Here is a link to “An Affectionate Relationship” on the rangzenITIM Blogspot “An Affectionate Relationship”
Why is the West Ignoring Tibetan Self-Immolations?
15, August, 2012
On the eve of India’s 66th Independence Day word reached the Tibetan-Exiled community that two more young Tibetans did the unthinkable and self-immolated in Ngaba, Eastern Tibet. This makes a total of forty-nine Tibetans who have taken this fateful approach in protesting the policies that support China’s enduring occupation, thirty-six within the past year.1 The way in which individuals inside Tibet are embracing this method of protest is unprecedented in world history, and yet shockingly it is barely covered by reputable world media sources. It is no surprise that reports of the self-immolations are either wholly censored or radicalized by Chinese news sources invariably to ensure that internal paternalistic attitudes about Tibetans flourish. On the surface the Chinese may even see this form of protest as a win-win since each self-immolator represents an independence-minded activist they no longer have to deal with, and it fits nicely into their narrative of Tibetans being a backward people who have been and still are desperately in need of an “idealistic mission of progress”.2 After all, only backward, ignorant and uncivilized people would ever come to the conclusion that setting oneself on fire would have an impact on society. The Chinese stance is not shocking, but the lack of coverage in the Western media is. Why aren’t reputable sources willing to touch upon this story and provide comprehensive coverage the way they did when the “Arab Spring” swept across North Africa? Temporarily putting aside the hidden reasons behind the real lack of media coverage, it is important to understand why so many Tibetans are choosing this method of protest in the first place. As one of my students put it when we were covering the “Arab Spring”, “I guess things have to be pretty bad for someone to decide to set themselves on fire in protest!”
No Change In Sight
The grim situation inside Tibet has seemingly been so forever so why now is there this radical shift in methodology? Back on March 10, 2008, a group of monks from Drepung Monastery in Lhasa decided to peacefully march to the Jokhang Temple in Barkhor Square, the epicenter of the Tibetan Buddhist world. Chinese police blocked their progress and eventually used force to hold them back. Several monks were taken into custody, word spread throughout Lhasa and lay people joined monks and nuns in the streets in the greatest display of open resistance to the Chinese occupation since similarly motivated riots took place in 1987 and 1989.3 The events in the 80s took the Chinese by surprise since it coincided with the highest degree of reform in China’s Tibet policy since they colonized Tibet in the 50s. The architect of the reforms- Hu Yaobang- was purged and Party hardliners have been tightening the screws ever since behind the high gloss facade of economic development. March 10th signifies the anniversary of the failed National Uprising of 1959 in which tens of thousands of Tibetan monks and lay people surrounded the Norbulinka (Dalai Lama’s Summer residence) when a rumor surfaced that the Chinese were attempting to either kidnap or kill him. During the week that followed Tibetans fortified their defensive positions, re-declared Independence and braced for an all-out military assault. After there was shelling near the Norbulinka The Dalai Lama, finally heeding advice of counsel and his Oracle, agreed to escape into India through the Himalayas on foot and horseback. Once the Chinese has maneuvered enough military support to handle the crowds they opened fire, killing thousands.4
Over the course of the days that followed the initial protests in March 2008 more monks from Drepung demonstrated for the release of their brethren, riots swept across the Tibetan Plateau and serious pro-Tibet acts of solidarity were reported throughout China, even at universities in Beijing.5 This was a severe black eye for the Chinese in the run up to the 2008 Beijing Olympics, and the riots were met with extreme force throughout. While the world media reported on these events and the global protests of the Olympic Torch Relay that followed, it is as if everyone simply lost interest in Tibet once the Olympics concluded. Over the past four years there has been a massive crackdown inside Tibet, the TAR (Tibetan Autonomous Region) has been closed to foreigners during significant dates in the Tibetan calendar such as March 10th, and only pre-approved and significantly orchestrated media tours have been permitted to report from inside. While these media tours designed to show stability in Tibet have repeatedly backfired when Monks from major monasteries protest in front of the cameras, the world media seems to have forgotten the crisis in Tibet didn’t end with the Closing Ceremonies in Beijing.
Approximately 80,000 Tibetans immediately followed The Dalai Lama into Exile, and thousands continued to do so each year ever since 1959. The crackdown following the riots in 2008, coupled with the Maoist’s rise to power in Nepal where the Tibetan Refugee Reception Center is located, has squeezed a once heavy annual flow of approximately 10,000 refugees into a slight trickle of less than 1,000. 6 Chinese border guards shot to death a seventeen-year old Tibetan nun and injured a youth while a group attempted to flee into Nepal over the Nangpa-la pass in 2006. The attack was captured on video by European mountaineers, and although thirty-two Tibetans were arrested several escaped into exile and testified over the incident.7 The mountaineering video went viral on Youtube and became yet another example of what Tibetans regularly deal with. Perhaps the prospect of taking a month or longer to make it through the Himalayas by any means necessary only to be sold back to the Chinese police by Nepalese border guards might be even more devastating. The situation within Nepal, where a Tibetan-exiled community has flourished for decades, has become increasingly restricted. This past year the government did not allow open celebrations of The Dalai Lama’s birthday, and Losar- the Tibetan New Year celebration was significantly curtailed and limited. Tibetans in Nepal need approval from the Nepalese authorities to travel to India for religious teachings or to visit relatives living in exile, but many are now frequently denied such permission in light of Nepal’s “One China Policy”. This leaves the Tibetans, who have become a growing target of racism and chauvinistic behavior, trapped within a nation they have called home for decades. They can’t leave and they aren’t welcome to stay.8 The main source of information from within Tibet has made it to the outside via individuals who continue to flee, but as the borders become more and more restricted so too does access to reliable accounts of conditions on the ground.
The self-immolations, which most Tibetans believe will continue unabated, do not appear to be a development the western media is comfortable reporting. While Tibetans, both monks and lay people, view the self-immolations as a non-violent form of protest because they are not harming others, the acts of self-sacrifice do not seem to fit into the accepted narrative of Tibetans peacefully resisting the Chinese occupation. It seems as if the West, predominantly Christian, most likely view this as fanatical suicide and are therefore closer to the Chinese take on the self-immolators being “terrorists”.9 While the West has most definitely spent its fair share of time reporting on suicide bombers it is normally from the perspective of the innocent lives that are taken in these politically charged acts of defiance. Suicide bombers are wholly violent and indiscriminate, whereas the Tibetan self-immolators are extremely discriminate in ensuring that only they are the ones who perish. One has to wonder whether there is undue influence on our “free and fair” media when comparing the level of coverage and the unique nature of this situation. There is seriously more information being reported by individuals on their personal Facebook pages and by the international network of Tibet Support organizations than by the New York Times, BBC, or Al-Jazeera.
In stark contrast to the level of coverage afforded the 2008 Tibetan Uprising in the march up to the Beijing Olympics, the world is being left in the dark as to how reflective these final political acts of disobedience are of the desperateness felt by Tibetans suffering under a seemingly permanent Chinese occupation. This is not about a propaganda campaign or a fresh dose of “Yellow Journalism” to rev up Western war machines. The Tibetans are not asking for American or NATO military might. Rather, it is simply about exposing the truth regarding lives being squeezed, choked, abducted, sterilized, detained without charge, beaten, tortured, electro-prodded and mercilessly killed, in some instances for something as basic as waving a flag or holding a picture of the Dalai Lama. The Tibetans who choose to self-immolate do so simply as an act of political disobedience. Although many of them are monks these are not intended, nor are they received by the Tibetan community, as religious acts. Everyone struggling on the ground inside Tibet, and in the Exiled Tibetan Diaspora, see them as rally cries for unity and support in a unique and asymmetrical battle for freedom that has lasted for nearly sixty years. Many of these Tibetans have stated very clearly their goals and mindset prior to the fateful moment. Others, like Jamphel Yeshi who self-immolated in New Delhi, have left notes behind. Mr. Yeshi’s letter stated, “The fact that Tibetan people are setting themselves on fire in this 21st century is to let the world know about their suffering, and to tell the world about the denial of basic human rights…”10
Many Tibetans in the Exiled community see the self-immolators as taking the lead in developing a dialogue with the world focused upon a more accurate and realistic depiction of life under the Chinese. Others see it as an effort to motivate Tibetans and their allies the world over to jump start a historically sputtering Rangzen (independence) movement. The “Middle Way” approach of “constructive engagement”, appeasement, diplomacy, conciliation and compromise on such a fundamental issue as national sovereignty is simply not working. The majority of Tibetans tend to be willing to simply follow the Dalai Lama’s lead on all matters spiritual, an allegiance that has spilled into the political as well, but there is a tectonic shift underway in the Tibetan community in light of the Chinese refusal to budge even on “meaningful autonomy” much less the deep desire for Rangzen. The creation of a Tibetan National Congress this past June, comprised of an extremely diverse group of Rangzen-minded Tibetans in exile, is just one of many signals leading many to believe that the people of Tibet will not just “blindly” follow the Dalai Lama on non-religious matters.11 Even though the Dalai Lama has retired from politics it seems as if he has considerable influence on the direction the TGiE takes since it is still pursuing cultural autonomy as opposed to independence. While the Tibetan Youth Congress, an international NGO that advocates for Tibet’s independence from China, has over 30,000 members globally and is the engine behind the Rangzen Movement, the prospect of a political party within the Tibetan-Government-in-Exile would be a huge development as it would shift the community away from an internal debate and back to the singular historical goal of Rangzen.
Regardless of their method(s) Tibetans realize they can’t go it alone. They have been raised to understand the interconnectedness of our world way before globalization started to affect their everyday existence. However, putting aside the philosophical underpinnings of Tibetan culture, philosophy and society, analysis of nearly every incidence of colonial revolt reveals a significant amount of involvement in varying forms from outside forces in the liberation of indigenous communities. The most recent NATO campaign to support the Libyan people in taking down Gaddafi, and the well-documented struggles of a un-supported Free Syrian Army against the Assad regime are polar examples supporting the same notion. It is quite clear that an indigenous resistance movement “fighting” against an established regime cannot successfully act alone for very long. The monks in Myanmar (Burma), whose peaceful revolution against a firmly entrenched military Junta that met the challenge with extreme violence is perhaps the best modern example to grasp the methods being used by the Tibetan Rangzen movement. In Myanmar, the religious community peacefully led the way and the lay people joined them. Once these peaceful demonstrations were met with deadly force the situation seemed settled in favor of the Junta. The world media frantically covered the story and then quickly moved on while the people of Myanmar were left wondering whether outside support and diplomatic influence would take up their cause. However, over the course of the past few years, through lots of diplomatic and economic pressure, the Junta has been convinced that it is time not only to release pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi from decades of house arrest, but also to start shifting society toward democratic reforms.12 The people of Myanmar who risked death in joining the monks in the protests, and the ones who successfully lobbied for assistance succeeded in part because powerful forces outside of Myanmar did in fact get involved. Note that it didn’t require a military presence. Myanmar is clearly not China, and so perhaps it is easier to induce a much smaller, marginalized actor to embrace change via the promise of easing sanctions and providing financial assistance. However, it still remains an utter tragedy that the Tibetan people, whose philosophical and religious culture has helped the world embrace the concept of interdependence, should suffer the darkest side of globalization simply because China is one of the biggest dogs in the yard.
The Chinese counter that these self-immolations, which Tibetans consider direct, non-violent actions of civil disobedience, are in fact “terrorist acts in disguise…encouraged and instigated by the Dalai Lama”.13 While the Tibetan people willfully follow the Dalai Lama’s lead in spiritual matters, it is hard to swallow the thought that he would be directly encouraging Tibetans to kill themselves in protest while being steadfast in his pursuit of the non-violent solution of “cultural autonomy”. If anything, the wave of self-immolations sheds light on how many Tibetans are willing to act independently of their spiritual leader. These independent decisions to self-immolate can be seen in the same light as Hunger Strikers and the Tibetan Exiles who refused to end their March to Tibet in 2008 when His Holiness repeatedly asked them to stop to avoid a potentially violent clash at the border. These acts further clarify that the only solution to the “Tibet Crisis” is to address the root cause of the disease and promote the obvious remedy through the reclamation of Tibet’s rightful independence. Without it, all reforms made by the Chinese will be nothing more than performing triage on mortal wounds. The recent calls for The Dalai Lama to condemn the self-immolations seem part of a political game to further claim that the “Dalai Clique”, “…organized, premeditated, masterminded and instigated…its Tibetan Independence forces.” They ironically furthered, “no matter what disguise they use, the irrefutable facts cannot be changed.”14 The Chinese have never trusted the Dalai Lama, but this seems more because they cannot control him or break his influence on the Tibetan people than it is about him covertly pursuing a violent uprising. The fact that the Dalai Lama won’t condemn the self-immolators only means he respects his citizens and the decisions they make as individuals living under conditions he cannot comment on personally from exile.
These self-immolations, and the collective acts of civil disobedience that tend to follow in towns all across the Tibetan Plateau, clarify that Tibetans inside Tibet are obviously capable and willing to act independently of his wishes, teachings and requests.15 They want one thing and one thing only- Rangzen- from China. It is rather clear they want it now, and are willing to lay down their lives in order to get it. Their gestures of martyrdom are radically different from that of the “terrorists” the Chinese paint them out to be, mostly due to their refusal to use violence against their oppressors or innocent Chinese civilians. Rather, they are exchanging their lives for global and local awareness of the brutal conditions the Chinese government works vigilantly to suppress and censor. Sadly, considering Time Magazine ranked “Tibetan Monks Self-Immolating” as the “Most Underreported Story of the Year in 2011” back when the count was a mere eight, it seems their lives are not worth much to the audience they are offering them up to.16
Ancient Interpretation, Modern Implications
It has been fifty-three years since the Chinese put the finishing touches on their premeditated invasion of Tibet on the grounds that they were “liberating the people of Tibet from a corrupt and abusive theocracy”.17 Fifty-three years nearly matches how long India has been free of direct British rule, and Independence Day celebrations here in Dharamsala, India continue to include dedications of unending support for Tibet’s struggle for Rangzen. The massive divide between Tibet’s and China’s conflicting narratives is stark and immovable. There simply is no middle ground, and India has been a steady source of support since the Dalai Lama fled in 1959. Tibet has an outrageous amount of cultural and historical evidence to support its assertion that it has been an independent nation and a distinctly non-Chinese culture for millennia dating back to 127BC. A completely different written language based on sanskrit, a long line of successive kings, a national flag, distinct monetary system, treaties with other nations including China, and a national army to mention a few. The Chinese counter with a claim that they have had control of Tibet since the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368), and have educated their populace that an ancient wedding between Tibetan King- Songsten Gampo- and a Chinese Princess- Wen Cheng- in 640CE signifies the true beginning of Chinese authority in Tibet. They leave out the fact that Tsongsten Gampo also married a Nepalese Princess. No claims of ownership of Tibet come from Nepal as a result.18 A quick look at the history the Chinese promote negates their argument considering the Yuan Dynasty in the 13th century was in fact Mongol and not Chinese. If anything, Mongolia, not China, could claim historical ownership of Tibet, but again they do not make such historical claims. Dropping back to that ancient wedding, wouldn’t Tibet having a king who married Chinese and Nepalese princesses confirm Tibet as an independent Kingdom?
Taking the Chinese argument a bit further, it would also be possible for Tibet to lay claim to China since it had bested the Chinese in scores of wars throughout the centuries and at one point seized the capital city of Xian in 763CE.19 A peace treaty, signed between Tibet and China in 821CE, delineated the border between the two warring nations and encouraged a “live and let live” foreign policy. Fast forward back to the era of the Mongols, when China was wholly ruled by their northern neighbors, and there is healthy documentation of a privileged relationship between the Mongols and Tibetans. This historical connection led to a flowering of Tibetan Buddhism and other cultural influences on the Mongol empire. Fast forward to the Manchus (Qing Dynasty), which controlled China from 1644-1911, and we see the beginning of the “Dalai” lineage in 1652. “Dalai” is actually a Mongolian word for “Ocean” and the “Dalai Lama” became seen as an “Ocean of Wisdom” and a spiritual leader to both the Mongols and Tibetans. To this day he is revered as an reincarnation of the Buddha of Compassion (Avalokiteshvara, or Chenrezig) by both.
However, leaving the ebb and flow of ancient history where it belongs, a modern look at the divide also leans toward Tibet’s narrative with the signing of a peace treaty to end the British invasion led by Col. Younghusband in 1904. Tibet’s 13th Dalai Lama redeclared Tibet’s independence in 1913 shortly after the Chinese revolution over the Manchus was complete. This independence, which lasted up until the Chinese Communists started to make their military and political presence felt in Tibet 1949-50, was further acknowledged by British India in the Treaty of Simla in 1914.20 When Mao’s Communists bested the Nationalists in China’s long and bloody civil war, Tibet maintained diplomatic, economic and cultural relations with Nepal, Mongolia, British India, Sikkim, Russia, Japan and even China. Ironically, the Chinese look to the 1904 treaty ending the British invasion, which acknowledged Tibet’s “modern” independent status, as a major reason to “liberate Tibet from imperialist forces from the West” in the 1950s. The simple fact that the British were able to invade and defeat the Tibetan Army so quickly in 1904 exposed Mao’s future “Motherland” to a backdoor threat even though the British proclaimed an end to any and all colonial and imperial interests after the partition of India and Pakistan in 1947.Throughout this time The Chinese even maintained a diplomatic mission in Tibet’s capital city, Lhasa. To further the double talk from the Chinese side, even Mao himself acknowledged Tibet as an independent neighboring country whom he looked to for material support during their “Long March” in the dark years of the Chinese civil war.21
Asymmetrical War and Just War Theory
So how is it that a Buddhist, non-violent population starts overwhelmingly embracing such drastic measures if what they are fighting for is not “just”? Our ideas about what constitutes a “Just War” seemingly need to be re-written, and it can be argued that the language surrounding Human Rights Abuses regarding Tibet need to be adjusted to that of War Crimes. Just because one side is not raising an army and using violence to “fight” doesn’t mean it is not a war. The core concept of “Just War Theory”, which has been applied and debated since the Roman Empire, holds that a war needs to fulfill six criteria to be considered “Just”. It would be daunting to prove any war in our modern history met all six. Brian Orend’s paper “War” at Stanford University focuses the six criteria as “Just Cause, Right Intention, Legitimate Authority, Last Resort, Probability of Success and Proportionality”.22 Short of the last two the case for intervention in Tibet seems rather “Just”. One nation acting aggressively against another’s sovereignty normally confirms a “Just Cause”, and supporting an innocent civilian population from abuses and death via the defensive utility of force fulfills “Right Intention”. The United Nations, which the world tends to consider as a “Legitimate Authority”, passed numerous declarations condemning China’s aggressive invasion of Tibet and called for a protection of Tibet’s “self-determination” all the way back in 1959, 1961, and 1965. 23 It also seems fair to claim that all peaceful means have been exhausted in resolving the situation in Tibet considering it has been fifty-three years since the failed National Uprising of 1959, and the annexation of the Tibetan provinces of Amdo and Kham, which left Tibetans living on half of their historical land in the dubiously named “Tibetan Autonomous Region” (T.A.R). The Chinese are the ones who continue to derail diplomatic missions by the Tibetan Government-in-Exile, and the greatest threat to Tibet and Tibetan culture as far back as 1995 has been the open season on population transfer of millions of Han Chinese into Tibet. 24
There has been a steady flow of Han Chinese into Tibet for decades, but the opening of the Qinghai-Tibet Railway in 2005 is a game-changer. President Hu Jintao remarked at the official opening, “This successful practice has made it clear again to the people at large that diligent and intelligent Chinese people are ambitious, self-confident and capable of standing among the world’s advanced nations. (xinhua, 07/02/06).25 While it cannot be denied that Chinese engineers have achieved an amazing feat in completing the railway considering the geographical obstacles, the impact of connecting inland China with Tibet will be felt for generations. As then Chinese president Jang Zemin stated in his written instructions regarding the railway back in 2001, “We must absolutely not allow separation of Tibet from the motherland, and must absolutely not continue seeing Tibet remain backward.” Hidden in the lines is China’s statement of priorities: anti-secession comes first, economic development comes second. The real meaning behind construction of Qinghai-Tibet Railway is to ensure China’s territorial integrity and social stability.26 Aside from worries about the environmental impact this railway has, a major concern is that the railway expedites the influx of Chinese settlers to Tibet. It also makes it much easier for the Chinese government to deploy large numbers of troops to Tibet, should there ever be public political unrest.27
No one argues that a military campaign against the world’s most populous nation on the “roof of the world” generates any sense of confidence for success. Nor can a proponent of armed resistance argue it would be “Proportional” to wage a war on behalf of six million people if millions may die in the process. And yet, the CIA felt it was necessary to ignore the latter two criteria in it’s covert war inside Tibet in an effort to disrupt “international communism”. For nearly three decades the American CIA trained, deployed and supplied Tibetans in a covert war from 1950 on until Kissinger and Nixon unceremoniously ended support overnight in 1975 in favor of normalizing economic and diplomatic relations with Mao’s China.28 It is a bit ironic that it is Tibet’s leadership and their people who look to remain aligned with the latter two criteria and shrink from the prospect of armed resistance because of their belief in nonviolence. While it is most certainly a broad stereotype and foolish to believe that there aren’t any Tibetans willing to fight for their country, as a collective group they choose to follow their spiritual leader in a non-violent resistance to the Chinese aggression. They do not seek armed intervention from world powers. They do not ask for military provisions, advisors or the donations of the weapons of war. But what they do ask for is understanding, support and international pressure on China to end their occupation through any and all peaceful means available. Scarily, this now includes the recent wave of self-immolations.
While some call for the Dalai Lama to speak out against self-immolations in an effort to stop them, others claim that this is the time for him to join the field of protest. To date he has done neither, which has opened him and his “Middle Way” approach up to criticism from all sides since it has not yielded any significant changes within Tibet. Although they still revere His Holiness, a growing number of Tibetans and international Tibet supporters are shifting back toward the historical goal of Rangzen in the face of the refusal of the Chinese to give any ground on the status of Tibet. But one wonders what impact it would have if the Dalai Lama were to simply start walking back to Tibet following the very same route he used to flee into exile back in 1959? Would the rest of the exiles join him? if he did in fact make it back to the border what would the Chinese do while the entire world watched? If the Dalai Lama was in fact to return to Tibet would it force change in the conditions on the ground inside the country as Aung San Suu Kyi’s emergence from house arrest has revolutionized the way the military Junta in Myanmar conducts business? Could the solution to the war in Tibet be as simple as the Dalai Lama willfully returning? Would the Chinese open fire on the Dalai Lama and the rest of the exiles who are sure to follow? The Chinese see Tibet as a wholly internal matter, reject all international declarations condemning their actions within Tibet, and consistently claim the Dalai Lama is a “devil with a human face”.29 Bishop Desmond Tutu famously stated at an Anti-Olympic Torch Rally in San Francisco in 2008 regarding the Chinese’s refusal to negotiate with the Dalai Lama “…I mean…who are they ever going to talk to?” While his reference regards the fact that the Dalai Lama and his Government-in-Exile have abandoned the policy of Rangzen in order to establish “meaningful autonomy” for the people in Tibet, it seems that what the TGiE and His Holiness promote is seen as the same thing as independence to the Chinese. They were scared when the Dalai Lama’s family members were mobbed like The Beatles on a fact finding mission to Tibet in 1979, which revealed how truly devastating the Cultural Revolution was for Tibet. Ever since, the Chinese have accurately assumed that they would lose all control of Tibet if the Dalai Lama were to ever return, and they have been dragging their feet in negotiations ever since. On the opposite side perhaps the main reason why the Dalai Lama and his government shifted toward “meaningful autonomy” is because they have come to a comfortable place practicing exactly that within India for the past fifty-three years. But most Tibetans understand that “autonomy” within a modern China still controlled by the Communist Party would be nothing like what the exiled community experiences in India.
Enough is Enough
The world knows of a Tunisian man named Mohammed Bouazizi because he made the same decision as these Tibetans out of utter frustration and in an effort to get the world to pay attention to the injustice of life in his country. The world watched with their jaws dragging on the ground as the “Arab Spring” washed over North Africa and the “Middle East” like a much-needed flash flood. Democratic world leaders have spent the past two years biting their nails as “democracy” unfolds in these nations since the very form of government they promote may yield “unfavorable” results. The paternalistic attitude characteristic of colonial masters continues to color the relationship the West has with the Rest, and yet the Tunisians are implementing a much more orthodox form of democracy when compared to the Western “cities on the hills” claiming to “lead” the way. Other individuals copied Mr. Azizi’s actions in countries that have since freed themselves from the stranglehold of dictators and totalitarian regimes that have been propped up for decades by governments the world over. First Ben Ali, then Mubarak, then Gaddafi, then Saleh, and now Assad tiptoes on a jagged cliff of his own design. If not for “all bark and no bite” world leaders, and in turn equally sheepish populations who cannot see the interdependent nature of our modern world, the Syrian people would not be dying in scores, hundreds, thousands. The boldest political action from outside Syria to date has been by Kofi Annan for stepping up to the plate to take a crack at ending this through Deterrence. But his commitment was laughable for his patience with the process lasted only four months. While it most assuredly shouldn’t have taken four months to bring the bloodshed to a close, the people of Syria have dealt with the brutality of the Assad regime 24/7 for decades. It is then no wonder that a Free Syrian Army comprised of historically divided factions has formed, and is struggling to unite against Assad’s well-oiled regime. Assad sees this, accurately identifies world powers being unwilling to engage in true Compellence on account of recent history in the region, and even a child can see that the global anti-Assad chorus is as divided and disorganized as the FSA. Assad knows he can wait out the storm, that there isn’t a true impetus for him to change direction unless he loses the backing of powerful world actors like Russia and China. And all of this calls into question what a Syrian life is worth in 2012? Apparently just as little as a Tibetan one has been for the past fifty-three years.
An Affectionate Relationship
Obviously the crisis in Syria is not the same as the one in Tibet, but what they have in common are inconsistent, ineffectual, “lovers” of convenience who sweep into town when it is beneficial or serves their individual needs, interests and desires. America in particular has had “an affectionate relationship” with Tibet for over sixty years, but it has always held the Tibetan people and their cause for Rangzen as secondary to their geopolitical interests in destabilizing international communism. Although still overwhelmingly considered “classified”, by this point the CIA’s involvement in financing, supporting and training Tibetan fighters for decades is well-documented. Training of Tibetan revolutionaries in covert military tactics at Camp Hale, Colorado flourished for decades until Kissinger wholly canceled the program once it became clear that communism in China and the Soviet Union was not monolithic.30 Nixon and Mao’s “Ping Pong Diplomacy”, which started the process of normalizing US/China relations was seen as of higher priority. Previously classified documents reveal that the decision to wholly end support came at a point when the then director of the Tibet Task Force was unable to convince Kissinger of the dire need to resupply a group of Tibetan fighters who were surrounded. Thousands of Tibetans were killed in one battle while waiting on the CIA to resupply them, but Kissinger and Nixon went a step further to protect their “great power” diplomacy and cut off all regular financial support for the Dalai Lama’s government in exile, which had been initiated by Eisenhower immediately after the Dalai Lama fled to India in 1959. 31 Every American president dating back to Truman has been involved with Tibet’s plight. Even First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt comprehensively commented on Tibet in her regular column “My Day”, and tackled China’s version of affairs in Tibet head on. Although the amount of money and support provided by the CIA’s “5412 Panel Special Group”, whose main focus was to “disrupt international communism the world over”, is laughable in modern terms, support for the Tibetan resistance and exiled community transcended administrations for decades.32 The grim realities inside Tibet do not come as a surprise to world leaders, and they need not look at the situation in Tibet as an extension of an “Arab Spring Gone Wild”. Tibet has been “fighting” for decades, with a varied degree of American and Western assistance, but when support and influence is most critical the Tibetans have consistently been stood up by their reluctant “lovers” who are clearly more interested in maintaining an economic status quo with China. It can be argued that Tibet, aside from Gaza and the West Bank, is the last classical colony on the planet. When China is called out on their policies toward what they deem to be “splittist” ethnic minorities “endangering state stability” and “threatening state security” their normal response is a quick, accurate and scathing history lesson on Western colonialism. They do this not to rebel against the Imperialist West, or to condemn the eradication of Tainos, nations of people native to the Americas, Maoris in New Zealand, Aboriginals in Australia, or the Khoi San and others in Southern Africa. Rather, they do so to ironically justify their own flexing of “Manifest Destiny” in Tibet and Xinjiang. Apparently they don’t teach “thousands of wrongs don’t make a right” at grade school in China.
Big Brother Watching…and Waiting
In Tibet, there is no legitimate opportunity for a Tahrir Square-style people-power movement to develop. Tibetans are outnumbered by Han Chinese in the main cities, not to mention the massive number of People’s Liberation Army forces, Police, Paramilitaries and undercover agents posted throughout cities, towns and even small villages. As a result, protests in Tibet tend to last mere minutes before Chinese forces descend and unleash brutal force. The most recent self-immolations in Ngaba, Eastern Tibet were no different. The two boys, Tashi and Lungtok, were both violently beaten to the ground and taken away by police forces. Tashi succumbed to his injuries and died hours later. Information about Lungtok’s condition is yet to be confirmed. The protest that ensued in front of what has become known as “Martyr’s Street” in Ngaba was also met with extreme force, and reports have surfaced that at least one Tibetan was beaten to death by security forces.33 Those who participate in these protests are generally arrested, held at detention centers and in many cases sentenced to lengthy sentences for “threatening state security”. Following the 2008 Uprising a few early cases resulted in sentences of Life in Prison. Considering average sentences range from three to seven years for participation, not including the time they are held at detention centers, it closely equates to about a year per minute of protest.34 The Chinese simply do not allow any room for public or private dissent, public assemblies, organized political groups or remonstrations of government officials and policies. The Tibetan national flag is outlawed as is the image of His Holiness the XIVth Dalai Lama, and possession of either carry actual prison terms. But it has gotten to the point where the Chinese government feel they can actually pass laws regarding reincarnation. “A new law which stipulates Buddhist monks in Tibet to seek permission from Chinese communist regime for reincarnation has been ironically described by Chinese state administration for religious affairs as an important move to institutionalize management of reincarnation.”35 This includes the reincarnation of The Dalai Lama and other major spiritual leaders such as the Panchen Lama and the Karmapa.
The main chants at these protests have been a consistent chorus of “Free Tibet”, “The Dalai Lama should come back to Tibet”, “Long Live His Holiness the XIVth Dalai Lama’, and “Human Rights in Tibet”.36 Most former political prisoners who have made it out of Tibet, normally by foot over the Himalayas, acknowledge preparing themselves mentally for long prison sentences or even death for their participation in protests. They have attested it to being a necessary sacrifice for the survival of Tibetan Culture. Once in exile, most former political prisoners work with the non-government organizations like Gu Chu Sum that help nurse them address medical issues and get on their feet in exile. Many end up sharing their personal accounts of harsh treatment and torture in an effort to inform the public about conditions inside Tibet. In many cases political prisoners, 80% of which are monks or nuns, are released in severely poor health to avoid dying while in custody. Families sign binding legal documents assuming all financial responsibilities for medical costs, and the entire family generally remains under surveillance into the foreseeable future. Political prisoners are also forced to sign documents clearly stating that they will cease all “Anti-Communist Party” activities or face immediate return to prison. In this climate it is not uncommon for a former protester to be re-detained in connection with a follow-up protest even years later. Perhaps self-immolations have been embraced because they take back power from the Chinese and nullify the current post-protest process that affects so many others past the individual protester. In such a very public act of disobedience, which is presumed to go viral, the Chinese cannot hide the details of what happens nor can they “have their way with them afterward. It is as if they are truly getting the last word. That is if the media shows their due diligence and does more than post a quick sound bite or a half-page briefing.
Stop Whispering and Start Shouting
Over a million Tibetan lives, and counting, have been lost in the initial occupation, twenty-year armed CIA-backed resistance, Mao’s devastating “Cultural Revolution”, deadly public trials known as “thamzings”, imposed famines, forced abortions and sterilizations, police brutality, abductions, inhuman prison conditions, “patriotic re-education programs” and systematic torture.37 This doesn’t even scratch upon the surface of the damage being done through a strategy of cultural imperialism to render the Tibetan culture impotent in all domestic matters.While there is most assuredly a public school system designed and paid for by the Chinese it, like the rest of the development inside Tibet, is benefitting the Han Chinese who come here seeking economic opportunity or under the encouragement of the government. Tibetan is seen as a dead language, and anyone who wants a job after schooling years needs to be fluent in Chinese. Most if not all post-secondary opportunities require fluency in Chinese, and many Tibetans end up leaving Tibet to study somewhere in inland China where they are a completely underserved minority.38
The basic conditions on the ground in Tibet continue to deteriorate since the Chinese started their conquest in the ’50s. The numbers of Tibetan lives lost keeps rising, only bested by the number of Han Chinese flooding historical Tibet to the point where Tibetans have become a true minority in their own country.39 The status quo, on account of economic ties, has become firmly entrenched to the point where China is a full member in the WTO (World Trade Organization), has a seat on the UN Human Rights Council, and is awarded the Summer Olympics while they simultaneously “water-board” Tibet behind closed borders. And what does the world do in response? At the highest levels of government nothing that would truly change the realities on the ground within Tibet is promoted or encouraged. Aside from condemning the abuses, presenting the highest of awards to the Dalai Lama for convincing his people to remain non-violent, passing declarations on human rights, and parroting the empty “never again” Holocaust mantra, the world essentially ignores Tibet. They continue to promote the concept of “constructive engagement” with China in the hopes that exposure and cooperation on economic matters will yield political shifts as well. This strategy conveniently ignores the historical abandonment of such “constructive engagement” when it becomes a disease with political implications. Apartheid is a fine example of such a shift. When “the people” are informed enough to rally behind a cause it makes it impossible for administrations to remain neutral and silent. Perhaps that is why the world is not reading, hearing, watching and learning about how many Tibetans see no difference between 2012 and 1959, and so therefore offer up their lives in a final gesture to rally support for the truth. As is the case in Syria the simple question in Tibet, for 53 years now, remains “how many more people need to die in order for the world to hold China accountable?” If you ask the Tibetans, the unfortunate answer is hundreds if not thousands.
Discussions with a chorus of Tibet supporters and those who think that the West should keep their nose out of others’ affairs still come back to a common thought. Especially when grilled by the latter it seems that the absence of Tibetans rising up against the Chinese occupiers is seen as a sign of acceptance. The fact that they do not take up arms and sacrifice their philosophical foundation makes no sense to the West. What will it take, they wonder, for the Tibetans to finally go into open rebellion? Considering the conditions and limitations on the ground within Tibet, these self-immolations and the other peaceful protests need to be viewed as the equivalent of Tibetans taking up arms. Tibetans are standing up and shouting for independence knowing that it means that they will at least go to prison for the gesture if not be killed. The number of Tibetans who choose self-immolation will never go below forty-nine, and most likely will top a hundred at this rate. This is how Tibetans inside Tibet are rising up. Their acts of defiance in the face of the harshest of consequences should be enough for the rest of the free world to support them. But aside from the direct, nonviolent campaign led by Dr. Martin Luther King the West really doesn’t have a clue about taking the peaceful approach. If anything, the way in which the Tibetans have been manhandled over six decades because they follow a nonviolent approach provides more motivation to take up arms in the face of a real threat. But there are plenty of nonviolent ways in which the world can react.
Divestment campaigns regarding businesses that set up shop in Tibet have been effective and should continue to be supported. This is not a boycott of all goods made in China, but rather a focused attack on those multinational corporations that make it possible for China to continue damaging Tibetan culture, the environment and impose cultural imperialism upon what is now a minority population. Students For a Free Tibet’s mission of making it too costly for China to maintain its hold over Tibet has had countless successes, and is making it harder for China to attract direct foreign investment for “development” inside Tibet. This forces them to spend their own money on development projects in Tibet, which is something that will have to change in the near future as the unprecedented bubbles they have created throughout their financial sectors start to burst. Forcing an end to the fantasy that “constructive engagement” without concrete, multifaceted pressures will somehow lead to a democratic movement throughout China is critical. Clear, consistent and aggressively imaginative public acts of protest and disobedience will garner a greater understanding and level of support for the Tibetan Rangzen movement, and therefore a solution to the abuses and cultural imperialism faced every second inside Tibet. China’s seat on the UN Human Rights Council expires in 2012. Considering their track record, the empty promises they made in order to be awarded the Olympics, how severe the crackdown has been since the riots in 2008, and the mounting wave of self-immolations and protests, it is clear that China should not be allowed to maintain their seat. A campaign to ensure China loses face by not being allowed to be a hypocritical member of that body will serve two purposes: It will re-legitimize the body when members are not guilty of the exact crimes it was established to eliminate the world over, and it will send a clear message to China that there in fact are consequences for their policies in Tibet. Time and time again we receive reports of Tibetans getting word about what the outside world is doing in support of their cause through services like Radio Free Asia and Voice of Tibet. Harnessing the power and direction of social media to provide a clear understanding that Tibet is the Human Rights Issue of the 21st Century will rally unity of purpose around Rangzen. And in the face of all this Rangzen-minded activity, perhaps the Dalai Lama too will see the writing on the wall and accept that it is the time for him to step out onto the visible field of protest and lead his people back to their homeland. Stranger things have happened!
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