Tag Archives: controversy

War and Peace in the Basque Country

Thirty Basque men, women, children and seniors stand in the rain silently, forming a long human chain in front of the Kursaal Building in San Sebastian. The modern, stylish building stands triumphantly over the beach and the old town, a physical symbol of the Basque people’s opening their doors to the world and a peaceful future. The demonstrators at their door hold pictures of a convicted member of the militant Basque separatist group, ETA, and their message is much less ambassadorial, more personal, poignant, and polemical.

My friends and I pass their long line, reading the signs they hold solemnly to a passing crowd of mixed sympathies and bewildered tourists. I look at the images of prisoners, unintelligible Basque phrases, their red, green and white flag, and the map of the un-official borders of Euskadi, with the label Euskal Presoak etxera, a phrase I now understand to mean, Basque prisoners come home.

Such protests are a common sight in the Basque Country, though when I first arrived here I was unaware of their significance. I made my first trip to San Sebastian while working as an English teacher in a small village in rural, conservative Old Castile, deep in the Spanish heartland. From the languid villages of the meseta, it was difficult to imagine that people in the north were fighting for their independence. I researched the conflict online, discovering a complicated and bloody battle going back centuries in time. Before I left for San Sebastian, the philosophy teacher took me out for a beer and attempted to fill me in on the situation.

He pulled out a napkin and drew the map of the Basque Country, the three French provinces and four Spanish provinces that made up “Euskal Herria,” the unrecognized “Land of the Basque Speakers” straddling the Pyrenees. He then drew the arrows pointing inwards from Spain and France, forming the flag I now saw the protesters holding in the rain. He did not write or explain Presoak etxera.

“If you see this flag, be careful.” he had warned me. “This flag means it’s bearer supports terrorists. It means they support ETA and the attacks they’ve made against Spain – from bombing innocent civilians to assassinating politicians. Avoid any bar that flies the flag in it’s window, and whatever you do, don’t talk politics with anyone.”

I nodded, folded up the napkin and put it in my jacket pocket. I suspected he’d provided me a facile explanation that lacked the profundity of thought expected from a philosophy teacher. I decided to reserve my judgement until I saw the situation for myself.

I saw the flag everywhere in the Basque Country. It hung from windows of homes, from balconies of the old town, from behind the bars of taverns from Bilbao to Biarritz. It was so ubiquitous, I couldn’t believe that everyone who held it was as evil as my co-worker made them out to be. I tried to avoid talking politics as long as I could. But after a few beers at a local tavern where the flag was printed on the napkins, curiosity got the best of me.

“This flag is calling for justice,” said the bartender, leaning over the counter. “When the Spanish arrest a member of ETA, they do horrible things to our people. They torture them, they murder them, and they put the rest in prisons in the most distant corners of Spain, as far away as the Canary Islands [off the coast of West Africa]. We can’t afford to visit our friends and relatives, many of whom we believe are being unjustly held. These arrows mean we want the prisoners to come back here to the Basque Country. To Euskal Herria.”

He looked me gravely in the eyes, pushed off the bar and went back to drying pint glasses behind the bar and talking to the other patrons in Basque. I left my inquiry at that, knowing that the issue was far more complex that I could fathom at that time. I felt the weight of centuries of mutual mistrust and anger pressing down on the shoulders of both this bartender and the philosophy teacher back in Castile.


I was unwittingly pushed into the middle of the conflict soon thereafter. Two weeks after returning to small town Spain, the local Guardia Civil detained me and interrogated me on suspicion of being a member of ETA hatching a plot on their local police station (see post here). They had seen me writing notes in my notepad and had followed me for two weeks, during which time I went to the Basque Country. I supposed they had planned to make headlines by thwarting my operation, only to realize I was merely the town’s English teacher.   They released me apologetically, saying “We can’t be too sure these days, you know…with ETA and all.”

Months later, I moved to the Basque Country and took a picture of one of these independence rallies. A local grabbed me hand and stopped me. “Put away the camera,” she said, “People here are going to think you are a spy for the Guardia Civil.” I told her about the misunderstanding with the Guardia Civil back in Castilla. She scrunched her face into a scowl and said, “Fascists. Ignorant fascists, the whole lot of them.”

Though I laughed nervously about the irony of the incidents at the time, they revealed a deep misunderstanding and paranoia on both sides of the conflict. During my first year in San Sebastian, I avoided the subject of ETA, learning to celebrate the uniqueness of the Basque region without focusing on the more radical elements of the independence movement.

I fell in love with the Basque Country. There I discovered a nation without a country, a people with a long history largely unknown to the world, and a culture that drew me in and mesmerized me. I realized that if so many cultural treasures lie hidden within well-trodden Western Europe, the world beyond the West must hold enough diverse cultures to fill a lifetime of discovery.

Old Basque Dude
Photo by Daniel Burgui Iguzkiza

And so now, when I see the demonstrators standing in the rain, holding up pictures of convicted terrorists, I understand that the faces in these photos are their sons, sisters, cousins and friends. The conflict is personal for everyone involved.  There are bloody hands and innocent lives lost on both sides of the battle. Many heated conversations have made me realize that the longest continuous conflict in Europe can not be solved by me alone.

Then I think back to the philosophy teacher who told me not to talk to the bartender. I think about the Guardia Civil and the activist, and the chasms that separate their perspectives. Then I realize that these divisions and misunderstandings are preserved by silence.  And so I keep talking and writing, because it is only through communication that we can hope to forge the mutual understanding we need to build peace.

Controversy on the Tibetan Plateau

“The main reason Tibet is so undeveloped and un-Chinese – and so thoroughly old-fangled and pleasant – is that it is the one great place in China that the railway has not reached.  The Kun Lun Range is a guarantee that the railway will never get to Lhasa.  That is probably a good thing.  I thought I liked railways unit I saw Tibet, and then I realized that I liked wilderness much more.” – Paul Theroux, Riding the Iron Rooster, 1988

“This is a magnificent feat by the Chinese people, and also a miracle in world railway history,” Chinese President Hu Jintao

“China plans to use the railway to transport Chinese migrants directly into the heart of Tibet in order to overwhelm the Tibetan population and tighten its stranglehold over our people.” – Exiled Tibetan Lhadon Tethong

“The railway line itself is not a cause of concern for the Tibetan people…How it will be used is the main concern.” – Dalai Lama’s spokesman, Thupten Samphel.


I visited Lhasa in the fiftieth summer of Chinese rule and I was eager to explore Lhasa and discover how Tibetan culture had survived so far.  I found that it is easier to describe Lhasa by what it is not than by what it is.  

Tibet is not the medieval theocracy that it once was.  The politico-religious government has been dismantled and replaced by the direct control of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).  Traditionally, Tibetan Buddhists had two leaders: a political one (the Dalai Lama, Mongolian for “Ocean of Wisdom”), and a religious one (the Pratchen Lama, who s in Tibet after the invasion).

The Tibetans had reason to protest and the Chinese had reason to be nervous.  Last March marked the 50th anniversary of the Dalai Lama’s exile to India.  In 1959, as Chinese troops “liberated” Tibet, hundreds of Tibetans surrounded the Dalai Lama’s palace and protected him as he rode off on horseback disguised as a commoner.  Thousands of monks followed him to Dharamsala, where he set up a government-in-exile and pledged not to return until the Chinese leave Tibet.

The Chinese have tried to undermine his authority in the 50 years since.  In the 1950’s as the insanity of Mao’s “Religious Reform” swept across China, Mao ordered the destruction of ancient temples, prohibited Buddhist rituals, disbanded monasteries and sent monks to work on farms in other parts of China.  Soldiers knocked down a Buddhist school of medicine and built a radio tower in its place.  They bulldozed the traditional entrance to Lhasa to remind Tibetans that Lhasa would no longer be off-limits to foreigners – it would be ruled by foreigners.

The banned pictures of the Dalai Lama, for now he was a foreigner and the Chinese were the ancient and rightful rulers of Tibet.  So if you go to San Francisco, wear a flower in your hair; but if you go to Lhasa, bring plenty of pictures of the Dalai Lama – Tibetans will love you for it.

Tibet is modernizing quickly and losing its medieval aspects.  The traditionally nomadic people who roam eastern Tibet find fences enclosing lands that were once open to all.  Lhasa’s dirt roads have been transformed into wide boulevards.  Its airport connects it to the rest of China, Highway 318 passes through Lhasa on its way from Nepal to Shanghai, and the recently constructed railway directly links Lhasa with Beijing and all that comes with it.  Tibet’s isolation, once its most defining characteristic, is forever gone.

In 1950 Tibet had no hospitals and its only school was in a monastery.  To their credit, the Chinese have built schools and hospitals, but the primary language of instruction is Mandarin, the history books teach of the “peaceful liberation” of Tibet, and the hospitals are prohibitively expensive.  Ferguson told me that the Tibetans treat minor flesh wounds themselves, often by urinating on the cut.  What if they have a cut on their faces, I cheekily inquired.  Ferguson thought for a moment, then said that it would probably warrant a trip to the hospital.

There used to me no money in Tibet and most of the population were desperately poor serfs locked in a feudal arrangement with the land-owning monasteries and wealthy aristocrats.  Mao’s reforms swept away these class divisions and now there are commercial banks all over Lhasa.  A closer look reveals that the Bank of China’s ATMs are only in English in Mandarin, not Tibetan, and it’s hard to imagine Tibetan nomads putting their money in anything other than a monastery’s donation box.

The traditional mud-brick buildings still stand in much of Lhasa.  Their fortress-like walls are whitewashed and their doors and windows are decoratively painted and bedecked with colorful tapestries and curtains.  Skinny, leafless trees wrapped in prayer flags stand on all four corners of the roofs and waive the five colors of Tibetan Buddhism – blue, white, red green and yellow, symbolizing the five elements of the earth.

The other flag you see is the red flag of China with its golden sickle and stars, reminding Tibetans of the 1959 invasion, the destruction of temples and monasteries, cultural devastation and political repression.  Across from the Potala Palace, once the throne of the Dalai Lama, the Chinese have commemorated the 1959 liberation with a patriotic statue and a dominant Chinese flag.  Soldiers guard the statue and security cameras watch over the plaza lest Tibetans decide to express their true feelings about the statue.

The Chinese have tried to copy the traditional Tibetan architecture but the result is tasteless and tacky, like most modern Chinese developments in my opinion.  Huge hotels and malls have erupted along Lhasa’s new boulevards, assuming that by painting on fake adobe bricks they can somehow blend in with the Tibetans.  But the endless chains of fashion shops, banks, Chinese restaurants, and malls run contrary to Tibet’s traditional asceticism.

The road in front of the Dalai Lama’s palace is now called Beijing Street.  Most signs in Lhasa are written in three languages: Mandarin, the biggest and in the center, English, subordinated below, and Tibetan, squeezed in at the top like a small formality .  It is common to see signs in only Chinese but rare to find them only in Tibetan.

There are security cameras in the major public places and soldiers on most streets.  I saw more soldiers on the streets of Lhasa, Tibet than those of Yangoon, Burma. The soldiers are dressed in green camouflage and full riot gear – Plexiglas shields, face masks, white gloves, batons, tear gas guns, shot guns, and machine guns.  The soldiers are young, and they have the faces of scared children.  If there was a major riot I don’t think they would know what to do.

The soldiers march down the center of the road, they patrol Lhasa in armored trucks, and they guard the entrances to all the government buildings, temples and gas stations.  Why the gas stations?  To prevent Tibetans from making Molotov Cocktails.

It is difficult to imagine Tibetans throwing flaming bottles of gasoline at Chinese tanks, but the younger generation is growing increasingly impatient with the current situation.  Though their grandparents watched helplessly as Mao’s Red Guards dynamited their monasteries, today’s Tibetans are sick of the growing number of Chinese that flock to Tibet each year.  The new railway has made Tibet readily accessible and since its construction tourism has jumped 30%.  The government is subsidizing train tickets to encourage Chinese to visit China’s most exotic little province, with its oddly dressed natives, its fascinating monks, and its stunning scenery.

Most Chinese I have spoken with come to Tibet for the scenery.  After watching Chinese tour groups shuffle through the temples, I agree with this statement.  In the temples I saw a few Chinese bow before the Buddha statues, but most were just sightseeing.

I met a young Chinese boy in Tibet who was wearing Buddhist prayer beads and a hat with a picture of Buddha and the words The Faith.  He said he was not religious, that it was just for fashion.  He said he was just there “for the scenery, not the Buddhas.”  It’s a shame that Mao had to destroy all the Buddhas so the Chinese can see the scenery without a visa.

I met a couple of girls from Shanghai who were spending a couple of weeks in Lhasa for summer break.  I asked them whether they planned to explore the rest of Tibet.  No, they said, they were perfectly happy in Lhasa.   I am not sure what percentage of Chinese tourists act this way, but a number of cafes and bars have sprouted up to cater for this demographic, and I sensed that Lhasa is emerging as a pseudo-counter culture hangout for middle-class Chinese.

I say pseudo-counter culture, because I haven’t seen a real counter culture movement in China.  I won’t say that all Chinese are apolitical, but all the ones I have spoken with agree with the party line regarding the Tibetan issue.  When talk about the “incident” of March 2008 (the Tibetan riots), they say that the foreign media is telling lies about what happened.  They tell me the “people who started it” should be imprisoned.  For them, the debate begins in March 2008, not March 1959 – the riots are an isolated incident created by a few disrespectful hooligans, not the culmination of fifty years of Chinese policies.   The government blames “outsiders” for instigating the riots (read: that troublesome Dalai Lama in India).  The question as to whether the Chinese should be in Tibet does not even arise.

I wondered if there were any truths behind their arguments.  Are the riots pre-planned CIA-funded operations?  Maybe they are, but if it is the interest of freeing Tibet, is CIA funding necessarily a bad thing?  And is the Western media distorting realities to fit their anti-Chinese agenda?  Maybe.  But even if CNN is quicker to jump on a story of Tibetan monks being beaten by Chinese soldiers than a similarly morally dubious event in the west, that does not change the fact that the event did occur.  It boggles my mind to think that opinions on so many issues can vary so dramatically.  If their government is feeding them such baloney, I wonder how much of what we assume is true is actually propaganda.  It makes you think, doesn’t it?

But young Chinese tend to take the same view when asked about the Great Firewall of China.  I ask them how they feel about over 10% of websites being blocked.  They all seem to say the same thing: it’s probably a good thing, because outside influences can be bad for society.  What, for example?  Well…stuff that is bad for children (pornography, they say)…but they quickly add that there are Chinese porn sites available.  So, what’s the point of censorship?

They scratch their heads, and mutter some excuses.  In my opinion, attempting to block the flow of information from almost a quarter of the earth’s population, in the middle of the Information Age, is simply ludicrous.  Yet Chinese tourists continue to visit Tibet, unaware of the controversy of their presence.

But the Tibetans less concerned with the Chinese tour groups and more concerned about the Chinese who come to stay – the settlers.  Through the Develop the West campaign, Beijing encourages many ethnic Chinese to resettle in Lhasa by offering them bonuses and subsidized housing.  Enticed by these benefits, many Chinese from the poorer provinces have migrated to Lhasa where they earn decent living unavailable to them back home.  The massive influx of migrant workers has made Han Chinese the ethnic majority in Lhasa.

These policies are similar to those in neighboring Xinjiang, where ethnic frustrations have erupted in previous weeks.  Xinjiang and Tibet are the two largest provinces in China, yet both are heavily populated by restive minorities displeased with Beijing’s pro-settler policies.  With so many anti-Han protests, it makes me wonder if China has bitten off more territory than it can “chew.”

The Chinese claim that these policies are essential for development.  They are unarguably essential for the integration of Tibet into greater China.   But the Tibetans do not want assimilation; the Dalai Lama labels China’s Tibetan policies as “cultural genocide”.  It is a controversial issue, but one thing is for certain – the sinocization of Tibet is in full swing and is practically irreversible unless the Tibetans destroy all Chinese buildings in their own Cultural-Counter-Revolution.

I pondered all these complex issues as I walked through Lhasa on my first day, sandwiched between chanting Tibetan pilgrims and armed Chinese soldiers.  Tibet was going to be difficult to unravel, even with my knowledgeable guide.  Lhasa had surprised me on my first day, but I had seven days left and dozens of more surprises ahead!

Into Jokhur Temple (Lhasa, Tibet)

Dawn in Lhasa is magical.  From midnight to 7:30 AM silence sweeps across the growing city.  The bars power down, the taxis stop honking, cars are parked, the streets empty of pedestrians, and the city sleeps.

Lhasa is surrounded by high, protective mountains and the rising sun’s beams are blocked so that daylight creeps slowly before drenching the city in the heat of sunrays still intensely hot from their short commute to earth.  The gray morning silence is broken only by the faint chanting of soldiers marching through their morning drills at the nearby military base.

Smoke burns from thousands of altars in the temples of central Lhasa and engulfs the military bases. The government administration buildings, and the new hotels of Chinese Tibet.

The pilgrims rise with the dawn.  They have anticipated their visits for a long time.  They march through the new, Chinese-built central plaza, converge upon Jokhur Temple, the holiest temple in Tibet, and begin their ritualistic circumambulation of the temple, called the kora.   They walk around the temple clockwise and they spin prayer wheels clockwise because the wheels contain paper scrolls of mantras which must be read in the clockwise direction.  As they spin their prayer wheels they repeatedly mutter the mantra Om mani padme hum.

The pilgrims are dressed in the most unusual assortment of garments.  The females wear pied aprons over long, black, sleeveless dresses.  Their shoulders and arm are covered by bright shirts and their hair is woven with blue yarn and braided into pigtails.  Their skin is dark, weathered, and wrinkled.  Their faces are creased and their mouths are toothless.  They wear jewelry of turquoise and coral, and, in my opinion, look more like Native Americans than Asians.

The men wear a mismatched assortment of old-fashioned clothes – blue, feathered fedora hats, gray waistcoats, black jackets and brown slacks – as if the entire crowd is dressed from the emptied closets of the Rat Pack.  They lean their weight on carved yak bone canes as they follow the lead of their grandsons through to the temple.  As they approach the entrance, their rheumy eyes smile with the fulfilled expectations of someone who has walked to Lhasa from the most distant corners of Tibet.

Before they begin the kora around the temple, they pass between two large columns covered in prayer flags and throw handfuls of barley into two massive furnaces that bellow thick aromatic smoke through the plaza and into the temple.

Hundreds of small street vendors border the plaza and the pilgrims’ circuit that traces the perimeter of the Jokhor Temple.  They sell prayer flags, prayer wheels, prayer beads, prayer mantras, incense sticks, necklaces, bracelets, copper jewelry polished to look like silver, tapestries, carved masks, Buddha statues, and almost everything else under the sky…save Free Tibet t-shirts.

In front of the temple almost 100 devotees repeatedly prostrate themselves on the ground before the entrance.  Tourists, both foreign and Chinese, gawk at the spectacle as they bow their heads, raise their hands in prayer, then lower themselves to their knees, and slide forward on their hands until they lie flat on their stomachs.  They then raise their arms from the ground, stand up and repeat the movement again.  So devout are the pilgrims that they must wear pads on their knees and gloves on their hands to protect their mortal bodies from as they repeat this ritual hundreds of times a day.

The Chinese army asserts its presence over this atmosphere in an abrasively conspicuous manner, like that of a bossy older sister watching over her 17-year-old brother’s keg party, which she would not have been allowed to attend except that she took charge of the guestlist.  Chinese soldiers stand in orange tents strategically places throughout the plaza so that in no place can you forget who is in charge.  They stand on the rooftops of nearby buildings every day, watching over the temple entrance as if President Hu Jintao was delivering a speech on the futility of Tibetan independence from the roof of the temple.

Though everyone else follows Tibetan etiquette and walks clockwise around Jokhur Temple, they soldiers walk shoulder to shoulder in the counterclockwise direction, against the grain.  To top it off, attack helicopters circle the plaza inadvertently betraying Beijing’s sentiments – Religion!  Self-Expression!  Organization!  Individualism!  We fear these forces, for they shall be our downfall!  Repression is the only solution! 

After paying the ridiculously high entrance fee (most of which goes to the government, not the Tibetans), you are allowed to pass into the temple.  You must remove your hat and turn off your camera, though the Chinese police keep their hats on and their security cameras watch over every inch of the temple.

Inside the temple the pilgrims continue their kora, moving clockwise from altar to altar in the same way they did outside.  The room is dark, hot and smoky from burning incense and melting yak butter candles.  The whole temple is redolent of yak butter, incense and barley.  It is a scent that is uniquely Tibetan.

Mao’s soldiers turned this temple into a pigsty during the Cultural Revolution – literally.  They expelled the resident monks, renamed it Guesthouse Number Five and ordered monks to camp on its altars.  Today, many Chinese are ashamed of this period of unspeakable desecration.   The monks have returned and the temple has been reopened to pilgrims (but most importantly, to tourists).

Though plain-clothed policemen stand conspicuously in the corners, the pilgrims seem pleased to have their temple back.  They shuffle into the sanctum with big thermoses of liquid yak butter and fistfuls of yuan for donation.  They duck into the dozen or so alters that radiate from the central Buddha and pray to Buddha and their uniquely Tibetan gods and “protector demons.”  They pay their respects by pouring melted yak butter from their thermoses onto 2-foot-wide yak butter candles, then sliding a folded bill into the donation box and pressing their foreheads against the altar’s glass case.

They repeat this process for each alter as tourist groups watch in awe.  The pilgrims’ murmurings continue unabated, swelling with the quickening beat of a distant drum into a crescendo of mantras, and your head swells and your body floats and your lose all sense of where you are, who you are, and why you are here on Earth, until you are pulled back to your senses by the warn rays of light creeping in from the small ceiling windows and suddenly you remember where you are – in Jokhur Temple, the holiest of holies, in the center of the Rooftop of the World, in Lhasa, Tibet.  And as you exit the temple, you smile as you realize that you just lost yourself in the irresistible spell that is Tibetan Buddhism.