To the Barkhor – repressed heart of Lhasa where
unarmed protesters face bullets and batons.
An old Tibetan woman walks towards us turning a prayer wheel. It’s an ordinary scene but suddenly it strikes me as a very assertive thing to do. For 45 years this country has been occupied by a foreign government which has tried to stamp out its ‘primitive’ culture and religion. But here she is, dressed in her traditional woollen cloth chupa. Meanwhile the Chinese cycle around her: with their sunglasses, summer hats and crisp clothes they look every bit the new consumers of modern China.
In 1992, following Deng Xiaoping’s exhortation to China to accelerate economic development, the Chinese authorities in Tibet leapt on the bandwagon of economic reform. Traders, pedlars and itinerant workers started moving into Tibet, many escaping growing rural poverty and unemployment in China’s western and central provinces. Today the result is obvious: Lhasa is teeming with private Chinese shops and restaurants. A lot of money is to be made catering for the hundreds of thousands of Chinese cadres and military personnel. Incentives to Chinese immigrants include altitude allowance, remoteness bonus, tax concessions, shorter hours and longer holidays.
There are now 150,000 people living in Lhasa of whom two-thirds are reckoned to be Chinese. But we’re now in the centre, which is supposed to be still mainly Tibetan. Where are they all? There are small clusters of Tibetans, but it’s hardly one in three. I ask a family of prayer-wheeling women for directions to the Barkhor and they eagerly point the way down a side-alley.
Suddenly we are in a warren of little alleys, running between old stone Tibetan houses with painted window frames and pots of flowers. We have stumbled into a small remaining enclave of the old Tibetan Lhasa – it’s run-down but real and heart-warming.
The Chinese do not venture here – and it’s another world. Tibetans greet us with amused expressions and ‘Tashi delek’ – a sort of all-purpose phrase which originated as a New Year greeting. A young nun asks if we have a picture of the Dalai Lama. Sorry, no. Tibetans have been picked up and interrogated after such transactions. There have also been cases of tourists being deliberately set up. The nun is disappointed but philosophical about it, and goes smiling on her way. I only hope her open trusting nature does not get her into trouble. Increasingly, young nuns are becoming targets of the security forces.
We pass some people playing pool on outdoor tables and stumble upon the Barkhor Square at the top of which is the Jokhang Temple. Six-foot tall conical incense-burners billow magical clouds, the smell of juniper filling the air. Pilgrims – who come from all over Tibet – prostrate themselves in front of the Temple, its golden tops glinting in the sun. The sound of chanting is softly hypnotic.
Used as a Chinese army barracks and pigsty during the Cultural Revolution, the Jokhang has now been restored to something of its former glory. Around the temple is a narrow road called the Barkhor Circuit, around which worshippers go in a clockwise direction. This circumambulation is called khorra – the more rounds you do the more merit you accumulate. This merit helps overcome sins committed in this and past lives with the hope of achieving a better rebirth and salvation for future lives.
But the Barkhor Circuit is also the main Tibetan market in Lhasa, and the busiest place in the city. Here the sacred rituals of circumambulation and prostration mesh easily – even invisibly – with the profane rituals of shopping and gossiping. It’s not surprising, says my partner: Buddhism is, she says, very ‘down to earth’ in all sorts of unexpected ways.
Since 1987 the Barkhor has had another role – as the stage for political protests against the Chinese occupation of Tibet. These have started off as small-scale peaceful demonstrations, involving a handful of monks or nuns chanting independence slogans and waving Tibetan flags. To the Chinese authorities these have been deeply threatening affairs requiring an immediate response: soldiers and police have swooped in to arrest, beat and sometimes kill protesters.
The most bloody incidents happened between 1987 and 1989 when, emboldened by the international coverage the Dalai Lama was receiving on a visit to the US, Tibetans took to the streets. On Chinese National Day, 1 October 1987, for example, about 80 people started chanting slogans. The Chinese security forces responded violently, beating and arresting protesters. Soon more than 2,000 Tibetans had gathered outside the local police station demanding the protesters’ release. Women and children started throwing stones at police. The police station and its vehicles were set on fire. The police responded by firing into the crowd, killing and injuring an unknown number of Tibetans.
There were numerous other protests in the months that followed. Then on 5 March 1988 a full-scale riot involving 2,000 Tibetans shook the heart of Lhasa. The security forces responded with bullets and tear-gas. Monks retreated to the Jokhang Temple which soldiers then stormed. Around 16 Tibetans were killed, some shot, some beaten to death with iron bars and some thrown off the roof of the Jokhang. Official Chinese reports put the death toll at one: that of a Chinese soldier. Around 800 people were arrested. For the first time angry Tibetans targeted Chinese businesses in the Barkhor area – a pharmacy and a restaurant were burned down.
The protests continued through 1988, provoking an increasingly tough Chinese reaction until martial law was imposed in March 1989. Martial law was lifted again on 1 May 1990 but you would never know it in the Barkhor today. Video cameras are permanently positioned on the rooftops while in the Square there are security guards every few yards, especially around the entrances. A helicopter circles close overhead. You can feel the weight of scrutiny – not only from the uniformed but also the uninformed. In the Barkhor you acquire a ‘shadow’ – or several shadows – within minutes. At first it’s a bit paranoia-inducing but after a while it’s just part of being in Lhasa, and spotting informers becomes a pastime. Is that one there – the Tibetan with the Chinese-looking jacket and shiny shoes? But then clothes are not necessarily an indicator – I read in one report that Tibetan beggars had been recruited as spies and one was seen begging one moment and the next using a mobile phone to inform police of what was going on in the Square.
For Tibetan protesters the implications are of course more serious. Political protests are still happening on a pretty regular basis. But they are small-scale these days – and short-lived. Two or three monks or nuns will march shouting ‘Free Tibet’ for a few minutes before security guards or plainclothes police pounce on them. Now many Tibetans resort to writing things on scraps of paper and throwing them down for others to read as they are circumambulating. An underground newspaper called Uprising is being printed – until, presumably, the Chinese find out from where.
The Chinese policy now seems to be to arrest, interrogate, torture, release, then re-arrest. Those released cannot speak openly of what has happened to them because the authorities will know they have talked and re-arrest them.
There are currently 732 known political prisoners in Tibet and this year has seen more arrests than at any point in the past five years, according to Robbie Barnett of the Tibet Information Network. The aims of interrogation are: to intimidate prisoners, to extract confessions, to gain information about other protesters and to accomplish ‘thought reform’ by convincing prisoners of the futility of the goal of Tibetan independence. Prisoners are subjected to an array of different torture methods – electric shocks, chemical injections, exposure to extremes of heat and cold, starvation, and hanging.
According to one prisoner: ‘I saw people hanging by ropes tied to their arms behind their backs, suspended with their feet off the ground. Two of the people I saw had their shoulders dislocated by the rope. I saw 12 or 13, a group hanging together. This was to show the rest of us that the same thing could happen to us. They wanted us to give the names of other participants in the demonstration. If we did so we would be dealt with more leniently.’
Since February this year there has been a marked increase in the number of arrests of people living in the Barkhor area as the Chinese remove what they call ‘hostile elements’. China is now admitting its policy in Tibet has not worked – and the response is to tighten its grip. This summer a small bomb, planted presumably by Tibetan freedom fighters, partly damaged a Chinese monument in Lhasa. The Chinese authorities in Tibet responded by going into oppressive overdrive, rounding up scores of suspects and tightening the already suffocating net of surveillance.
Most demoralizing for Tibetans today is the way the Chinese have cultivated a network of informers – often within the Tibetan community. A foreigner who used to live in the country told me after a recent trip that he had never known such an intense atmosphere of distrust. ‘Whether people are informing or not they suspect each other of doing so. Even close friends and family members can’t trust each other. It’s doing terrible damage to the social fabric. Everyone is afraid. And there is so much police harassment now. Friends of mine who had always been determined to stay in Tibet now say they can’t stand it any more.’ The tightening of Chinese control and surveillance makes getting reliable information out of Tibet extremely difficult: it’s far too risky now for Tibetans to try.
Recently, the Chinese have been turning their suspicion onto Tibetan communist cadres with government jobs – their former ‘allies’. They are now deemed ‘unreliable’ and prone to sympathy with the independence cause.
Meanwhile, back in the Barkhor the mundane marketplace business of buying and selling seems to be what’s on most people’s minds right now. This bustling market gives the impression that these Tibetans, at any rate, are doing all right but many of the stalls here are actually owned by Chinese – between 70 and 90 per cent of small businesses in Lhasa are Chinese-owned.
Then at 7.00 in the evening the official traders pack up and all the illegal Tibetan small traders sweep in and start selling bread rolls, vegetables, fruit and clothes. The atmosphere is vigorous and good-humoured. Tibetans do smile and laugh a lot – something which has frequently given visitors the false impression that all’s well. ‘It’s a habit with us,’ Tashi Wangdu had said back in Kathmandu. ‘But sometimes I think it’s a curse.’
Even the beggars look happy. The beggar children with their thumbs up going cuchi, cuchi and burying their resolute dirty little faces into your belly until you give them something are more cheeky than pathetic. This might be due partly to the fact that begging is a perfectly accepted part of Buddhist culture and gives the giver an opportunity to accrue merit; there’s no loss of dignity for anyone.
In spite of the pressure, the Barkhor is still vigorously Tibetan. For the moment its appeal as a tourist site is probably staying its death sentence. But how much longer I wonder, before the authorities decide to obliterate this last troublesome enclave in their now-Chinese city of Lhasa?
©Copyright: New Internationalist 1996
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