PORTLAND — I was happy to learn that President Obama decided to meet with His Holiness the Dalai Lama recently, over the vociferous and menacing objections of the Chinese government.

At the same time, I was disheartened by the media coverage of the meeting, which focused mainly on Chinese protests and shed little light on the appalling human rights abuses that have been taking place in Tibet for the past 55 years.

How many Americans know that 127 Tibetans have set themselves on fire since 2009? And how terrible must the situation be in Tibet for so many people to take such a drastic measure to protest the violent occupation of their homeland?

The answer, unfortunately, is that the Chinese occupation of Tibet has been one of the most heinous crimes against humanity in the history of the world.

Mao Zedong stated in 1949 that if Asia were a hand, Tibet was the palm, and whoever controlled the palm would control the fingers. One of his first acts upon taking power was to send the Red Army into Tibet, which had been an independent nation with its own unique history, culture and language for more than 2,000 years.

The Tibetan people, who had been converted from conquering warlords of Asia into pacifist Buddhists in the ninth century, had no army to speak of, and were unable to oppose the Chinese invasion.

Protests were lodged at the United Nations, and to its credit, the United Kingdom stood up for Tibet, but the United States backed down in the face of potential conflict with China.

Tibetans tried to live in peace with the limited Chinese presence at first, but then, as conditions worsened, they rose up in protest on March 10, 1959, Tibetan Uprising Day, and attempted to evict their invaders. The Chinese reaction was unbelievably brutal, and over the years resulted in the extermination of more than 1.2 million Tibetans, out of a population of 6 million, and the destruction of nearly all of the country’s more than 6,000 monasteries.

The world’s eyes turned toward Tibet in 1989, when the Dalai Lama was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, and since then the Dalai Lama has inspired millions of people around the world with his teachings on love and compassion and his incredible humor and cheerful demeanor which survive in spite of his people’s ongoing tragedy.

The attention focused on China’s crimes in Tibet has resulted in increasingly sinister actions by the Chinese, including widespread murder, torture, rape and other violence against people who simply try to practice their religion or possess images of the Dalai Lama, their spiritual leader. Chinese media blackouts and travel restrictions into areas involved in protests have largely prevented the world from learning of the horrors taking place in Tibet.

Political activism in Tibet increased dramatically in advance of the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing, and the resulting oppression reached such unbearable levels that many Tibetans have felt that they have no other way to cry out for the world’s attention than to take the drastic step of setting themselves on fire.

The United States must actively protest the abuses in Tibet not only for basic humanitarian reasons, but also because China is becoming ever more aggressive and powerful around the globe, and if we do not confront this rising tyrannical power while we still can, we may one day find ourselves in a position in which we do not have the ability to defend freedom.

What can we do here in Maine about these massive problems on the other side of the world? We can engage in dialogue with Sens. Susan Collins and Angus King and Reps. Chellie Pingree and Mike Michaud, and express how important it is to us that America take the lead in fighting terrible human rights abuses by China.

A group of Maine residents will be holding a meeting Monday at 6 p.m. at Jan Mee Restaurant (which is managed by Tibetan refugees), 280 St. John St., Portland, to found the Maine Tibet Freedom Alliance. This nonprofit organization will work to educate people about the situation in Tibet and encourage our congressional representatives to take leadership roles in confronting the Chinese government about their horrific human rights record.

The meeting is open to anyone who would like to help the cause or learn more about Tibet, and complimentary Tibetan food will be served. We hope to see you there. Free Tibet!

— Special to the Press Herald