Barry Boyce surveys conditions in the Tibetan cultural area, whose unsurpassed natural beauty and a rich cultural heritage is at risk.
In 1989, the Dalai Lama called for the establishment of the entire Tibetan plateau as a “Zone of Peace,” a place where world peace would be promoted, environmental protection strictly enforced and development practices sustainable. This “Tibetan cultural area,” as it’s sometimes called, includes Tibet, Ladakh and the Himalayan rim of Nepal, Sikkim and Bhutan. With the visit of the Dalai Lama to the United States, we thought that readers of Lion’s Roar might like to know more about this part of the world, including what the problems are, and what is being done to help. We’ve also included in our survey the conditions of exiled Tibetans now settled in various parts of India.
Tibet proper, governed since 1959 by China, comprises the three traditional provinces of Amdo (now split by China into the provinces of Qinghai, Gansu and Sichuan), Kham (largely incorporated into the Chinese provinces of Sichuan, Yunnan and Qinghai), and U-Tsang (which, together with western Kham, is now referred to by China as the Tibet Autonomous Region, or the TAR).
The area of the Tibetan plateau ruled by the Chinese covers an area of about one million square miles, about a third the size of the United States. Its average altitude is 14,000 feet, and it contains the source waters for seven of Asia’s major rivers. The vast area includes numerous mountain peaks, high desert and steppe and lush river valleys. It has one of the most difficult climates to sustain human habitation. Approximately six million ethnic Tibetans live in Tibet. In the Tibetan Autonomous Region, Han Chinese are thought to number about one-quarter of the population, and that number is steadily increasing. In Kham and Amdo, there are at least twice as many Han Chinese as there are Tibetans.
Ladakh, sometimes called “little Tibet,” sits on the extreme western edge of the Tibetan plateau, and, at an average elevation of 12,000 feet, is one of the highest and driest places on earth. For a thousand years beginning in the fifth century, Ladakh was an independent Tibetan kingdom. Ladakh became a part of India in 1948, and comprises sixty percent of the land mass of the state of Jammu and Kashmir. The area is home to about 160,000 people, evenly divided between Buddhists of Tibetan origin near the capital Leh, and Shia Muslims in the northern area of Kargil.
The Kingdom of Nepal occupies a long, thin strip wedged strategically between China and India. It contains eight of the world’s highest peaks, including Mount Everest. Its population of 26 million, a little smaller than Canada’s, inhabits an area slightly larger than Arkansas and is spread across three principal terrains: the Gangetic plain on the border with India, known as the Terai; the hill country in the midsection (where the capital, Kathmandu, is located) and the Himalayan peaks on the border with China.
Almost all Nepalese live in villages or small market centers and there are no major cities other than Kathmandu, which has a population of just over a million, a number which is increasing rapidly. The only official Hindu state, Nepal, is almost ninety percent Hindu, while Buddhists form a significant minority at about eight percent. The climate varies greatly, from cool summers and very severe winters in the north to subtropical summers and mild winters in the south.
Sikkim, nestled between Nepal to the west and Bhutan to the east, existed as an independent Buddhist kingdom until it was annexed by India in 1975. Sikkim’s original inhabitants, the Lepchas, are believed to have settled there from Mongolia. From the ninth century onward, the Buthias began immigrating from Tibet and established Sikkim as a Buddhist kingdom. Beginning in the nineteenth century, with encouragement from the British, Nepalese began to settle in Sikkim, and today the population of about half-a- million Nepalese outnumber Sikkim’s original inhabitants two to one. Similar to Nepal, Sikkim’s climate and terrain extend from high peaks through hill country to lowlands at the southern border.
The Kingdom of Bhutan, like Nepal, is wedged between China to the north and India to the south. It is about one-third the size of Nepal and supports a population of roughly two million (although some estimates are less than half that). Bhutan is home to two major ethnic groups. The Drukpas are ethnically Tibetan and speak various dialects of Tibetan, including Dzongkha, Bhutan’s official language. They represent about half the population. Ethnic Nepalese, including the largest group, the Lhotsampas, make up about 35 percent of the population, and the remaining 15 percent includes a variety of indigenous or migrant tribes. Bhutan is a highly mountainous country with fertile valleys in the midsection and plains in the south.
Tibet-in-exile began its existence in 1959, when approximately 85,000 Tibetans fled their homeland. Currently there are about 100,000 Tibetan refugees in India, 25,000 in Nepal and 2,000 in Bhutan. With the assistance of these governments and the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), 54 refugee settlements have been established in the region. Approximately 3,000 Tibetans flee to India each year, and according to the International Campaign for Tibet (ICT), one-third are monks and nuns who have been mistreated, expelled from a monastery or simply want to receive a full monastic education. About two-thirds of the incoming refugees are under 25.
Tibet is without a doubt one of the poorest places on Earth. If officially classified as a country, it would sit near the bottom of the United Nations Development Program’s human development scale. Per capita income is estimated to be less than eighty dollars a year. China subsidizes the economy at the level of about $500 million annually, mainly supporting governance, construction, road-building and the creation of a railroad, which is expected to be completed in 2007. Han Chinese work predominantly in government, commerce and the service sector, while Tibetans exist in an agriculturally based subsistence economy, supplemented by trading traditional handiwork.
Although Chinese government spending in the TAR is believed to have increased significantly in the past few years, and the government reports strong economic growth there, little of the economic benefit reaches beyond the larger towns and cities along the main roads. The standard of living for most Tibetans, then, has been stagnant. Health care for Tibetans in rural areas is rudimentary and expensive, and one of the key indices of health – infant mortality – is estimated at about 15 percent (or 16 times the average for developed countries). Life expectancy estimates range from forty to sixty years.
Nepal, to the south of Tibet, is the poorest country in south Asia. Almost half of its citizens live below the poverty line and a similar number are unemployed. Per capita gross domestic product is about $1,000, with the overwhelming majority of the working population working in agriculture or agricultural industries. Tourism, which accounts for about ten percent of Nepal’s economy, has declined precipitously since the onset of a Maoist insurgency. Life expectancy is 59 years and infant mortality is seven percent, or eight times the average for developed countries. Population growth of 2.3 percent annually is a significant factor in Nepal, given the already high level of poverty and unemployment.
Bhutan, with a $2.5 billion GDP ($1,200 per capita), is one of the smallest and least developed economies in the world. The Bhutanese government’s economic policies are based on the principle of “Gross National Happiness.” The king of Bhutan has established a “middle path” approach to development, which includes limiting tourism to about 5,000 visitors per year and working with development organizations and NGO’s to develop educational, social and environmental programs that balance development and a commitment to tradition.
Since Bhutan has such an informal economy, there is no data available on either the number of citizens below the poverty line or the rate of unemployment. Subsistence-level agriculture and forestry employ more than ninety percent of workers. Hydroelectric power and tourism are the country’s key means for bringing in outside capital. Life expectancy is 53 years old, and infant mortality is at 11 percent. Estimates of annual population growth range from two to three percent.
Of the Tibetan refugees in the region, about sixty percent live in settlements. The remainder live in scattered communities in India and Nepal. They work in agriculture, trading, services (including government) and handicrafts, particularly carpet weaving. Unemployment approaches twenty percent, and employment opportunities are wanting in many of the settlements, so nearly a third of the adult population migrates out of the settlements each year in search of work. Housing is also substandard and overcrowded in many settlements, where temporary structures built in the 1960’s are still used as permanent housing. Poor sanitation and hygiene, and unreliable water supplies, contribute to a high incidence of disease in the settlements. However, at about four percent, infant mortality is lower than the Indian average and considerably lower than in Nepal and Bhutan.
The Tibetan plateau and the Himalayan region generally are plagued by two major environmental problems: deforestation and overgrazing. There are also significant threats to wildlife in many areas.
About seventy percent of Tibet is grassland, and conversion of grasslands to agriculture has led to desertification in some areas. It is estimated that Tibet’s forests have been decreased by more than half over the past fifty years. Wildlife, including the Tibetan antelope and the Argali sheep, has also been threatened by indiscriminate hunting. The environmental soundness of hydroelectric projects and mining operations in Tibet has been called into question.
In Nepal, vehicular emissions are becoming an increasing problem. Waterways and groundwater are also contaminated with human and animal wastes, agricultural runoff and industrial effluents. A variety of ranges and habitats have been decreased by population growth, prompting wildlife conservation efforts by the government in cooperation with environmental groups.
The clearing of land has created a steady deterioration of forests for hundreds of years. In the Terai lowland region, for example, there was a net decrease in forestation of 25 percent over 15 years, a rate that would lead to complete deforestation in several generations. Reversing centuries of deforestation without putting a burgeoning population out of work is the central environmental dilemma in the country. Tourism, which brings some 60,000 visitors to Nepal annually, has also contributed to the problem, as many forests have been cleared to build resort areas.
The environmental picture in Bhutan is slightly better than in the rest of the region. Bhutan maintains a very high level of bio-diversity — “it is sometimes referred to as “the last Shangri-la — and the country ranks in the top ten percent of countries in species density. It also has the highest percentage of land in protected areas and the highest proportion of forest cover of any Asian nation. The government is acutely aware of the preciousness of its environment and has instituted a number of policies to protect it. In developing its hydropower resources, Bhutan has relied on small turbines placed in many rivers rather than the enormous damming projects that are wreaking environmental havoc elsewhere in the region.
In spite of its nascent level of development and strong environmental protection, there are threats to the Bhutanese environment from land conversion (particularly in the tropical south), the burning of leaded fuels and wood in urban areas, limited sewage treatment, unsustainable farming practices (overgrazing and poor soil management) and man-made forest fires.
John Ackerly of the International Campaign for Tibet describes the status of Tibetan culture in Tibet as a “mixed picture.” Education for the average Tibetan child is rudimentary, university education is rare and the future of the Tibetan language is threatened by sinicization. “Tibetans are overwhelmed by Chinese media” — “television, radio, and print” — all of which are dominated by Chinese messages,” Ackerly says. Adult literacy is about twenty percent.
In the view of Ron Schwartz, a Tibet expert at Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland, massive Chinese immigration is not so much a concerted campaign of cultural genocide, as some have charged, as it is a byproduct of rapid urbanization throughout China. The Chinese come to Tibet for construction jobs or to provide services to the growing Chinese community. “Whereas ten years ago,” Schwartz says, “most taxi drivers in Lhasa would have been Tibetan, now almost all are Chinese. It may not be an active colonization policy, but if the Chinese government discontinued its subsidies to the region, all of the Han Chinese would leave.”
Many commentators who have visited Tibet report that Tibetan culture, religion and language are strong in the rural areas, where the vast majority of Tibetans live. The reestablishment of monasteries is proceeding at a rapid pace, spurred by contributions from a large number of Western followers of Tibetan Buddhism. An ICT source who visits Tibet frequently said, “If you measure the health of Buddhism in Tibet by the availability of empowerments, oral transmission of texts and oral teachings, then the buddhadharma is healthy and flourishing.” However, it appears that a full-scale, monastic education is still hard to come by, although the severity of restrictions depends somewhat on the attitudes of local authorities.
The Chinese government seems to have definite limits on how much it will allow Tibetan monasticism to grow, as evidenced by severe crackdowns in 2001 at two open-air monasteries, Larung Gar and Yachen Gar. The encampment at Larung Gar numbered between 7,000 and 8,000, about a thousand of whom were Han Chinese. Chinese officials destroyed several thousand meditation huts and homes in order to enforce a strict ceiling of 1,000 monks and 400 nuns. It was, many believe, one of the few places where a complete religious training was available.
In Nepal, more than a thousand Tibetan refugees still pass through the UNHCR Tibetan Refugee Transit Center in Kathmandu each year, but that’s half the number it was in the 1990’s. Because of Nepal’s increasing reliance on China for economic aid, the government has been stricter than India in recent years in restricting Tibetan refugees, and recently deported 18 Tibetan refugees back to China.
Religion and culture are deeply intertwined in Nepal, and most arts, crafts, song and dance are religiously oriented. These traditions are still vibrant in both the Hindu and Buddhist communities, although under pressure from the Chinese, the government has begun to place restrictions on Tibetan Buddhist gatherings and the display of pictures of the Dalai Lama. As a result of many school building projects, literacy has risen in recent years, but is still low at 28 percent overall, and 14 percent for women.
Bhutan is one of the most vigorous enforcers of its national culture in the world. Consequently, the country has a higher than average literacy rate for its level of development: 42 percent of the population over 15 can read or write. The government’s efforts have been beneficial in maintaining cultural values, but have also caused enormous strife with the minority Lhotsampas. The Drig Lam Namsha, or “code of cultural correctness,” went into effect in 1985, prompted by fears among the ruling elite that Bhutan would go the way of Sikkim, which was assimilated into India in 1973 after extensive Lhotsampa immigration. The code mandates the wearing of traditional Drukpa clothing and the use of the official language in public, and proscribes non-Buddhist religious practices. The laws stipulate that those who were not residents of Bhutan prior to 1958 are denied citizenship.
Violent demonstrations by ethnic Nepalese and an eventual military response from the government led to forced deportations of nearly 100,000 ethnic Nepalese to Nepal. Almost all of these refugees are housed in seven UNHCR camps; some have been living there for ten years.
More than 117 Tibetan monasteries have been reestablished in exile, as well as a number of important institutions devoted to preserving Tibetan religion and culture. Early on, the Dalai Lama and Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru worked together to establish Tibetan schools in the settlements financed by the Indian government. As a result, an estimated eighty percent of Tibetan refugee children are enrolled in Tibetan schools. Adult literacy is about sixty percent, which is slightly better than the Indian average.
In April, 2002, following a bomb blast in Chengdu, Sichuan, Tendzin Delek Rinpoche and his attendant Lobsang Thondup were arrested and sentenced to death; Thondup was executed in January, 2003. This was the first political execution in Tibet in some years.
Overall, protests in Tibet have been rare in the past decade, and there have been some signs of easing of restrictions, including the release of several prominent political prisoners during 2002. [Note: you’ll find updates on more recent protests and violence in Tibet throughout ShambhalaSun.com and Shambhala SunSpace.] In September, 2002, Lodi Gyari, the Tibetan government-in-exile’s representative to the United States, made the first public visit of a Tibetan official to Beijing in more than a decade. He went back for a second visit in late May for more talks, which the Dalai Lama described as “a good start.” His Holiness continued, “The Chinese government has a more and more positive attitude toward us.” The Tibetan government-in-exile has proposed what it calls a “middle way” approach to Tibetan autonomy, whereby the Chinese government would handle Tibet’s foreign affairs and defense, while Tibetans would have full responsibility for education, trade, environment, religion and other domestic affairs.
Despite these hopeful signs, an analyst who recently visited Tibet described the populace as resigned to current conditions. He said that Tibetan autonomy is an unlikely prospect, given that the Chinese perceive little to gain from such a policy. Harsh living conditions in Tibet will most likely prevent it from becoming completely sinicized, but Tibetan culture will remain rural, monastic and poor, with Chinese control exercised from the cities and larger towns.
For over a century Nepal was ruled by hereditary premiers, until 1951 when the Nepalese king installed a cabinet system of government. In 1990, reforms were put into place that established a multi-party democracy within a constitutional monarchy. Many believe these reforms have not lessened government corruption or a lack of attention to the needs of poor villagers, as evidenced by the Maoist insurgency that has been growing since it began in 1996. According to Amnesty International, the number of people killed in the conflict reached 4,366 by the end of 2002.
In June, 2001, ten members of the royal family, including King Birendra and Queen Aishwarya, were murdered by Crown Prince Dipendra, who was briefly monarch until he died several days later from a self-inflicted gunshot wound. The bizarre incident has left the population with many doubts and unanswered questions, and the government in a state of instability. The new king, Gyanendra, dismissed the prime minister and cabinet and dissolved parliament, citing incompetence. The country is now governed by the king and his appointed cabinet until the king deems that the Maoist insurgency has been quelled sufficiently to allow elections. The Maoists continue to control large areas in the countryside. As of this writing, a four-month-old cease-fire agreement between the government and the Maoists is holding.
In Bhutan, King Jigme Wangchuk inherited the throne from his father in 1972. Democratic reforms in July, 1998, granted the National Assembly authority to remove the monarch with a two-thirds vote. Due to further reforms in 2001, the king rules through the chairman of the council of ministers, which operates as a cabinet, with a national assembly of 150 members representing various governmental, religious and secular interests. In addition to the conflicts between the government and militant groups of ethnic Nepalese, Maoist separatists from the Indian province of Assam have established camps in the southeast, inviting cross-border attacks from the Indian army.
In 1995, the Indian government allowed Ladakh to form the Ladakh Autonomous Development Council to try to rectify the long-term poverty and ill health born of isolated living in such a difficult climate.
The Tibetan government-in-exile has two main functions: to work for the reestablishment of Tibetan autonomy on the Tibetan plateau and to serve the needs and preserve the culture of Tibetan refugees. The government-in-exile is supported by the Indian government, aid organizations and taxes it collects from its citizenry. For more than a decade, the Dalai Lama has been working to introduce more democracy into the running of the government-in-exile, which has both a draft constitution for a reestablished Tibet and a charter for Tibet-in-exile, promulgated in 1991. The Dalai Lama, as the supreme leader, is supported by seven appointed cabinet ministers, and an assembly of deputies is elected by all citizens over the age of 18. Settlements are overseen by a camp leader and a representative from the central government, and in recent years a number of settlements have established elected local assemblies. Most Tibetan refugees have Indian residential certificates, but officially they are stateless.