Speak Bitterness

Isabel Hilton

Last August, speaking at an international forum on development in Tibet sponsored by the Chinese government, Neil Davidson, a Labour peer and former advocate general for Scotland, criticised the Western media for bias. The story they had failed to tell, according to Davidson, was that of the remarkable economic development the Chinese government had brought to Tibet in a ‘short time’, by which we must presume he meant the more than sixty years since its ‘liberation’ by Chinese military force. Davidson’s name was attached to the forum’s collective statement, the ‘Lhasa Consensus’, which claimed that the participants had agreed that Tibet ‘enjoys sound economic growth, social harmony, deep-rooted Tibetan culture and beautiful natural scenery, and the people enjoy a happy life’. Davidson has not dissociated himself either from his reported remarks or from this document, though others who took part in the forum have.

A few months later, a Tibetan monk called Kalsang Yeshe set fire to himself in the town of Tawu in what was once the Tibetan province of Kham, and is now Sichuan province. He was the third person to set fire to himself that week, and the 136th since 2009, when Tibetans began to burn themselves to death. The police confiscated Kalsang Yeshe’s remains to deny him his final religious rites. So far, the state has responded to the self-immolations by equipping police patrols with fire extinguishers and arresting anyone who survives the flames. The authorities have also extended criminal responsibility for the act to families, communities, villages and monasteries. These measures have slowed the rate of self-immolations, but have not stopped them. That any Tibetan citizen should choose an agonising death over life under Chinese rule falls some way short of an endorsement of the harmonious society of the Lhasa Consensus. That so many have done so might have caused Davidson to hesitate. In the absence of any public explanation of his remarks, we are left to judge him a fool or a knave.

Arguments over the ‘truth’ about Tibet aren’t new. There is a striking lack of agreement, outside official propaganda, on almost every aspect of the country and its history. All are disputed between Beijing and its supporters, the exile community in India, scholars around the world and activists of many different persuasions. In this contested territory a voice such as that of Naktsang Nulo, author of My Tibetan Childhood, is extremely rare. Naktsang is a Tibetan, a retired government official who worked as a teacher, a police officer, court official, prison governor and county leader in Qinghai, a vast province that stretches across the eastern part of the high Tibetan plateau. This isn’t a wild-eyed rebel, or an ill-informed Western journalist, but a man who was a state official all his working life.

Knowing this background, the reader might anticipate an account of joyful liberation from feudal serfdom and a journey towards the prosperity and social harmony of the Lhasa Consensus. But that is not the story he tells. Naktsang’s narrative plunges straight into a close encounter between a column of Chinese troops and a fugitive group of Tibetans, who discover the aftermath of a massacre:

Dogs were wandering around, eating the corpses of dead sheep and yaks, and the bodies of dead men lay scattered on both sides of the river. They were naked and dark blue. When we rode away from the river towards a cliff, we kept finding more dead people, young and old, lying on the ground … Farther on there were many dead children lying alone, and mothers and children still holding each other in death.

The dead were pilgrims returning from Lhasa, massacred with all their animals. Naktsang was ten years old, and while he was still a boy he witnessed the military occupation of Tibet, Tibetan armed resistance, civilian massacres, the destruction of monasteries and of a way of life that had endured for centuries.

Naktsang was born in a tent in 1949, as a storm raged on the high plateau. He was the second son of a relatively well-off nomad family in Madey Chugama, a settlement of some seven hundred families living on either side of the Machu River in what is now Gansu province in northwest China. The family were Golok, tribal nomads with a fearsome reputation, whom successive governments had prudently left largely to their own devices. But in October of the year of Naktsang’s birth, Mao Zedong declared the founding of the People’s Republic and the new regime’s intention to ‘liberate’ Tibet.

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