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Book review: Tibet, the Last Cry, by Eric Meyer

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 16 February, 2014, 6:46pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 16 February, 2014, 6:46pm

Tibet, the Last Cry
by Eric Meyer
Blacksmith Books
4 stars

Mark O'Neill

Few are the foreign journalists who have visited Tibet. The number is even fewer since the Lhasa riots of March 2008 and the start of self-immolations in 2009, in which more than 40 have died.

So the debate over Tibet is locked between the accusations of the exiled government in India and the unforgiving Beijing. This book is welcome in providing first-hand accounts of the lives and the extraordinary landscape of Tibet by two French journalists: photographer Laurent Zylberman and writer Eric Meyer.

They were the only freelance journalists granted official access to Tibet following the riots of March 14-16, 2008, in Lhasa and stayed for two weeks. Meyer knows China well, having lived there since 1987.

During the riots, Tibetan crowds ransacked shops and hotels owned by Han and Hui people. In response, thousands of soldiers and armed police sealed off the city's biggest monasteries. It was the biggest protest against Chinese rule in nearly 20 years. According to Chinese figures, rioters killed 18 people and injured 623, including 241 police and armed police.

Because the book was too "balanced" and did not fit mainstream opinion, the authors were unable to find a commercial publisher. So, in the autumn of 2011, they promoted it on www.kickstarter.com: 220 people were moved to provide the funds to publish the book in French, English and Spanish. The authors are donating half of their rights to two NGOs.

The value of the book is the dialogue with different people, which captures the ambiguity and complexity of the situation. Take Dianba, a 55-year-old farmer who cultivates 166 hectares of wheat, soybean, rapeseed and barley, and owns 20 yaks and five pigs. He also owns a two-storey house of stone, with multicoloured wood around the balcony.

He is one of tens of thousands who have benefited from a scheme in place since 2006 which finances half the cost of construction. Each house costs 50,000 yuan (HK$63,540) and the monthly payment is 1,700 yuan - more than Dianba can afford. But he says he has no problem, probably a result of government largesse. He even plans to buy a small tractor.

Dianba is one of the many beneficiaries of Beijing's enormous investment in the region. Ma Jinglin, director of the province's Development and Reform Commission, tells Meyer that in the previous five years, Beijing had spent 100 billion yuan, with the average citizen earning 12,000 yuan in 2007, double that of 2002. "The current population can be considerably augmented," he said.

The government is building 22,000km of roads and five airports, much of it for military use; there will be a railway line from Lhasa to Chengdu, and major roads to Sichuan and Kashgar.

Meyer also has vivid descriptions of life inside the monasteries, the heart of Tibetan Buddhism.

"The monasteries that were torn down 35 years ago were rebuilt by the brothers using materials paid for by the public treasury. At the same time, their community is bullied and re-educated in the hope of breaking any resistance. That is probably futile; these brothers are undeniably stronger united and supported by their families, even secretly by members who are parents of the Communist Party."

The photographs, black and white, are good: images of Tibet other than those provided by the government are rare. Many show how the Han and Tibetan worlds co-exist uneasily - prayer flags hanging on power lines from the sacred lake Yamdrok-Tso.

I recommend this book to those who want to learn more about Tibet. A visit of two weeks five years ago is too short to answer the many questions we have about the region. But, given how little we know, this is a welcome addition.