control of imperialists who wished to trap revolutionary China back under their influences. These justifications may seem less convincing now than they did in the aftermath of WW2 and revolution.
The modern Chinese argument is something different; that independent Tibet was a theocratic feudalism, lead by corrupt, incompetent leaders who were too involved in their own squabbles to stop the country’s suffering or start the progress into modernity. According to the Chinese version of history, Tibet was a technological and cultural backwater in which 90% of the population languished in absolute poverty. There are reports of slaves still being traded in the 21st century. “Old Tibet was dark and cruel, the serfs lived worse than horses and cattle,” says The twelfth Samding Dorje Phagmo, the highest female spiritual leader in Tibet. A controversial figure, her divinity is endorsed by the Dalia Lama but, by many, she is seen as a shill for the current Chinese regime.
The Chinese narrative claims that, after the invasion, the Tibetan region was given autonomy, but the Dalai Lama’s government tried to halt reforms to the feudal system. A rebellion started in support of the Lama, lead by the small nobility of Tibet which benefited from the old system. 18 days later, the rebellion was crushed and, so say the Chinese, all imperialist influence driven from the region. Hence the anniversary of ‘Serf Emancipation’.
It ‘s hard to find the truth of Tibetan history. This is partly because of the current political debates surrounding Chinese rule and the Tibetan government-in-exile, but also due to the strange and biased record keeping of the pre 1950’s Tibetans who appended history in order to bolster their own spiritual authority. Much of what we do know of pre-invasion Tibet is taken from the notes of Western explorers.
The invading Chinese probably didn’t know much about the social structures of Tibet at the time – they simply assumed that the treatment of the poor in Tibet was as bad as that of pre-revolutionary China. What we do know is that Tibet wasn’t the near Shangri-la that it is often portrayed as.
Let us take the story of Lungshar who was made the Tibetan ambassador to England. After the 13th Dalai Lama’s death in 1933, Lungshar pushed governmental reform based on constitutional monarchy. Lungshar was accused and convicted of attempting a coup by his conservative opponents. His eyes were removed.
Shortly before the Chinese invasion, the 5th Reting Rimpoche, an extremely influential abbot, launched a rebellion of his own against the current Dalai Lama. The uprising was put down and the Rimpoche imprisoned for treason. According to various reports he was tortured, strangled and poisoned. One jailer reported that his testicles were bound and beaten till he died. Another official who supported the rebellion had his eyes squeezed out.
According to Heirich Harrer, the German climber portrayed by Brad Pitt in the movie ‘Seven Years in Tibet’, there was no system of law courts in pre-occupation Tibet. Sentences were handed down by small groups of corrupt local noblemen. The accused could appeal to the Dalai Lama, but if the repeal was refused the punishment was doubled. Whipping was a regular punishment and, due to the lack of sanitary conditions or medical expertise available, could be fatal. Only in 1913 was the gouging of eyes and the cutting off of hands and feet banned by the 13th Dalai Lama, though these punishments were unofficially still practised. As Buddhism expressly forbids killing, especially of human beings, many criminals were tortured to the brink of death then left to die – a consequence that the near-executioners thought would be karmically disconnected from their torture.
Women did not fare well. Cheating wives had their noses cut off and women could be seized by creditors as payment for a debt. However, though considered inferior, women did enjoy some relative freedoms as they were considered unable to attain enlightenment and so not bound by some of the stricter religious restrictions.
However, as our fictionalised Mao pointed out, part of the problem the Chinese have is with the Tibetan religion itself – something we often confuse the practice of with the compassionate and democratic sentiments expressed by its most famous exponent, the Dalai Lama. There are many accusations to be levelled at the religion, a superstitious mix of the native Bon religion with Mahayana branch of Buddhism.
The Chinese claim that, like other religions, Tibetan Buddhism was used by the powerful to reinforce their power and keep their underlings in check. Oddly, the Chinese also criticise those in power for actually believing what they preached. The problem is that they were too busy studying mandalas and reciting mantras to get on with the serious business of reforming a country still immersed in dark age cruelties.
More recently, the Tibetan government in Exile has been criticised after the Dalai Lama banned the Dorje Shugden sect when his Oracle told him that worship of their deity would be a threat to his personal safety. Lists of practitioner’s names were made by the government-in-exile and followers were threatened and attacked by exiles and Monks. In India, a house of a family of Shugdun followers was burnt down. One of the Monks that supported the ban, Lobsang Gyatso, was murdered with two of his students in 1997. The Tibetan Government-in-exile suspects the Dorje Shugden for the murder and uses it as an excuse to further clamp down on practitioners.
More telling, however, is the Tibetan Government-in-exile’s response to this criticism: “Concepts like democracy and freedom of religion are empty when it comes to the well-being of the Dalai Lama and the common cause of Tibet.”
Steps have been taken by the Tibetan Government, both before the Chinese takeover and in exile, to support human rights and democratise their system. Certainly these two subjects, along with global peace, are the most frequent subjects that the Dalai Lama gives talks on.
Although there is a parliament-in-exile, the Dalai Lama’s position is guaranteed by the constitution and no decision has ever been taken against him. Certainly, there s no free-press to speak of for the Tibetans in exile. Ultimately the view emerges of a terrible social system tempered by the piety of both the leaders and the peasants in the gentle religion of the Buddha. As corrupt totalitarian systems go, it seems better to have Buddhists as dictators. But perhaps it is better yet to have modern democratic institutions, free press, human rights and a separation of church and state, something that cannot be achieved while the Tibetans are lead by an god-king incarnate.
Tibet has been able to rewrite its own history by branding itself as the anti-China: compassionate, peaceful and democratic, despite rarely embodying these virtues in practice. This is not to say that the conduct of the Chinese government should be overlooked. However it is important we not overlook Human rights abuses of the Tibetans just because the Chinese commit them too. It’s all well and good to ask for a ‘Free Tibet’ if you ignore how free it will be.