Stop ignoring the plight of Tibetans

“Human existence, if used destructively, has the potential to annihilate everything we know,” said the Dalai Lama.

On Feb. 3, 1992, Lobsang Choedon, a Buddhist nun, walked in her burgundy robes to Jokhang, Tibet’s most sacred temple. She and five other nuns prayed there, concluding with the chant, “Long live His Holiness the Dalai Lama. Independence for Tibet. Peace to the world.”

Moments later, police had Choedon on the floor of a van, where they beat her and kicked her with metal-toed boots. Later, at the jail, police used a 7,000 volt cattle prod to shock her mouth, face and arms repeatedly. She was 16. Three of the other nuns arrested were tortured to death.

Considering the plight of many Tibetans, Choedon was lucky. One torture method involves the police hanging monks from the ceiling and dealing blows with chains, metal rods and wooden sticks spiked with nails. Oftentimes, police ram high voltage cattle prods into prisoners’ mouths, rectums and vaginas. Sixty-four-year-old Palden Gyatso was confined to a concrete box the size of a coffin for up to five months at time while serving a 33-year prison sentence.

These horror stories are only the most obvious effects of China’s effort to eradicate Tibet’s culture and nationality, both stemming from the land’s ancient Buddhist religion. When China initiated a campaign to thwart that culture in 1949, the Buddhist foundation was targeted, causing the entire nation to collapse into China’s hands. Before the invasion, 6,259 monasteries served as centers from which entire villages radiated. Only eight of those original monasteries remain today.

In addition to blatant destruction, China imposes a system of “re-education” by which Tibetan children are taught with Chinese Communist Party propaganda as their textbooks. China forbids Tibetan teachers to speak in their native tongue for more than one class per day. Phasing-in the Chinese language and Communist teachings, China forces its own culture on the next generation of Tibetans, while erasing the nation’s rich heritage from the collective memory.

Since Tibet refuses to resort to violence, China has the nation treading down a course to extinction. By ignoring the cultural genocide that currently plagues Tibet, the United States has helped to carve that path. The past few days’ meetings between President Clinton and Chinese leader Jiang Zemin probably placed little or no emphasis on the subject of Tibet.

During his first year in office, Clinton granted China most favored nation trade status, but warned that unless conditions in Tibet improved, China would lose that status. Three years later, as Tibet continues to vanish, China continues to enjoy the low tariffs that come with its exclusive status. Jiang saw this move as a step toward permanently cementing China’s place as a MFN, a signal that the United States would abandon its pledge of a resolution focusing on China’s human rights record.

Secretary of State Madeleine Albright’s announcement in July that she would appoint a special coordinator to monitor United States policy toward Tibet at least marked an acknowledgment of the nation’s existence. But the newly-created position remains vacant.

To salvage what’s left of Tibet, the United States must do something drastic – take Tibet seriously. In the face of the nation’s economic irrelevance, we must prevent yet another genocide. If sanctions are too extreme, Clinton needs to at least stop treating China like economic royalty. The United States must encourage talks proposed by the Dalai Lama with Jiang, or surely Tibet will sink in its current stagnation.

To Jiang, this country’s age-old stand on human rights is undoubtedly a grand bluff. And before we set to the task of convincing China that the situation in Tibet must improve, we must first convince ourselves.

-Dan Gilgoff wrote this on behalf of the Students for a Free Tibet.

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