Until the last Tibetan

Until the last Tibetan

The Tibet movement has stalled, partially because there is little understanding of how it will continue after the Dalai Lama's passing. While those who disagree with the Middle Way approach are not necessarily looking to violence as the answer, they are looking for reaffirmation of what exactly it is they are trying to achieve.

On a cold and wet Saturday morning a few weeks ago, several thousand of us exile Tibetans gathered once again with our leader, the Dalai Lama, in the courtyard of the main temple in Dharamsala to commemorate the anniversary of the Lhasa Uprising of 10 March 1959 – the event that triggered our exodus to India, and sealed China's occupation of our homeland. As with every 10 March commemoration, speeches were made and songs were sung to remember those who gave their lives in pursuit of Tibet's freedom.

In his statement this year, the Dalai Lama once again reiterated his commitment to the Middle Way approach – his proposal to resolve the Tibet issue by making the key concession of giving up demands for independence, in return for a genuinely autonomous Tibet within the People's Republic of China. And once again, the unresolved incongruities of the Tibetan situation manifested themselves. As the Dalai Lama spoke, above him stretched an enormous Tibetan national flag, still banned in Tibet for being a symbol of nationalist aspirations. Those gathered also sang the Tibetan national anthem, another expression of Tibet's separate identity proscribed by Beijing. And during the traditional march to the town centre in Lower Dharamsala that followed the speeches, the crowd once again raised slogans calling for a free Tibet, and demanding that China leave the plateau.

The Tibet movement has suffered this split-personality syndrome ever since the Middle Way approach was first broached, more than two decades ago. The Tibetan community's complete devotion to the Dalai Lama as our spiritual and political leader has meant that, for the most part, we have accepted his proposal without any question. Indeed, until recently, any expression of doubt on this matter was immediately denounced within the community as being a personal attack on the Dalai Lama himself. But while on the surface there has been a unified show of support and commitment to the Middle Way approach, deep down many Tibetans have suffered a disquieting crisis of confusion and conflicting loyalties (See Himal December 2006, "Roadblock on the Middle Path").

In exile, we were brought up to believe that our raison d'etre was to fight for Tibet's independence. From the time we were children, the word rangzen – independence – was relentlessly hammered into us. To be suddenly told that rangzen was no longer our goal was almost impossible to comprehend; and indeed, during the 1980s, in the early days of the Middle Way approach, we went about our lives as if nothing had fundamentally changed in our struggle. But as time passed, we could no longer pretend that this contradiction between our loyalty to the Dalai Lama and our instinctive belief in Tibet's independence did not exist. Our confusion became more difficult to ignore, and we were stricken by a sense of helplessness and frustration. As a result, some vital force was sucked out of our movement, and it began to founder. Even our most ardent supporters began to wonder what it was that we were fighting for, and the once-impressive international support-group network that we had so painstakingly built up began to unravel for want of a clearly defined cause.

A movement adrift

There is evidence to show that we exiled Tibetans are not alone in evincing this duality of purpose. Inside Tibet, although faith and belief in the Dalai Lama remains largely undimmed, the demonstrations that took place in the late 1980s and early 1990s were all driven by the demand for independence. Even today, despite heightened security controls and measures, any leaflet or wall poster that surfaces invariably calls for independence.

This dilemma, between supporting the Dalai Lama's Middle Way approach and continuing to believe in independence, is now so deep-rooted in the fabric of our condition as exiles that it even creeps into our official statements. Last year Prime Minister-in-exile Samdhong Rinpoche, one of the staunchest supporters of the Middle Way approach, said: "Since the struggle of the Tibetan people is based on truth and non-violence, there is no need for us to lose heart, as all Tibetans believe that the truth will prevail some day." The Kashag – the executive body of the government-in-exile – in a statement on 6 July last year, reaffirmed its "determination to engage in dialogue for resolving the issue of Tibet through the present Sino-Tibetan contacts", but concluded its statement by exhorting: "May the truth of the issue of Tibet prevail soon!"

What exactly is the 'truth' to which Samdhong Rinpoche and the Kashag are referring? The official website of the government-in-exile gives us the answer:

At the time of its invasion by troops of the People's Liberation Army of China in 1949, Tibet was an independent state in fact and law. The military invasion constituted an aggression on a sovereign state and a violation of international law. Today's continued occupation of Tibet by China, with the help of several hundred thousand troops, represents an ongoing violation of international law and of the fundamental rights of the Tibetan people to independence.

How can Samdhong Rinpoche and the government-in-exile be promoting the Middle Way approach – which requires that we bury this 'truth' – while simultaneously continuing to present the case for Tibet's independence? Is it any surprise, then, that Beijing continues to view the Middle Way approach with deep mistrust, branding it as a call for "disguised independence"? Or that, before it will make any move towards a serious dialogue with the Dalai Lama, it insists that he declare, once and for all, that Tibet was never independent, that it was always a part of China?

But Samdhong Rinpoche and the Kashag are not anomalous in inadvertently manifesting this contradictory position. All Tibetans are complicit in this fundamental paradox within our 'cause', and it is precisely this that has led to the gradual erosion and dissipation of Tibet's national struggle. In order to have any hope of success, the key demands of the Middle Way approach – a genuinely autonomous region made up of the three traditional provinces of Tibet, and ruled by a democratically elected local government – would have to be watered down, or even given up entirely. But making such concessions would rob the Middle Way approach of any credibility – indeed, its meaning – and there is no way that the Dalai Lama can deny Tibet's past. The result is the stalemate that we see today. Behind the smokescreen of presumed dialogue, which it has no intentions of furthering, China continues to do what it wants in Tibet with impunity. Meanwhile, the once-vibrant Tibet movement floats listlessly in the doldrums.

Beyond the Middle Way

Two statements emanating recently from Dharamsala seem to indicate a slight shift in its thinking with regard to the Middle Way approach. In January, Samdhong Rinpoche said: "In the past, we have asked the Tibetan people not to annoy the PRC [People's Republic of China] by [engaging in] propaganda or campaigns against them. Unfortunately, since last year the PRC has not cared for our actions and they have attacked His Holiness the Dalai Lama. Under such circumstances, we are not able to ask the Tibetan people to keep quiet."

This statement reflects a welcome retreat from Dharamsala's earlier appeals to Tibetans and Tibet supporters not to hold demonstrations, particularly against visiting Chinese dignitaries, for fear of jeopardising the 'conducive atmosphere' necessary to help the Middle Way approach make progress. It comes in recognition of the fact that efforts by Dharamsala to appease Beijing have only resulted in a stepped-up campaign of vilification aimed specifically at the Dalai Lama. One immediate consequence of this climb-down was the unexpectedly large (and loudly pro-independence) crowds that turned out across the world for this year's 10 March demonstrations – evidence that Tibetans, especially the younger generation, need only the slightest encouragement to give expression to their desire to fight for an independent Tibet.

More significantly, on 23 January, Prime Minister Rinpoche stated that Tibetans should, "Hope for the best – ie, to hope for a successful resolution of the Tibet problem within the lifetime of His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama." At the same time, they should also, "Prepare for the worst – ie, to be prepared for the worst eventuality, whereby the Tibetan movement has to be sustained indefinitely, for centuries until the last Tibetan."

This grim warning is perhaps the first official admission of the possibility that the Middle Way approach may not bear fruit within the lifetime of the Dalai Lama. Assuming that this worst-case scenario comes to fruition – and all indications point in that direction – how then can the "Tibetan movement … be sustained indefinitely"? More to the point, what is the nature of the struggle that is to be sustained indefinitely? Are we to assume that, in the absence of the Dalai Lama, the Middle Way approach can still retain the credibility to fire the Tibet movement until the so-called last Tibetan remains standing? Or should we be considering new initiatives that will ensure the continuation of Tibet's freedom struggle while we still have the Dalai Lama to lead, guide and inspire us?

The stigma of violence

One of the most common misrepresentations in the ongoing debate between supporters of the Middle Way approach and proponents of independence is the reduction of these two positions to one simply of 'non-violence versus violence'. The Middle Way approach is consistently presented as the only way of resolving the Tibet situation that directly conforms to the Dalai Lama's commitment to peace and non-violence; whereas its detractors, particularly those who support independence, are unfailingly portrayed as pushing for violence. If the Middle Way approach does not succeed, we are told (usually by its supporters), the alternative is a Palestine-like cycle of unending violence and chaos.

Such a grim scenario has by now been widely picked up by the media. Almost every article on the question of Tibet seems to contain a statement similar to this one, which appeared in the 24 January 2007 issue of the US pop-culture magazine Rolling Stone: "Increasingly, young Tibetans reject His Holiness the Dalai Lama's commitment to non-violence, engaging instead in the tactics of Palestinian militants." The constantly emphasised point is that those who reject the Middle Way approach reject the Dalai Lama's commitment to non-violence – that supporting independence as a goal necessarily implies supporting violence as the means of attaining it.

Unfortunately, this perception is not helped by statements made by those at the forefront of the pro-independence lobby. In the same article, Kalsang Phuntsok, the president of the Tibetan Youth Congress, which supports independence, was quoted as saying: "We are admitting at the international level that Tibetan people, and the Dalai Lama, are happy in China. We need to educate Tibetans that attacking China is the only way. If you're willing to die, you have no fear." The article then went on to say this about Tenzin Tsundue, one of the most prominent and vocal champions of independence: "Unwilling to accept anything less than complete independence, [Tsundue] and his supporters have abandoned His Holiness the Dalai Lama's peaceful approach, drawing inspiration instead from the Palestinians and other militant organisations."

I personally do not believe that Tibetans such as Phuntsok and Tsundue are actively promoting violence as a means of pushing for independence. The fact remains, however, that people increasingly equate their stance with violence, in direct contradiction to the non-violent and compassionate approach symbolised by the Dalai Lama. This subsequently sends a signal to the outside world that anyone supporting Tibetan independence must necessarily be a dangerous militant with terrorist tendencies.

This is an unfair generalisation. Why should supporting Tibetan independence be incompatible with a non-violent approach? There are many Tibetans who are committed to non-violence as a principle, but who find no contradiction in believing that regaining Tibet's independence should remain the primary objective of the struggle. We need only take the example of Mohandas K Gandhi – a leader much admired by both the Dalai Lama and Samdhong Rinpoche – whose satyagraha (firmness of truth) movement, although rooted in ahimsa, or non-violence, was in fact a dynamic, forceful and often confrontational form of resistance, which had as its ultimate goal nothing less than India's independence from British rule.

When Tsundue says in the Rolling Stone article, "Youngsters tell me they don't want to join a non-violent protest. Youngsters feel non-violence is getting nothing", I for one do not believe that these 'youngsters' are necessarily asking to engage in violence. Rather, they are asking for something to believe in – a cause they can fight for, a clear goal to which they can aspire. Their frustration stems not so much from the lack of results through non-violent protest, as from confusion about what it is that they are trying to achieve.

Anti-Apartheid lessons

When I first went to the University of California's Berkeley campus as a student in the early 1980s, the grounds were feverish with the anti-Apartheid campaign. The immediate issue was the divestment of the University of California's investments in companies that did business with South Africa. Day after day, the central Sproul Plaza was the scene of raucous demonstrations. The climate of student activism was contagious. But more importantly, the issue at stake was clear and uncomplicated: this was a 'good v evil' scenario, literally a black-and-white question. Apartheid was evil; it had to go. It was that simple. It did not take much effort before I found myself a willing participant in the movement. Not buying anything made in South Africa was a simple act of solidarity, and before long it became an instinctive gesture – so much so that, years later, even after Apartheid had long been dismantled, I still found myself resisting South African grapes or wines.

A number of years ago, when Nelson Mandela made his triumphant state visit to England, I happened to tune into a radio programme on which some former anti-Apartheid campaigners were being interviewed. Commenting on the contribution made by the worldwide grassroots campaign to defeat Apartheid, one interviewee said that the success of the anti-Apartheid movement lay in the fact that it was ultimately able to reach and draw support from every level of society; that although it was widespread and might have appeared spontaneous, it was, in fact, carefully orchestrated by African National Congress leaders in exile.

Although there is a huge difference between the anti-Apartheid movement and the Tibetan struggle – not least in the fact that China is a far more powerful adversary, economically, politically and militarily, than was the white South African government – we should not forget one important lesson: A well-coordinated and widespread grassroots movement can apply immense pressure on governments, and achieve results. China may appear impregnable, but it is not immune to international leverage, particularly so when it seeks to play a leading role in global affairs. But we must also realise that such a movement can only be effective if it is focused around a clear-cut cause – one that pits right clearly against wrong.

We are fortunate that in the case of Tibet, as with the Apartheid regime in South Africa, there has never been any moral ambiguity. And just as the anti-Apartheid movement was guided by the moral force of its leader, Nelson Mandela, the Tibet movement is blessed in having the universally respected figure of the Dalai Lama at its head. Moreover, we already have in place a wide and committed network of international supporters who are only waiting for a clear rallying call to galvanise themselves into action.

But before this can happen, the Tibetan leadership must act upon its realisation that the Middle Way approach may not achieve the results it seeks within the lifetime of the Dalai Lama. All Tibetans believe in the truth of Tibet's independence, without any doubt or question. This is the one aspiration that can immediately dissolve the morass of conflicting goals and loyalties besetting the Tibet movement, and unite all Tibetans, whether inside or outside Tibet. Restoring the truth of Tibet back to the core of the movement, and making it once again the freedom struggle that it rightfully is, holds no guarantee that Tibet will become independent any time soon. What it will achieve, however, will be to reactivate the increasingly moribund Tibet movement by giving it focus; bring a sense of urgency to the Tibet issue; make it harder for Beijing and the international community to ignore it; and ensure that our struggle remains strong and motivated, even after the present Dalai Lama passes away. If Samdhong Rinpoche's appeal to sustain the Tibetan movement indefinitely – "for centuries until the last Tibetan" – is to make any sense, this is the only option available.

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Himal Southasian