The Tibet Museum Tibet Awareness Talk Series: ‘History, memory and Resistance: Revisiting the 70,000 Character Petition’ by Dr. Tenzin Desal
An unnamed Tibetan pleaded:
“You shouldn’t let Buddhism to be eradicated
And allow the Tibetan snow land vanish,
And don’t let people die of starvation.”
English Translation from Research on Panchen Erdeni by Tsangtruk Topla
(Privately published in 2012)
Mcleod Ganj, Dharamsala: On 12th December 2018, Wednesday, for the Tibet Museum bi-monthly talk series program, Dr. Tenzin Desal imparted his speech on ‘History, memory and Resistance: Revisiting the 70,000 Character Petition.’ The topic focused on ‘70,000 character petition’ as one of the key document to research on the modern Tibetan history especially in 1950s.
The speaker unveiled his topic with a background revelation on Tibetan history for the audience better understanding. He mentioned that there is a paucity of historical sources while researching and writing on Tibetan history.
Stating the political background of this document:
Chinese Communist Party (CCP) that came into power in 1949 expanded after the establishment of the People Republic of China (PRC). Under the coercion, a treaty was signed in 1951 in between Tibetans and the People Republic of China, which later resulted in the implementation of various policies.
The speaker mentioned that Democratic Reform was also implemented in Tibet in that period of time, recalling a Tibetan who wrote a document detailing horrific mass starvation in certain regions of Tibet while he travelled in those areas. The Tibetan later compiled and submitted a petition or a report to the elite circle of the People Republic of China in Beijing regarding his observation.
The speaker later expressed his opinion on how researching and writing on Tibetan history is arduous via prefacing it in common term instead of using theoretical abstraction for better comprehension. He described how important this particular document ‘70,000 Character Petition’ is for both the second and third generation Tibetans living in the exile to learn about their history and for the historians too who are researching on the modern Tibetan history to take this document as a reference. Further adding a point that this particular document also could be treated in numerous other ways like inferring it as a petition asking the ruling PRC to inspect and avail positive modification on the policies that were implemented.
Dr. Desal also stated on the historical research mentioning one of the early Indian historians Jadunath Sarkar who described the term as ‘the first-hand information that an individual recalls.’ The speaker also informed that the ‘Seventy Thousand Character Petition’ is the first-hand information report that a Tibetan has witnessed in Tibet at that very time. This report that was compiled at the end of the 1950s only came into existence in 1997 after it made its way to the London office of Tibet Information Network. The document written in the Chinese character was translated to English and later also in Tibetan by Tibet Policy Institute, DIIR, formally known as Research and Analysis Centre under the Department of Security, CTA. The 10th Panchen Lama has compiled this report in 1989 and this was mentioned in the biography of him written by a Tibetan scholar named Jamphel Gyatso. This particular document that later leaked focused on the Democratic reform and how Chinese policies implemented in Tibet had an adverse effect on Tibetans living in those particular areas. Jasper Becker who wrote ‘ Hungry Ghosts: Mao’s Secret Famine’ in 1995 also referred to the mass starvation in Tibet. As a reference, the author also collected the oral history from Tibetans and Chinese who lived through that time. The speaker mentioned a moment when His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama was interviewed by Jasper, the former was astounded when the latter explained many of the problems and challenges Tibetans gone through in the history.
“When we heard there was large-scale famine, it was a new thing.
In Tibet, food supplies had been sufficient for centuries.
Agriculture was old-fashioned but sufficient.
In the past, one or two individuals may have died from starvation that is possible.
Otherwise, it was unheard of.”
His Holiness The Dalai Lama, 1995
Excerpt from Jasper Becker’s “Hungry Ghosts.”
The speaker discussed in 1995 how the history has been disconnected from the people who had lived through history. He justified it by clarifying, when an anthropologist interviewed many of the academics living in Tibet, Tibetan informant told, “when you are writing the history of Tibet, write it as clearly as you can about Tibetan history before 1959, where write it as unclear as it could be after 1959.” This revealed the disregard of the incidents since the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) invaded Tibet. The speaker also specified that another document naming Document no 9 leaked in 2012 that stated, “anyone who is going to challenge the party narrative of Tibetan, the history of the People Republic of China (PRC) has to be challenged.” On that, the speaker questioned, along with these challenges the history of Tibet can be recalled while writing the history of Tibet. Moreover, very few numbers of historical documents available at that time in the archives of the Sichuan province that mentioned the mass starvation, their atrocities and challenges Tibetan gone through at the time.
Dr. Desal also let us perceive the calamities caused by this policy by illustrating the census data of 1982. The sex ratio is highly skewed as in certain region where there were no men left as most were either imprisoned, starved to death or been killed.
It was also mentioned that since the reform period of Deng Xiaoping, Tibetans started to publish local histories of their monasteries and regions. The speaker noticed the most peculiar thing in that publication that many of the important personalities associated with the monasteries and the royalties, the year of their death mostly noted in the late 1950s era. 1958 marked as one of the most difficult time in the history of Tibet especially in the northeastern part of Tibet in Amdo region. In Tibet, remembering, discussing and articulating history of Tibet is not allowed that resulted in the scarcity of the historical source.
Dr. Desal also shed light on the concept of ‘Hidden Transcript’ that the Tibetan take creative forms like a song, Tibetan literature, Art and various other mediums to express their emotions and articulate in.
He also recommended books like ‘The Red Wind Scream’, which is a novel by Tsering Dondrup and the other one ‘Domination and the Arts of Resistance’ by James C. Scott focusing on the modern Chinese policies in Tibet and articulation of how Tibetan should resist the political structure in Tibet. The first document or the book called “The Tragedy of My Homeland” by Alak Tenzin Pelbar (Published in 1994) drawing from Chinese sources that explains the history of Tibet by taking the archival materials as reference.
Eventually, he wrapped up his speech with the display of a song lyrics sung in Tibet by a Tibetan who was later imprisoned for singing it. The song expressed the oppression done before and during when Beijing was hosting the Olympic games in 2008.
~Reported by Kunga Choedon