At the crossroads
TIBET is going through what arguably is the most tragic phase in its history. Systematic assimilation, annihilation of culture and identity, and denial of basic freedoms are deepening the crisis in Tibet each year. Students, artists, intellectuals, monks, nuns and masses are rising against the brutal Chinese regime. China’s carrot and stick approach in dealing with Tibetans has failed to restrain the Tibetans from rising against it. In fact, the Tibetan people’s sense of patriotism has further increased.
The invasive Chinese state apparatus has led politically conscious Tibetans in Tibet to find space for creative protest. One of the best examples of organic protest emerging out of Tibet is Lhakar (translated as white Wednesday in Tibetan), which has also found a following among young Tibetans in exile. The Lhakar movement was launched around the time of the 2008 uprising in Tibet. Lhakar. org website describes the movement as a homegrown, strategic non-violent Tibetan self-reliance resistance. This has become a pan-Tibetan movement where the slogan is ‘Be Tibetan, Eat Tibetan and Speak Tibetan.’ Every Wednesday, a growing number of Tibetans both in and outside Tibet make a special effort to wear traditional clothes, speak Tibetan, eat in Tibetan restaurants and buy from Tibetan-owned businesses. The underlying objective of the movement is to promote Tibetan language, culture and identity.
Tibetan musicians and writers have both overtly and metaphorically lamented the plight of the Tibetans and voiced their protest against the oppressive Chinese state. Often they are faced with arrest and imprisonment. The Tibetan writer, Tsering Shakya in his article, ‘The Changing Language of Protest in Tibet’, has rightly noted that the roots of Tibetan grievances are based on ethno-nationalistic claims of a homeland and on opposition to the legitimacy of the current authority.
In the aftermath of the 2008 uprising, Chinese repression became even more severe, leading to arrests, heavy sentences (including the death penalty), and an even stricter control of the monasteries. However, the more severe the repression, the greater the revolt. One of the most drastic forms of protest erupting from Tibet since 2009 is self-immolation. The first such act of self immolation took place in Ngaba where Tapey, a young monk from Kîrti Monastery, self-immolated in the market area holding a Tibetan flag and a picture of His Holiness the Dalai Lama on 27 February 2009. This act of self-immolation took place as a protest against the Chinese authorities forbidding a prayer ceremony in his monastery. Since then, 99 Tibetans have self-immolated in Tibet and of these, 82 have lost their lives and the whereabouts of the surviving 17 remains unknown. The latest reported incident was in Ngaba Kirti Monastery on 22 January 2013.
The universal demand of the self-immolating Tibetans is for the return of His Holiness the Dalai Lama to Tibet and restoration of full freedom for the Tibetan people. Unless these aspirations of the Tibetan people are addressed, they will continue to revolt.
These self-immolations are a testament to show that Tibetans feel that they have no other space to protest against the draconian Chinese policies of systematic elimination of Tibetan identity and culture. It is the ultimate form of non-violent protest and the biggest sacrifice an individual can make for his/her nation. Tibet is one of the last countries in the world facing colonization. As recently as 1951, Tibet existed as an independent state but with little connection to the rest of the world. It was only with the Chinese invasion under the garb of so-called ‘liberation of Tibet’ in 1949 that Tibet became a part of China in reality.
Since the 1959 exodus of Tibetans with His Holiness the Dalai Lama, India has been home to over 1,50,000 Tibetans. It is in India that Tibetans have not only preserved and promoted their culture and tradition, but also managed to lay the foundation of a strong Tibetan movement in exile.
Although Tibetans can rightly claim independence based on historical evidence, the Central Tibetan Administration has been pursuing genuine autonomy for Tibet backed by the Strasbourg proposal of His Holiness the Dalai Lama and the resolution passed by the Tibetan Parliament in exile. So far, there have been nine rounds of talks with the last one ending in a stalemate between the Special Envoy of His Holiness the Dalai Lama and the Chinese counterparts represented by the United Work Front. Despite the stalemate, the exile leadership is committed to dialogue with China. It firmly believes that dialogue is the only way to move forward.
The historic transfer of political power by His Holiness the Dalai Lama to the elected leadership in exile in 2011 has led to a paradigm shift. Under the new set up, the Sikyong who is directly elected by the Tibetan people is the political leader, with checks and balances from the Tibetan Parliament in exile whose members are also directly elected by the people.
This change has been reflected in the Charter of the Tibetan People in exile, which enshrines the powers, duties and responsibilities of those in the Tibetan Administration, including the Sikyong and the Tibetan Parliament members. The Sikyong can be impeached by a two-thirds majority in the house though so far a mechanism is not in place to dissolve the house.
His Holiness the Dalai Lama has always envisioned a democratic and secular Tibet. He has from the beginning signalled that he is ready to abdicate power the day he feels confident that the Tibetan movement is strong enough to stand on its own. With this historic move, His Holiness the Dalai Lama has actively started the process of strengthening and preparing the Tibetan movement for the inevitable future without him.
The need of the hour is to find innovative ways of keeping the Tibetan issue alive and at the same time investing fully in developing the capacity of Tibetans in exile. The priority should be dialogue with China to resolve the Tibetan issue and strengthening the movement by building capacity of the Tibetan youth. The younger generation must remain committed and ready to contribute in myriad ways to the larger Tibetan cause.
The Tibetan diaspora, particularly in India where the exiled Tibetan Administration is based, represents the free voice of the Tibetans in Tibet. We the Tibetans in exile are the spokesperson of the voiceless Tibetans inside Tibet. It is our responsibility and sacred duty to achieve the aspirations of our brothers and sisters inside Tibet. The time has come to forge ahead as a unified movement and not be fragmented as separate entities. There is a need to build synergies, drawing on strengths of different entities involved in the Tibetan movement and only then can we succeed. Of course, there will be times when we need to work together on a larger campaign.
The recently concluded four day event under the aegis of Tibetan People’s Solidarity Campaign – a joint initiative of the Kashag (Tibetan Cabinet headed by the Sikyong) and Chithue (Tibetan Parliament in exile) is unprecedented with all members of the Kashag headed by the Sikyong and the entire Tibetan Parliament members headed by the Speaker of the House taking to the streets of Delhi to demonstrate their solidarity with Tibetans inside Tibet and garner support for the cause in unison with the members of the civil society and public. Over 5000 Tibetans from all over India and Nepal participated in this event. There were around 1500 Indian supporters from Ladakh, Himachal Pradesh, Sikkim, Arunachal Pradesh and Delhi.
The change in leadership in China has given renewed hope to the exiled leadership that better sense and wisdom will prevail. Xi Jinping and the new Chinese leadership assumed power this March. China will be respected as a true global power only when it adopts policies that respect the basic rights and freedoms of all people in its territory. His Holiness the Dalai Lama has in a recent interview mentioned that, ‘China today has no option but to go for political reforms.’ It is best if this transition can happen peacefully.
The policies adopted by the Chinese regime have so far not only failed abysmally but also led to systematic alienation, discrimination and marginalization of the Tibetan people. It is evident that resolving the Tibet issue will be mutually beneficial for all concerned. Many world leaders are looking forward to a moderate China in the 21st century and Tibet will be a test to that effect.
During the recently concluded International Tibet Support Group meeting in Dharamsala (the seat of the Central Tibetan Administration), the participants unanimously challenged the Chinese leadership to make resolving the crisis in Tibet a priority of their leadership.
Some of the immediate actions required to address the Tibet challenge are: Stop the ‘patriotic education’ campaign; stop interfering in the religious activities of Tibetans; end the ongoing arbitrary arrests and detentions of Tibetans; end forced eviction of Tibetan nomads from their ancestral land; lift restrictions on visits by media and international observers to Tibet; and resume dialogue with the exile Tibetan leadership.
India has played a big role and will have to continue to play a bigger role in the Tibetan movement. India is home to the biggest Tibetan population outside of Tibet. It is also the place where the hub of the Tibetan movement is stationed. Since the exodus of Tibetans to India in 1959, the Indian government has given refuge to the fleeing Tibetans and settled them in 55 different Tibetan settlements scattered all over India.
Tibetans have rarely faced any curtailment of their fundamental rights as human beings in India. In fact, Tibetans have lived with dignity and respect in India. The present generation of Tibetans, including the new leadership, is born and bred in India. Most have studied in Tibetan schools subsidized by the Indian government and have graduated from Indian universities.
India’s Tibet policy needs to be clearly articulated and India must take a firm stand against the Chinese when it comes to its own national security and borders. There is no rationale in India’s appeasement of China when China has continuously worked against Indian interests. Some cases in point are: China’s lone opposition to the India’s membership to the UN Security Council; opposition to ASEAN membership and China-Pakistan nexus, to name just a few.