Non-cooperation after 2008
THE 2008 protests that swept across Tibet were actually the ‘Snow-lion’s Roar in the Year of Rat’.1 Everything has changed since.
What follows is about the post-2008 scenario – the simmering resentment that hides below the calm surface, a series of popular people’s non-cooperation movements that have gradually resulted in more than a hundred self-immolations so far.
Before 2009, Losar2 leaflets were secretly distributed in Amdo and Kham. One of them read: ‘In the March 10 incident, thousands of our compatriots were arrested, persecuted and disappeared. Those of us alive and safe, if our conscience is not yet depleted and if we want to share the weal and woe, please comply with the following two things: no festive singing and cheering; no fireworks. Hope everyone can do these two things – remember the dead and pray for those alive.’3
But the initial reaction from the authorities was to treat the non-celebration of Losar as serious ‘split-tist’ behaviour. It resulted in the arrest of some ‘rumour mongers’ who secretly spread the word about not celebrating Losar and those who appealed on the net about not celebrating it. Subsequently, Tibetans were forced to celebrate Losar, as in Amdo Rebkong,4 where officials were dispatched to issue documents, house by house, mandating the signatures and thumbprints from Tibetans to guarantee that no protests like those of 2008 would occur and ensure that they would celebrate Losar with the usual hustle and bustle. The official media also uniformly accused the Tibetan government-in-exile and the Tibetan Youth Congress for inciting the residents of Tibet not to celebrate the new year.
On the eve of Losar, on one hand, the authorities created pseudomorphic harmony and joy. Tibet TV channel mimicked the Tibetan new year programme organized by the CCTV spring festival gala – so far the biggest and with the largest funds allocated and the most strictly inspected programme. Alongside, they increased the deployment of the armed forces in the Tibetan regions of Sichuan province. In addition to the armed police force, Chengdu Military Region Command, one of the seven largest military regions in China, held military exercises during the new year in places like Dawu5 and Lithang,6 north and south of Kham, and Amdo Gakog7.
However, on the first day of Losar, hundreds of monks from Mangra8 Lutsang Monastery in Amdo, wrapped their heads in robes, and with candles in their hands, marched in the street and held a sit-in in front of the county government gates, proposing a four point demand: ‘This year’s peaceful protests by forgoing Losar celebration will be more extensive than the last year’s.’ Soon thereafter, 13 monks from the monastery were arrested for interrogation; of these four were sentenced to two years in prison.9
In early 2009, 27 year old Phuntsok was beaten to death by the police for posting leaflets in Draggo,10 North Kham. It was written on the leaflets: ‘Even if we have to starve or die of starvation, for the sacrifices of our brothers and sisters who were tortured and arrested, we must respect and mourn them by giving up farming, and show our solidarity with them…’11
The ‘give up farming’ or ‘farming boycott’ took place in Kham Jomda12 where people preferred to starve and refused to till their lands during the spring growing season. The authorities dispatched task forces to subdue the farming boycott, using both the carrot and stick, threatening that it would be deemed ‘separatist’ behaviour manipulated by the ‘Dalai clique’; they even arrested several protesters and paraded them through the streets.13
Meanwhile in Dawu, Draggo, Karze and other regions of North Kham, some Tibetans were subjected to a sort of traditional punishment of a religious nature called skyid-sdug-gnis-phud. Kyid means joy, sdug pain and phud expulsion. This is an age-old tradition, but rarely implemented as it is a harsh punishment under which the punished are denied any care of religious significance. Of course, this can be effective only among the believers or devotees.
In May 2008, the abbot of Nyatso Monastery in Dawu county announced to the monks and devotees that two Tibetan officials among the working group on ‘patriotic reeducation’ had behaved excessively. They, along with their relatives, would thus be punished with skyid-sdug-gnis-phud, implying that the monastery would no longer perform any religious rituals, including funerals, for them. In other words, this religious punishment was a kind of social non-cooperation, which gave a definite signal to those Tibetan party members who had participated in the oppression of their own compatriots. The message was clear: working for the authorities was not to be tolerated.
On the morning of 14 April 2010, there was a major earthquake in Kham Kyegudo14 which claimed the lives of thousands of Tibetans. Subsequently, the foreign media present in the disaster hit area noted that the Chinese media even avoided any mention of the spectacular rescue efforts by the monks. The New York Times commented that, ‘On Wednesday, in the whole-day TV programme that mourned the quake victims, not even a shadow of those red-robed monks, who were clearly visible with their rescue works, was seen.’15
It is worth mentioning that during the earthquake relief, the monks, unlike in the past, confidently accepted to give media interviews, often even taking the initiative to disclose facts and clarify: ‘We just want to rescue people, but they consider this tragedy as a great opportunity for publicity.’16 All this happened in a public place, not in a place of worship, though only in the presence of monks. This way the monks managed to convey their message to the world through the foreign media. Similarly, when during the March 2008 protests, groups of foreign media correspondents were allowed to visit Jokhang Temple in Lhasa and Labrang Monastery in Amdo, the monks seized the opportunity, bravely rushed out to the reporters and loudly told them about their difficulties and the extent of Chinese repression.
Moreover, during that period, almost every monastery that participated in the rescue work also made arrangements with monks for taking pictures and videos. This was not only to document for posterity, but also to clarify matters for the monks themselves, as after the 2008 protests, in China, the image of the Tibetan monks was demonized and their monasteries became like prisons. Therefore, the monks’ actions were more to document than as a protest against past injustice. They made a record of the facts to protect their image.
Soon after the earthquake, the monks from Larong17 Buddhist Institute produced a documentary on the rescue efforts by Sertha Larong monks following the Yushu earthquake. This was uploaded on the internet and also made into DVDs. Subsequently, one year later, several monks who were involved in the quake relief works produced yet another documentary film called ‘Hope in the Disaster’. Although the DVDs were confiscated by the authorities, they still continue to circulate in the Tibetan regions.18
At the end of 2009, a video clip called ‘I Am Tibetan’ appeared on the Chinese video site Tudou, in which numerous native Tibetans announced, ‘I am Tibetan’ and explained why they were Tibetan in just one or two sentences. This video was rated as ‘one of the most powerful and creative videos from inside Tibet.’
Meanwhile, another video, ‘Let’s Speak Pure Tibetan’, was circulated on the net;19 a male Tibetan recited the 30 Tibetan alphabets in his standard Lhasa accent, and named it ‘my heart and soul’. But since ‘it’s infected with the disease of mixture of different languages’, so ‘for the continued survival of the nation, let’s all speak pure Tibetan.’
The overseas Tibetans’ English blog, High Peaks Pure Earth, published an article with the title, ‘I Am Tibetan’,20 which highlighted the intense assertion of Tibetan identity by the Tibetan netizens; the endless streams of great videos, poetry, photographs and songs are evidence of this assertion.
Related to this is the passion and enthusiasm to learn the mother tongue in all Tibetan regions. For example, insightful people who realize the importance of Amdo and Kham, during summer and winter vacations invite Tibetan teachers and organize Tibetan language tuition programmes, and even hold ‘new terminology contests’.
Chinese educated Tibetans too have started showing increasing interest in learning Tibetan – such as typing in Tibetan on microblogs and calling to celebrate Wednesday as ‘Tibetan Microblogging Day’. In fact, Wednesday has acquired special significance called Lhakar, which means sacred white Wednesday. It is to commemorate Wednesday, the day on which His Holiness the Dalai Lama was born. However, Lhakar has become Tibet Day and acquired a far-reaching meaning by ‘speaking pure Tibetan, wearing traditional Tibetan clothes and eating traditional Tibetan food.’ It is an effective indigenous tactic of noncooperation that asserts Tibetan identity and nationalism, giving strength to Tibetans both in and outside Tibet.
In recent years, many outstanding Tibetans have been taken from their homes, monasteries and offices, one after another, in a barbaric manner, to dark cells, by the state machinery. The exact number is unknown, except to the authorities, police and prison guards. The repression now affects not only the common masses but also the elites, many of whom have faced harsh punishment. It is difficult for the Tibetan victims to obtain proper legal assistance and hence they are unable to obtain fair judicial process. To the best of our knowledge, the number of Tibetan elites subjected to suppression is far more than what has been declared. Proportionally speaking, many more Tibetans are imprisoned as compared to the Han Chinese, due to the ‘political issue’.
Moreover, many cases of Tibetan elites are deliberately politicized by the authorities, even though their activities are not related to politics but protection of culture and environment, and personal discord with local greedy officials, who then retaliate by relating their actions to politics. The local officials everywhere are well-versed in trickery; they purposely link people who are dedicated to community service and public welfare with politics, and act against them on grounds of maintaining order.
There is a metaphor in Tibet, sningruis, which literally means ‘bone of the heart’; all Tibetans are familiar with its meaning. Those who have disappeared, been arrested or sentenced, and those 104 Tibetans who have set themselves on fire, are all true sningruis of the Land of Snows.
* Translated by Ogyen Kyab, who lives in Ahmedabad. The article was written in Beijing and Lhasa between March-December 2012.
1. Snow-lion’s Roar in the Year of Rat is the title of my book on the 2008 Tibet protests, published by Taiwan Yun Chen Publishing House in 2009.
2. Losar is the Tibetan new year. According to the Tibetan calendar, 2009 is earth-ox year of the 17th rabjung, 2136.
4. Rebkong: (in Chinese) Tongren county, Huangnan Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, Qinhai province.
5. Dawu: (in Chinese) Daofu county, Ganzi Tibetan Autonomous prefecture, Sichuan province.
6. Lithang: (in Chinese) Litang county, Ganzi Tibetan Autonomous prefecture, Sichuan province.
7. Gakog: (in Chinese) Hongyuan county, Aba Tibetan and Qiang Autonomous prefecture, Sichuan province.
8. Mangra: (in Chinese) Guinan county, Hainan Tibetan Autonomous prefecture, Qinhai province.
10. Draggo: (in Chinese) Luhuo county, Ganzi Tibetan Autonomous prefecture, Sichuan province.
12. Jomda: (in Chinese) Jiangda county, Changdu, Tibet Autonomous region.
14. Kyegudo: (in Chinese) Yushu county, Yushu Tibetan Autonomous prefecture, Qinhai province.
17. Larong Buddhist Institute: Sertha county, Ganzi Tibetan Autonomous prefecture, Sichuan province.