Why Tibet Matters

His Holiness the Dalai Lama is in London this week to receive the Templeton Prize in recognition of his outstanding achievements and spiritual wisdom.

Tibet has a long-standing connection to Britain. Prior to the Chinese invasion in 1949-50, Britain was the only country to formally recognize Tibet as an independent nation. British representatives were stationed in Lhasa from 1904 to 1947 to liaise with the Tibetan government. In 1949 the newly-victorious leader of the China Communist Party Mao Zedong announced, over the radio waves, his intention to "liberate" Tibet from this "foreign imperialism."

Over the past 60 years, Tibet has been anything but "liberated" by the Chinese Communist Party.

On the 10th of May I delivered two reports to 10 Downing Street. The reports, by the Society for Threatened People and the International Campaign for Tibet, document the devastating impact of Chinese Communist Party rule in Tibet.

I appealed to Prime Minister David Cameron to support the Tibetans at this critical time in their struggle.

In recent months we have seen harrowing images and footage of Tibetans who have set fire to themselves as a form of protest. Since February, 2009, 35 Tibetans have sacrificed themselves, in an act of desperation, which emerges from the anguish of oppression. Tibetans who have self-immolated include monks, nuns, a 19-year old female student, a widowed mother of four, and a Tibetan reincarnate lama in his forties.

This is one of the most significant waves of self-immolation for the past 60 years, eclipsing the number of self-immolation protests by Vietnamese monks, those associated with the Vietnam War and the pro-democracy movement in South Korea.

"Tibetans are standing up to the vast and expanding power of the Chinese state with nonviolent resistance through religious practice, song, literature, and even self-immolation. They are struggling to preserve their religion and cultural identity. As a consequence they are subjected to imprisonment, torture, deprivation and worse. Yet they persevere. Their bravery should serve as a call to action."

The Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hahn has observed, "To burn oneself by fire is to prove that what one is saying is of the utmost importance."

Although we do not know the last words of all the Tibetans who have poured kerosene over themselves and lit a match, we do know that most have died offering prayers for the Dalai Lama to return home, and for freedom in Tibet.

It is time for us to listen to what Tibetans inside Tibet are saying. It is time for the international community to listen to them and to act.

Over the past four years, the Chinese government has engaged in a comprehensive cover-up of the torture, disappearances and killings that have taken place across Tibet. They have engaged upon a virulent propaganda offensive against the Dalai Lama.

On the international stage, Beijing has subverted and politicized international forums where its human rights record has been challenged and refused to answer legitimate questions from governments about the use of lethal force against unarmed protestors, or the welfare of individual detainees.

Over the past 60 years, the Chinese government has instituted increasingly hard line policies that undermine Tibetan culture and religion. The Tibetan people have been denied freedom of expression. Their language has been downgraded. And their economic resources have been misappropriated by the Chinese state, with increasing numbers of Chinese migrants moving to the Tibetan plateau.

China's economic strategies are literally re-shaping the Tibetan landscape and endangering the fragile ecosystem of the world's largest and highest altitude plateau. The survival of one of the world's only remaining systems of sustainable pastoralism is under threat, as nomads are being displaced from their ancestral lands and settled into remote concrete encampments under an urbanization drive.

Why should Tibet matter? It matters because of the terrible suffering of its people, and because of the need for this ancient religion and the Tibetan cultural identity to survive. This is a culture based on the concepts of wisdom, compassion and inter-dependence. These are valuable teachings for the Tibetan people, and for the world.

The survival of Tibet is not just a moral issue. The country is situated in a strategic geopolitical position, between two nuclear giants, India and China. The future of Tibet is tied to Asian and international security.

Tibet is known as the earth's 'Third Pole', with the largest supply of fresh water in the world outside the two Poles. Most of Asia's major rivers have their sources in Tibet, meaning that development policies, damming and land degradation in Tibet can affect hundreds of millions of people elsewhere. China cannot claim that Tibet is their 'internal affair.'

This is a critical year for China. Divisions in the Chinese Communist Party have been exposed amidst a new clamor for genuine reform. At this historic juncture the international community should be actively engaged in finding a solution to the crisis in Tibet.

In our letter to David Cameron, we urged him to lead a multilateral effort in support of Tibet. The UK government should coordinate its efforts with other like-minded countries and call on the Chinese government to review the policies towards Tibetans that are the root cause of the self-immolations, the ongoing tensions and unrest, and which are threatening the unique culture, religion, and identity of the Tibetan people. The UK government, together with the European Commission should maintain and where possible expand targeted programmatic assistance for Tibetans including support for sustainable, culturally appropriate development assistance to Tibetan communities; educational and cultural exchange programs targeted to Tibetans both in Tibet and in exile.

Amnesty has also requested that the Chinese government allow independent monitors, for instance the UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, into the country.

The international community should engage in regular dialogue with Tibetan representatives, including the Dalai Lama and his representatives, and Lobsang Sangay, the new Tibetan Prime Minister in exile, to address the immediate crisis in Tibet.

I urge President Obama to take concrete steps to demonstrate his commitment to the fundamental human rights of the Tibetan people, and stand by his words of January 19th 2011, when he professed 'America's fundamental commitment to the universal rights of all people. That includes basic human rights like freedom of speech, of the press, of assembly, of association and demonstration, and of religion -- rights that are recognized in the Chinese constitution... Even as we, the United States, recognize that Tibet is part of the People's Republic of China, the United States continues to support further dialogue between the government of China and the representatives of the Dalai Lama to resolve concerns and differences, including the preservation of the religious and cultural identity of the Tibetan people.'

The religious and cultural identity of the Tibetan people is under threat in Tibet today. The Tibetans are standing up to the vast and expanding power of the Chinese state with nonviolent resistance through religious practice, song, literature, and even self-immolation. They are struggling to preserve their religion and cultural identity. As a consequence they are subjected to imprisonment, torture, deprivation and worse. Yet they persevere. Their bravery should serve as a call to action. I call upon the international community to act now on behalf of Tibet. Time is running out. The very survival of the Tibetan people hangs in the balance.

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