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The Tibetan Model of Resistance: Human Rights in Tibet

Guest Contributor Divya Malhotra is pursuing her Ph.D. from the School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) and is a non-resident fellow at the Middle East Institute, New Delhi where she monitors and documents Pakistan-Middle East relations. Her areas of interest include human rights studies. Her writing has appeared in the Times of Israel blog. 

The world today is riddled with violence and conflict. Countries across Asia and Africa are engaged in a perpetual struggle for political and religious autonomy and self-determination. Be it West Asia’s Arab Spring, Israeli-Palestinian conflict over land, the Baloch and Pashtun separatist movements in Pakistan, or the turmoil in Kashmir, violence has become accepted as a status-quo in these areas. However, one community’s struggle for separation has had an intriguingly peaceful and spiritual dimension: the Tibetan resistance movement.     

Historical Background

The Tibetan independence movement is a political movement for the independence of Tibet and the political separation of Tibet from China. It has been principally been led by the Tibetan Diaspora across the globe. In 1950, China’s People’s Liberation Army invaded Tibet, marking the beginning of their struggle for self-determination. In May 1951, the agreement of the Central People’s Government and the Local Government of Tibet on Measures for the Peaceful Liberation of Tibet was signed in Beijing, giving Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama, control over Tibet’s internal affairs. The tensions between both sides continued and in July 1956, Qimai Gongbo, headman of Tibet’s Gyamda County, led a rebellion against the Chinese government. In 1956, the Dalai Lama reached New Delhi via Sikkim where his elder brother Norbo joined him after his trip from the US. As per Chen’s account, Norbo advised the Dalai Lama to either lead the Tibetan struggle from India or the US. The Lama, however, returned to Lhasa to lead his people. 

In March 1959, China brutally suppressed mass uprisings in Tibet, leaving 545 Tibetan rebels dead and over 4,800 wounded. “We only lived to kill the Chinese”, recalls one Tibetan veteran, hinting at the essentially violent character of the freedom movement. At the outset of the brutal uprising in 1959, fearing for his life, the Dalai Lama and his entourage fled Tibet with the help of the CIA, crossing into India in March and reaching Tezpur in Assam on 18 April. Eventually he set up the Government of Tibet in Exile in Dharamshala, India, popularly known as “Little Lhasa“. 

The Central Tibetan Administration (CTA), headquartered in McLeod Ganj, Dharamshala, was established in 1960 as the “sole and legitimate government” of Tibetans. The CTA was authorised to look after the immediate and long-term needs of Tibetan people with special focus on seven major areas, namely, religion and culture, home affairs, finance, security, education, health, and International Relations. Under this charter and structure, the series of institutions run by the Dalai Lama have been creative, constructive and productive in nature.  

The Tibetan flag, adopted by the 13th Dalai Lama in 1916 and used in official capacity through 1951. Since then, it is used only by the Government in Exile and is symbolic of an ongoing freedom movement.

After the founding of the government in exile, he re-established the approximately 80,000 Tibetan refugees who followed him into exile in agricultural settlements. The Tibetan struggle has not been at rest since then, as has also been well documented by famous authors including Qingying Chen, Brazinsky and Melvyn Goldstein

Two external players have been important to the Tibetan struggle during its infancy; India – which offered an alternate home to the Tibetan community in exile and the US, as elaborated by Qingying Chen in his detailed treatise “Tibetan History”. With the principal intention of containing Communist China, the intelligence agency is believed to have channelled annual amount of USD 1.7 million for anti-China operations, including USD 180,000 annual subsidy for the Dalai Lama. As per Gregg Brazinsky, Kennedy and Johnson administration offered continued support to Tibetan rebels, and two “Tibet houses” were established in New York and Geneva to coordinate with Tibetan leadership. Washington and Delhi’s support to Tibet was perhaps motivated by anti-Beijing sentiments and respective geopolitical interests. The US support was helpful till the 1990s, but after the fall of communism in 1989, the American policy toward China changed and “they stopped their help”. Nevertheless, their support came handy for the fragile Tibetan movement. 

Characteristics of the Movement

While most of the other global secessionist movements have focused on training militia and perpetuating violence, this movement has essentially had a spiritual dimension to it. The Dalai Lama guided and led his people in a profound and positive manner. For any political movement, the personality of the leader is instrumental to shaping the struggle. By that logic, the Dalai Lama’s positive personal spiritual aura has also spilled over into the Tibetan resistance movement. Although he holds immense influence for Tibetans and their politics, the Dalai Lama still sees himself as a “simple Buddhist monk” and not a political leader. His day starts at 3 in the morning and ends at 7 in the evening: a reflection of his simplistic and pristine lifestyle. Yet, he continues to mentor a seven decades old freedom struggle and his political views revolve around the notion of democracy. In his own words, “No system of government is perfect, but democracy is closest to our essential human nature. So it is in all our interests that those of us who already enjoy democracy should actively support everybody’s right to do so.”

Labelled as a “brilliant master of this elusive modern equilibrium”, the Dalai Lama is an enigma. In his book The Open road: The Global Journey of the Fourteenth Dalai Lama, Pico Iyer beautifully articulates how the Dalai Lama spends his day “meditating on the roots of compassion and what he can do for his people, the Chinese brothers and sisters who are holding his people hostage” and at the same time, continues his spiritual journey. 

Instead of defining his people’s struggle in terms of “Good Tibetans, bad Chinese”, the Dalai Lama, with an essentially positive prism, sees the issue as a struggle between “Potentially good Tibetans, potentially good Chinese”. In 1989, the Dalai Lama was awarded the Nobel peace prize for his approach to Tibetan liberation. It won’t be wrong to state that the Dalai Lama always emphasized on non-violence and practises of meditation, yoga and spirituality for protecting human rights.

Introspection, meditation, spirituality and peaceful mediation have been at the core of the movement. Even though the Dalai Lama retired from his position of the political head of Tibetan people in 2011, his ideas and ideals continue to define the movement. Human rights violations have been documented in Tibet, where Chinese authorities continue to restrict and refrain the people from expressing their support for freedom. There have been cases of arrest and self-immolations. Yet the struggle in itself has been devoid of the massive bloodshed and violence which dominates and depicts the struggle of other communities in the rest of the Asian subcontinent. Tough, resilient and persistent, the community has not given up on its demands in accordance with the Dalai Lama’s peaceful ethics.  

Despite the armed uprisings in the beginning and continued violent suppression by Chinese authorities, the resistance movement in Tibet has been relatively peaceful in nature, following the Dalai Lama’s peace oriented approach. However one may wonder whether this approach to secession has yielded any tangible gains? A basic overview clearly indicates that the Tibetan struggle has not reaped any concrete benefits. The number of casualties varies from a few thousands to millions, based on different data sources. However at a comparative level, what have the Palestinians, the Balochs, the Pashtuns and the Kashmiris gained by adopting violence? All these communities, allegedly suppressed by the powerful regimes, have not made much notable territorial or political gains either way.     

Amidst perpetual conflict and bloodshed, the peaceful nature of the Tibetan struggle, because of the Dalai Lama’s influence, is an inspiration to a new generation. Perhaps if the world were to follow a Tibetan model of struggle, logic and peace will prevail while giving everyone a chance to express their dissent without harming the others.