For nearly 50 years, China has maintained a firm and often repressive presence in Tibet, an isolated land of soaring mountains and deep spiritual beliefs. In that time, the Chinese government has actively pursued a series of social and economic policies aimed at assimilating Tibet into greater China. However, those efforts have largely failed to win the support of the Tibetan people. While political opposition in Tibet has been all but crushed, Tibetans remain devoutly Buddhist and still hope for the return of their exiled spiritual and political leader, the Dalai Lama.
The Dalai Lama has been fighting for Tibetan self-determination ever since fleeing to India in 1959. Chinese leaders have, in the past, said they would not recognize the Dalai Lama as a religious leader of Tibet until he declares total allegiance to Beijing and affirms that both Tibet and Taiwan are inseparable parts of China.
Steve Lehman first traveled to Tibet in 1987 as part of an anthropological project documenting a village of cave dwellers. At the time, he was essentially unaware of the politics of the region. Tibet has always been one of the most isolated regions in the world. And at the time, there was little attention paid to the political situation in Tibet. The photographer met an elderly man named Tenzin, who told him he had spent 15 years in prison for his involvement in the Tibetan resistance movement. The conversation left a deep impression on him and it was through his story that he was introduced to the political struggle in Tibet.
Lehman spent 10 years documenting the political uprising in Tibet. Alongside the thousands of photographs he captured, he took news photographs and medium format portraits and gathered additional images from other sources — including Chinese police photographs. These images are the heart of “The Tibetans: A Struggle to Survive.”
“A Struggle to Survive” was published in 2005, and sadly, today, Tibetans are a minority in their own country — there are now about 7.5 million Chinese to about 6.5 million Tibetans, and inducements of higher pay and other privileges continue to bring a stream of Chinese settlers into the country. All but 12 of more than 6,000 monasteries were destroyed. Many of them were used as target practice by Chinese artillery. A thousand years’ worth of priceless Buddhist literature, religious paintings and artifacts were either destroyed or have fetched millions of dollars on the international market in an effort by the Chinese to raise foreign currency and to wipe out Tibet’s rich heritage.
In addition to this, more than 200,000 Tibetans, including the Dalai Lama, live in exile in India, Nepal, Bhutan, Switzerland, the United States and Canada, Australia, New Zealand and elsewhere.
China uses torture and fear to maintain it’s grip on Tibet. The have made it illegal to fly a Tibetan flat, send an email abroad, say the phrase ‘human rights’ and display images of Dalai Lama. Many Tibetans who can’t see a way to live under these conditions have turned to self-immolation (setting themselves on fire) in form of protest.
Find out more about, and join the Free Tibet movement here.