the hermit kingdom -- 3/7/23

Today's selection -- from Eat the Buddha by Barbara Demick. Life in Tibet:

"For centuries, Tibet was known as the Hermit Kingdom. Its charms were hidden by the natural barrier of the Himalayas and by a reclusive theocratic government ruled by a succession of Dalai Lamas, each believed to be the reincarnation of his predecessor. Nineteenth­- and twentieth-century literature about Tibet is replete with accounts of foreigners trying to sneak into the country disguised as monks or hermits.

"Nowadays it is not the Tibetans shutting the door, but the Chinese Communist Party. China has ruled Tibet since 1950 and is a most un­welcoming gatekeeper when it comes to foreign visitors. There is a modern airport in Lhasa with a Burger King and ATMs, reducing what was once a holy city into a tourist trap for the pleasure, almost exclusively, of Chinese tourists. Foreigners must obtain a special travel order to visit what China calls the Tibet Autonomous Re­gion. That permit is granted sparingly to academics, diplomats, journalists, and anybody else inclined to ask hard questions. The eastern reaches of the Tibetan plateau, which fall into Sichuan, Qinghai, Gansu, and Yunnan provinces, are in theory open to anybody with a valid Chinese visa, but foreigners are frequently turned away at check­points or refused permission to check into hotels.

Greater Tibet as claimed by Tibetan exile groups

"I moved to Beijing as correspondent for the Los Angeles Times in 2007, the year before the Summer Olympics. As part of its successful bid to host the games, the Chinese government made a raft of prom­ises about improving human rights and opening the country to jour­nalists. The reality on the ground was that much of the country remained off-limits to reporters. Among the most impenetrable was Ngaba.

"Ngaba is an obscure place. To the extent that it appears on English­ language maps, Ngaba is referenced by its Chinese name, Aba (pro­nounced like the Swedish pop band). The Tibetan name is challenging for non-Tibetans, but comes out sounding roughly like Nabba or Nah-wa, depending on the dialect of Tibetan spoken.

"Ngaba has been an irritant to the Communist Party since the 1930s. Every decade or so, Ngaba is the scene of anti-government protests that invariably leave a trail of destruction and death. Tibetans adhere to the teachings of the 14th Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso, who won a Nobel Peace Prize for his embrace of nonviolence, so notably most of the deaths in recent years have occurred on the Tibetan side. During protests in 2008, Chinese troops opened fire on protesters in Ngaba, killing several dozen people. In 2009, a Buddhist monk doused him­self in gasoline on the main street, while calling for the return of the Dalai Lama, who lives in exile in India. A wave of self-immolations followed. As of this writing, 156 Tibetans have self-immolated, nearly one-third of them from Ngaba and its environs, the most recent in November 2019.

"These deaths deeply embarrassed Beijing, belying as they do the claim that Tibetans are happy under Chinese rule.

"After the immolations began, the Chinese authorities redoubled their efforts to keep journalists out of Ngaba. New checkpoints were erected at the entrance to the town, with tank traps, barricades, and paramilitary peering into the cars to make sure no foreigners slipped in. ... Only half of the Tibetan plateau is designated as the Tibet Autonomous Region by the Chinese government, for historical reasons. ...[T]he majority of Tibetans live in parts of Sichuan, Qinghai, Gansu, and Yunnan provinces, which, although outside the 'official Tibet' are just as Tibetan."



Barbara Demick


Eat the Buddha


Random House


Copyright 2020 by Barbara Demick


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