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Tibet: the destruction of Lhasa

Lhasa is a site of cultural and historical importance for Tibet ckmck, under a CC License

In 2001 the Taliban drilled holes into ancient statues carved into an Afghan cliff-face known as the Buddhas of Bamiyan. Into those holes they placed sticks of dynamite and in the flick of a switch a millenia of history was gone. Forever. A site of great value in the history of Buddhism, Afghanistan and the Middle East destroyed because it did not fit with the political and religious ideology of those with power.

In early May 2013, I read the news the construction work has begun at another site of historical and cultural importance – the old Tibetan city of Lhasa, around the Jokhang temple. The plan: to replace the old city with a ‘tourist city’ and a giant mall. I cannot describe the rage and sadness I felt at reading this.

Lhasa was founded in the 7th century by King Songtsen Gampo as the capital of his Tibetan Empire that reached far into modern China. The Jokhang temple and the Barkhor around it are of unimaginable importance to Tibetans and Buddhists throughout the world. Many pilgrims walk from the far edges of Tibet to visit it.

Whilst the Jokhang temple itself is protected as part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the area around it is not.

This destruction will forever change the face of Lhasa, already it is a city divided into Chinese areas and Tibetan areas. With the destruction of the old city and its replacing with a giant shopping mall and ‘tourist city’ Tibetans are further isolated and marginalized in their own land.

In Beijing there is a park, the Ethnic Minorities Park*, where you can see the sterile, government-approved version of Tibetan culture that will replace the real thing in Lhasa. Chinese actors perform traditional Tibetan dances, where replica Tibetan buildings tell a fairy tale about Tibetan life and culture.

Of course there’s more to it. The old city has played host to numerous protests and demonstrations against Chinese occupation. It is a symbol of Tibetan resistance to the occupation.

And so under the cloak of ‘modernization,’ an area of incalculable historical and cultural importance will be lost forever.

It should be down to Tibetans to decide how to modernize Tibet, not to have it forced on them.

I have started a petition asking Kishore Rao, director of UNESCO World Heritage Centre to intervene and #SaveLhasa. Please sign and share it as widely as you can.

*The original signs for the Ethnic Minorities Park were mistranslated as ‘Racist Park’, a far more accurate description.

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  1. #1 Maria 23 May 13

    Dear Pete, great to see you bring the destruction of Lhasa under the attention. Thank you for making the petition. I've signed and shared on Facebook as well.
    I hope many people will sign the petition. Don't let China destroy Lhasa!

  2. #2 Denise McNoe 26 May 13

    I am absolutely appalled with what is happening in Lhasa.
    I hope and pray that UNESCO World Heritage Centre will be able to influence the Chinese Government and the world will come together to save a most important part of Lhasa. Having been to Lhasa and seen this most beautiful Jokhang Temple and Barkor I am so sadden by reading of it's intended destruction.

  3. #3 Dominique MASSINI BYNEN 19 Jun 13

    L'Insupportable envahisseur chinois qui a crée
    Un programme pour le gain et le pouvoir sur le dos des Tibétains
    Rien de bon dans l' organisation de destruction du Tibet , le gouvernement chinois et les personnes
    Qui prennent les décisions sont du mauvais côté de l humanité
    Ce sont eux et bien d autres qui font la honte de la race humaine
    Mais ils ne peuvent pas gouverner les âmes ...'
    La haine n est pas une réponse a la stupidité et a l avidité
    Mais ces mécréants devront un jour répondirent de leurs actes mauvais
    Peut être a leurs enfants qui auront honte d eux
    Peut être a l être suprême, peut être a eux mêmes au soir de leurs pauvres vies ...!

  4. #4 Tim Barrow 24 Jun 13

    London was established in Roman times or even earlier than that, and has undergone much change. With Lhasa it seems the Chinese think they can do what they like, but in the future China may be invaded and the Forbidden City will be gone.

  5. #5 Katy 16 Dec 13

    May I as what ever happened with this? I cannot find any more information about whether the mall was built or what happened to Lhasa one year later. Thank you!

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About the author

Pete Speller a New Internationalist contributor

Pete Speller is a video journalist, blogger and campaigner based in Oxford, UK. He works developing video and technology support for protests and justice movements, such as with the group Students for a Free Tibet where he worked supporting citizen journalists in Beijing during the 2008 Olympics.

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