Franciscan Sister of Christian Charity Sister Kathleen Murphy reflects on the Pope’s prayer intention for April: for those who risk their lives while fighting for fundamental rights.
Here is a little trivia for you. During the month of April Easter is celebrated by people everywhere as the victory of Jesus over the reign of Death. Also commemorated during this month is Independence Day in Afghanistan, Israel and Venezuela; Liberation Day in Uganda and Hungary and Martyrs’ Day in Tunisia. So it is no wonder that the Holy Father tells us: We pray for those who risk their lives while fighting for fundamental rights under dictatorships, authoritarian regimes and even in democracies in crisis.
Our reflections can be further grounded in the words of our U.S. Bishops: “For a nation to be just, it must be a society that recognizes and respects the legitimate rights of individuals and peoples. These rights preceded any society because they flow from the dignity granted to each person as created by God.” This is a work in progress for us as Americans as it is for peoples around the world.
There are an infinite number of stories we could explore and people we could meet who fit Pope Francis’ intention by the nature of the work they do and the lives they live. You might want to investigate some stories at www.giraffe.org which is just one source for learning about heroes for democracy who “stick out their necks” for the cause of others’ rights. We will look at one of those stories here. It is the reporting of a journalist named John Graham. He is not necessarily a hero in the commonly understood sense. His heroism and dedication to the cause of justice and the granting of fundamental rights comes through his telling of the story of the people of Tibet who suffer under Chinese domination. Though his report is dated 2012, little has changed in regard to the relationship between the two countries.
Let’s listen to John Graham’s narrative. In October 2012 I saw first-hand what the Chinese are doing in Tibet. The reports you’ve heard of cultural genocide are true. China is obliterating the ideas, traditions and habits of the Tibetan people.
Do we care? We’d better. China’s confidence increases with each step onto the world stage. What the Chinese are doing in Tibet tells us a lot about what we can expect from them as their power grows.
It’s hard to get into Tibet. I was in Nepal, waiting, when the Chinese Embassy gave me a visa.
The part of Llasa that foreigners are supposed to see looks like a small wealthy city in America. Modern shops and manicured parks line the main street. The downtown is impeccably clean and there’s no congestion. Late-model cars outnumber motorbikes.
Even in the part of Llasa open to foreigners, small units of Chinese soldiers in riot gear are stationed every hundred yards and foot patrols are high-stepping reminders to the Tibetans of the iron fist that rules their lives.
A key part of the Chinese plan has been flooding Tibet with Chinese immigrants from the east. Already Lhasa is 60% Chinese. The best-paying jobs all go to Chinese while Tibetans pick through what’s left. Tibetans often suffer low-level harassment of many kinds that restrict where they can travel and where they can live. They can get thrown in jail for downloading a photograph of their spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama. In schools, Chinese is taught as the “mother tongue.”
However just a few hundred yards from the manicured boulevards of downtown Llasa you’ll find acres of simple Tibetan houses, made of stone and cinderblock. It’s a crime not to fly the Chinese flag from your roof, but two-thirds of these little households risk a heavy fine by not doing it. The victory is temporary: Tibetan houses are being bulldozed one by one, with their residents moved to high-rises as fast as these can be built. Farm folk who’ve been scratching a living on their land for generations are now watching Chinese soap operas on the 16th floor of an apartment building instead of talking with their friends in local teahouses and watching the sun go down over an acre or two of their barley. Forced moves like this starve not bodies but souls. The idea is to lead Tibetans, especially young Tibetans, to forget who they are.
In 1959 the Chinese authorities forced the Dalai Lama, to flee into exile. During the 1960s gangs of Red Guards destroyed nearly all the Buddhist monasteries in Tibet and killed or dispersed 90% of the monks as part of a frenzied assault on Tibetan ideas, culture, customs and habits. All this fueled a fierce anger and resentment among Tibetans, a proud people with their own warlike past.
There’s some truth in what a Chinese tourist told me in Llasa, “We are raising standards of living in the region with our investment, and providing Tibetans with better lives.” Tibetans now enjoy hospitals, government buildings, schools, paved roads, electric power, and censored-but-operable cell phones and Internet, none of which would be there without the Chinese. The Tibet I saw looked modern. But all this modernization is also meant to buy friends, especially among the young or those with short memories.
There has been a continuing series of protests and uprisings in Tibet for the last sixty years. Eleven monks have burned themselves alive this year alone. It was not easy to get Tibetans to talk with me, still, when they did talk—out of sight or hearing of anyone who looked Chinese—most Tibetans made it clear how much they hated the Chinese for invading their country, but even more for deliberately trying to destroy their culture and their way of life.
My itinerary on this trip was tightly controlled and my papers checked at the police and army posts that dotted the country. My e-mails were monitored (type in “Dalai Lama” and my Internet Café connection would suddenly disappear). There was no Facebook or YouTube, and Google searches were heavily restricted. I kept all my handwritten notes in a personal code on food wrappers mixed in with my dirty socks.
China will never willingly cede political control to the restive Tibetans. Nor are they likely to change a basic strategy of assimilating Tibet into 21st century China, until the Tibetan culture is nothing more than a colorful artifact.
Still, the Chinese are right to fear the power of the monasteries to move angry people to rebel in ways that would catch the attention of the world. And that would force the Chinese to either stop their assaults on Tibetan culture—or lay down a violent suppression that would bring them global condemnation. What the world thinks of their actions in Tibet may not have mattered to China twenty years ago. At least China’s younger and more progressive leaders understand that what they do at home now is judged in ways that can seriously affect their ambitions on the world stage. And that does matter—to them, to the Tibetans, and to us.
Let us be sure that this is just one report from one country where God’s children cannot live in the way He created us to live. Let us pray that justice will descend like the April showers!