delivered at the
International Coalition for Religious Freedom Conference on
"Religious Freedom and the New Millenium"
Washington DC, April 17-19, 1998
I would like to thank the International Coalition for Religious Freedom for inviting me to be part of this conference. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion and to manifest one’s religion or belief in teaching, practice, and worship. The UN Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief spells out these rights in more detail. However, it is very unfortunate to see that religious freedom is denied to many people around the world, especially those living under communist regimes. In 1949 the peace-loving nation of Tibet was invaded by the People’s Republic of China, which forced the Tibetan government to sign a 17-point agreement stating that Tibet had become part of China.
However, part of this agreement was China’s promise to protect and respect Tibet’s religious traditions. The so-called 17-point agreement included numerous terms to safeguard the function and the power of the Dalai Lama and Panchen Lama. Another of the specific protections mentioned was not to affect the income of the monasteries.
However, beginning in 1958 promises not to interfere with the practice of Tibetan Buddhism were discarded in areas outside central Tibet, in regions where communist reforms were being introduced. At first, the monasteries and monks that controlled the land were targeted as part of land reform. But soon religion in general was a broad target of attack. High monks were selected for a “struggle session,” in which they were verbally abused and physically assaulted to show the villagers that the monks did not have supernatural powers to call for their defense.
In an uprising in eastern Tibet in 1959, thousands of monks were killed and numerous monasteries were destroyed. In 1959 rebellion swept across Tibet as hundreds of thousands of monks and lay people protested China’s rule. After a few months, when China succeeded in putting down the rebellion, His Holiness the Dalai Lama was left with no choice other than to leave Tibet and escape into India. The Chinese government then began to establish a commune system, under which it began to abolish private property.
In addition to depriving monasteries of the land holdings on which they relied for income, China’s so-called reforms led to the imprisonment, execution, and exile of thousands of monks and to the closing down of hundreds of monasteries. The Chinese government began to systematically destroy the religion of Tibet. Today I can only give you a few examples of their methodology.
First they began confiscating religious objects made out of gold, silver, copper, and brass. They removed all statues and Tanga paintings from the monasteries. All those that could be called antique were sold in antique markets in Hong Kong and Japan. Those statues simply made of copper and brass were melted down for commercial use. It is quite possible that many of them were turned into bullets and used to kill innocent monks and nuns. Several hundred thousand volumes of religious textbooks, many of which were single, handwritten copies, were burned in huge bonfires that smoldered for weeks.
Today China blames all this on the Cultural Revolution and the Gang of Four.In reality, almost 80 percent of Tibet’s monasteries and cultural institutions were destroyed before the Cultural Revolution.
To date, a total of 6,254 monasteries have been completely destroyed. Some of them were very big, such as Debu monastery in Wasa, which had over 10,000 monks before 1959. Monks and nuns were executed or sent to concentration camps. All religious activity was banned, and religious articles were destroyed or sold abroad.
In the late 1960s and early 1970s I used to be in Nepal, and many Nepalese traders received ancient Tanga paintings in return for the export of rice and other commodities to the Chinese government. Even the National Trading Corporation of the Nepalese government used to receive Tanga paintings. Gold and silver ornaments were taken out of the statues and exchanged for rice that the Nepalese government exported to China.
In 1980 the liberalization initiated in Tibet included new freedom of individual religious practice plus a limited revival of institutional Buddhism. Tibetans were permitted to engage in religious practices such as circumambulation of Buddhist shrines, spinning of prayer wheels, prostration, and making offerings of butter or money at the reopened shrines. The Jokun temple in the heart of Wasa was once again re-opened. Restorations began at the Potala palace and the Cera and Dragoon monasteries.
By all accounts, Tibetans quietly took full advantage of the new policy and devoted a large portion of their economic assets that they had regained after 1979 to the avowal and support of religion. Many Tibetans began to send their children to monks for schooling. The religious shrines became a focal point of a Tibetan cultural revival, a revival with inevitable political consequences due to the role of religion and monastic Buddhism in Tibetan national identity.
In Tibet, religion became the target of destruction mainly because their religion and culture are what make Tibetans different from the Chinese. So long as the Tibetan has his unique religion and culture, there is no way to call a Tibetan “Chinese.”
Recognizing that the policy of allowing the unsupervised revival of religion had led to the revival of Tibetan nationalism, the Chinese government soon moved to restrict the reconstruction of monasteries, the number of monks being initiated, and religious instruction by the monks.
The past few years have witnessed a significant surge in the Chinese government’s effort to limit the growth of monasticism in Tibet. Official government pronouncements clearly state that more restrictions are being put into place, from halting further construction of monasteries and limiting youth from joining monasteries to increasing government oversight and management of monastic activity. Thus, any description of religious freedom in Tibet today is paradoxical. Chinese law at once protects and restricts religion. China’s constitution provides that citizens enjoy freedom of religious belief. No state organ, social organization, or individual may compel citizens to believe or not believe in any religion. Government officials explain to the Tibetans that parents have the right to believe in religion but not to influence their children with religious ideologies until the children reach the age of 18. Despite this constitutional provision, party members do not enjoy freedom of religion. Those Tibetan party members who keep their devotion to their faith quiet are not under close scrutiny and are liable to receive punishments and demotions if discovered.
Currently China has many policies that restrict religious freedom in Tibet, all designed to continue its systematic destruction of Tibetan Buddhism, which began in the 1950s. I will cite a few examples of these policies.
One of the most obvious has been its denial of the Panchen Lama’s reincarnation, which was recognized by the Dalai Lama, and the installation of its own choice in this office.
The real Panchen Lama, who is seven years old, and his family are under house arrest. Amnesty International has declared the real Panchen Lama to be the world’s youngest political prisoner. The Panchen Lama is the second highest religious figure in Tibetan Buddhism after the Dalai Lama.
China has also placed limitations on the number of monasteries and strictly controls those that do exist. It particularly controls the monasteries’ finances. In addition, the Chinese government limits the number of monks and nuns in each of the monasteries and imposes restrictions on becoming a monk or nun and on monastic education. On top of this, photographs of the Dalai Lama have been banned from monasteries and a re-education campaign has been implemented. The Chinese government is notorious for punishing dissidents. Arrests and expulsions are common, and China’s policy of torturing prisoners, including monks and nuns, has been well documented. I believe Christians and Muslims in some areas face similar difficulties in practicing their religion.
Human rights are indivisible. We must not fail to condemn wherever the rights of people are being violated. Religious leaders from different religious traditions must come together and raise their voice so that Christians, Tibetans, and Muslims can practice their faith without fear.