Lhasa celebration a day of mourning for Tibetan exiles

May 23, 1991|By Robert Benjamin | Robert Benjamin,Sun Staff Correspondent

NEW DELHI, India -- If Ratuk Nawang's homeland is called "the land of snows," then his present home might be termed the land of unrelenting heat.

Mr. Nawang was born in Tibet, a place he remembers as "a sort of nirvana -- cool, green and peaceful."

But his home these days is a resettlement camp established for Tibetan exiles almost 30 years ago, a fetid warren of dusty shacks hard by the Yamuna River here where 110-degree temperatures are common this time of year.

Today in Lhasa, Tibet's capital, Chinese authorities will attempt to celebrate -- amid extensive security precautions -- the 40th anniversary of the signing of the agreement by which Tibet came under China's dominance.

In Mr. Nawang's settlement, however, and in the dozens of other communities across the world that constitute the Tibetan diaspora, today will be a day of mourning -- and of renewed determination to regain a lost land.

China's state media for the last several months have been pumping out a continual stream of reports underscoring the economic progress and freedom from feudal serfdom that China claims its rule has brought to Tibet.

A 220-foot-high monument to Tibet's "peaceful liberation" has been built in Lhasa.

But there also have been reports recently of a massive military buildup in Lhasa, of several protests by Tibetan nationalists, including an attack on an army arsenal, and of the arrests of more than 100 Tibetans. Foreign reporters are rarely allowed to visit Tibet, and none has been invited to observe the celebration.

"The prevailing situation in Tibet clearly exposes the Chinese claim about the success of their policy in Tibet," the Tibetan leader, the Dalai Lama, said in a statement from Dharamsala, the seat of his government in exile in northern India.

"The people of Tibet have nothing to celebrate but 40 years of ruthless Chinese military occupation, oppression, exploitation and untold suffering," he said.

Added Mr. Nawang, a former leader of guerrilla fighters who helped the Dalai Lama escape Tibet through high mountain passes into India after an abortive Tibetan revolt in 1959: "We know what we had in Tibet. In reality, the Chinese celebration is only the celebration of destruction."

Exiled Tibetans maintain that the agreement that China celebrates today was signed under duress, with a forged seal and without the Dalai Lama's consent. China denies this and insists that Tibet has been part of China since the 13th century.

China admits that Tibetan Buddhist monasteries were destroyed during the chaotic decade of the Cultural Revolution, but it has launched restoration efforts since the late 1970s and maintains that Tibetans now enjoy full religious freedom.

But exiled Tibetans have compiled evidence showing that 1.2 million of their countrymen have lost their lives under Chinese rule, beginning with the 87,000 who were killed during the 1959 uprising.

Most of Tibet's more than 6,000 monasteries still are in ruins.

Mr. Nawang, 63, who was a young monk in 1949 when China first invaded Tibet, says that China's "peaceful liberation" was from the start neither peaceful nor liberating.

"We came to know the real color of Chinese rule very quickly," he said. "There was a big difference between their words and their anti-religious practices."

His religious conviction led him to join a covert group that eventually became known as Chushi Gangdruk, or "four rivers, six ranges," the Tibetan epithet for the eastern regions where resistance to China first broke out.

Mr. Nawang vividly recalls leading fighters staving off the Chinese army as it pursued the fleeing Dalai Lama in southern Tibet in March 1959.

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