March has always been a tense time in Tibet. This year, however, what could have been just another demonstration by a group of monks in Lhasa on 10 March 2008 instead metamorphosed into a pan-Tibet assertion of rights. At press time the situation is yet to stabilise, and there is no indication that the Chinese authorities are looking to take the situation in a positive direction. From available information, there is little doubt that the underlying cause of the current unrest is ultimately the misplaced policy initiatives that the Chinese government has undertaken in Tibet over the past several decades. The anger that has boiled over this time, however, dwarfs any public frustration vented during the period. Indeed, in terms of significance, the March 2008 demonstrations are comparable less to the widely discussed incidents of 1987 or 1989, than to the first Uprising Day, which took place in Tibet in March 1959, as the Dalai Lama fled into India.
There are three elements that need to be recognised regarding the size and nature of the recent protests in Tibet. First, although the demonstrations began in Lhasa, the domino effect was seen not only in different parts of the Tibet Autonomous Region, but more significantly in the Tibetan areas in present-day Qinghai, Gansu and Sichuan provinces. This signified, for the first time since 1959, an essentially pan-Tibetan uprising, focused on Chinese rule and calling widely for the return of the Dalai Lama.
Second, common to nearly all of the demonstrations was the fact that the majority of the participants were quite young, appearing to be from the age group that came of age long after 1959. Most thus belong to the generation that has not even seen the Dalai Lama in person, unless they have been part of the fortunate few who were able to secure passports and permits to visit India.
Third, the age issue aside, it is crucial to note that protesters have been from all sections of Tibetan society. In addition to the ‘urban’ monks and nuns, as well as the lay people in Lhasa, nomads in eastern and northeastern Tibet have come out to make their voices heard, as have students in Beijing, Lanzhou and Chengdu – all clearly and courageously exercising their common grievances against the authorities.
Unaware in Beijing
If the recent happenings on the plateau prove anything it is that the Tibetans remain unhappy with their treatment by Beijing; and that, for its part, Beijing has not altered its way of dealing with the Tibetans. Rather, the government has continued its longstanding approach of trying to quell the rebellion by force. This not only runs counter to international norms of human and civil rights, but belies a basic ignorance of Tibetan sentiments. Indeed, when the first demonstrations began, the authorities in Lhasa seem to have been caught wholly unaware. This was further exacerbated by the fact that nearly all of Lhasa’s top officials were in Beijing at the time, attending the annual session of the National People’s Congress. Perhaps this explains the dramatic failure of the government machinery that might otherwise have helped to de-escalate the crisis.
As tensions grew and violence spread, the result was the deaths of both Tibetans and Chinese. It may be a long while before credible casualty figures emerge, and current estimates vary wildly. The Chinese government talks of a figure of around 20 dead, all of which are said to be Chinese. The Tibetan government-in-exile, meanwhile, has claimed the Tibetan death toll to be more than 100. And, if observers were to go by the graphic photos that have emerged, the number of Tibetans killed does seem likely to be high.
Even while accusing fingers are being pointed at Beijing for its reaction to the ongoing unrest, more should be made of the role played by the local-level Communist Party underlings. If the political leaders in Lhasa or Amdo or Kham areas had been filing accurate reports in recent years, the simmering Tibetan discontent would not have caught the Beijing leadership so ignorant of the situation on the ground. As such, we have seen a series of accusations emanating not only from a relatively oblivious officialdom in Beijing, but also from local leaders, particularly in Lhasa, adamantly defending their failure of administration. Above all, this vitriol and recrimination has been aimed at the “Dalai clique”.
This is unfortunate. The Chinese leaders still do not comprehend the strong bond between the Tibetan people and the Dalai Lama. Indeed, one of the most significant causes of the current demonstrations has to be traced back to the Chinese government’s continuous denigration of the Dalai Lama’s person. Further, the selective reporting by the state-controlled media of the uprising has been useful to Chinese officials in encouraging Han chauvinism and hatred towards Tibetans. Such an approach could well come back to hound Beijing in the days to come.
In comparison to this, the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan leadership in Dharamsala have been taking steps to lessen tension on the plateau. The Dalai Lama took it upon himself to threaten to resign from his political role if the people of Tibet continued to indulge in violence. Prime Minister-in-exile Samdhong Rinpoche has also been wringing his hands over his government’s helplessness in the face of what is going on in Tibet. Meanwhile, in the charged atmosphere, voices from within the Tibetan diaspora are calling for the Tibetan leadership to provide more active direction to the Tibet movement.
What of the future? First, the ongoing Tibetan-Chinese dialogue process, which has passed through six rounds since 2002, now faces its greatest challenge yet. Even before the recent demonstrations, both the international community and the Tibetan people had been increasingly discouraged by the lack of progress. In the evolving context, the Dalai Lama has reiterated his commitment to both his Middle Way approach and the dialogue process, while Premier Wen has also suggested that the channel for dialogue is open. But regardless of how the mood changes in Beijing after calm returns to the streets, Tibetan public opinion will be strongly against any resumption of dialogue under the old framework. The Speaker of the Tibetan Parliament-in-Exile, Karma Chophel, has already said, on 23 March 2008, that given the way the Chinese authorities have been denigrating the Dalai Lama and the approach they have taken in the current development in Tibet, it is difficult to see how the talks can be held in the near future.
What can the Chinese government do at this juncture? The situation in Tibet represents a serious loss of face for the Chinese leadership anxious to put its best foot forward for the Beijing Olympics in the coming summer. We should not forget that the day after the news of the violent clash broke from Lhasa was also the day that President Hu Jintao was to be celebrating his ‘re-election’ as president. It is appropriate to worry that the Beijing officials might not be psychologically prepared for rational thought at this time. But there is no avoiding the fact that a serious review of China’s Tibet policy is now due, coupled with a forward-looking approach. What this means would be a turning-away from the reigning principle: that it is only through the use of force that Beijing can establish a semblance of normalcy in the Tibetan areas of China.
This will require significant political courage on the part of the entire line-up of Beijing’s leadership, starting with Hu Jintao. Beijing must also stop provoking ultra-nationalistic fervour among ethnic Chinese, and prepare Chinese society to look at Tibet through a new prism. In this, the petition submitted to the government by over 30 notably courageous Chinese scholars, lawyers, journalists and human-rights activists on 22 March 2008 is encouraging. (The full petition can be found on Himal’s website.)
The document, translated as “Twelve Suggestions for Dealing with the Tibetan Situation”, includes such noteworthy proposals as: stopping the “one-sided propaganda of the official Chinese media”; making public any proof of the Dalai Lama’s alleged involvement in inciting the recent unrest; inviting the United Nations Commission on Human Rights to conduct an investigation into the recent events; realising and learning from the fact that the widespread nature of the current uprisings prove that “there are serious mistakes in the work that has been done with regard to Tibet”; and abiding by the Chinese Constitution’s guarantees of freedoms of speech and religious belief. Finally, point number 12 read as follows:
We hold that we must eliminate animosity and bring about national reconciliation, not continue to increase divisions between nationalities. A country that wishes to avoid the partition of its territory must first avoid divisions among its nationalities. Therefore, we appeal to the leaders of our country to hold direct dialogue with the Dalai Lama.
Such voices from the civil society in China hold the promise of calming the vitiated atmosphere. But for the moment, only a few facts are certain. The 10 March 1959 uprising began a new chapter in the history of modern Tibet. That chapter was full of tragedy. Given what has now taken place 49 years later, wise counsel will need to prevail in Beijing in order that this second Tibetan uprising, as tragic as it has been, will result in a positive outcome for both the Tibetans and the Chinese.