Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Tibet is Not a “Cultural Experience”

The following guest post is by "Chiwa," a western woman who hopefully will become a regular contributor.

In college classrooms around the country, professors and administrators insist that Tibetan organizations (like their particular branches of Students for a Free Tibet) are not "aggressive" or "hostile", that they focus on "spreading awareness of the issues" and Tibetan culture rather than Tibetan politics.

Of course, it's really difficult to paint an accurate picture of what the "issues" are in Tibet when focusing on things like prayer flags, moos and the smiling, friendly face of His Holiness the XIV Dalai Lama. The word “Tibet” is, at its very nature, a polarizing word. “Tibet,” as the People’s Republic of China allows it to exist, is known as the Tibetan Autonomous Region, or TAR. The TAR was created in 1965.

The word "Tibet" is, at its very nature, a polarized word. "Tibet," as the People's Republic of China allows it to exist, is known as the Tibetan Autonomous Region, or TAR. The TAR was created in 1965.

In this illustration by the BBC, the Tibetan Autonomous Region is the very light beige area. The green line, extending into the Chinese provinces of Qinghai, Sichuan, and parts of Gansu and Yunnan, is often referred to as “historical” Tibet. In these areas, the vast majority of people are “ethnically” Tibetan.

In this illustration, the Chinese provinces are given alternate (and rightful) names— a majority of what is known as Qinghai is actually the Tibetan province of Amdo, and the Tibetan province of Kham exists in the Chinese province of Sichuan.

When the Yushu earthquake occurred in 2010 (om mani padme hum), there were many facts that were wrongly reported by the Western media—including the mislabeling of the victims as "Chinese."

The earthquake originated in what is known as the Yushu Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, where, according to the Yushu Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture Statistics Bureau in 2005, 97.25% of the population is Tibetan, with the next largest ethnic group being Han at 2.56%. The vast majority of the victims were not Chinese—they were Tibetan (Khampa).

It’s hard to claim that you’re “spreading awareness about the issues” when the issues aren’t even being discussed. Another year passes and “Seven Years in Tibet” is screened again instead of more revolutionary material, such as Dhondup Wangchen’s film “Leaving Fear Behind”, for which he is still imprisoned.

Violently splitting Tibetan culture from Tibetan politics and the history of the Chinese invasion in order to make the truth taste a little sweeter, the tragedy a little less brutal, is an injustice. Maybe we think that if we don’t aggressively pursue the issue, we are more likely to arouse new supporters—and I will buy this to a certain extent, because the issues of Tibet are vast. The crimes committed against the Tibetan people are not merely religious or political in nature; their lifestyles are being forcibly changed, their land is being destroyed, and in exile they face numerous issues ranging from health issues to language and cultural barriers.

I’m not interested in a “cultural experience.” Stop trying to raise awareness about the culture, stop trying to keep the Tibetan culture alive—if you’re not a Tibetan, it is not your culture to save. We should be working with them, rather than touting their culture as something unique and on the verge of extinction so we should hurry up and see it while it lasts.

Painting Tibet as a “cultural experience” is serious erasure. The image of Tibet may never recover, if college administrators (and others) do everything in their power to deny the fact that “Tibet” is a political issue at its very heart.

“Twenty years ago, when the public didn’t know the first thing about Tibet, we used to pray and dream that somehow Tibet would become a household word. If people knew the truth, we believed, they would come forth and intervene. Tibet would be saved. Now Tibet was indeed a household word, but China had imposed its will, transformed it. Beyond our worst nightmares.” (one of the women in Sky Train: Tibetan Women on the Edge of History by Canyon Sam)