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The Sealed Fate of the Tibetan Unrest

Dr. Abanti Bhattacharya is Associate Professor at the Department of East Asian Studies, University of Delhi. Prior to this she was Associate Fellow at Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses.
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  • March 19, 2008

    Ongoing protests in Tibet, coinciding with the commemoration of the 49th anniversary of the 1959 March Uprising, was not unexpected given that China is only a few months away from the Beijing Olympics. The hosting of the Olympics is looked upon as China’s formal arrival as a great power and as an event that heralds its potential emergence as a superpower in the years to come. Consequently, the Chinese government has been well prepared to confront any untoward developments that could tarnish its image as a responsible global power. But what makes the Tibetan protests, the biggest in twenty years, quite startling is that it could be organised under the repressive communist regime with its well-established coercive mechanisms to curb resistance, or what it calls anti-China activities. The protests indeed indicate the failure of China’s economic policy in Tibet, which has focused primarily on creating prosperity in order to mitigate separatism. In other words, the protest exposes the ‘colonising’ nature of China’s Westward Development Project’ and validates the Tibetan claim that economic policies and projects introduced in Tibet were not meant for the development of the 85 per cent of rural Tibetans but to facilitate China’s strategic and defence requirements. Nonetheless, the ongoing protests are not going to pose any significant challenge to China, not only because of its enormous economic and military strength, but more so because the Tibetan movement is fragmented.

    The Tibetan movement, which started in the 1950s with the goal of independence and self-determination, got diluted in the 1980s when the Dalai Lama scaled down his demands to ‘genuine autonomy’. Genuine autonomy, according to the Dalai Lama, is the ‘Middle-Way Approach’ and it actually meant accepting Tibet to be a part of China. The Middle-Way Approach, as defined by the Dalai Lama, is “a non-partisan and moderate position that safeguards the vital interests of all concerned parties — for Tibetans: the protection and preservation of their culture, religion and national identity; for the Chinese: the security and territorial integrity of the motherland; and for neighbours and other third parties: peaceful borders and international relations.” His call for ‘genuine autonomy’ and not independence has, in fact, weakened the movement from 1988 onwards, when officially in the Strasbourg Proposal autonomy replaced independence as the goal of the Tibetan movement. The Dalai Lama’s conciliatory stand has emboldened China’s Tibet policy, which is based on its nationalistic project of greater Hanisation of all minority provinces and submergence of all minority identities within the larger Han identity.

    While the Dalai Lama has been advocating ‘genuine autonomy’, there is quite a large section of Tibetans, particularly Tibetan non-governmental organisations (NGOs) who are clearly dismayed with his conciliatory stand and instead advocate the goal of complete independence for Tibet. Among NGOs, the only exception in this regard is the Tibetan Women Association (TWA), which supports the ‘middle path approach’. The rest, including the most radical and the largest among the Tibetan diaspora – the Tibetan Youth Congress (TYC) – has laid down clear aims, with the primary objective being total independence of Tibet even at the cost of one’s life. The TYC, founded in 1970, has 83 regional branches in India, Nepal, Bhutan, Norway, Canada, France, Japan, Taiwan, Australia and Switzerland. India alone has 52 branches. In keeping with the tradition of non-violence, it launches campaigns from time to time, such as the ‘Boycott Made in China’ campaign launched in December 2002. The TYC runs a journal called Rangzen, which means independence.

    Yet another significant NGO is the Gu-Chu-Sum Movement, an ex-political prisoners’ association. Gu, chu and sum are Tibetan numbers 9, 10, 3, which stand for the three months of massive pro-independence uprisings crushed in Lhasa, i.e. September 1987 (9), October 1987 (10) and March 1988 (3). It publishes an annual called Tibetan Envoy and co-ordinates events such as peace marches and publicity campaigns with other NGOs such as the National Democratic Party of Tibet (NDPT) and Students for a Free Tibet (SFT). These NGOs have a tendency to adopt violent methods if required. While they do not abide by the Dalai Lama’s middle-way approach, they also do not command leadership of the Tibetan movement, since all Tibetans rally behind the Dalai Lama who is the spiritual leader as well as the face of Tibetan resistance and Tibetan identity. Tibetans know that without the Dalai Lama their movement would fizzle out or alternately become violent leading to loss of international support. Therefore, even those Tibetan officials who are part of the Tibetan Exiled government based in Dharamsala and who are quite disillusioned with the Dalai Lama’s demand ‘genuine autonomy’, stand by the Dalai Lama.

    Tibetans themselves are thus divided in the goal they seek. If the goal of independence had remained steadfast, it would have sufficed to challenge China’s might. But today’s Tibetan resistance movement is merely a matter of internal dissent for authoritarian China, and it has adequate coercive structures to muzzle the movement.

    While the Dalai Lama has stuck to his conciliatory gesture of genuine autonomy, his latest position of not boycotting the Olympics is even more perplexing. Of course, the Dalai Lama would not achieve anything significant by calling for a boycott that is unlikely to yield any significant result, given China’s economic might and international standing. Nevertheless, a boycott call would have a symbolic value from the perspective of human rights. In fact, the Tibetan movement has for a long time latched onto the human rights dimension, which, though, has weakened the movement by diverting it from the goal of independence. Nonetheless, it has indeed helped in gaining considerable international attention and has given a degree of legitimacy to the Tibetan movement. We should note here that China was denied the 2000 Olympics on grounds of poor human rights record. From this perspective, the Dalai Lama’s refusal to boycott the Beijing Olympics goes against the long-standing struggle for human rights in Tibet. Even though he has condemned violent acts by Tibetans, the Dalai Lama is still disparaged as a “splittist” and a “liar” by Chinese authorities. Beijing’s long term strategy is to simply bide time till the Dalai Lama is alive, after which it knows that Tibetan resistance would suffer without the stature of, and the respect commanded by, the Dalai Lama. And it would further hamper the movement by planting its own Dalai Lama, as it has done in the case of the Panchen Lama.

    The ongoing uprising is thus likely to go down in the annals of history as yet another failed Tibetan resistance movement that only fuelled a further exodus of Tibetans. In coming years, the cause of Tibet is likely to survive only among the Tibetan Diaspora, even as the roof of the world is slowly and inexorably transformed into Chinese land.