Compare and contrast the two situations. In September last, Burma saw the first public protests in 20 years, primarily led by saffron-robed monks. In unison, the world community rose up to condemn the Rangoon junta. In the middle of March this year, the Tibetan Autonomous Region and Tibetan-populated territories beyond saw the largest public protests against Beijing since 1989, similarly led by saffron-robed monks. The world reaction this time was mostly limited to Tibetan refugees demonstrating in various host countries, together with supporters of the so-called Tibetan ‘cause’. A resounding silence enveloped the world capitals, even as in Southasia the governments in Kathmandu and New Delhi made haste to block demonstrations so that the short-tempered Chinese dragon would not be too enraged.
The double-standard at work over the years in not taking Beijing to task for its colonial mentality on Tibet, is, of course, the result of China’s growth as an economic colossus. Added to that, the governments of Southasia are confronted by the sheer geopolitical might of Beijing. The xenophobia of China vis-à-vis Tibet makes all kinds of foreign authorities, from Foggy Bottom to Whitehall to South Block to the International Olympic Committee, shun confrontation to the extent of appeasement. And it says something that, while the United Nations can depute Ibrahim Gambari as special envoy on Burma, the world body cannot utter a cautionary word on Tibet – much less assign a special representative.
While the international community’s diffidence on the question of Tibet remains, what has changed seems to be the situation on the ground. We refer to the Tibetan people’s newfound ability to raise a voice and a fist against the Chinese mainland’s domination of their culture and space. This has taken place not only within the TAR, but also in territories within what can be termed ‘greater Tibet’, including in Sichuan and Gansu. Indeed, what unfolded during the latter half of March was a notably pan-Tibet uprising, triggered by arrests of monks demonstrating peacefully in Lhasa on 10 March. This quickly escalated, however, and led to violent clashes on 14 March, including attacks on people of mainland origin on the streets of Lhasa. The spread of protests elsewhere – pieced together from the reports in the Chinese press, and supplemented by videos posted on the Internet – soon became apparent to the outside world.
To give due credit, the fact that the Tibetans had the ability to face the cameras against the Chinese authorities, and to gather en masse in various parts, indicates a certain loosening of Beijing’s hitherto rigid controls. Some of this may be the natural political by-product of the liberalisation of the Chinese economy, coupled with the inability of the authorities to control information the way they used to be able to. This evolving capacity to challenge the Chinese state is also evident among citizens in the mainland, who have been agitating recently, for example, against inflation and infrastructural projects that displace communities. But if the ability to raise one’s voice against the all-powerful authorities of the Communist Party is new, as Himal goes to press it is unclear whether the party will evolve a soft line in reaction to the Tibet protests.
The initial word is not encouraging, however, listening to the hoary rhetoric emanating from the administrators in Lhasa and party bosses in Beijing, right up to the newly re-appointed Premier Wen Jiabao. The expectation is that the authorities will crack down with a vengeance, unmindful of the lessons of history. With the collapse of the Soviet Union still relatively fresh, it is unwise to believe that decades of authoritarian rule would force a society with a keen sense of identity – as Tibet’s clearly is – to easily submit to the metropolitan-colony relationship that Beijing has foisted on Lhasa.
Over the years, Himal has sought to identify the interests of Tibetans within Tibet, numbering four to six million depending on what you regard as ‘Tibet’, rather than to echo the stance of the refugee diaspora worldwide, or even that of the government-in-exile in Dharamsala. In March, the Tibetans within Tibet spoke their mind loud and clear: that decades of rule by Beijing, as well as the economic boom that has been exported to the high plateau, has not been able to coerce the Tibetan people to accept Chinese management of their lives and livelihoods.
The Potala’s call
The uprising of March 2008 would, in the best of worlds, be a watershed after which a modernising and more confident Chinese state puts behind its Cultural Revolution blinders, and is willing to countenance its minorities as different from the mainlanders – a difference already acknowledged by the Constitution’s separate treatment of 56 ethnic groups. This would create the necessary space for individual politicians in Beijing to take the risk of reaching out and grasping the extended hand of Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama, rather than continuing to make disparaging references to the ‘Dalai clique’.
Tenzin Gyatso’s vision of a solution to the question of Tibet – greater autonomy within China, and a respect for Tibetan culture as provided for under the Chinese Constitution – should provide the basis for a solution. The Dalai Lama has already gone the distance by laying his cards openly on the table – indeed, as far back as the late 1980s – responding to realpolitik and stating that he would be willing to live with limited autonomy for the people of Tibet under Chinese suzerainty. As such, the public claim by Beijing politicians and spokesmen that the Dalai Lama continues to press for independence can be described as nothing less than wilful misrepresentation. The March uprising must persuade Beijing to meet Dharamsala halfway. What would be most welcome would be a rapprochement that allows the return of the Dalai Lama to his home in the Potala Palace in Lhasa – a fulfilment of his longtime “final wish”.