BBtv WORLD (Tibet): Inside Lhasa

Today’s episode of Boing Boing tv is a new installment of our “BBtv World” series, in which we bring you first-person accounts of life around the world. In this episode, I travel to Lhasa during an annual Tibetan Buddhist festival.

~ ~ ~ ~

The first thing that hits you when you arrive in Lhasa is just how close to the heavens you are. Literally. The average elevation in Tibet is 16,000 feet. The fact that this place is known as the “Roof of the World” makes sense as your newcomer lungs and blood struggle to adjust to the altitude.

Beijing says Tibet is historically part of China, not a sovereign nation. China’s army invaded Tibet in 1950. Years of bloody conflict followed. In 1959, Tibet’s traditional spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, fled into exile in India. China has governed over Tibet since then.

During the fourth lunar month in the Tibetan calendar, ethnic Tibetans celebrate the annual festival of Saga Dawa. Tibetan Buddhists believe that on the full moon in this month, in various years of his life, the Buddha was born, achieved enlightenment, and died.

A large armed police presence surrounded the festival during the year I shot the footage you’ll see in this episode. When we asked one pilgrim why, she said “Because when too many Tibetans gather in one place, they are afraid we’ll rise up.”

In 2008, Saga Dawa fell on the heels of a violent government crackdown on pro-independence protesters throughout Tibet, during the run-up to the Olympics. Thousands of armed troops filled Lhasa and outlying towns, and large numbers of “suspects” were rounded up and jailed. Widespread reports of human rights abuses filtered out, despite a virtual communications blackout. This year’s Saga Dawa festival also fell near the anniversary of the Tiananmen democracy protests, and authorities cited fears that this would inspire more protest in Tibet.

While first-person accounts were hard to come by, there were many reports of ethnic Tibetans being blocked from the traditional pilgimage route around Lhasa in the name of state security.

Previously on Boing Boing tv:

* Vlog (Xeni): Tibet report – monks forced to participate in staged videos.

* Vlog (Xeni): Tibet’s uprising and the internet

Previously on Boing Boing blog:

* Hacking the Himalayas (Xeni Tech / NPR)
*
Tradition vs. Change in ‘Lhasa Vegas’

About Xeni Jardin

Boing Boing editor/partner and tech culture journalist Xeni Jardin hosts and produces Boing Boing's in-flight TV channel on Virgin America airlines (#10 on the dial), and writes about living with breast cancer. Diagnosed in 2011. @xeni on Twitter. email: xeni@boingboing.net.
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23 Responses to BBtv WORLD (Tibet): Inside Lhasa

  1. monkey says:

    the blue buddha that you glimpsed in the footage is the medicine buddha (sangye menla) he is one of the more commonly seen buddhas and is distinguished by his monk’s robes, the witnessing gesture of his right hand, his left holding a bowl will with a medicinal elixer. occassionally, both of his hands rest in his lap holding the bowl.

  2. BDewhirst says:

    I’m in the process of re-reading the listed back-threads, but wish to reply to TMH/Mod at #7.

    I’ll attempt to re-cast a portion of my position in a more acceptable form without resort to analogy in the hopes of showing I’ve an actual position.

    Advocates for a Free Tibet seem to be arguing for an independent Tibet on the following grounds (if there are additional grounds, I would appreciate it if you could point them out for me.)
    a) That Tibet was invaded in 1950, and has a prior claim to independent status
    b) That present human rights violations necessitate independence
    c) That a majority of the Tibetan people desire independence

    I wish to question point a, as I believe China has a claim to Tibet for (at least) the following reason:

    Until 1913, a time of political unrest in China as well as the rest of the world for a variety of reasons including the Japanese invasion, Tibetan leaders (and to my knowledge, people) did not express a desire for independence. Since 1913, China has not accepted the arguments presented for independence at that time– that they were always independent. Although not able to control the region between 1913 and 1950, China maintained that it was a portion of its territory in rebellion. While I do not approve of the use of force to bring a portion of a country under control, I believe past international law with respect to such situations favors the territorial claims put forward by China.

    If there are contrary precedents where an ethnically/culturally distinct portion of a country declared independence at a time of turmoil in its host country, the host country never acceded to the claim of independence, sought to reassert control by military means subsequently, when it was able to do so, and the new smaller state was recognized by other states to be independent yet occupied only to later become independent, I’d like to hear it. Similarly, if China ever conceded control over Tibet between 1913 and 1950, I’d like to hear it, etc.

    Were such a principle of international law valid, it would have numerous consequences which proponents of Tibetan independence on these grounds may not be aware of. In many cases, I support those consequences on balance, but I object to treating Tibet as a special case.

    My apologies if this has been addressed in one of the (many) Tibet threads I have yet to read.

    • Antinous says:

      Until 1913, a time of political unrest in China as well as the rest of the world for a variety of reasons including the Japanese invasion, Tibetan leaders (and to my knowledge, people) did not express a desire for independence.

      Tibet was inaccessible at that time. It was functionally independent for its entire history until someone put in an airstrip and invented the machine to land on it. Since Tibet has become accessible and particularly since the opening of the railroad, it has been subject to the depredations of the Han. Independence from an Emperor living three months journey away is unlikely to be of much interest. Independence from an armed occupier who is killing your people in large numbers, exploiting your natural resources (which can now be removed by train), and suppressing your historic culture and language is a matter of surpassing importance to everyone.

      I object to treating Tibet as a special case.

      But it is the subject of this post, so that argument is irrelevant and in violation of the rule against “disingenuous concern for the plight of any and everyone except the subject of the post.”

  3. Nelson.C says:

    BDewhirst @8:

    Until 1913, a time of political unrest in China as well as the rest of the world for a variety of reasons including the Japanese invasion, Tibetan leaders (and to my knowledge, people) did not express a desire for independence.

    I wasn’t there, but I imagine that Tibetan leaders expressed something when the Mongols invaded in the 13th century. As they kicked out the Mongol viceroy in the next century, I don’t think I’m far wrong in imagining this latter action as an expression of a desire for independence.

    Of course, one of the dangers of appealing to history is that one can find all sorts of positions expressed at one time or another. In fact, if you go back to the 8th century, you can find a moment when the capital of China was occupied by Tibetan troops. On this basis perhaps we should be arguing that China belongs to Tibet rather than the opposite way around.

    But we don’t live in the eighth or twelfth or thirteenth centuries, nor even in 1913. We live in this century, where the Tibetans are being cruelly oppressed by the Chinese government in general and Chinese settlers in particular. Where many have expressed a desire for freedom from the rule of China, cruel or not. History doesn’t really have a lot to do with it. If the historical precedent was for the Tibetans to be ruled fairly or cruelly by the Chinese since Homo erectus first spread through Asia, it would still have no bearing on the desires of the Tibetans for self-rule. This is what they want now, and why should they not have it?

  4. Teresa Nielsen Hayden / Moderator says:

    Three comments in a row? What’s with that?

  5. BDewhirst says:

    As it happens, China has a better claim on Tibet than the United States has over much of its territory which it ceased from the native population.

    Conditions on Indian Reservations as compared to that of the general population in the US also unfavorably compare to the conditions in Tibet as compared with that of the general population in China.

    … but of course, Indians don’t have CIA support.

    Descriptions of Tibet prior to 1950 describe it as feudal… the Chinese would seem to have a stronger case as liberators of the Tibetan peasants as compared to the US government and the Indians.

  6. Takuan says:

    a stutter?

  7. BDewhirst says:

    Regardless of whether Tibet is the subject of the thread or not, whether proponents of its freedom treat it as a special case would seem to be relevant. Whthr dvccy f t dstrcts frm thr wrthy css wld ls sm rlvnt.

    Do you have any counter-examples in international law to offer?

    Do you dispute that for a long period of time the rulers of Tibet insisted they existed in a political relationship with the Emperor of China the nature of which they called into question in 1913?

    • Antinous says:

      Do you dispute that for a long period of time the rulers of Tibet insisted they existed in a political relationship with the Emperor of China the nature of which they called into question in 1913?

      Why are you asking a question that I’ve already addressed? If you have no new information or argument, then desist from repeating the same ones.

  8. Teresa Nielsen Hayden / Moderator says:

    Here’s my own question (and mind, I’m not asking it about BDewhirst, whom I have no reason to believe is duplicitous): Who is formulating these pro-China arguments? People who know enough history to come up with them must also recognize how shaky they are. Why stake out a position that’s so hard to defend?

    It’s hard not to wonder whether the position didn’t come first, so that the supporting arguments aren’t a record of how you arrived at that position, but just a road built to deliver you to a predetermined location.

  9. glamajamma says:

    There may been a government crackdown because of the tendency for rioting.
    http://edition.cnn.com/2008/WORLD/asiapcf/03/14/tibet.unrest/

  10. BDewhirst says:

    (Since my attempt to extract myself from the conversation has been deleted…)

    Countries are born and die, merge and split. China’s claim to Tibet is every bit as valid as Russia’s claim to Finland.

    No nation has recognized Tibet as an independent country in the last 300 years, with the exception of Mongolia at a time when it wasn’t recognized as an independent nation either. (Subsequently, Mongolia was recognized by the British.)

    China’s territorial claim to Tibet is every bit as valid as the United States’ claim to New Mexico.

    As Nelson has pointed out, if the Mongols invaded in the 13th century it was hardly inaccessible in the late 19th century.

    As for the cultural diffusion argument, does this mean that Canada is a part of the United States because we have a mutual cultural influence? Does this indicate Japan should still be in charge of China because of their mutual cultural influences? Does this indicate Tibet should be a part of China because Tibetans have adopted some aspects of Chinese culture?

    Some consideration of the relative populations may also be in order… one wouldn’t necessarily expect a population of six million to have a disproportionate impact on one billion people.

    Nor is it the case that a country must be composed of a single language or culture to be one nation.

    There may be many fine arguments for Tibetan independence on the grounds of points B or C, but the world’s governments seem convinced that Tibet is a part of China. Perhaps this international consensus lies behind the reason people question the treatment of Tibetan independence in the media.

  11. BDewhirst says:

    Fine, I give up.

  12. BDewhirst says:

    You’re basing your argument on the question of whether someone in authority in Tibet went on record as “expressing a desire for independence” before 1913?

    That is a far-fetched argument. It is not robust. To put it mildly.

    I’m basing my argument on their being no suggestion Tibet was not a part of China until a single declaration in 1913.

    We aren’t talking about a game of “Mother, May I.” These are real people, with real lives and a unique culture.

    The consequences of that are not relevant to my point, A. It may be relevant to B or C. I do not necessarily share your opinion of the beneficial effects on the Tibetan people and culture of pursuing independence.

  13. Teresa Nielsen Hayden / Moderator says:

    GlamaJamma, rioting is not an unmotivated spontaneous behavior.

  14. BDewhirst says:

    But you never quoted any international law. You just referred to its existence, and said it was on your side.

    What I cited were a bunch of situations where the international laws, whatever they might be, were clearly not in line with what China’s doing in Tibet.

    I didn’t quote any international law, you’re right.

    How about the international consensus of world governments that Tibet is a part of China?

    In many of the clearer examples you cited, there is a small group of individuals who holds that borders are not what a state, national, or international consensus holds it to be. In each case, you are suggesting that the minority who hold the borders to be X are incorrect as they have no standing.

    I’m simply saying that you are correct, but it is the Tibetan protesters who have the position inconsistent with history.

    Whether Tibet _should_ be independent has little bearing on whether Tibet _was_ independent.

  15. Teresa Nielsen Hayden / Moderator says:

    BDewhirst @8:

    Advocates for a Free Tibet seem to be arguing for –

    If they aren’t arguing about it on Boing Boing, in this thread, I don’t see why we should have to wade through your counterarguments here. If it’s appropriate to make those arguments, do it on their home ground.

    I wish to question point a, as I believe China has a claim to Tibet for (at least) the following reason:

    Until 1913, a time of political unrest in China as well as the rest of the world for a variety of reasons including the Japanese invasion, Tibetan leaders (and to my knowledge, people) did not express a desire for independence.

    You’re basing your argument on the question of whether someone in authority in Tibet went on record as “expressing a desire for independence” before 1913?

    That is a far-fetched argument. It is not robust. To put it mildly.

    We aren’t talking about a game of “Mother, May I.” These are real people, with real lives and a unique culture.

    Also, prior to 1913, independence wasn’t even an issue, since Tibet had always had the default independence of inaccessibility. Arguing otherwise is like saying we have no legal interest in access to open source software because no one expressed any desire for it in 1963.

    Since 1913, China has not accepted the arguments presented for independence at that time–that they were always independent.

    Yeah, and Great Britain has periodically been under the impression that they own Ireland. All China’s refusal means is that it doesn’t serve their interests to acknowledge the independence of Tibet. It doesn’t mean they own Tibet.

    New Jersey thinks they own Liberty Island. Argentina thinks they own the Falklands. On questions like who owns Cyprus, Kosovo, or Palestine, things get really complicated. And yet, in none of those other cases do we automatically accept a flat assertion of ownership based on historical interest. Square and cube that if the locals insist it’s not true. So why should we give China a freebie?

    By the way: if Tibet is historically part of China, why isn’t it a bigger presence in their culture? We accept that Japan, Korea, and Vietnam aren’t part of China, yet they show far more evidence of long-term pervasive contact with China. Their languages are strongly influenced by Chinese. Their writing systems are derived from it. Tibetan language shows a lot less Chinese influence, and their script traces back to Canaanite and Phoenician, same as ours. When the Chinese empire stretched almost to the Urals, Tibet still wasn’t part of that — it was the next empire over. Various European powers were carving up Poland at about the same time that China militarily got the upper hand over Tibet, but the Mitteleuropeans have repeatedly been made to give Poland back.

    Forgive me if I have this wrong, but I’ve been under the impression that China only really started caring about hegemony in Tibet when Tibet got friendly with Great Britain, in the early 20th C.

    Although not able to control the region between 1913 and 1950,

    And in how many years can China be said to have controlled Tibet at all? It’s hardly a new event in the two countries’ long history.

    China maintained that it was a portion of its territory in rebellion.

    So? Allow me to point out, for the sake of the example, that that overlaps the period in which Chiang Kai-Shek maintained that he was the ruler of China. For that matter, Joshua Norton used to maintain that he was Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico.

    It’s easy to maintain that something is so. It need have no relationship with reality.

    While I do not approve of the use of force to bring a portion of a country under control,

    Stop right there. You have never established that Tibet is a part of China, and frankly, I don’t think the point is capable of being established. What China is doing in Tibet cannot be described as putting down an internal rebellion, or restoring domestic order. That’s like claiming you’re settling a family disagreement when you’re beating the crap out of your second cousin who lives in the next county.

    I believe past international law with respect to such situations favors the territorial claims put forward by China.

    I think it’s obvious — see my earlier remarks — that international law does no such thing.

  16. Teresa Nielsen Hayden / Moderator says:

    BDewhirst, I mistrust any argument whose chief support is “yeah, well look what the US did to the American Indian.” It’s like comparing something to “the church’s position on sex during the Middle Ages”: a single short invocation of such a complex, diverse, and non-unitary subject that the comparison says far less than it appears to; yet one which most or all hearers will imagine they comprehend. Furthermore, if what you’re reaching for is the standard set of cliches about Indians vs. Europeans (which has bleep-all relevance here), that’s hardly an encouraging standard. Tossing in “the CIA” on top of that mess is a slightly different maneuver in much the same style: multiplying one undefined value by another, then pretending the result is knowable and meaningful, when in fact it’s neither.

    These are old worn stage props, not new arguments.

  17. Bledsoefilms says:

    No doubt, there are countless numbers of situations throughout the world, and even in our own backyard that mirror many of the concerns that have been expressed over Tibet. However, that does not mean that we should turn a blind eye to the plight of a people whose voices have by and large been silenced by a militant power.

    If you’re only response is “the American Indians have it worse,” then you’ve completely missed the point. Tibet is the subject of this post- American Indians will certainly be the subject of future posts as it that is a particular subject that is close to my heart.

    Why treat Tibet as a special case? We’re don’t, and neither do the people who support freedom for Tibet. You can’t fight every battle- you CHOOSE your battles, and some have chosen to support Tibet. Some will choose to support the people of Darfur, some will choose to support the Ojibwe nation. Our aim is to highlight all of those concerns, but we can only do that one at a time.

    The biggest reason we’re choosing to cover Tibet now is A- the Olympics have had a particular impact on the people of Tibet, and B- communication in and our of the country has almost been completely cut off. The circulation of information can be the greatest weapon a people can have against drastic adversity. Really, that is what BBtv World is all about.

    Cheers,
    Derek Bledsoe
    Segment Producer, BBTv

  18. Anonymous says:

    My google fu seems to be lacking. I was curious if anyone could explain if there is a significance to the buddha being painted blue? If that is a depiction of buddha, it was kinda hard for me to tell.

  19. Antinous says:

    1913 is a great year to pick. The USSR hadn’t even formed, let alone broken up. Dozens of countries which were ‘part of Russia’, in some cases for centuries, are now independent republics with native languages and the whole smorgasbord of nationhood. The Austro-Hungarian Empire was a serious power in Europe. The Ottoman Empire dominated a Middle East consisting not of countries, but of sandjaks like Nejd and Hijaz. Africa was almost fully colonial. The US had 48 states, Arizona and New Mexico having just joined the party in 1912. Italy had been united only 42 years previously, Germany only 32 years. Yugoslavia – born 1918, died 1990. Norway was born in 1905, Finland in 1917.

    Countries are born and die, merge and split. China’s claim to Tibet is every bit as valid as Russia’s claim to Finland.

  20. Teresa Nielsen Hayden / Moderator says:

    BDewhirst @10:

    Do you have any counter-examples in international law to offer?

    But you never quoted any international law. You just referred to its existence, and said it was on your side.

    What I cited were a bunch of situations where the international laws, whatever they might be, were clearly not in line with what China’s doing in Tibet.

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