THE THIRD POLE OF THE WORLD
About three million years ago, Tibet still lied at the bottom of the Tethys sea, a vast expanse of water that covered the landmass of Asia and India. A violent collision between pre-continental Gondwanaland and Laurasia caused a massive earthquake that pushed the area that is present day India northward. An entirely new geological formation emerged from this process: most notably the Himalayan chains and Tibetan High Plateau
Such a geological history put Tibet at a high elevation of 3,500 to 5,000 m and understandably it is hailed as the “Snow country “, “rooftop of the world”, or “the Third Pole“ – the other two being the North and South Poles. With an area of more than one million km2, almost as large as Western Europe, this country is isolated from the outside world on three sides by inaccessible mountain ranges: the Himalayans to the south, Karakoram to the west, Kunlun and Tangla to the north while in the east, it is intersected by low-rising mountain ranges and deep valleys sloping gently toward the Chinese borders adjoining the Sichuan and Yunnan Provinces. [Picture 2]The northwest region of Tibet is a sparsely inhabited no-man’s-land stretching for over 1,200 kilometers in a west-east direction. Further south, nomads roam the mountains and steppes with their herds of sheep, goats, and Yaks. Going east, one arrives at the city of Kham and in the northeast is the city of Amdo, the birthplace of the 14th Dalai Lama. It is also this country’s most prosperous and populated region. Further south, the climate becomes milder and the Tsangpo River along with its many tributaries bring their life-giving water to the local inhabitants.
The Tibetan peasants mainly plant wheat and potatoes as the secondary crop. Due to irregular weather changes, the local harvests suffer from constant damages caused by hails and frost. As a result, the Tibetans rely on animal husbandry of Yaks, sheep, goats, and chickens for a more reliable food source. The Tibetans prefer to eat roasted wheat flour called Tsampa, their daily staple. In Tibet one can find the perfect image of the steppes, high mountains, deep valleys and a sky that normally looks the clear blue color of jade. Up to the end of the 19th century, the lifestyle of the Tibetans remained unchanged from what it was for thousands of years.
THE LAND OF THE BUDDHA
Buddhism came to Tibet twelve centuries after the Buddha reached Nirvana – circa the 7th century AD. After Songtsen Gampo, a talented tribal chief, succeeded in unifying the extremely warlike tribes living at the foot of the snow-covered Himalayas, he married a Nepalese princess. She was the person who introduced Buddhism to Tibet. At the time, Tibet was so powerful that it forced the Tang king of China to sue for peace and give the hand of one of his princesses in marriage to Songtsen Gampo. This Han princess also brought Buddhism with her to her new home. Since then, Buddhism went through a period of rapid expansion and in later days incorporated features of the indigenous polytheist Bon faith to transform itself into a transcendent and mystical form of Buddhism.
Going into the 14th century, a devout monk by the name of Tsongkhapa founded the orthodox school of Tibetan Buddhism called Gelug(pa). After his death, his successor Gendun Drup, also a devout monk, was universally revered by Tibetan Buddhists as the Great Lama (Lama is Tibetan for teacher). He contributed geatly to the expansion of Buddhism and set up an administrative system to work hand in hand with the religious order to govern Tibet. This great and astute monk introduced the belief that the soul of a deceased Great Lama would be reincarnated in an infant who will be the embodiment of the Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara or the Goddess of Mercy herself.
The 16th century witnessed internal infightings among the various Buddhist sects, opening the door for the intervention of the Mongols. Ultimately, Altan Khan, the supreme leader of Mongolia became awed by the profound knowledge of the Great Lama and expressed his wish to be initiated into the Buddhist monkhood. In the meantime, he conferred the title of Dalai Lama to this Great Lama. Dalai in the Tibetan language means the ‘sea’ conjuring up the notion of “immensity”.
Those were the golden days of Tibetan Buddhism as evidenced by the construction of the Winter Palace of the Dalai Lama also known as the one thousand-chambered Potala. This building is undeniably an architectural marvel of the world.
However, it is the Jokhang pagoda built under the reign of Songtsen Gampo that deserves the claim to be Tibet’s oldest surviving religious structure. The Buddha statue the Nepalese princess brought with her on her wedding day to this country was kept here. The most famous landmark of this place is a stele erected in front of the pagoda to commemorate the Tibetans’ glorious past and the vicissitudes the Chinese Tang suffered at their hands. On it was engraved in two languages the accord reached between the Great Emperor of Tibet and the Great Emperor of China in the years 821-822 with these terms [Picture 2]:
…“The Great King of Tibet and the Great King of China… have conferred together for the alliance of their kingdoms. They have made and gratified a great agreement. God and men all know it and bear witness so that it may never be changed; and an account of the agreement has been engraved on this stone pillar to inform future ages and generations… (1)
Jokhang, a pagoda with a history of over 1,300 years, commemorates the golden years of the Tibetan nation. The stele engraved with the accord reached between the Great Emperor of Tibet and the Great Emperor of China in the years 821-822 had been destroyed. Jokhang, along with the Potala Place have been classified as world heritage sites by UNESCO. [source: internet]
While Tibet, sitting at the source of the Mekong, was enjoying an era of unrivaled prosperity (618-907), Vietnam formerly known as Annam, on the other hand, had to put up with ruthless Chinese rule for a total of 1,050 years. It finally gained its independence with the establishment of the Ngô, Đinh, Lê, and Lý dynasties.
However, the law of change inexorably grinds on. In the ensuing centuries, the Chinese invaded Tibet and occupied its capital city of Lhasa time and again. At the dawn of the 20th century, as the Xin Hai Revolution led by Sun Yat Sen put an end to the Qing Dynasty, the Tibetans rose up to declare their independence but were brutally suppressed as they met with an almost cruel indifference from the world community. The Chinese, under any form of political systems, always consider Tibet as an integral part of their territory.
A TIBET IN MOURNING
When the 13th Dalai Lama died in 1933, it was reported that his face turned to the northeast in the direction of the city of Amdo. Combining that sign with other omens, members of the religious council journeyed to Takster village in the province of Amdo. They came upon a two-year old infant, the fourth child of a poor peasant family. After he had successfully passed all the tests they administered to him, the child Tenzin Gyatso, born in July 6, 1935, was officially recognized as the 14th Dalai Lama reincarnated.
At the time, Amdo was under Chinese control and it took two years of arduous negotiations for the boy Tenzin Gyatso to be allowed to leave for the capital city of Lhasa. First he was taken to the Summer Palace at Norbulingka then to the Winter Palace of Potala to live and receive instructions from highly learned monks. During that time, an official was appointed to act as regent to run the country.
The situation worsened when Chiang Kai-shek was defeated and had to flee to Taiwan in 1949. The Red Army occupied the whole of China’s mainland and invaded Tibet by force under the guise of “to liberate the Tibetan people from the oppression of the feudal class.”
Right from the start, waves upon waves of Chinese communist troops entered Tibet with their families in tow. In naked betrayal of their original promise to respect the freedom of religion as well as the habits and customs of the Tibetans, from day one, the Chinese occupiers launched a campaign to suppress religions and carry out a policy of “gradual take–over” through the unrelenting resettlement of the Han citizens into Tibet.
In 1950, responding to the urgency of the situation, at the very young age of 16, Tenzin Gyatso stepped forth to take over the rein of power and govern Tibet. Four years later, in 1954, the Chinese took him to Beijing to meet with Mao Tse Tung in the hope of persuading him to acquiesce to the integration of Tibet into the national order of China. Faced with the threat of extermination, the Tibetans once more rose up to be ruthlessly quashed and massacred by the Red Army. In his auto-biography “Freedom in Exile”, Tenzin Gyatso wrote:
“For almost a decade I remained a political as well as spiritual leader of my people and tried to re–establish peaceful relations between our two nations. But the task proved impossible. I came to the unhappy conclusion that I could serve my people better from outside.” (1)
The 14th Dalai Lama led more than one hundred thousand of his countrymen into exile in India. Brushing aside all opposition and intimidations from Beijing, the Indian government helped resettle those Tibetan expatriates within the city limits of Dharmasala at the foot of the Himalayas. They established a Kashag cabinet in exile to keep alive their struggle to survive as a people in their beloved Tibet.
On their part, in total disregard for the aspirations of the Tibetans, the Chinese incorporated Tibet into “the great motherland the People’s Republic of China”. In September of 1965, China announced the establishment of the “Tibetan Autonomous Region” making it an integral part of the People’s Republic of China. By that act, Beijing erased the country of Tibet from the world map. As the Cultural Revolution raged on in the following decade, Tibet went through its most tragic ordeal. The entire cultural heritage of the Tibetan people was systematically decimated under the bright daylight by the Red Guards. Temples and monasteries were razed to the ground, religious statues and paintings destroyed. Tens of thousands of Tibetans were branded “reactionaries” for the crime of refusing to denounce the Dalai Lama or renounce their faith.
The 1982 statistics compiled by the Chinese government showed that there were 3,87 million Tibetans who lead a simple and hospitable lifestyle living in the “People’s Republic of China”.
Picture 3: When drinking water, Remember its source. In the aftermath of the 1959 insurrection of the Tibetans that was bloodily suppressed by Beijing, the Dalai Lama led almost 100,000 of his countrymen to seek refuge in India. The Republic of Vietnam immediately sent relief in the form of rice grown with the water from the Mekong that originates from the Tibetan High Plateau to the Tibetan refugees. The Tibetan delegation invited its Vietnamese counterpart to Darjeeling to meet the Dalai Lama. From left to right: Prof. Lê Xuân Khoa, general secretary of the Vietnamese Association for Asian Cultural Relations, Reverend Thích Trí Dũng, the Dalai Lama, Mr. Cổ Văn Hai, Vice-chairman of the Republic of Vietnam Congress (4)
In October, 1987, with their patience running thin, the Tibetans again rose up to be once more mercilessly suppressed by the occupying Chinese Communist troops. Approximately 1.2 million Tibetans lost their life under the forced occupation of the Chinese. A horrific toll when we take into consideration the total Tibetan population of only less than four million souls.
To support the struggle inside of Tibet, the Dalai Lama has at times left Dharmasala and traveled to many countries in the world to voice his people’s desire to live in peace and freedom.
Tenzin Gyatso only thinks of himself as a simple monk, refusing to believe in the popular myth that he is a reincarnated Buddha. At any time and place, he conducts himself as a gentle and unbiased human being who stays aloof of all criticism or praise. He abounds with compassion. More than that, he is a man of freedom. With an active and nonviolent spirit, he constantly seeks to build a trusting and peaceable relationship with his opponents even though Beijing would go to any length to discredit and demonize him.
The Chinese are rebuilding a number of temples in Tibet under the pretense of making “redress to the excesses of the Cultural Revolution”. Even a young child could tell that the real purpose behind all that was to develop tourism. Meanwhile, the Chinese rulers made it a point to assign undercover agents to every single monastery in the country. Going a step further, they banned young men from joining the monkhood and forced monks who were over sixty to retire. All this was done under the constant guise that “freedom of religion is written into the constitution”.
Picture 4: This young Tibetan named Jampa Yeshi is running as a human burning torch on a street in New Dehi 26.3.2012 to demand freedom for his people. From 2009 to 2016, there are 153 monks and Tibetan civilians who immolated themselves to protest the Chinese occupation.
[source: AP, photo by Manish Swarup]
To visit Tibet as a tourist in a tour group led by a Han guide would prove to be a safe proposition and poses no problems. Any Western tourist including the “veteran politician” Edward Heath, former Prime Minister of Great Britain, can attest to that fact. He went to Tibet on a visit organized by Beijing. Upon his return to England, Mr. Heath declared that everything was just fine in Tibet. His apparently sincere opinion was simply based on what he was led to believe or allowed to see. As it is often the case, most of those government-arranged trips are grounded on deceit and lies.
TIBET AND THE LESSON OF ANNAM STRUGGLE FOR INDEPENDENCE
More than two decades have passed since the alarm was first raised in 1995 about the integrity of the 4,800 mile-long Mekong. From a geopolitical standpoint, this author persistently views Tibet as an independent nation and the Mekong flows through 7 not 6 countries. Should we fail to recognize Tibet as a nation located at the source of that river, the international community has unconsciously legalized Beijing’s intention to erase Tibet from the map of the world.
On 11-9-1998, during the acceptance ceremony for the 1998 Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award at Georgetown University, the Dalai Lama expressed his wish to visit Vietnam in the year 2000. More importantly, he also called on Vietnamese scholars to share with their Tibetan counterparts historical materials pertaining to the Sino-Vietnam and Vietnam-Tibet relations.
It was understood that through that statement, the Dalai Lama wanted to tell his people to study the “Vietnam experience” and learn how the Vietnamese were able to regain their independence after almost a thousand years of determined occupation and assimilation by the Chinese. It is a “message of hope” for the Tibetan people who are presently living under Chinese oppression. (4)
However, at first glance, we can see there is a big difference in the case between Tibet and Vietnam. Throughout that millennium of occupation, the Chinese did not have to deal with the problem of overpopulation and scarcity of land. Moreover, they viewed Vietnam as a faraway land whose borders had not extended to the Mekong Delta and its people uncivilized. Consequently, the Vietnamese did not face the danger of “Sinicization by immigration” as it is the case nowadays with the Tibetans who are rapidly being reduced to a minority status in their own land. If under the lure of “Democracy” the Chinese were to promise to conduct a referendum on the issue of self determination for Tibet, no Tibetan in his right mind would acquiesce to it.
Since that time, 16 years have elapsed and the Dalai Lama is now in his early eighties. His wished-for visit to Vietnam has yet to materialize. The ball is now on the Hanoi Government’s court. It has to decide on whether it has the fortitude to extend to the Dalai Lama an invitation or not. In another word, this is also a yardstick by which we can measure the extent of its independence toward China.
TIBET THE LIFLINE OF ASIA
It can be said that Tibet is the lifeline of Asia since all the major rivers in that continent originate from this country (2):
To the West, in the vicinity of the Kailash Mountain, the Indus and Sutleji rivers course in a southwestern direction and merge with three other rivers to form the Punjab lowland nestling between India and Pakistan.
To the south, the Tsangpo River (Source of Purity), also known as “the highest river in the world”, is famous for its spectacular canyons and rapids. It meanders across the Himalayas before discharging into the Bay of Bengal.
To the east, we have other big rivers: The Yangtze, 6,500 km, is the longest river in Asia. It flows in an easterly direction across the width of China all the way to Shanghai. Then there is also the Yellow River that courses northward then turns east to reach the city of Tianjin. Both of those rivers discharge into the China Sea.
To the south, the Irrawaddy and Salween rivers run south to Myanmar in a north south direction before discharging into the Andaman Sea. The made-in-China hydroelectric dams begin to dissect those two rivers and destroy their ecosystems. 
The more than 4,800 km long Mekong has many names: it orginates from Tibet and is called Dza Chu (Water of Stone) then flows southward through the deep and wild gorges in Yunnan Province where it takes on the new Chinese name of Lancang Jiang (Turbulent Blue River). Crossing the Thai and Lao borders, it becomes known as Mae Nam Khong (Mother of Waters) while in the land of Angkor, the Cambodians refer to it as Tonle Thom (Great Water). Finally, in Vietnam, the river is renamed Cửu Long (Nine Dragons). It splits into two main branches the Sông Tiền and Sông Hậu Rivers (Front River and Back River) and discharges into the East Sea through nine estuaries now reduced to seven.
Picture 5: Tibet, the source of the major rivers in Asia
[source: Meltdown in Tibet, Michael Buckley, Palgrave MacMillan 2014]
In our days, the wild and pristine Mekong is a thing of the past. This is the work of the six gigantic mainstream dams built in Yunnan and the 12 dams being constructed downstream in Laos and Cambodia along with dangerous water diversion projects being carried out along the entire Mekong current. The end result: the degradation of the entire ecosystem in the Mekong Basin and a dying Mekong Delta threatened by drought and salinization.
A VOICE IN DEFENCE OF THE ENVIRONMENT
The Dalai Lama is not only the spiritual leader of the Tibetan people. He is also a voice of “compassion” relentlessly speaking out in defence of human righhts and the environment of this planet.
In regard to Tibet, the Dalai Lama prefers to give higher priority to the preservation of the environment instead of the hot political issues.
“political agenda should be sidelined for 5 to 10 years and the international community should shift its focus to climate change on the Tibetan plateau. Melting glaciers, deforestation and increasingly polluted water from mining projects were problems that ‘cannot wait’.”
Above were the words the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader told Timothy Roemer, the US ambassador to India during a meeting in Delhi in August, 2009. [source: WikiLeaks Cables, the Guardian 10 August 2009]
At their very source, the major rivers in Asia are being devastated by China in a total and systematic way. The waste from industrial plants cause greenhouse effects that bring about the melting of the glaciers. On top of that we have suicidal deforestation, grand-scale exploitations of mineral deposits, destruction of the habitat, and pollution of water sources. The rivers of the Tibetan High Plateau are being shackled by the China’s hydropower dams and the Tibetan people chased away from their traditional home.
China has confirmed it will build large dams upstream the Yarlung Tsangpo River or Brahmaputra, before this river crosses its border into India, Bhutan and Bangladesh. Brahmaputra is the lifeline to the millions of inhabitants in those three nations.
Chinese authorities revealed that they will build many more dams in between the Sangro and Jiacha districts. Upon completion, the combined total output of those hydropower dams will far exceed that of the Three Gorges Dam, the largest dam on the Yangtze. This new energy source is equivalent to 100 million tons of coal or the entire gas deposit in the East Sea. Yan Zhiyong, General Manager of China Hydropower Engineering Consulting Group observed: “Tibet has the largest stock of hydropower among all provinces. Exporting Tibetan electricity to eastern provinces will significantly ease China’s energy shortage problem”.
Mister Anant Krishnan, a senior diplomat from India, believes that although China’s expansive plans to build dams are confined to its national territory – which is in fact within Tibet – such act would, without a doubt, negatively impact its relationship with the nations downstream. He went on to venture this comparison:
“India is just as alarmed about dams on the Yarlung Zangbo as Thailand, Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia are about China’s dams on the Mekong River in Yunnan”
Picture 7: Save Tibet is to save the lifeline of Asia
[source: International Campaign for Tibet]
Even though he is fully committed to and concerned about the survival of his country, the Dalai Lama also shows he cares deeply about the issues besetting humanity. He approached the environmental issues with a long-range view within a global context and always desires to keep this planet “green“. In his address to World Environment Day [06.05.1986] he stated:
“Peace and the survival of life on earth as we know it are threatened by human activities which lack a commitment to humanitarian values. Destruction of nature and nature resources results from ignorance, greed and lack of respect for the earth’s living things…It is not difficult to forgive destruction in the past, which resulted from ignorance. Today, however, we have access to more information, and it is essential that we re–examine ethically what we have inherited, what we are responsible for, and what we will pass on to coming generations.”
1. Freedom in Exile; The Autobiography of The Dalai Lama. Tenzin Gyatso, Hodder & Stoughton Ltd, London, 1990.
2. Meltdown in Tibet: China’s Reckless Destruction of Ecosystems from the Highlands of Tibet to the Deltas of Asia. Michael Buckley. Palgrave MacMillan, New York, 2014
3. Global Ecology and the Made in China Dams; Ngô Thế Vinh, Viet Ecology Foundation 2010; http://vietecology.org/Article.aspx/Article/62
4. The Nine Dragons Drained Dry, The East Sea in Turmoil. Ngô Thế Vinh,
Viet Ecology Press, Người Việt Books, Nxb Giấy Vụn 2016
This piece was submitted to The Mekong Eye and reflects the editorial decisions of the author only. The article was first published on Viet Ecology Foundation.
Lead Photo: The Dalai Lama and the Third Pole of the World, Photo: http://www.activeremedy.org