It is the season of the neediest cases. In cities all over America, attention is focused on those with especially terrible problems in the expectation that the rest of us will offer sympathy and help as we undertake our celebrations.
It is just as good a time to look at the world's neediest cases -- places like Ethiopia, Afghanistan, Cambodia and Tibet -- where millions suffer chronic hunger, exile, repression, separation from family and hardship beyond belief.
Unlike suffering rooted in the human condition (illness, old age, loss of loved ones) or in the failure of social policies (poverty, unemployment, homelessness), the misery of Ethiopians, Afghans, Cambodians, Tibetans is a direct result of political violence used by governments against unarmed people.
Ethiopian President Mengistu Haile Mariam employs violence against helpless hordes of Eritreans whom he is determined to conquer; Vietnam's government employs violence against the Cambodians who survived Pol Pot's murderous utopia (only to fall victim to invasion and occupation); Soviet armies employ violence against the fierce but battered Afghans; and the People's Republic of China employs violence against the long-suffering people of Tibet.
In each case a foreign government uses force to subdue an ethnically and culturally distinct people. In each case conquest and the denial of self-determination have served as preface to the denial of most of the rights protected by the International Declaration of Human Rights. In each case the effort to conquer a people has led to suppression, dispersion, relocation, massive disruption of the social structure -- and mass murder.
Conquest is not a memory from history books. It is happening now as these modern (Communist) governments use force against unarmed populations.
What is called the ''international community'' does precious little for the victims of these violent policies. Food aid is provided to Ethiopians under an unspoken rule of silence about the causes of their man-made famine. Some governments (including the United States) provide assistance to ''freedom fighters'' who struggle against the occupations of Cambodia and Afghanistan, and each year the United Nations General Assembly passes discreet resolutions calling for the withdrawal of ''foreign'' troops from these lands.
Even less notice is taken of the quiet, nonviolent people of Tibet, whose land and culture are victims of a determined campaign of destruction and transformation. The ''international community'' remained silent even after this fall's executions and repressions laid bare the brute force on which China's policies for Tibet depend.
Though doggedly ''Chinese'' in its perspective on the region, even the Far East Bureau of the State Department has recently affirmed in testimony before Congress ''the depredations and massive violations of basic human rights perpetrated against the Tibetan people since the entry of the People's Liberation Army into the area of Tibet in 1950.''
Even the State Department does not deny China's determined efforts to eradicate Tibet's language, culture and religions. Department spokesmen understand the terrible Tibetan toll of forced collectivization and disastrous agricultural policies in the '60s. They know, too, that the Cultural Revolution made Buddhist Tibet a special target of its campaign. All religious institutions were attacked, religious monuments destroyed, monks murdered and 100,000 Tibetans driven into exile in Bhutan, Nepal and India.
It is estimated that more than a million Tibetans -- nearly one-sixth of the total population -- have died as a result of China's policies. Some 6,000 monasteries have been destroyed. Tibetan children have been removed from their families for ''education'' in China. Occupation armies have been permanently stationed in Tibet.
With the onset of liberalization in China, Hu Yao Bang made a public apology and announced new policies for Tibet. Tibetans were allowed to rebuild certain monasteries and to worship in them. But the practice and study of religion remain severely restricted by law, and now Yu Yao Bang himself has been purged.
Meanwhile, a deliberate massive resettlement program has attracted millions of Chinese into Tibet, where they enjoy unusually high wages and good living conditions. Today Chinese outnumber Tibetans in their own homeland (some 7.5 million to 6 million). Tibetans suffer systematic discrimination and segregation. The per-capita income of Tibetans is one-third that of the Chinese. Their life expectancy is 20 years below the Chinese average. The Tibetans' literacy rate is far lower, their health poorer, their housing more primitive. As the Dalai Lama notes, the Chinese government has made Tibetans ''second class citizens in their own homeland.''
That government and its apologists explain the Tibetan suffering as the more or less normal consequence of modernization of a ''semi-feudal theocracy,'' which is what they call Tibet. But it is not so. Tibet's miseries are a consequence of repression, not of modernization. Modernization builds on existing cultures. It does not destroy them.
This fall, when Tibetan demonstrations were harshly repressed and public executions held to intimidate Tibetans, the U.S. Congress understood better than the State Department the moral imperatives for American solidarity with Tibetans, who seek nothing more than the human rights our foreign policy affirms for all people.
By overwhelming votes, both houses of Congress expressed their concern over human rights violations in Tibet and affirmed the rights of Tibetans to democratic freedoms.
Now, in the season of Hanukkah and Christmas, the rest of us should find ways to express our solidarity with Tibet's struggle.
The campaign to let Poland be Poland and its accompanying sanctions have helped the Poles in their hour of greatest need. Surely now a determined American government can find ways to help the peaceful people of Tibet be Tibetan.
1987, Los Angeles Times Syndicate