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Feature - We are all mountain people

China's occupation of Tibet and suppression of Tibetan culture continues, with the outside world paying little attention

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We are all mountain people China's occupation of Tibet and suppression of Tibetan culture continues, with the outside world paying little attention

Whether we live at sea level or at the highest elevations, we are all mountain people. We are connected to mountains and are affected by mountains in more ways than we can imagine. Mountains provide most of the world's fresh water, harbour as much or more biodiversity than any other areas and are home to at least one in ten people. Yet, war, poverty, hunger, climate change and environmental degradation are threatening the web of life that mountains support. The International Year of Mountains is an opportunity to take steps to protect mountain ecosystems, to promote peace and stability in mountain regions and to help mountain people attain their goals and aspirations. By taking care of the world's mountains, we help to ensure the long-term security and survival of all that is connected to them, including ourselves.

- from the United Nations declaration 2002 the International Year of Mountains.

I am a free person. I have the right to use my freedom, my insight, not only for my benefit, but for sharing and communicating with others as openly and as compassionately as possible.

In Tibet, I saw labourers forced to construct roads while their Chinese oppressors watched.

I was followed by a Chinese spy, unless civilians carry side arms in China. (I referred to him as Maxwell Smart; this Maxwell needed to go back to spy school.)

I saw the red flag of China flying over the Jokhang Temple, the holiest temple in Tibetan Buddhism.

In India, I edited college applications for my Tibetan students.

I winked at His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet and shared a laugh with him.

I taught English to Tibetan refugees. They were all political prisoners of conscious; all had been tortured.

In Nepal, I shed tears at a Tibetan orphanage.

My experiences in Tibet, Nepal and India have humbled me. I feel privileged to have Tibetan friends who have openly shared their culture and stories with me.

Today there are approximately five million Tibetans living in Tibet, alongside an estimated 7.5 million Chinese settlers. Chinese authorities provide homes with substantial financial and social benefits to encourage Chinese citizens to settle in Tibet: higher wages, long holidays, housing, medical services and education. Tibetans are now a minority in their own country. Time is running out.

Dharmsala, in northwestern India, is home to the Tibetan Government in Exile and His Holiness the Dalai Lama. Approximately 2000 refugees arrive to Dharmsala every year. Those who make it out of China have carefully made their way across the Tibetan plateau, over the Himalayas, and past the Nepalese border guards to Katmandu. Once they have arrived safely in Nepal they are processed and sent to Dharmsala for settlement.

In Dharmsala I interviewed Ugyen Tsewag, an information officer at the Tibetan Centre for Human Rights and Democracy (TCHRD). Founded in January 1996, the TCHRD is independent of the Tibetan Government in Exile. It is the first Tibetan non-government organization to be formed with the objective to "highlight the human rights situation in Tibet and to promote principles of democracy in the Tibetan community."

Tsewag stated: "When we ask refugees if they have suffered from basic human rights they say, 'No.' But when we ask them if they suffered from forced labour, beatings, or injustice they say 'Yes.' They don't understand that everything inflicted on them by the Chinese is a violation of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights."

On Dec. 10, 1948, the General Assembly of the newly formed United Nations adopted and proclaimed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Following this historic act, the Assembly called upon member countries to publicize the text of the Declaration and "to cause it to be disseminated, displayed, read, and expounded principally in schools and other educational institutions, without discrimination based on the political status of countries or territories."

Article 26 states: Everyone has the right to education. Education shall be free, at least in the elementary and fundamental stages. It shall promote understanding, tolerance and friendship among all nations, racial, or religious groups. Parents have a prior right to choose the kind of education that shall be given to their children.

During the Cultural Revolution, Mao Tse-tung labelled Tibetan culture, tradition and society as "backward." Tibetan teachers were ordered to leave their jobs and they were replaced with Chinese teachers. The government used schooling as a tool to spread Communist ideology and to increase China's control over Tibet. The government-controlled curriculum quickly began to wipe out Tibetan history, language, and culture. Tibetan students were told that Tibet was an inferior country. Tibetan values, achievements, and the Dalai Lama were constantly degraded, while China maintained it was the humanitarian saviour of the Tibetan people.

The Tibetan Government in Exile estimates that from 1984 to 1994 approximately 9,000 children were sent unaccompanied by their parents to India and Nepal in hopes that their children would receive a Tibetan education.

Testimonials from children (whose names cannot be released) indicate that Chinese students were provided with better books and better desks than Tibetans, and there were even cases of Chinese teachers resorting to brutal forms of punishment.

"When we did not do our homework properly we were kicked and beaten with chairs," said one student. "Most of the times the teachers hit us on the stomach or the back, but sometimes be hit us also on the head. This was the most dangerous because often the wounds had to be stitched. Some students fainted and some had to vomit after these beatings."

Discrimination against Tibetan students in Tibet is made possible by two factors: that public education is controlled by the Chinese and that Tibetans are now a minority in their country.

"After 4:30 p.m. there were no more classes and we had to sit idle in the classroom," said another student. "Three or four times a week we were asked during this time whether our parents talked about Tibetan politics or the Dalai Lama. When the children admitted their parents spoke about these things, they were rewarded with presents, money or food. The parents were later called to meetings and sometimes then fined and put into prison."

On Nov. 20, 1989, the international community adopted the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC). This Convention was the first legal document to state guarantees for the human rights of children and today it is the primary source of protection for the rights of children.

The People's Republic of China signed the agreement on Aug. 29, 1990.

Tibetans are rarely allowed access to post secondary education. Entrance examinations must be written in Chinese, and for Tibetans Chinese is a foreign language. Even if a Tibetan student has a command of the Chinese language and passes the entrance examination, it doesn't mean that he or she will be accepted into the school.

"Problems arose as I wanted to go to college," said a student. "The Chinese authorities did not allow me to participate in the entrance exam in Lhasa. They told me that I could not do my entrance exam because my parents were nomads and they did not have a ration card."

Tenpa, one of my former students from Kodaikanal International School, wishes to complete his education in the West and return to Tibet. There are few Tibetan academics in Tibet and he wishes to help his people when he returns home. It's a noble statement.

There are many organizations and individuals who have supported Tibet over the years: The Government of India, Amnesty International and other human rights organizations around the world, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, film directors Martin Scorsese and Bernado Bertolucci, actors Richard Gere, Harrison Ford, Goldie Hawn and Pierce Brosnan, to name just a few.

While celebrities have spoken up for Tibet, the small country is of little strategic value for Western governments or corporations, which may explain why change has been slow. However, the Tibetan Government is optimistic about Tibet's fate. They feel events in China are changing, especially as the next generation of Chinese is aspiring for democracy.

Walking down the street in Dharmsala I saw a T-shirt hanging up in a small shop. It read, "Tibet will be free." I bought the T-shirt; you'll see me wearing it on next visit to Whistler.

The True Meaning of Life, written by His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet: "We are visitors on this planet. We are here for ninety, or one hundred years at the very most. During that period we must try to do something good or useful with our lives. If you can contribute to other people's happiness you will find the true goal, the true meaning of life."

Janet Love Morrison is a Whistler writer teaching in India. She has made several trips to surrounding countries during her two-plus years in India.