Tibet lies in two extremes, depending on who you talk to. Either it is a "liberated" region that is seeing unprecedented growth or an "occupied" country under unprecedented repression. Either its chief figurehead the Dalai Lama is a bodhisattva who tirelessly seeks to bring about compassion on earth or he is a "red devil with horns" up to no good.
How can one area, its people and its history be so contentious? Why do people take such polarised stands?These questions form the crux of journalist Annelie Rozeboom book Waiting For The Dalai Lama, which that takes her to China, Tibet and India to meet Tibetans and Chinese from different walks of life.
The book is no easy read. It eschews a singular narrative for one with multiple voices. But labouring through them is rewarding, because it gives you different opinions and also tells you how they were formed. We have the Tibetan exile who wants to return to a free Tibet, the nomadic Tibetan who simply wants to survive the winter, the deeply religious Lhasa monk who cannot mention the name of the Dalai Lama, and the Dalai Lama himself, besides a well-to-do Tibetan politician who claims Tibet is an integral part of China. You also have the voices of Chinese troops and officials who believe they are "liberating" an archaic nation state.
Each chapter focuses on contentious topics. Rozeboom blows large holes into Chinese propaganda, to show how the lives of Tibetans continue to be miserable, so many years after occupation. Despite tall claims about the rise of literacy in the region, the author shows how children risk their lives to travel across dangerous mountain passes to study in "Tibetan" schools set up in India and Nepal. This is crucial, because as some Lhasa residents describe, speaking Tibetan in school is a sign of "uncivilisedness". In fact, there are very few secondary schools, so often, one has to give up being Tibetan to get ahead in life.
The book also talks of differences within the Tibetan community. While the Dalai Lama has so far ensured a non-violent movement (he discourages even hunger strikes), Tibetan youngsters and groups like Tibetan Youth Congress are increasingly calling for an aggressive approach.
Already, 12 young Tibetans have immolated themselves since March. As the book points out, by choosing not to solve the issue within the Dalai Lama's lifetime, China is complicating matters for Tibetans and for themselves.
Waiting For The Dalai Lama (published by Jaico Books) is available in bookstores.