Elisabeth Martens was interviewed by Bénito Perez for Le Courrier in Geneva on 27 March 2008. Here is the entire interview in which she directly answers all questions on the history, recent events, repression, the Dalai Lama, and the social problems of Tibet.
Speaking of dissident voices, this is an article which sheds light on what’s going on in Tibet. Be warned…it does not take a pro-Tibetan independence position, which is what makes it interesting. We also get a view of Tibetan history we aren’t often told about.
Bénito Perez: Can you briefly introduce yourself? How did you become interested in Tibet and China?
Elizabeth Martens: I spent three years in China, after studying biology in Belgium, in order to specialize in traditional Chinese medicine. Of course, I took advantage of my stay there to travel throughout China-from north to south, and east to west. One of my trips in 1990 took me for the first time to a Tibetan region (i.e., inhabited by Tibetans), XiaHe in Gansu, to the great Tibetan Buddhist monastery of Labulang. I was surprised by the ease with which one could make contact with the Lamas who walked the streets and shopped at the corner grocery store; it was far from the image of our own monks who were cloistered behind their walls.
I was also surprised by the difference between the Chinese Buddhas, round as teapots mildly brewing on the stove, smiling, jolly, and the Tibetan Buddhas, much more imposing. And still more surprised to find in the Tibetan temples an incredible quantity of representations of the gods, of monsters, of Bodhisattvas, and such, one more ferocious and frightening than the next. I found that, in a certain way, this was a lot like what you find in the chamber of horrors in our churches, men impaled, crucified, or thrown into pots of boiling oil, and so on. Nothing like what is in Chinese art: in Chinese thought, and thus in the arts of China, suffering and the means by which it is brought about are not central preoccupations. From what must one free oneself at the moment when one realizes that suffering is only the flip side of well-being? I found in the Tibetan regions, where I returned several times after that (the last time in the summer of 2007), a very different culture from the Chinese. This difference seemed interesting to me: how could a country as huge as China (larger than all of Europe) reconcile 55 nationalities, each speaking its own language, especially with the disproportionate presence of the Han (about 90% of the population of China) as compared to the other nationalities?
The strain of Bhuddism which made its way into China was different from the one which became known as Tibetan Bhuddism. It’s also interesting to hear about the Han making up 90% of a multi-cultural China (with a population of ~1.3 billion people, that means ~130 million non-Han live in China, which means roughly the same number of people as the population of Pakistan). When we consider China, we should keep this in mind.
BP: What happened, according to your information (and what are your sources?), recently in those regions of China populated by Tibetans?
EM: The violence which went down in Lhasa on 14 March 2008 was perpetrated by groups of Tibetan demonstrators. The testimony of foreigners present at the time was in agreement on this point: the aggression targeted the Chinese (the Han) and the Hui, a majority of whom are Muslims. Some people were burned alive, others were beaten, stabbed or stoned to death. The weapons used were Molotov cocktails, stones, iron bars, shanks and butcher knives. There were 22 dead and more than 300 wounded, nearly all were Hui and Han. These were criminal acts of a racist character. Serge Lachapelle, a tourist from Montreal, said: “The Muslim quarter was completely destroyed, not a single store was left standing.”
That’s not been part of the narrative has it. Now, we need to take this with a grain of salt, as Elisabeth Martens will probably be labled as an apologist for the Chinese government, but we also need to consider that the news we’ve gotten has probably been filtered via a media viewpoint that is anti-China and pro-Tibet. Is it possible that the Chinese accounts of what happened are closer to the truth or that the truth is a hodgepodge of both?
EM: By the 18th of March, the Dalai Lama declared at a press conference that “the events in Tibet got out of control and that he is prepared to resign if the violence continues.” He added that “these acts of violence are suicidal.” It did not stop, just a few days later, through a strange bit of scheduling, US Senate Majority Leader Nancy Pelosi, from showing up in Dharamsala for an official visit to the 14th Dalai Lama. She spoke of the events in Tibet as “a challenge to the conscience of the world” and demanded that China send and independent international commission to Tibet to verify the Chinese accusation that “the clique of the Dalai Lama was behind the violence”, and to check on “the manner in which the Chinese are treating their Tibetan prisoners.” This is one of the strategies used by the US: to force China to accept the teams of inspectors who carry the cachet of “Human Rights”, or to be able to say that China refused to accept them. There is no one better suited to pull off such a plan than the Dalai Lama: in his speech of 10 March, he had already demanded that China demonstrate “a greater transparency.”
Not that independent verification is a bad thing, but what’s considered to be independent? I might accept Scott Ritter or someone like that, but I wouldn’t trust the US government. The Dalai Lama is looking out for Tibet’s interest (if not his own), so I would expect this from him.
BP: The general analysis of the riots has been that they were “a reaction to the colonization of Tibet by the Chinese”? There has even been talk of genocide? What’s up with this?
EM: When we speak of the “colonization” of one country by another, there should be, at least, two countries. In this particular case, we should remember that Tibet has never been recognized as an “independent country”. In the 13th century, the Mongols annexed Tibet to China, and in the 18th century the Manchus divided the Chinese empire into 18 provinces, Tibet being one of them. At the end of the 19th century, the British Empire invaded Tibet and installed their trading posts.
~800 years as part of China. ~700 years as a province in China. This puts a different spin on ‘Free Tibet.’ Now, crackdowns are awful, and it would be better if China didn’t do this. However, if Tibet has been part of China for ~800 years it might make some sense that China would want Tibet to remain part of it.
EM: This happened under the reign of the 13th DL, who saw in the British occupation of Tibet an opportunity to claim independence. The basis for this was what was called “Greater Tibet”, a territory five times the size of France, about a third of China, and which corresponds more or less (because there were no maps at this time) to the territory of Tibet at the end of the Tubo dynasty of the 9th century. But China at the beginning of the 20th century had just come out of a territorial auction in which it had ceded a number of “concessions” to Western countries. To give up a third of its territory was to sign it own death warrant. So this demand for independence was inconceivable. That is to say that neither the UN nor any of its member states ever recognized Tibet as an independent country. This is an initial answer to your question.
Greater Tibet would dismember China. It’s a fascinating idea, and it even fits into what’s happening in other parts of the world (the latest example is Kosovo). Does each ethnic/religious/native group deserve it’s own homeland? Our country would look much different if we decided so.
EM: A second answer is that when we use the term “colonization”, it implies that the invading country profits from the assets of the invaded country. But, if we consider the last fifty years in Tibet, we notice the opposite phenomenon. The Tibetan population has tripled thanks to the health care system and the rapid improvement of living standards. Which was, in fact, not difficult to achieve given the disastrous conditions under which 90% of the Tibetans lived under the theocratic regime of the Dalai Lamas. In any case, this improvement was not as fast as in the larger Chinese cities, which, with their gleaming spires, have made the whole world believe that China has turned capitalist. It’s crazy what you can make people believe with a few sequins, some lights and some big store windows. To answer your second question, about genocide, we must once more go back into history. In 1949, with the advent of the Peoples Republic of China, the Chinese government chose to set the odometer back to zero: all foreigners and foreign influences were shown the door, and all the borders were reasserted, even those in distant provinces like Tibet. In 1956, an armed rebellion was organized in several Tibetan monasteries (e.g., Litang and Drepung): the Peoples Republic of China targeted the Tibetan dignitaries, those of the clergy in particular. And so it was this part of the population that began to flee into India and which would make up the Tibetan community in exile (just as the exodus for Taiwan was made up mainly of the larger Chinese families).
Hmmmm. We fought a civil war to keep the Union together. The Scots are still part of the United Kingdom (although it looks like there may be an amicable parting of the ways there). The Catalans and Basques are still part of Spain. Perhaps China sees Tibet in the same light.
EM: This armed rebellion was from its beginnings financially and logistically supported by the CIA. For what reason? All you have to do to understand this is read a report by the US State Dept from April 1949: “Tibet has become strategically and ideologically important. Since the independence of Tibet could serve the struggle against communism, it is in our interests to recognize Tibet as independent. (…) However, it is not Tibet that interests us, it is the attitude we must adopt toward China.” It doesn’t get much clearer than that! The armed rebellion, which began in the monastery in Litang, spread in waves to Lhasa, where the most important action took place, and was put down by the Red Army in 1959. After this event, it was of great importance to the US to conduct public opinion to believe that there was a genocide, and that’s why the figure of 1.2 million dead was put out by the Tibetan Buddhist authorities in exile.
The CIA involved in an armed rebellion against a nation we’re not friends with? Who’d have thought it? More to the point, how often do we hear about the CIA being involved with Tibet?
BP: The violence of the demonstrations does not jibe with the pacifism advocated by the DL. Why?
EM: The DL and his entourage carry the banner of pacifism and have cultivated the image of tolerance and compassion that has come to be associated with Tibetan Buddhism, or so it is believed in the West, right? Yet the DL still takes time to stir up public opinion over the peaceful demonstration of 300 monks from Drepung in the streets of Lhasa on the 10th of March and immediately charges the Chinese police with repression (and it should be noted here in passing that-and anyone who has been to Tibet can confirm this-the forces of order are essentially made up of Tibetans and depend very little on the Chinese). When these violent acts had reached a level of unspeakable barbarity, he quickly distanced himself from the events. What role did he play in the events? To determine this, you have to look at who profited from these riots: neither the Chinese, nor the six million Tibetans living in China. The riots essentially served to stir up public opinion over China’s Human Rights violations, the lack of freedom of expression, and the various repressions that we charge the Chinese government with. So, this uprising served to give China a terrible image, and this just before the Olympics were to gather the world press in Peking.
A political black eye for the Chinese heading into the Olympics. Now, I think that they probably deserve many black eyes, but isn’t it interesting that this is happening now. And, isn’t it interesting that the Olympics are being used as a political football, both by China and those opposed to their style of government?
BP: Isn’t this an expression of real discontent?
EM: Yes, of course. What I’ve been describing so far is the “outside” instigators of the riots. But it’s obvious that if there weren’t a “suitable situation” on the ground, the instigators couldn’t instigate anything. As I said, the internal reasons are essentially economic, and therefore social. First, we must remember that mass education in Tibet didn’t begin until the 60s, which explains why Tibet is behind the rest of the country. What this means is that the first university students or advanced technicians in Tibet did not start working until the 80s, about 10 years later than the Han Chinese (and 10 years in China is like 100 years for us!). This is a disadvantage that they still have not made up. This disadvantage at the level of training, as well as in the type of work offered to each group, explains why all the “important” positions are held by the Chinese.
Economic discontent as a reason for breaking away from a country? Maybe Michigan will become part of Canada!
BP: Didn’t China annex Tibet? Can we deny the existence of a national claim for Tibet, for a “Tibetan nation” distinct from China?
EM: As I said earlier, Tibet was annexed to China by the Mongols, that is, during the period when the Mongols extended their empire into China (13th century). When China regained control of its empire, with the Mings, from the 14th to the 16th centuries, it pretty much lost all interest in that distant Tibetan region and Tibet remained “passively” annexed to China. Then the Manchus took over China and made Tibet a Chinese province. This tactic was repeated by the British and then by the US.
The article points out that if you are looking for a ‘free and independent’ Tibet, you have to go back to the “Tubo dynasty that ruled Tibet from the 7th to the 9th centuries.” Split Europe back up to how it was that far back! We can only guess what North America would be like.
BP: Today, can the Tibetans live according to their culture/religion?
EM: Tibetans are for the most part very devout, that can be seen in their daily life: the stone mills turn lightly, we see them kneeling in front of the temples from morning till night, on the highways we regularly encounter pilgrims en route to Lhasa, prayer flags around their necks, the monasteries are packed with monks, even very young children (which is forbidden by Chinese law), bank notes piled up at the feet of the Buddhas, in the distance we can hear the sounds of trumpets and mantras.
We’re fed the view that Tibet is not allowed to follow their religious and cultural traditions. It sounds like this is not the case.
PB: How do you explain the very pro-Tibetan feelings in the West, especially in the media?
EM: Public opinion follows the media, and the media obey the economic interests. Don’t we live in an economic dictatorship here at home? Censorship is as real here as it is anywhere, but just better hidden. In the West, you are not locked up in prison for your opinions, but rather in your head, then in the illnesses that ensue. I wonder sometimes which is worse. So your actual question becomes: “How do you explain the pro-Tibetan feelings conveyed by our economic system?” Neither the US nor Europe fully appreciates the dazzling advances made by China on the world stage. All the plans are in place to bring it down: “We have to raise hell during the Peking Olympics!” squeals Danny Cohn-Bendit in his speech before a plenary session of the EU parliament on how Europe must act toward China. And this, not even a week after the events that lit up downtown Lhasa! It is so monstrous, yet that shows in a very simple way that the “big world of diplomacy and high finance” doesn’t have a solution for the Tibetan problem, and what is really important for them is to “raise hell in China.”
A propaganda campaign. It wouldn’t be the first time, now will it be the last.
BP: Is there a geo-strategic dimension to this? What is the role of the Dalai-Lama?
EM: The geo-strategic dimension is at the very heart of the problem, certainly, and has been since the beginning of the 20th century. We must not forget that Europe held many “concessions” in China at the beginning of the 20th century, and that Tibet was, so to speak, under British trusteeship. When the communists took power, it put an end to this semi-colonization. I don’t believe we here in the West have fully accepted that. Since the end of the Second World War, the US has tried to pick up the colonialist torch with the Cold War as its justification. Tibet and the DL became the two main war horses for the US’s assaults to divide China.
The article contains much more, including critiques of the way Tibet was ruled over in it’s feudal system, as well as the current Chinese government. The article is a point-of-view that we rarely get to hear here in the West. Is there a solution to Tibet’s struggle with the Chinese? Is an autonomous region still within China a workable answer? What would be expected territorially should Tibet break free from China? These are all fascinating questions, and it will be interesting to watch how things play out.
Originally posted here: http://rjones2818.blogspot.com/2008/…