Nineteen ninety-one was a landmark for the Tibetan diaspora. That year 1,000 Tibetans left for the US as a part of Washington’s resettlement project for Tibetan refugees living in India, Nepal and Bhutan. I was then a young boy in TCV School.
One evening I and a few friends got together to compose a petition to His Holiness the Dalai Lama stating that it was a wrong policy to send Tibetans to the US, citing the brain drain as one of the reasons. “Most of our experienced teachers are leaving, which affects our studies,” we wrote. We even found a way to deliver the puerile petition to His Holiness. What happened to us later is a different story altogether.
Looking at the way this project has positively impacted the lives of thousands of Tibetan refugees and our struggle in terms of its reach and support network, the logic behind our petition sounds immature, self-serving and myopic. However, at the time of penning our plea we thought that we were making history and that the system did not understand how the world operated. We were angry. We were rebellious. In hindsight I can say that we suffered from premature articulation.
“You must say that I am young, You must say that I am unlearned, But there is one thing I know, Though I am younger than you” sang Bob Dylan in his classic song “Masters of War”. Being young is being rebellious, trying to go find our own path, our own destiny and to challenge the establishment and the powerful. In the case of Bob Dylan and our own poet-scholar Gendun Choephel, rebellion was based on vision, talents, knowledge and the complete control of their articulation — knowing perfectly well what to say, when, how, why and where.
This brings me to a report in the 3 June 2010 issue of Stanford Daily about Prime Minister Samdhong Rinpoche’s visit to Stanford University. What shook me out of my chair is a remark at the end of this report. Tenzin Seldon, 21, a brilliant Tibetan student at Stanford and a fantastic activist for a free Tibet, stated in her exchange with reporter Zoe Levitt that “Many students view Tibet through the Dalai Lama. That’s one human being. How could he possibly represent the lives of all Tibetans?”
How can Dalai Lama represent the Tibetans is a question one regularly sees on the Chinese government-owned media such as Xinhua news or in People’s Daily. An educated Tibetan asking this question today is a premature articulation and reflects political immaturity. It is historically wrong and does not reflect the present reality.
In the aftermath of April’s devastating earthquake in Kyegudo in eastern Tibet, an old woman clung to the dead body of her grandchild and kept on chanting, “Gyalwa Yeshi Norbu Khyenno! Gyalwa Yeshi Norbu Khyenno!” over and over and again. When her world is shattered and nothing is closer to darkness, the one and the only person she cries out for refuge is the Dalai Lama.
During peaceful demonstrations that Tibetans held all over Tibet in 2008, the key slogans included, “Long Live the Dalai Lama!” “We want return of the Dalai Lama” and “We Want Free Tibet”. Tibetans inside Tibet, who live under constant surveillance, fully realize the fact that raising these slogans leads to detention, arrest, torture and imprisonment. Yet they chanted them throughout Tibet. These clearly show that the Dalai Lama not only represents the Tibetans but he remains the most visible symbol of their struggle for freedom.
Since 1642, when the Great Fifth Dalai Lama became the temporal and religious leader of a unified Tibet, the Dalai Lamas have led the Tibetans for over 370 years. Few governments in the world today can trace their institutional and legal origins so far back in history. Hence the institution of the Dalai Lama has great historical legitimacy. In addition to the unique historical circumstances, because of his tireless work for Tibet the 14th Dalai Lama is universally recognized by the Tibetans in and outside Tibet as their undisputed leader.
Communist China often blares out that the Dalai Lama “does not represent the Tibetan people”, in desperate efforts to undermine His Holiness’ leadership, under which Tibetans on both sides of the Himalayas struggle for a free Tibet. For Beijing this is a cheap political tool to wield at its convenience.
However, for a Tibetan this is a double-edged sword cutting both sides. The sharper edge faces us. I won’t be surprised if People’s Daily quotes Seldon’s remark to reinforce their rhetoric just as they used Jamyang Norbu-la’s piece criticizing the exile democratic system and its functioning.
We live in free countries and have total freedom not to agree with policies initiated by His Holiness the Dalai Lama or to criticize the exiled Tibetan Government. But we need to understand the nuances of the issue before making any statement. Remarks must be based on knowledge, history, vision and above all with full understanding of the present reality. Just shooting from the hip to satisfy youths’ rebellious nature, frustration and hopelessness may end up as good sound bites for the media. This will serve no purpose.
Our struggle for a free Tibet is based on truth, history and the power of dialogue with the world, with ourselves and with the Chinese. Articulate young activists like Tenzin Seldon are at the forefront in our struggle to skilfully stand up to the tyrannies of occupation with fortitude and honour. Their willingness to sacrifice and take the lead must be matched by knowledge, vision, a sense of history and a clear sense of the larger picture involving many other issues and factors. Just displaying guts and a damn-everything-else attitude is frankly not enough.