As never before, Tibetans are debating the best way to win freedom for their land. While many remain confident the strategy of non-violence and engagement will win out in the end, others are driven by their country’s terrible suffering to advocate stronger measures.
In New Delhi on April 27, during a skirmish between Tibetan demonstrators and Indian police, 50-year-old Thupten Ngodup cried out “Free Tibet!”, doused himself with gasoline, and set himself afire. The horrified crowd looked on as Ngodup, caught in a blazing inferno, stumbled about with flailing, outstretched arms. He died two days later at the Ram Manohar Lohia hospital, while softly chanting the Buddhist compassion mantra, Om Mani Padme Hum.
In June, another powerful image caught the world’s attention. In an unprecedented broadcast, Chinese television presented uncensored coverage of a news conference by Chinese president Jiang Zemin and American president Bill Clinton. Standing amiably side by side, the two discussed the thorny issue of Tibet with an unmistakable air of optimism.
“I want to emphasize that according to the Chinese constitution, the freedom of religious belief in Tibet and also throughout China is protected,” the Chinese president assured Clinton, adding that “earth-shaking changes” have taken place in Tibet since 1959.
Smiling Bill Clinton talking freely before all of China in favor of Tibet. Thupten Ngodup’s fatal display of despair for his country. Two powerful and contradictory images signifying the complexity of the Tibetan situation. They testify that the Tibetan movement has reached a significant crossroads in its forty-year history.
The joint press conference buoyed hopes that the issue of Tibet had come to the fore of international diplomacy. Following the visit, the Tibetan Government-in-exile stated in a press release:
“We applaud President Bill Clinton for asking the Chinese government to enter into dialogue and negotiation with His Holiness the Dalai Lama. We also applaud President Jiang Zemin for publicly recognizing the fact that Tibet is an important issue needing a solution and for indicating his willingness to have exchange of views and discussions on this.”
Said His Holiness the Dalai Lama: “In spite of the worsening situation inside Tibet, I believe that China is in the process of changing for the better. If you only look at events in Tibet, there is cause for frustration, but if you look wide enough, there is great hope. Today’s China, compared to fifteen, twenty years ago, is a much changed China.”
Since China’s invasion of Tibet in 1950, Tibetans have been struggling to reclaim their homeland through non-violent methods, but the failure to win concrete gains has frustrated many within the exile movement.
The seeds of dissension were sown in 1988, when the Dalai Lama formally renounced the goal of full independence in favor of self-rule. In return for genuine autonomy for Tibetans, his “Middle Way” approach accepted Chinese control over Tibet’s defence and foreign policy and down-played Tibetan demands for independence.
In his statement on this year’s anniversary of the 1959 Tibetan revolt, the Tibetan leader explained: “What I am seeking is for the Tibetan people to be given the opportunity to have genuine self-rule in order to preserve their civilization and for the unique Tibetan culture, religion, language and way of life to grow and thrive.”
As its name suggests, the Middle Way is a conciliatory response to Tibet’s plight, since full independence seems an increasingly impractical goal in light of the Chinese regime’s unyielding policy on its territorial integrity, including both Tibet and Taiwan. But the Tibetan leadership has been able to point to recent publications by Chinese intellectuals appealing for a move towards Tibetan autonomy, and the revival of contacts between Tibetan emissaries and Chinese officials through “private channels,” as reasons for hope that moderation in dealing with the Chinese may result in liberalization in Tibet.
Other Tibetans, however, see this “Middle Way” as a futile attempt to appease a hard-line Chinese regime. In spite of the concessions the Dalai Lama has already made, Jiang had made clear during the press conference that open dialogue is only possible if the Dalai Lama acknowledges that Tibet and Taiwan are an “inalienable” part of China.
This was a wake-up call for many Tibetans. Frustrated, they are increasingly vocal in expressing their impatience with the status quo, and a new radicalism is emerging from the fringes of the Tibetan movement. Proponents of violent resistance argue that international efforts to intervene on Tibet’s behalf were only stimulated by violent outbreaks in Tibet in 1950, 1959 and 1987-89. For a growing number of Tibetans, pursuing another course of action is preferable to the current death-watch over their nation.
For a small and disenfranchised people to confront an opponent as formidable as China, unity would seem vital. But the growing dissatisfaction with what some perceive as the Tibetan leadership’s inaction is deepening rifts within the exile community.
This year’s hunger strike in New Delhi signaled a greater willingness among Tibetans to defy the expressed wishes of their beloved leader, who opposed what he considers acts of self-inflicted violence. When government delegates visited the hunger strikers, they were greeted by jeering Tibetans. Inside Tibet, a series of bombings has recently been carried out against Chinese targets.
“Our generation feels something else needs to be done,” explains Tenzin Sonam of the Tibetan Youth Congress in New York. “We’ve been practicing non-violence for so many years. It is not effective.”
“The Middle Way is very confusing. We Tibetans shouldn’t compromise our right to a free Tibet,” says Pasang Tenzin, who in May helped organize a rally at the U.N. “The world thinks we Tibetans are from a land of Shangri-la. But Tibet really exists and Tibetans are human beings desiring freedom.”
In the aftermath of the failed anti-Chinese uprising in 1959, the Dalai Lama and more than 100,000 Tibetans fled Tibet, heading south in a dangerous journey over the Himalayas to India. Today, the Tibetan diaspora numbers about 130,000. India remains a generous benefactor to the largest Tibetan refugee community of 100,000, while smaller clusters dot the globe.
Until now, the Dalai Lama’s leadership of Tibetans-both in exile and inside Tibet-has been largely unchallenged. The Buddhist leader has inspired the world with his message of kindness and the futility of violence. His smiling face became a symbol of world peace when he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989 for his steadfast promotion of a non-violent solution to China’s illegal occupation of Tibet, and for millions around the globe, he represents an ideal union of spirituality and statesmanship.
“The Tibetan movement is more than a group of people trying to regain independence,” says Thupten Samdup, national president of the Canada Tibet Committee. “It involves the whole concept of non-violence and decency. We have gained so much support and sympathy because Tibetans have so far been very consistent in their belief that truth and justice will prevail. It is very important that Tibetans follow the path of non-violence.”
Nima Dorje, a 32-year-old chemical engineer living in Alberta, appreciates the pragmatic position the Dalai Lama has taken. Dorje, one of the key persons responsible for bringing the Tibetan grassroots network on-line, suggests that the “Middle Way” approach could help expedite negotiations with China. As a strategy it might also bring independence for Tibet, a goal which he believes must never be abandoned.
“What is needed is for some prominent Tibetans and groups to publicly disagree with the strategies of His Holiness while agreeing with the objectives. This would assist in His Holiness’ position to be seen as moderate. But the problem is, few Tibetans want to disagree with the Dalai Lama.”
In the West, outrage over China’s repression in Tibet and admiration for the forbearance and compassion with which Tibetans have responded has made Tibet a popular cause for politicians, students and Hollywood glitterati alike. Clinton’s trip provided China an opportunity to respond to the growing chorus of voices decrying Tibet’s predicament. In turn, Clinton blunted criticism of his inaction on Tibet by addressing publicly the sensitive issue of human rights with the leader of the world’s largest police state.
It was in both sides’ interests to promote the Clinton administration’s policy of economic engagement with China through the image of an open and changing China. Besides the unprecedented news conference, China released Chinese political prisoners Wei Jingsheng and Wang Dan in April to set the stage for Clinton’s visit.
“One cannot be misled with a release of a political prisoner every now and then,” says Tseten Samdup, press and information officer of the Office of Tibet in London. “Tens of thousands of prisoners are locked away in prison and labor camps. The welfare of these prisoners must be equally addressed.” Last year, a report by the European Union revealed that more than 3000 Tibetans were expelled from monasteries as part of China’s re-education campaign between 1996-1997. Amnesty International reported that 96 Tibetans were imprisoned last year for taking part in peaceful protests.
Thupten Samdup believes that while the recent news conference was a positive contribution to the Tibetan cause, the symbolic exchange must be followed up with more substantial political measures. “Engagement is important but at the same time, human rights abuses in China must not be tolerated,” he says. “The American public must remain firm on these issues, otherwise the Chinese will never take them seriously.”
Samdup, a former member of the Tibetan Parliament-in-exile, questions whose interests are really being served by trade with China. “Clinton is the American people’s representative. He has to speak for his constituency and not for business corporations. I wonder if Clinton would still favor engagement after he spent a month in a Chinese prison.”
The Dalai Lama was more positive about Clinton’s efforts. He told Time magazine, “In the long run, his comments will certainly have a very good impact on the minds of many Chinese. But it’s too early to assess the immediate impact. What’s clear is that President Clinton made a great effort to put across his views.”
Engagement advocates rely on the argument that more foreign economic involvement will inevitably make China more open politically. It is argued this new freedom will extend as well to Tibet.
But a closer look questions the linkage between prosperity and political freedom. In her paper “APEC, Globalization and Tibet: A Briefing Paper for Tibet Support Groups,” lawyer and Tibet activist Cathy James argues that without accompanying social measures to safeguard human rights, the ills of the free-market, such as unemployment, poverty and extremist violence, multiply. Free enterprise alone cannot guarantee growth of democratic, humane societies.
One need only look at contemporary Tibet as evidence of this. In spite of the large financial resources being channeled into the region, the quality of life for the average Tibetan continues to deteriorate. Unemployment and poverty have risen and illiteracy is by some estimates as high as 80%. Use of the Tibetan language is virtually non-existent in the marketplace and in the higher levels of the educational system.
The influx of Chinese cadres and entrepreneurs, invigorated by China’s market campaign to increase industrial development and foreign investment in Tibet, is perhaps the Tibetan people’s most serious problem. The steady migration of Chinese, who continue to monopolize the benefits of Tibet’s economic revolution, has drastically altered the demographic integrity of Tibet. Currently there are 7.5 million Chinese in Tibet, compared to 6 million Tibetans. So far, market reforms have served only to consolidate Chinese colonialism in Tibet, reinforcing the destruction of its culture and way of life.
Interestingly, one who favors engagement with the Chinese is the Dalai Lama himself. The Tibetan leader has made clear his opposition to trade boycotts, explaining that in the long run isolating China is not the answer to Tibet’s problems, particularly in an era of rapid globalization. At a recent news conference in New York, the Dalai Lama argued that, “In the long run, the rule of law and a more open society, with more freedom of religion, will be of immense benefit to those people who put money in China. So their own interests are very much involved. It is in the interests of peace in the region, and I think the whole world, to make good friends with China.”
Explaining that in his view the most effective way to improve human rights and religious freedom is to “engage Chinese leaders directly without public condemnation,” the Dalai Lama made his own appeal to Chinese interests: “The top priority of the Chinese government is stability and unity. In order to achieve that, I feel that realistically the best thing is dialogue on the basis of the middle approach.
“Although there has not been official contact since August of 1993, there has been some contact through other channels, in some cases government, in other cases individuals. So my position is that in spite of the worsening situation inside Tibet, I am fully committed to my middle approach. As soon as some positive indication comes from the Chinese government, I’m ready to talk. Anywhere. Anytime. With the changing situation in China proper, I think eventually some kind of understanding will come. In the long run, I am optimistic.”
But even the Dalai Lama knows he is caught between his long-term hopes for rapprochement with the Chinese and the immediate desperation of Tibetans who see their country terribly wronged. Take the hunger strike in New Delhi, which went sixty-seven days before being ended by the intervention of Indian police. It was at a protest against this intervention that Thupten Ngodup immolated himself.
The fast began on March 10, the anniversary of the 1959 Tibetan uprising. A craftsman, two artists, a shopkeeper and two elderly Tibetans sat in the heart of New Delhi’s Jantor Mantor Park. They resolved to starve themselves to death unless the United Nations put Tibet on its agenda.
After nearly seven weeks of living on water and lemon juice, the enfeebled strikers were forcibly removed by Indian police, who took them to nearby hospitals to be force-fed. A new batch of five Tibetans dutifully resumed the fast. The hunger strike ended only when members of the Tibetan Youth Congress, which spearheaded the strike, decided to give international pledges of support time to concretize.
Meanwhile, scores of other Tibetans stand ready to offer their lives if need be. “If our demands are not fulfilled, we will resume our movement,” the TYC warned in a statement. “We will continue to fight to the last drop of our blood until freedom and dignity is restored to the people of Tibet.”
The Dalai Lama visited the hunger strikers to express his admiration of their devotion to the Tibetan cause, but his disapproval of their methods. Moved to tears by their selflessness, the Tibetan leader knew he had little to offer as an immediate alternative to the hunger strike.
“I went to them, and I expressed three points,” the Dalai Lama said. “First, I expressed my appreciation, my admiration for their determination. Second, I made clear to them I believe this hunger strike is a form of violence, so I did not agree with it. Third, since they were taking this drastic action for the Tibetan cause, which is also my responsibility, indirectly they are actually helping me. I also mentioned that as Buddhists we should have sincere motivation, compassionate motivation, and should not have negative feelings towards the other side.
“Then if I really want to stop them, I have to offer them an alternative. That is not there, unfortunately. I am fully committed to the middle approach to solve the Tibetan issue. But meantime, there is no response from the Chinese government, and the situation inside Tibet becomes worse and worse. More and more people are feeling some kind of desperate feeling.
“So in order to stop the expression of their desperation, I have to offer them something. `Oh please don’t do this, you see, we have this other way.’ Effectively, that’s not there.”
One way to bring more rapid change to Tibet is being proposed by Professor Samdhong Rinpoche, chairman of the Assembly of the Tibetan People’s Deputies. He is organizing a Gandhian-style Satyagraha movement as an immediate and dramatic yet non-violent way to restore freedom in Tibet. The Satyagraha (literally “Truth-Insistence”) principles were developed and used by Gandhi in his struggle to emancipate India from British rule.
To prepare, activists will undergo rigorous spiritual training, during which they must remain truthful, peaceful and non-violent. The operation, fraught with danger, is set to begin in 1999. Entering Tibet, the Satyagrahis will hold peaceful protests demanding rights already enshrined in Chinese law, such as the right to education, removal of racial discrimination and the teaching of the Tibetan language. If they are arrested and imprisoned, they plan to continue their peaceful protests in prison.
“The Chinese can only imprison us for a charge of trespassing. They cannot imprison us for the whole lifetime and then if they release us, then we will start again,” says Samdhong Rinpoche. “All Tibetan people must, with united hearts and minds, courageously engage in a Satyagraha movement, as an effective means to achieve our own truth, for truth is always victorious and truth is on our side.”
But truth and non-violence can be slow to win out over a hardened police state. As the situation inside Tibet grows bleaker with the passage of time, many Tibetans wonder when the strategy of non-violence will bear fruit. The Tibetan movement has become a symbol of hope for those promoting a global political culture of non-violence and dialogue. But the cost of remaining a moral example is too great for a growing number of Tibetans who simply want an end to the atrocities inflicted on their land and people. While the world fawns over romanticized images of a gentle Himalayan utopia, frustration simmers among Tibetans as they are forced to watch the real Tibet die before their eyes.
“If Tibetans resort to violence the world community would be to blame,” says Thupten Samdup. “They would be failing a great man, the Dalai Lama, in front of his people.”
As a result, Tibetans are taking matters into their own hands. The recent unrest within the exile community is a clear demonstration to the Chinese and the rest of the world that there is more to the Tibetan movement than just the benevolent face of its saintly leader. Tibetans’ determination to win freedom for their homeland is encapsulated in the simple reminder by a Guatemalan Indian: “Don’t forget that there’s always someone who can pick up the banner of the fallen and say, `We carry on the struggle.'”