In 1903-04, Francis Younghusband led a British military force into Tibet. He did not colonise the land, but stationed an ‘agent’ and, after securing exclusive trading rights, returned to India. Almost a century later, a monk, Tsewang Yishey Pemba, told the author Patrick French: “If only Tibet had been annexed by Younghusband, today it might have enjoyed the same status as India , Burma, Pakistan and Sri Lanka.” In other words, it could have been free. The Chinese occupation appears so immutable that even after suffering the depredations of the British campaign, in retrospect, it seems to have been the better alternative.
What is being witnessed instead is the systematic decimation of a unique society. It has for centuries nurtured a way of life so unique, that when the Dalai Lama asked a monk who had fled to India after having been incarcerated in a Chinese gulag for 18 years, whether he ever felt he was in danger during his prison term, the disciple replied: “I was at times in danger of losing my compassion towards my Chinese captors.”
This story was related by the Dalai Lama himself. Even if it were apocryphal, there is no other place in the world where it could have been set. Which is why violence on the streets of Lhasa distresses the Dalai Lama.
He is in the same predicament as the reverend Msimangu in Alan Paton’s novel ‘Cry the Beloved Country’. Set in the apartheid days in South Africa, it is the story of a poor native African’s search for justice for his son. The book portrays the oppression of the system. Two gentle, elderly black friends are sad that their people are being ill-treated. Then the priest says to his friend, whose son has been wrongly sentenced for the murder: “I have one great fear in my heart, that one day when they are turned to loving, they will find that we are turned to hating.”
This is what would be worrying the Dalai Lama too; that if the compassion that their faith teaches is replaced by hatred, then Tibet will never be the same again. And that is bad news for China as well.