ICT Chairman Richard Gere testifies on Tibet before Congressional Committee

Richard Gere

ICT Chairman Richard Gere

Testifying before a Hearing on March 7, 2002, ICT Chairman Richard Gere said the United States Congress needs to strengthen its support to the Dalai Lama in his effort to resolve the issue of Tibet through dialogue with the Chinese leadership. Gere also asked the House International Relations Committee to study the findings of a report that the International Campaign for Tibet is poised to release on the state of Tibetan refugees.

Along with Gere, Undersecretary of State Paula Dobriansky, who is the U.S. Special Coordinator for Tibet, and Lodi Gyari, Special Envoy of the Dalai Lama and ICT’s Executive Chairman, also testified before the House International Relaitons Committee.

In addition to addressing human rights concerns, Tibetan refugees and religious freedom issues, they stressed the importance of dialogue between Chinese leaders and the Dalai Lama or his representatives as an essential step towards resolving the Tibet issue in the best interest of both the Tibetan and Chinese people.

Congressman Henry Hyde (R-IL), who is Chairman of the International Relations Committe and who chaired todays hearing, said that efforts towards dialogue would “contribute to a just and lasting solution” to the Tibet issue.

The full text of the testimony of Richard Gere, Chairman of the International Campaign for Tibet, is given below:

Testimony of Richard Gere
“U.S. Policy Considerations in Tibet”
Committee on International Relations
U.S. House of Representatives
March 7, 2002

Thank you, Mr. Chairman, for your invitation to discuss Tibet with the International Relations Committee. It is a particular honor to follow Undersecretary Paula Dobriansky, who has from the beginning of her tenure as Tibet Coordinator shown competence and clarity on this issue. I am also honored to share this occasion with the Special Envoy of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, my dear friend, Lodi Gyari.

I would like to focus my remarks on the issue of religious freedom in Tibet and on troubling developments facing new Tibetan refugees, nearly half of whom are monks and nuns.

In January, I traveled as a religious pilgrim to Bodhgaya, India, the spiritual birthplace of Buddhism. There I joined the greater part of the Tibetan exile population to receive the Kalachakra initiation, one of the most significant Buddhist ritual teachings, from His Holiness the Dalai Lama. An estimated 150,000 Tibetans were present at Bodhgaya, along with another 50,000 pilgrims from Bhutan, Nepal, and other countries.

Many of the Tibetans were recent refugees having made the perilous journey from Tibet, over the Himalayas, through Nepal and, finally, to India. All of those Tibetans who walked, hid and ran their way around Chinese and Nepalese border guards came to see His Holiness the Dalai Lama, their aging leader whom they respectfully refer to as Yeshe Norbu, or the Wish-Fulfilling Jewel.

In Bodhgaya, I spoke to many monks and nuns who shared familiar stories of religious persecution in Tibet. Tibetans are still forbidden by law to worship His Holiness the Dalai Lama, including the display of his photograph on their altars. Strict limits imposed by the Chinese authorities on the number of monks and nuns in monasteries prohibit entrance before the age of 18 and require expulsion after the age of 60; effectively cutting out the important learning and teaching times in a monastic’s life.

Two Tibetan monastic centers, in particular, were targets of massive destruction and expulsions in recent months. Both were reported in the international press. I met several monks and nuns from these centers and will come back to their accounts at the end of my testimony.

The Kalachakra ritual represents a very special form of blessing. According to religious tradition, the Kalachakra has been taught in Tibet for 1,000 years, although at a drastically reduced scale since His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s 1959 flight into exile. For Tibetan pilgrims who traveled from inside Tibet, the gathering at Bodhgaya was an awesome opportunity to receive from His Holiness the Dalai Lama one of the most important foundational teachings in Tibetan Buddhism. Incredibly, less than one hour into the days-long teaching, His Holiness was forced to suspend his prayers due to illness and exhaustion.

Because of the central role His Holiness plays in the struggle of the Tibetan people to regain their freedoms, I feel it is especially important as we examine the situation in Tibet to consider for a moment the effect of that cancellation on the crowd of nearly 200,000 in Bodghaya. I can tell you that rumors of the causes and extent of His Holiness’s illness spread rapidly, at times hysterically, through the crowd, and were attributed to political as well as spiritual machinations. There was confusion and great concern, and extreme displays of emotion.

Although I understand that His Holiness is now completely recovered and is taking a well-deserved rest, his recent illness and the reaction it provoked points to a more urgent need for some resolution or movement towards resolving the issue of Tibet.

We are well aware that it is through His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s leadership that the Tibetan struggle has remained non-violent. This is not to say that I believe Tibetans are otherwise inclined or able to take up arms against their Chinese oppressors. The extent of the Chinese control apparatus in place throughout Tibet makes such action unrealistic. For example, we know that any Tibetan in Tibet who raises his or her fist in the air and shouts “long live His Holiness the Dalai Lama” is, in a matter of minutes, converged upon by the People’s Armed Police. In spite of China’s efforts to forcibly control the Tibetan people, the real force that keeps them in check is the understanding that to act out violently would dishonor His Holiness. Such is the depth of their love and respect for him.

Ironically, China’s propaganda machine has targeted the religious authority of His Holiness the Dalai Lama with its most vituperative rhetoric. China’s leaders appear blind to the recognition that His Holiness and his teachings, which promote the development of an ethic of peace and tolerance, are the greatest hope for ultimate stability in Tibet.

I ask members of this committee to use their considerable influence to urge the Chinese leadership to reconsider their strategies in Tibet and to begin meaningful dialogue with His Holiness the Dalai Lama or his representatives in order to find a peaceful solution.

There is a second area where I believe the U.S. Government must act with greater sensitivity and dispatch — China’s apparent growing influence in Nepal. I urge Chairman Gilman to consider convening a hearing of the South Asia and Middle East Subcommittee on this alliance, its impact for the region, including Tibet, and steps the United States might take to bolster Nepal’s fragile democracy.

The Kingdom of Nepal, its government and people have been rocked by tragedy. The Maoist rebels are on a murderous rampage that is spreading from the remote interior to more populated areas, and the government has imposed a state of emergency. Reports from Nepal describe tremendous unease among the population. In the midst of this tense situation, evidence suggests that Chinese diplomats have begun to play hardball with the Nepal government on the issue of Tibetan refugees.

Mr. Chairman, I would like to share with the committee some findings of a report the International Campaign for Tibet will be releasing soon. The report describes the increasingly inhospitable situation for Tibetans in Nepal. Among its findings are:

  • increased incidences of refoulements at the Nepal-Tibet border;
  • a clampdown on Tibetans without official papers in long-established refugee settlements;
  • the arrests of Tibetan students voluntarily repatriating to Tibet after the completion of their studies in India;
  • a new restrictive attitude with regard to Tibetan cultural and religious events, including not allowing the photograph of His Holiness to be displayed during public gatherings; and
  • the rise of hostile youth groups with apparent ties to the Chinese Embassy in Kathmandu.

Since the U.N High Commissioner for Refugees opened an office in Kathmandu and began counting Tibetan refugees in 1993, there has been a steady flow of about 2,500 arrivals in Nepal each year. This year, that number was 1,381, down by one thousand from last year, and roughly half of the average tally. In fact, with the Kalachakra scheduled for January in Bodhgaya, we had anticipated a considerable spike in the number of new arrivals. What happened?

While the impact of the Maoist insurgency has created very dangerous conditions in areas of Nepal that Tibetan refugees traverse, the International Campaign for Tibet believes that the reduced refugee flow principally results from a new understanding between the Chinese and Nepalese governments. This understanding manifests itself as:

  • increased Chinese mountain border posts along the Nangpa-la pass, the escape route most frequently used by Tibetans;
  • the greater inclination among Nepalese police to hand over Tibetan refugees to Chinese border guards, rather than to abide by the verbal agreement between the Nepal government and the UNHCR that provides for the safe-transit of Tibetan refugees through Nepal to India;
  • denied or curtailed access for the UNHCR to border areas where it had systematically trained Nepalese police in safe-transit procedures; and
  • an unresponsive Home Ministry to Tibetan refugee concerns.

Increasingly, Tibetan refugees can no longer count on the protection of the UNHCR or the willingness of the Nepal government to allow their safe passage. I urge the Committee to make inquiries of the U.S. Ambassador in Kathmandu, Nepalese authorities, and the UNHCR concerning the modalities of returning to what had been a crucial solution for Tibetans seeking freedom in exile. I would also respectfully request that the U.S. Government encourage the UNHCR in Kathmandu to be vigilant and proactive in carrying out their protective duties concerning Tibetans refugees. Finally, I would ask that the appropriate congressional committee explore the possibility of the United States providing asylum to Tibetans, which could lessen the stress on the Nepali and Indian governments.

At this time I would like to return briefly to the issue of religious persecution in Tibet and share the accounts of a monk and nun I met in Bodhgaya. Their stories are examples of what religious persecution means on a personal level, and are set in the context of incidents reported in the international press and this year’s State Department reports on religious persecution and human rights.

During a 6-week period in the summer of 2001, Chinese work teams demolished some 3,000 homes and meditation huts at Larung Gar, a remote monastic encampment in eastern Tibet. The encampment had between 7,000-8,000 monks and nuns in residence. Larung Gar was remarkable for its teacher, its level of scholarship, its students that included some 1,000 Chinese monks, and the high level of scholarship afforded to nuns.

In Bodhgaya, I met a young nun from Larung Gar. In July of last year, Chinese officials told her that she could no longer stay in her home and must leave within a few days. She was then spending a good deal of time in a nearby village caring for destitute nuns who had earlier been expelled from Larung Gar. She returned one day to find her home destroyed. Unlike hundreds of other newly expelled nuns who were then wandering around this remote area, she had a friend at another monastic institution at Yachen, some three days drive away. She stayed with her friend through the summer and studied with her teachers.

In September, Chinese work teams arrived at Yachen monastery. They passed through the encampment painting a large Chinese letter “chai” on the front of many homes. “Chai” means demolish. They affixed posters on the monastery’s main prayer hall, that read, “monks and nuns who have had ‘chai’ painted on their homes, must demolish them by a certain date. Otherwise, Chinese work teams will demolish them and a fine of 200 yuan will be collected.” Left with no alternative for continuing her religious education, this young nun made the painful decision to leave her sisters, her teachers and her homeland. She made the dangerous flight from Tibet and arrived safely in Kathmandu in November.

The monk whose story I would like to share, also came from Larung Gar. When the work teams arrived, he had nearly completed a 10-year course of study and was preparing to teach. Even though he was young, he was accomplished in study and meditation, meaning that he had both the intellectual and spiritual empowerments necessary to be a teacher, or “khenpo.” This particularly monk was not expelled and, in fact, received an identity card from the “Democratic Management Committee” at Larung Gar that provided him residence status.

But the situation had changed too much at Larung Gar. First and most importantly, Khenpo Jigme Phutsok, the senior lama at Larung Gar, and perhaps the most significant teacher remaining in Tibet, had been forced to leave. Second, the body of monastics had been shattered. On a scale that had not been witnessed since the Cultural Revolution, in a period of three months, the population at Larung Gar was reduced from 8,000 to 1,000 monks and 400 nuns. This young monk reluctantly left Larung Gar, and soon after Tibet, because the three elements essential to his religious practice — the Buddha, embodied for him by Khenpo Jigme Phutsok, the sangha or the monastic community, and the dharma or the transmission of the teachings — had been irrevocably desecrated at Larung Gar.

Mr. Chairman, on behalf of the International Campaign for Tibet, I thank you for your time and ask you to continue your efforts on behalf of the Tibetan people. Unless the situation in Tibet improves, the influx of Tibetan refugees will certainly continue and we will look to you for further support.

Indeed, there are segments of the Tibetan population in exile that, in my view, still need special consideration and I hope the Congress can find some way to address. Among these are the several thousand Tibetan “veterans” who worked with the CIA when they had a Tibet campaign. Their story is vividly explained in the book, Orphans of the Cold War by Ken Knaus, a former CIA operative, which I commend to this Committee as a fascinating and informative read.

 

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