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I have a hard time even writing about the news from Tibet. To many people in the US it’s some faraway place which is the pet project of a few effete actors. It is way more than that. It is unique in the world, but not because it’s beautiful. Most of the planet is beautiful. It’s culturally extraordinary, but that’s not unique either. Tibet has become a test for the world because of who the rest of the world is.

I’ll begin at the beginning. My own interest in Tibet began years ago. I majored in ethnobotany as an undergrad. (Yes, I know. Weird. It was known as a “Special Concentration.”) My senior thesis was on the Tibetan pharmacopoeia, and I chose that country because it’s medicines and practitioners had a legendary reputation in Asia. That’s saying something, considering that the competition is China and Indian Ayurveda. And yet, unlike its huge neighbors, very little was known about which plants were actually used. I set off to identify as many as I could.

Well, science seems to have survived without my attempted contribution, but in the course of the research in the Himalaya and around Dharmsala I met many Tibetans. I’d studied Chinese once (I was a dismal failure at learning the language), and I studied Tibetan for this project (again, dismal failure). I was even privileged and honored to meet the Dalai Lama. I’m not using those terms as empty phrases. It really was one of the peak ten minutes of my life. I can’t describe the feeling that surrounds someone who is a window to a light you’ve never seen. We didn’t talk about anything deep. We talked about plants. And yet the feeling was as clear as sunlight. (I’ve only had it one other time, when I was lucky enough to see Bishop Tutu speak. And before you ask, no, I’m not a member of any religion.)

All that background is just to let you know that I can’t claim to be objective about Tibetans. I have enormous respect for them, which I can’t say about any other nation. I’m not a very respectful person. But the Tibetans are different. They not only have a real leader, the people have the sense to follow him. That last factor is unique.

Going from the personal to the national, Wikipedia has an excellent introduction to the country. (I hope they lock it down against unmoderated edits, since politically sensitive topics on Wikipedia tend to attract undesirable elements.) The map they publish pretty much says it all.

Cultural/historical Tibet (highlighted) depicted with various competing territorial claims.
Historic Tibet as claimed by Tibetan exile groups
Tibetan areas as designated by the PRC
Tibet Autonomous Region (actual control)
Claimed by India as part of Aksai Chin
Claimed by PRC as part of TAR
Other areas historically within Tibetan cultural sphere

Even the Chinese agree that ethnically Tibetan regions encompass the same area as that claimed by the Tibetan community in exile. The enormous chunk of Tibet’s northeast, which the Chinese have called Qinghai instead of the Tibetan Amdo, and which they claim is no part even of that sad shadow they call the Tibet Autonomous Region, is the most mineral-rich area. Amdo is where the current Dalai Lama was born, just to give you an idea of how Tibetan it is.

The Chinese insist they have owned Tibet since forever. They say it’s historically part of China, and that trying to separate the two is like lobbying for North Dakotan independence. Just because it’s remote, dry, and cold doesn’t make it special.

The Tibetans say they have been independent forever, until the Chinese rolled the tanks in the 1950s.

So who’s right? They both are. The Chinese have, indeed, claimed Tibet since way back. In reality, in Tibet, this had all the force of those deeds you could buy a while back that gave you a square inch of the Moon or title to a star or whatever it was. The Chinese may have told themselves they owned it, but the Tibetans didn’t think so.

Tibetans have a different alphabet, based on Sanskrit from India. Buddhism, also from India, is the organizing principle of the whole culture, whereas the Chinese have never been religious in the sense the rest of the world understands the word. After the communists took power, they’re less religious than ever. There was trade between the two countries, and cultural influences, but they evolved separately through their whole histories. The cultural differences between the two are so huge, you might as well try to roll India and the USA into one country on the grounds that they both have extensive coastlines.

The fact that Tibetan culture is extraordinary, that they have a solid claim to independence, that they have the physical resources to be a state, all that only explains why the Tibetans are dying for their country. So why do I say that Tibet is a test for the world?

Because it is the only nation that is struggling for independence with non-violence.

We, meaning the international community, are always saying that people should resolve their differences peaceably, rationally, and on the merits. Logically, then, we should be helping those who do that, and ignoring the thugs whose whole argument consists of blowing people’s heads off.

Instead? I don’t need to give any examples of “instead.” All the news, from one end to the other, is nothing but “instead.”

Tibet is now in the news because some Tibetans couldn’t stand it any more and blew up. The Dalai Lama has insisted during his whole lifetime in office that the Tibetans’ struggle must be non-violent. He’s insisted on that to a people whose men, in some regions, didn’t feel dressed unless they were carrying two rifles, not just one. And those people, in spite of indescribable frustration, abuse, destruction of land, and destruction of themselves in what really is cultural genocide, have fought almost entirely without killing.

The result for the rest of the world has been that Tibet is some quaint backwater that is the pet project of a few actors.

But now that there is killing, and now that the Chinese are rolling the tanks again, now it’s in the news. Now we’re suddenly concerned. Now it’s getting serious.

I don’t know how to express how disgusted I am.

If the Dalai Lama was an ordinary politician, he’d jump on the PR provided by all this attention. He’d use it for some kind of bargaining power. He’d ride the tidal wave of rage among Tibetans until hundreds of thousands had died and there was nothing left. Instead, when his people are desperate to fight, he has said he will resign unless they stop attacking the Chinese.

Tibet gives the world its clearest choice between everything we care about on one side — peace, justice, reason — and death on the other. There really does seem to be such a thing as free will. We get to choose. And when the choice is that clear, we’re choosing our own fate.

That’s why I say Tibet is a test for the world.

Technorati Tags: Tibet, independence, non-violence, Dalai Lama