Archive for nonviolence

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.   

Non-Violence in Communal War in Central Nigeria

By James Courtright, Staff Writer for RightsViews

On January 30th Dr. Jana Krause came to speak with students and faculty at Columbia’s School for International and Public Affairs about her new book, “Resilient Communities: Non-Violence and Civilian Agency in Communal War.” Her work centers on communal conflict – non-state armed conflict between identity groups – in Plateau state in Nigeria and Maluku province in Indonesia. In both places the violence tended to be simplistically referred to as Christian against Muslim, but upon further investigation she found it was deeply rooted in local political and economic dynamics and narratives. After explaining how communal violence was organized, she then delved into neighborhoods in Nigeria and Indonesia where violence did not occur, analyzing how the choices of civilians and their collective efforts to prevent fighting saved the lives of hundreds of people.

Conflict in Jos

When she first visited Jos, Nigeria in 2010, Dr. Krause had to pass through multiple checkpoints along the road from the capital Abuja before entering a city where half-destroyed houses lined the streets and every major traffic junction was accompanied by a heavy military presence. As she started comparing her interviews with journalistic accounts, data sets, and human rights reports she realized that conflict in the city of Jos and rural Plateau State claimed more than 7,000 lives between 2001 and 2010. This violence, she concluded, was not sporadic clashes – it was war.

Dr. Jana Krause. Photo from her website.

Dr. Krause builds on the work of political scientist Stathis Kalyvas, whose work has advanced the idea that what civilians do in conflict matters. Unlike the journalistic shorthand of “neighbors killing neighbors,” she explained, violence is usually perpetrated by militias formed in surrounding neighborhoods. These militias would mobilize after hearing rumors that their perceived enemies were arming themselves, and then travel to where they believed clashes were occurring or where they had planned to attack. When they arrived in other communities, some residents there would collaborate with militias to identify “the enemy” based on their identity or hyper local grievances. Thus, communal violence results from rumor, threat assessment, mobilization and information sharing, grievances linked to previous violence, and local conflicts.

After delving into these dynamics, she began asking if residents knew an area that was vulnerable and religiously and socio-economically mixed, but where violence did not occur. She was pointed to Dadin Kowa, a community that sits in the southern suburbs of Jos. As she spent more time with residents of Dadin Kowa, she came to better understand how they managed to maintain an uneasy and tense peace while thousands of people were being killed or forced to flee their homes in surrounding neighborhoods.

How to avoid or forestall violence?

While many community leaders across Jos strove to avoid violence during this painful decade, Dadin Kowa’s leaders were arguably the most successful. One of the main reasons for this, Dr. Krause argued, was that both Christian and Muslim community leaders and everyday residents painstakingly created a broader identity as ‘being a resident of Dadin Kowa’, overcoming the fractious Berom Christian and Muslim Jasawa political agendas. From early on there was a tacit agreement, and later a more formal one, between religious leaders that they would preach to their respective congregations to avoid violence. People were still politically polarized, but when it came to violence, leaders constantly stressed a deeper fealty to their shared humanity and their neighborhood of Dadin Kowa.

Women’s groups also played a key role. At one point, tensions at the market became so serious that women began to travel out of the neighborhood to buy their vegetables and staples from their own religious group, dividing the community further. As tension at the market became a serious hindrance in their lives, women across the religious divide began meeting and sharing their stories, fears, and aspirations. As Dr. Krause writes in her book these meetings “fostered determination that their neighborhood would not be devastated by clashes.”

However, creating a unifying identity was not enough in and of itself. Dr Krause pointed out how civilians consolidated social control of the neighborhood. Women’s groups and other informants would pass information about suspicious activities or rumors to community leaders, who at times used open threats and even violence against people in the community to maintain order.

Young men in the community were told that under no circumstances were they allowed to go and fight with groups outside the community, and at the first sign of trouble they should return home. A clear communications network was built by community leaders so whenever trouble appeared on the horizon leaders on both sides of the religious divide could call and coordinate their actions to calm tensions. Mixed youth patrol groups were even created to guard the neighborhood and coordinate with the military and police.

In addition to dense networks built within Dadin Kowa, to deter attacks leaders in the community engaged in extensive negotiations and coordination with leaders in neighboring communities as well as the police and military. They even paid thinly veiled bribes to facilitate good relations and regular police patrols. For example, some of the women’s groups cooked lunch for the soldiers in order to maintain good relations. Both Christian and Muslim community leaders from Dadin Kowa went to mosques and churches in neighboring suburbs of Jos and publicly presented their agreement not to fight in Dadin Kowa.

In at least one case violence was averted by the actions of a single individual. In January 2010 when two external Christian militias threatened Dadin Kowa a community leader identified as Timothy in Dr. Krause’s book went out and single handedly negotiated with the militias, telling them that they would not be allowed into the neighborhood and no one would collaborate with them. He slowed their advance until they could hear the gunshots of the military nearby, and the militia turned around without harming anyone in Dadin Kowa. Timothy had lived through the Nigerian civil war in the 1960s and understood the dynamics of how violence happened and how and when to intervene.

In some cases, peace was only maintained with the credible threat of violence. One of Dr.  Krause’s interviewees, a Christian resident of a nearby neighborhood identified as Abraham, revealed that not only was the agreement not to fight in Dadin Kowa well known outside the neighborhood, it was also understood that the agreement would be enforced with violence. “If the boys from outside want to overcome them, then the Dadin Kowa boys will fight them,” Dr. Krause quotes Abraham saying in her book. “If you go there to fight, they will kill you. That’s the agreement.”

However, Dr. Krause stressed that Dadin Kowa was not an oasis of harmony during these episodes of violence. The community was tense as people fleeing violence sought refuge and leaders struggled to exert control over rebellious youth. Tensions within women’s groups over rumors and unfair burdens of labor also created problems. In some cases, as in the January 2010 episode mentioned previously, people in Dadin Kowa agreed it was the fateful intervention of a single person which averted catastrophe.

What can Dadin Kowa teach the world?

After her presentation Dr. Krause was asked about the implications of her work for practitioners. She responded by saying that we need to complicate the “islands of peace” idea that non-violence is isolated from outside forces. Instead, she pointed out, Dadin Kowa was deeply enmeshed in the conflict environment and political dynamics. The leaders of Dadin Kowa who were most effective at averting violence were those who understood exactly how the violence was organized because they had seen it before. Before foreign organizations rush in to “sensitize” people about conflict dynamics, she continued, it is important to recognize that foreigners arriving and starting programs has its own political and economic implications for the community and its neighbors.

While her findings from Nigeria and Indonesia shared some basic similarities, Dr. Krause stressed that knowledge of local contexts should be foremost in the minds of outsiders seeking to work on these issues. She concluded her talk by pointing out that in both Dadin Kowa and Indonesia non-violence is less connected to pacifist attitudes but a desire to survive and partly results from direct threats of violence and coercion against those most likely to engage in killings. Acknowledging this uncomfortable reality is essential in designing local and international peace building efforts.