Monday, February 29, 2016

A Tibetan's Memories

Picked up Tubten Khétsun's autobiography titled 'Memories of Life in Lhasa Under Chinese Rule', translated by Matthew Akester. First published in Tibetan in 1998, Tubten Khétsun's story was translated into English and was first published by Columbia Univeristy Press in 2008.

The Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution from 1966 to 1976 (that had its roots in 1949) and its fanatical Red Guards turned into a mass inquisition and demanded ties to the 'old society' cut. The how, was loosely interpreted by factions within the Red Guards. A merciful punishment for the disobedient or those deemed guilty was to be sent to labor reform camps. The rest were executed.

We can only hazard a guess at what went on in Tibet between 1959 and 1979. "Communist rule in Tibet can be periodized into- Liberal 1950-58, Maoist 1959-79, Liberal 1980-89, with each phase turning into a pivotal event." After 1990, it's another term that the world is struggling with till now.

Born into a respectable family of government officials in 1941, author Tubten Khétsun had his studies cut short by the Tibetan people's uprising of 1959 which eventually saw the 14th Dalai Lama (then 25 years old) and his court go into exile in India's Dharamsala, the PLA bombardment of Lhasa and imposing Democratic Reforms across Tibet. The author was "arrested along with thousands of others and spent the next two decades being subjected to forced labor and political reeducation, first as a prisoner and then as a "class enemy" in civil society." His immediate family was repeatedly imprisoned too.

In 1968 when the Tibetan earth monkey year and Chinese new year spring festival coincided on the same day, and the country got a few days off, the government couldn't prevent Tibetans from having this new year holiday. However, neighborhood Gyenlok committee leaders loyal to the Party and Red Guards could cause disruptions.

The apartment had an inner and an outer room separated by a door curtain, and in the inner room we had lit a butter lamp as a new year offering. In one cupboard in the outer living room was the first-poured cup of tea (Ja phud) and a porcelain bowl containing new year sweet rice ('Bras bsil), and in the other a bowl of dry rice, a plate full of candies and other things, and a plate full of buttered tsampa dough. Lulu the Gyenlok leader looked through both cupboards and took out the plate of dough, shouting "Who put this 'spirit monster' stuff here?" 
While they were searching the cupboards, my elder sister Losang Chönyi-la went behind the curtain into the inner room to extinguish the butter lamp, and the smoke from the doused wick floated out. At this I got scared, thinking that there was no other explanation for it than as a religious act, but it seemed that the younger ones grown up "under the red flag" and the older two had no knowledge of what religious offerings were, so none of them noticed the smell of the extinguished lamp.

We know historical facts and ongoing struggles. But people's stories will remain as stories, and as guides to how life was in those times. There would be truths among half-truths, lies and false accusations. It was more than avoiding torture, it was a matter of survival. If you don't rat on your neighbors, you get no rations. There was clearly widespread suffering, malnutrition and poor administration by the government.

Tibetan and the Chinese societies in general have also changed since the chain of events. The past affects the present. Like what my grandfather used to say, China prior to 1949 was a beautiful place rich in culture, vaguely accepting of foreigners (i.e of non-Han ethnicity), foreign ideology and literature.

Today, dissidents are persecuted, Han and non-Han alike. Thank goodness for the internet that flags missing humans. Tibet today is still a sore point with the incumbent Chinese government. We know how that goes, especially when any celebrity or politician criticizes the Chinese government or meet with the exiled 14th Dalai Lama. The Dalai Lama is 80 years old. His time will soon pass, and what then, for Tibet? 

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