Air Date: December 24, 1996 Program 9652


Various residents of Tibet

(This text has been professionally transcribed. However, for timely
distribution, it has not been edited or proofread against the tape.)


JEFF MARTIN, Executive Producer: This is Common Ground, a program on world affairs and the people who shape events. In this edition of Common Ground: Tibet—a province of China or an independent country?

DR. OMI CHAMPE LOUJE: Our policy is to respect and protect the freedom of religious belief. People can believe in religion.

MARTIN: Freedom of religion is one of the issues between those who dispute the future of Tibet.

RINCHEN DHARLO: Though the Chinese officials interpret that while the parents have every right to believe in religion, to say prayers and to visit the monasteries and to light the candle lights, the parents do not have any right to influence their children to believe in religion.

MARTIN: Then, later in the program, a change of pace as we visit a Moroccan Souks. Common Ground is produced by the Stanley Foundation. I'm Jeff Martin. Tibet is called the roof of the world. A few outsiders and even fewer journalists have an opportunity to see it. Free lance journalist Reese Erlich recently traveled there and had unusual opportunities to interview ordinary people. He discovered that neither the Chinese government nor the supporters of the Dalai Lama have a monopoly on the truth. Erlich begins his report in the capital city of Lhasa.

REESE ERLICH: Wind whips about the top floor of the Potala Palace. This holy site has stood atop a hill in Lhasa since the 800s. From here a visitor sees the entire city and snow-capped mountains that thrust up into a powder blue sky. Recently the Chinese government rebuilt the gold-plated roofs and restored parts of the palace that had been crumbling with age. Inside the Potala, thousands of Tibetan pilgrims wind their way through the holy chambers, offering prayers and scooping dollops of Yak butter into huge bowls that serve as lamps. One monk busily writes out prayers on small flags. Another answers questions from pilgrims.

MONK: I am born in Lhasa. I always worked at the Potala.

ERLICH: A monk named Mooju explains in halting English that he joined the monastery at age 13. Unable to express himself further in English, he switches to Tibetan and a translator explains his situation.

TRANSLATOR: The Tibetan Buddhists are very influential on young people. When we are very young we are urged to go into the monk to pray so from the beginning we have such sense of religion so he want to be a monk.

ERLICH: Do they have enough resources at the temple here for to train the monks?


ERLICH: Far below, a bell rings as Buddhist pilgrims prostrate themselves. One man raises his hands overhead, touches his stomach, goes down on his knees and then lies face down on the road. Wearing gloves with rollers, he slides forward with each motion. Some of the devout spend years and their life savings on the pilgrimage. They slowly make their way towards the holy Jokhang temple. Inside the Jokhang temple, a monk chants prayers as worshippers trek from room to room. Supporters of the Dalai Lama have long charged that China suppresses the Buddhist religion in Tibet. But government authorities point to the thousands of pilgrims entering temples in Lhasa everyday as proof that Tibetans have freedom of worship. Louje as chair of the pro-government Buddhist Association of Tibet.

TRANSLATOR: Our policy is to respect and protect the freedom of religious belief. People can believe in religion and the people also have the right not to believe in religion. We can't bear any people to conduct activities harming to the society and to our people in the guise of religion.

ERLICH: Louje says China's constitution guarantees freedom of religion so long as people don't advocate independence for Tibet. Supporters of the Dalai Lama tell a very different story. Rinchen Dharlo who lives in New York is an official representative of the Dalai Lama.

RINCHEN DHARLO: The constitution has a sentence which says there is a religious right, but then at the same time they say that there is also a sentence which says right not to believe in religion. So the Chinese officials interpret that while the parents have every right to believe in religion, to say prayers, and to visit the monasteries and to light the candle lights, the parents do not have any right to influence their children to believe in religion or to teach them to say the prayers. This is strictly prohibited.

ERLICH: Chinese authorities say the Dalai Lama simply uses religion as a cover to promote separatism. They say Tibet has always been a part of China and an independence war would make Tibet into another Yugoslavia. They say China has improved Tibet's food production, health care and education. These reforms, officials say, have undercut support for independence. Exiled Tibetans argue, however, that their countrymen deeply resent occupation by an outside power. They conceive that little organized resistance exists in Tibet today, but that's because popular dissent is suppressed by Chinese authorities. While China clearly does not meet Western standards on political rights, the Dalai Lama supporters just as clearly exaggerate their claims of human rights violations. For example, they claim the Chinese government has a conscious policy of colonizing Tibet by encouraging Han Chinese to migrate there. Such a policy would dilute the Tibetan population and be a violation of international law.

Dalai Lama spokesman Dharlo says eight million Chinese have flooded into Tibet in recent years.

DHARLO: It is definitely conscious plan by the government and you know, as we speak, you know thousands of Chinese are coming into Tibet. As of today, it is believed that there are at least eight million Chinese to six million Tibetans. This is continuing.

ERLICH: Chinese and foreign academics agree that many Chinese have immigrated to Tibet in the past ten years, but strongly dispute the Dalai Lama's numbers. The figure of six million Tibetans includes not only those living in the Tibet autonomous region but also ethnic Tibetans in surrounding Chinese provinces. Similarly, the figure of eight million Han includes Chinese who have been living in neighboring provinces for decades. Tao Chang Song, a research fellow at Lhasa's Academy of Social Sciences, says the Dalai Lama intentionally distorts the figures for political purposes.

TAO CHANG SONG: These very few immigrants to Tibet, then the West made a lot of distortion, something like that, against us. It's very hard for me to understand. The Han population in Tibet is declining ?? from 1982 to 1990. The figure has declined from 90,000 to 80,000. I have never heard that our central government encourages the Han people to moving to Tibet.

ERLICH: But foreign experts say Tao's figures may be too low. He doesn't include soldiers or temporary workers who enter Tibet seasonally. Western academic sources estimate that several hundred thousand Chinese live in the Tibet autonomous region, not millions. In some cases, Tibetans resent these outsiders and conflict has arisen so even the pro-government Academy of Social Sciences is careful in estimating popular opinion. I asked Tao what would be the result of a referendum on independence.

TAO: I think it's hard to predict. I think most of the local middle level, high level officials, they of course oppose independence of Tibet and also majority of ordinary people reject the independence of Tibet but in some areas, in some sectors of society, some people... I think it is hard to say for them.

ERLICH: Realizing that the government remains unpopular in at least parts of Tibet, the Chinese strategy is to encourage economic development, hoping an improved standard of living will lessen dissent. Tibet receives the most per capita investment of any Chinese province. The government is busy building roads, new office buildings, apartments and electric power stations, but even there they run into controversy.

Small waves lap against the barren rocky shore here at the pristine Yamdrok Lake. The water is crystal clear and shimmers in the sunlight. At nearly 15,000 feet in the Himalayas, the sky glows a deep blue. The vast Yamdrok Lake is a holy site to Tibetan Buddhists. Along the shore, pilgrims have created beautiful and intricate monuments of small carved rocks. Prayer flags flutter in the constant wind. Until now, no foreign reporters have been allowed to visit Yamdrok Tso, because the Chinese government is building a controversial hydroelectric power station here. It will drain water from the lake, pipe it to turbines 3,000 feet below and then release the water into a river. Several times a day river water will be sent back up the hill to replenish the lake. But critics say dirty river water will pollute Yamdrok. Dalai Lama spokesman, Dharlo, explains.

DHARLO: Definitely it will pollute the environment. You know, Yamdrok is such a beautiful lake. People throughout Tibet love this lake. There are so many songs you know, written praising this beautiful lake. The color of the lake is blue, that's why this Yamdrok is known as Yumsto which means the turquoise lake.

ERLICH: But Ling Zheng He, an army colonel who oversees construction of the power plant says the government is taking steps to protect the environment.

LING ZHENG HE: This lake is a beautiful and clean inland lake. After pumping the water from the river up to the lake, we can improve its water quality. The river water is very clean. Furthermore we have a filtration system to make sure the water is not polluted when we pump it back. Such systems are in use all over the world. The plant is being built with the help of American and Austrian experts.

ERLICH: The Yamdrok power plant will provide up to 112,500 kilowatts of electricity to the Lhasa area. The old quarter of the city faces nightly blackouts so the power is needed quickly. Colonel Ling says the first of the plant's five electrical turbines will begin operation by the spring of 1997. But whether the environmental impact on Yamdrok Lake will be as devastating as critics fear, won't be known until the power plant begins full operation at the end of 1997.

Tibetan exiles admit that China has brought some economic progress, but they maintain that only the Dalai Lama's movement can achieve political democracy in Tibet. That's not what their written documents say, however. Under the 1963 exile constitution, should Tibet become independent, the Dalai Lama would hold a lifetime appointment as both supreme political and religious leader. Spokesman Dharlo says the Dalai Lama has since decided to renounce all temporal power, regardless of the constitution's provisions.

DHARLO: Once we have backed Tibet and even surely we want a democratic entity, right? Entity and once we have that he does not want to take any role in the future government of Tibet.

ERLICH: However, many of the Dalai Lama's supporters want him to remain as a political leader in an independent Tibet. Regardless of his individual role, an independent government in Tibet will closely link political and religious power. That raises troubling questions. What role will women have in a political hierarchy made up almost exclusively of men? For example, the Dalai Lama and other religious leaders strongly oppose abortion. Dalai Lama spokesman, Dharlo.

DHARLO: He's, you know, totally against abortion. You know, once the child is concept right, also conceived, then you know it's considered you know to be a very sinful to destroy it.

ERLICH: Out in the Tibetan countryside, issues of future democracy seem remote. As the wind whips across an open plain this nomad sings quietly to himself. (singing) He's the patriarch of a family camped here by the side of the road. The family earns the equivalent of $1,000 per year. That's actually a big improvement over years past. They say they're relatively happy economically. They've sold off their yak herd and will be returning to the arid mountains within a few weeks. The family has traveled to India and has a son living there. They have a photo of the Dalai Lama in their tent. Asked if he supports Tibetan independence, the family patriarch pauses for a long time. Then he says,

TRANSLATOR: Well, independence or not, the most important thing is to get a glimpse of the Dalai Lama.

ERLICH: The answer could mean that he supports independence or that he simply respects the Dalai Lama as a religious leader. He isn't saying. This yak herding nomad with no formal education answered the question like a skilled diplomat. For Common Ground, I'm Reese Erlich reporting from Lhasa, Tibet.

MARTIN: When Common Ground continues, a visit to a Moroccan Souk.

Printed transcripts of Common Ground and audiocassettes of this program are available. Listen at the end of the broadcast for details on ordering. Common Ground is a service of the Stanley Foundation, a non-profit, non-partisan organization that conducts varied programs and activities meant to provoke thought and encourage dialogue on world affairs.


MARTIN: As the holiday season winds down, most people have probably had their fill of shopping most especially, shopping malls. So a mental change of pace might be in order with an audio visit to a very different kind of shopping experience. Kahlil Sakakeeny takes us there.

KAHLIL SAKAKEENY: There are thirty-two countries that make up the Arab world. They are unite by a common religion, Islam, and the classical form of Arabic that transcends the widely divergent dialects spoken in the various countries. Nevertheless, the states of the Arab world are understandably often more different than they are similar. In the east, for example, lies the oil-rich desert kingdom of Saudi Arabia with its harsh and sometimes repressive society. The traveler moves west to the countries of the Levant into North Africa, passing through Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Algeria until he comes to the Arab country furthest west, fabled Morocco, also known as the Maghreb. Andre Chevaron, a French academician writing between the wars, observed that Morocco represented the last surviving example of a civilization of the ancient world. A civilization, he wrote, "that is rich in types, ideas, customs, and physical aspects of mankind are eternal simply because they have never changed. We can touch it, we can mix with its people. Morocco is a miracle that never ceases to astonish."

Perhaps it's this timelessness that has attracted so many artists to Morocco over the years. Samuel Pepys and Edith Wharton lived and traveled there. Matisse searched for the perfect light in Morocco. George Orwell's letters from Marrakesh established the writer as a champion of the working class. His observations of the ruling French Colonial power set the stage for his anti-totalitarian work, "Animal Farm." This country of 25 million was actually the first nation to recognize the newly independent United States of America on December 20, 1877 and its ruling monarch, King Hassan, has played a vital role in the Arab-Israeli peace processes.

But perhaps one of the most enchanting and enduring aspects of Morocco's exotic landscape are its Souks, the Arabic word for marketplace. It's hard to imagine, but these winding, twisting, colorful bazaars are the actual forerunner of today's modern shopping malls. Granted, the supermalls of today with their piped in music, security guards and sanitized shops bear little obvious resemblance to the outrageous Souks of Morocco. But if you look closely and use your imagination, it's easy to perceive the mall of today as the mirror image of the sensuous Souks of Morocco.

There are so many things that can be said about Morocco. You can talk about how it was one of the first countries to recognize the new American republic; you can mention the fascinating mix of conservative Islamic traditions with the more liberal French ones and comment on the amazing skill of the hundreds of blue or brown-eyed striking street urchins who greet you in English, French, Arabic, German or even a little Japanese. And of course, you can talk about Rick's nonexistent Cafe American in the Casbah of Casablanca made famous by the great Humphrey Bogart. And you can talk about the impossibly deep blue skies set off by towering mountains and bright yellow lemon trees.

But most of all, you have to talk about the Souks of Morocco, those fabled, crowded, overpowering, noisy, exciting, outdoor marketplaces with names that seem to come from the movies—Marrakesh, Fez, Meknes, Tangier, and my favorite, the Berber mountain marketplace of Szechuan. There I watched with fascinating parental horror as my daughter submitted to the embrace of a python while the ancient snake charmer serenaded the serpent into submission. A Souk is an absolutely crazy series of twisting streets crowded with stalls and linked together by corrugated tin roofs or straw or tent tops beneath which everything imaginable can be sold from camels to spices, from herbs to fine wrought gold ornaments and dazzling colored magic carpets.

Up on the rickety second floor of the outdoor courtyard, weavers are hard at work making the famous Moroccan jalabahs or loosely woven tunics. The weaving rooms are very small and very cramped with four or more weavers. A few words of shouted greeting in French, Arabic and English soon dissolve the initial suspicion and tension. The sounds of the loom are accompanied by music to relieve the tedium of the work as the weavers ply a trade handed down from generations. The wool is brought here by the Berber mountain dwellers with their tall conical straw hats, multicolored skirts and in many cases, faces and hands marked by the distinctive Berber tattoos. Mohammed explains that the men make the jalabahs and the women make the carpets. There's as much art involved in arriving at the price as there is in making the jalabah. It costs as much as you are willing to pay, but also as little as $16.

Along the winding cobblestone streets, repairmen are tapping, tapping individual stones in place one by one as they must have done for hundreds of years. The only concession to modern technology here is an ancient wheelbarrow. In one particular shop there is another kind of tapping. Here craftsmen are creating incredible designs on pure bronze plates that fill an entire space and reflect the sunlight and then bounce the beams around the dust-filled room. The master of this particular shop designed ornaments for the royal palace in Fez and teaches the art to young men.

"I am teacher here. I teach 25 children how to make beautiful design plate."

SAKAKEENY: The plates are cleaned by an unvarying time-honored practice of squeezing lemon juice into the cracks and crevices and there is a technique that enables one to tell the difference between pure bronze and brass, and it has to do with hitting the plate with a wooden mallet. I can't tell the difference, but the master pronounces the verdict. A soft red glow from several small shops is accompanied by the rich smell of bread baking on an open stone fire. These round, warm, moist loaves of Moroccan bread cost about six cents each. And oranges over there from a stall literally overflowing with the fresh fruit, costs about twenty-five cents for nearly two pounds.

As tinmakers give way to the meat cutters and donkey carts whiz by filled with the protest of squawking chickens, one particular sight dazzles the eye—the spice sellers stalls. You have to take a deep breath here, first just to let the mind catch up with the eye but also the smell. The smell and see the forty or fifty burlap bags filled with red, green, yellow, ocher spices laid out nearly as far as the eye can see on a royal blue cloth. Spices whose exotic names and dazzling colors probably can't be expressed in the English language. The men and women spice sellers dig deep into the bag, their hands and elbows dyed red with paprika and green with henna. I'm not the only one overwhelmed, a French visitor tries to take it all in.

"It's very different from market in France. It's too much."

SAKAKEENY: A microphone is out of place here. It's too hard, techy, modern in this world redolent with smells, sights and sounds. Yet the people wave good naturedly and they smile easily, however imperfectly. The jostling, constantly moving buyers and sellers stop suddenly in their tracks when I stopped the flow by a powerful need to comment on one particular sight. Cascading in front of me were mounds of olives, not the common. often shriveled, supermarket kind, but a rainbow of olives from black to green to red and yellow. Some were stuffed with bright red peppers while others glowed with a deep purple sheen. All were surrounded by brilliantly yellow lemons arranged with the practiced eye of an expert.

It takes more than one visit, of course, to capture all of the confusion, excitement and mystery of the Souks of Morocco. When you are tired, you can sit in an outdoor cafe beneath a very colorful umbrella and eat meat dishes prepared with pepper, ginger, cumin, saffron, butter and oil. You can drink sweet mint tea and enjoy honey-drenched dates, melons, grapes, apricots, plums and for pennies. You can watch the hard-working merchants take a few minutes from their work and go and pray in a simple, unprepossessing room used as a mosque. A touching, and in its own way, a very inspiring sight. You can get ready to rejoin the seemingly endless stream of humanity, the Souks of Morocco, or you can pass out of the din and joy and carry away the sights and sounds of a lifetime. This Kahlil Sakakeeny.

MARTIN: Next week Common Ground returns to our more standard fare with a look then at the human rights of indigenous people in Ecuador. For Common Ground, I'm Jeff Martin.

Cassettes and transcripts of this program are available. Transcripts are free, cassettes cost $5.00. To order or to share your comments, write to us at the Stanley Foundation, 216 Sycamore Street, Muscatine, Iowa 52761. Our e-mail address is When ordering transcripts or cassettes ask for Program No. 9652. To order by credit card, call us at 319-264-1500. Again tapes are $5.00; transcripts are free. Be sure to ask for Program No. 9652.

B.J. Liedermann created our theme music. Common Ground was produced and funded by the Stanley Foundation.


Copyright © 1996, The Stanley Foundation