There is a recurring nightmare, well known in clinical psychiatry, in which the sleeper belabours an enemy, but to absolutely no effect. The more furiously the enemy is beaten, or punched or kicked, the more infuriatingly untouched he remains. All these years living and working in Dharamshala I have felt myself struggling under a burden of unrelieved frustration and ineffectiveness, often even uselessness. I have no doubt other Tibetans in exile as well as inside Tibet have experienced much the same. But now it seems we are finally waking up from this long nightmare and beginning to realize that what we do has effect, does make a difference; that we can land a blow — a hard blow — against the Communist Chinese regime. And that although our common goal of Tibetan independence may not happen as soon as we would like it to, we can actually take concrete steps, make sacrifices if need be, to advance the time-table of its realization.
How can we adequately describe all that has happened (and is happening) in Tibet? The media has been calling them protests, outbursts, demonstrations, riots, even uprisings, which is perhaps adequate when describing one isolated event, but completely fails to encompass the significance of this year’s 10th March mega-explosion. It is a revolution. Nothing less.
Consider how widespread the events were. In 1987-89, the protests occurred in Lhasa and some surrounding monasteries and villages. But this year they took place as far away east in Amdo and Kham, within the Chinese provinces of Gansu, Sichuan and Qinghai. The names of these flashpoints: Ngaba, Bora, Labrang, Mangra, Ditsa, Yulgan, Tsekhog, Tsoe, Palung, Chentsa, Rebgong, Kyegudo, Dariang, Sershul, Machu, Chigdril, Chone, Luchu, Ngaba, Serthar, Palyul, Tehor, Drango, Barkham, Tridu, Kanze, Lithang, Nyakrong and many others, ring out in defiance. I will take the vision of the charging horsemen (and bikers) of Bora to my grave. In Central Tibet, we have had protests and clashes in Sakya, Shigatse, Samye, Toelung Dechen, Ratoe, Phenpo, Gaden, Medrogongkar, and unnamed areas in Western Tibet. Even in Beijing and Lanzhou, in a sea of hostile Chinese, Tibetan university students courageously organized protests and sit-ins. Tibetans everywhere came out and flew the old national flag, shouted their commitment to Rangzen (independence) and their devotion to their leader the Dalai Lama. Even after the Chinese crackdown and mass arrests, thirty Tibetan monks protested in the Jokhang before visiting foreign journalists on a showcase tour of the city. Some days later when foreign government officials were taken on a publicity tour of the city, another major demonstration broke out in the Ramoche area of Lhasa.
Then there were the demonstrations, protests, marches and vigils by exile Tibetans and supporters in nearly every major city in the world. These have been unusually vigorous, even aggressive. A fairly common feature of these events has been the tearing down of the Chinese flag from the embassy or consulate flagpole and its replacement by the national Tibetan flag. I still cannot get over the video of the amazing Tibetan spider man who climbed up the walls of the Chinese embassy in Vienna with such speed and skill and pulled down the hated Red flag. And it’s all still going on inside Tibet and elsewhere. A number of exile Tibetans in New York City have given up their day jobs and are living on their savings in order to keep the demonstrations and protests going. Last Sunday I was at a rally organized by the only Tibetan in Nashville, the capital of Tennessee. I drove down from the mountain with my family and friends. Other Tibetans had come — students, monks and lay people — driving many hours from neighbouring Georgia and Kentucky.
The spontaneity of it all was remarkable. Yes, we had the common focus of the Beijing Olympics, but Tibetans everywhere, thousands of miles apart, seemed to be operating on a single wavelength. Some of our more admiring dharma friends would say that our native telepathic abilities were being brought into play. But Anne Applebaum, the Pulitzer Prize winning journalist and scholar (Gulag, A History) in her March 18 article in the Washington Post provides a more prosaic explanation — cell phones.
For Applebaum the events in Tibet represent one manifestation of a wider reaction of “captive nations”, Uighurs, Mongols, Tibetans, rising up against the tyrannical rule of an old imperial and foreign power that has long oppressed smaller countries and societies surrounding it. Applebaum includes even such independent nations as North Korea and Burma in this category, hence, quite accurately, relegating Kim Jong Il and the Burmese military junta to the role of Beijing’s surrogate dictators. As if in confirmation of Applebaum’s broad theory, Reuters reported, just a few days ago, that major demonstrations had broken out in East Turkestan (Xinjiang).
On the events in Tibet, Applebaum concludes that if Chinese leaders “… aren’t worried, they should be. After all, the past two centuries were filled with tales of strong, stable empires brought down by their subjects, undermined by their client states, overwhelmed by the national aspirations of small, subordinate countries. Why should the 21st century be any different? Watching a blurry cell phone video of tear gas rolling over the streets of Lhasa yesterday, I couldn’t help but wonder when — maybe not in this decade, this generation or even this century — Tibet and its monks will have their revenge.”
The Tibetans, clergy and lay, are not a vengeful people, but they are not going to settle for anything less than an independent Tibet, and I have a feeling that this will probably happen sooner than Applebaum thinks. But Applebaum is correct in one thing, that this is much much bigger than most people are able to grasp. The Tibetan leadership does not seem to have grasped it at all.
At such a profoundly historic moment, the actions of the exile government in Dharamshala come across as incomprehensible and alarming. On March 17th, the Dalai Lama summoned the leaders of the five organizations that had united to create the Tibetan People’s Uprising Movement and organized the various demonstrations in India and throughout the world, and also organized the peace march to Tibet. The Dalai Lama ordered them to halt their march to Tibet. Not only were the organizers forced to stop their long-planned March to Tibet, but His Holiness’ command seems to have caused the unfortunate breakup of this dynamic alliance.
Then under the direction of the Prime Minister Samdhong Rimpoche, the exile cabinet and parliament created a special “Solidarity Committee” to take over the various independent campaigns and activities taking place around the world. It appears that members of the Committee approached the leaders and representative of these campaigns and organizations, and instructed them to terminate their independent activities and operate under the direction of the Committee. A kind of divide and conquer strategy appears to have been employed by the Committee. They approached and spoke separately to individual organizations. One representative of an activist group informed me that a Committee spokesperson told him that the situation in Tibet was so critical that it constituted a “national emergency”, hence the exile government had the right and the duty to take over all the activities of all the independent groups, which henceforth had to just do what the “Solidarity Committee” told them to do. It is ironic that Communist Chinese authorities are using the similar tired and cynical arguments of “national security” to justify their brutal crackdown of Tibetan protesters in Tibet. The Tibetan government should understand that it is violating the rights of individual Tibetans — especially the right to peaceful assembly and the right of peaceful protest – when it does this. It may not be enforcing its will brutally, but it is using coercion and even emotional and (dare I say) “spiritual” blackmail by exploiting the people’s devotion to the Dalai Lama.
Prime Minister Samdhong Rimpoche also got in the “divide and conquer” business with a speech he gave on the 20th of March or thereabouts. I heard an excerpt on Radio Free Asia on the 25th, Tuesday. He offered lavish praise for the efforts of the protesters in Tibet. But then strangely he began to criticize those protesters and activists in India and the West. He asked, somewhat sarcastically, whether these people thought that they could achieve beyond what the Dalai Lama had done? He directed his criticism particularly at the Tibetan Youth Congress. Although he didn’t name the organization, he specified an occasion a year ago when the Youth Congress organized a major demonstration in Delhi against the Chinese. It coincided with the time when the Dalai Lama was in Delhi. Rimpoche angrily demanded to know why the organizers chose the very day when the Dalai Lama was in Delhi. Was it their intention to sabotage what the Dalai Lama was doing?
Circulars have been sent from Dharamshala to NGOs and support groups instructing them to stop using the term “FREE TIBET”. Earlier, only the term independence or Rangzen was regarded as taboo, but now even such a broad and inoffensive term as “freedom” is seen as too provocative. Instructions have also apparently been issued to the Tibetan public not to tear, burn or step on the Chinese Communist Flag. A week ago, Tenzin Choeden, a member of the Solidarity Committee, spoke before Chinese UN mission in New York where Tibetans have been keeping up a vigorous demonstration since March 10th. The Solidarity Committee representative gave a lengthy and roundabout speech where he called on Tibetans not to shout slogans demanding Independence for Tibet and a boycott of the Beijing Olympics. Much to the annoyance of the crowd he also told protesters not to display a large banner they were carrying which read “China Out of Tibet”.
On 31st March, Tibetans from Washington DC, New York, Boston, Charlottesville and Philadelphia gathered at the American capital for a rally. Staff members of the International Campaign for Tibet, ICT, (most probably on instructions from the Solidarity Committee) tried to remove a large banner proclaiming “Independence For Tibet” which was hanging on the stage, and other banners and placards and banners reading “Boycott Beijing Olympics” and “Boycott Genocide Olympics”. An unfortunate dispute broke out between the protesters and the ICT staff who maintained that since ICT chief, Lodi Gyari, would be speaking at the rally and it would be inconvenient for him to have such anti-Chinese banners around him.
The Tibetan leadership is playing with fire. If it actually manages to get all Tibetans completely dispirited and feeling hopeless, it might achieve its goal of “stopping the crisis”, but that would be the end of the exile government. I don’t see anyone listening to it anymore. On the other hand, Tibetan activists and protesters might become outraged and beat up a Committee representative or even be provoked enough to demonstrate before the Office of Tibet in New York City or ICT in Washington DC. It would be tremendously embarrassing for the exile government and the Dalai Lama. Either way it would be a setback not only for the government but for the cause of Tibetan independence as well. It is vital that we have a government that is effective and one that we can respect. Right now it seems our leadership is incapable of being either.
I don’t think the exile government is attempting some kind of power grab, as one observer suggested to me. It is more likely that Dharamshala wants to take charge of the movement to water it down. Limit it to candle-light vigils, circulating petitions, wearing black arm-bands and so on, actions which they hope Beijing would not consider provocative, and which would eventually tire and bore all the protesters and activists and get them to go home. That much seems evident. Dharamshala just wants to stop the whole thing. Check out the Solidarity Committee website: StopTibetCrisis.net. I don’t think anyone could put it more clearly. And that is what Beijing, in its own more brutal fashion, is attempting to do — stop the Tibet crisis.
Dharamshala’s hope, of course, is that if the crisis is stopped it could go back trying to negotiate with Beijing. In spite of all that has happened in Tibet our leaders completely fail to see that this will never happen. It is far too late for anyone, even Beijing, to stop this revolution. Samdhong Rimpoche and his Solidarity Committee can no more stop it than they can stop a tsunami by standing before it. To my leaders in the exile government (which will always be for me the true government of Tibet) I say this with due respect but also with genuine concern: Step out of the way.