A Cause For Courage
New Internationalist Issue 274
The material that follows has been provided by New Internationalist
Exit the Dragon
Is dissent in the exile community a sign of nascent democracy or disintegration? Is Tibet on the brink of a bloody intifada? Above all, what can be done to help?
China's pride, Lhasa's loss. Tibetan houses have been razed to make way for a Tiananmen-style square in front of the Potala Palace, once home to the Dalai Lama
'We are all school dropouts,' says Jamyang Norbu cheerfully. 'None of us has a degree.' That's strange. The small band of people who have set up this cultural institute, Amnye Machen, have been described to me as the 'intellectual cream' of the exile community in Dharamsala.
But the government information officer who conferred this praise went on to say: 'Unfortunately they have been printing reports critical of the Government-in-Exile. This demoralizes Tibetans in Tibet. It's playing into the hands of the Chinese.'
Some ultra-conservative religious leaders have gone so far as to accuse Amnye Machen of working for the Chinese. Jamyang Norbu has himself received death threats.
He's an energetic and loquacious man, clearly more inclined to speak his mind than to be cautious. Above his desk is a picture of exiled Chinese dissident Harry Wu, himself a supporter of the Tibetan cause.
Jamyang Norbu is critical. He thinks religion is still too influential in Tibetan society and is holding back the struggle for independence. It would be better, he says, if the Tibetan Administration directed its energies towards studying China. 'They don't know the nature of this enemy. This enemy does not respond to compassion.'
More controversial yet, he is critical of the Dalai Lama's unwavering commitment to non-violence. 'All the options have to be looked at,' he says. He is not advocating violence but he does point out that those who have used it - like the PLO - get taken seriously by the international community.
Such views have prompted foreign journalists to cast Amyne Machen as 'the opposition' to the Government-in-Exile. 'That's a very Western view of politics,' says Jamyang. What Amnye Machen is doing, he says, is not opposing but providing another perspective which is at times critical.
In one major respect Amnye Machen's goal is identical to the Dalai Lama's - they want to keep Tibetan culture alive. They publish books by Tibetan writers in Tibetan. But they also think that one way of keeping Tibetan culture alive is to keep it fed with foreign ideas, so they have translated into Tibetan for the first time the works of George Orwell, Vaclav Havel and others.
Kharma Samden, a Tibetan Youth Congress member, has similar feelings of frustration with the current leadership. 'It's very traditional,' he says. 'The democratic structures may be in place but it is very difficult to criticize openly. People take it so personally. I am not saying get rid of tradition - but it has to be combined with a modern education and a sense of what is going on in the world.'
Intimations of intifada
Illegal image: the Chinese have prohibited the sale of images of the Dalai Lama like the one this farmer wears around his neck.
What is going on in China is the key to Tibet's future. Beijing is losing its grip on its provinces. The economic disparity between the rich coastal areas and the poor inland areas is throwing up all sorts of problems. Farmers are leaving the countryside and moving to the cities. Unemployment is high and there are fears of insurrection.
Tibetans in exile hope that China will disintegrate a la Soviet Union. New leaders in Beijing, they reason, will make negotiations easier. Maybe. And then again, maybe not. A fair deal for Tibet may not feature at all on their list of priorities, although Tibetans in exile have been forging links with exiled Chinese dissenters such as Jan Jiaqi, who leads the Federation for a Democratic China.
Meanwhile, according to one of the foremost experts on Tibet, US historian Melvyn Goldstein, the situation in Tibet right now is dangerously volatile. A decline into violence is, he says, a 'realistic assumption'.
'China's policy in Tibet is in shambles,' he says. Bringing the free market to Tibet was supposed to create 'modern' Tibetans who would abandon hopes of independence in favour of making money. But they have not materialized. This is because the core problem - of massive Chinese migration - is not being addressed. 'Tibetans are unlikely to stand on the sidelines for much longer watching Beijing transform the demography and economy of their homeland with impunity,' says Goldstein.
He goes on to warn: 'Nationalistic emotions coupled with desperation and anger make a powerful brew. And there are Tibetans inside and outside Tibet who are intoxicated with the idea of beginning such a campaign focused on violence - in their view a "war of conscience", a Tibetan-style intifada.' With this in mind arms dealers are already moving in to try to supply Tibetans, according to Robbie Barnett of the Tibetan Information Network.
What if violence does erupt? If Tibetans had recourse to serious violence - as they did in 1959 - this would most likely provoke a heavy-handed Chinese response along the lines of the Tiananmen Square massacre. If the violence spilled outside Tibet this could impact on the internal stability of China itself. One of Beijing's worst-case scenarios is for serious disturbances in Tibet to spread to other minority areas such as Xinjiang, Inner Mongolia and the Muslim (Hui) areas in Gansu. This might help Tibet - but it might equally lead to an even tighter clampdown.
According to Goldstein the Tibetan leadership has three options: it can carry on campaigning for international support and wait in the hope that China disintegrates; it can encourage or organize violent opposition in Tibet, maybe forcing China to adopt a more conciliatory line; or it can compromise by sending Beijing a clear message that the Dalia Lama is prepared to scale down even further his political demands in order to preserve the ethnically homogenous Tibetan homeland.
Goldstein says that a possible compromise would leave the Chinese in control but would appoint Tibetans to all positions of power in Tibet, make Tibetan the official language and reduce the number of Chinese migrants.
It's hard to imagine either side agreeing to this. The Chinese have nothing to gain by it. And the Tibetans would find it hard to accept something that falls so far short of independence.
One of the problems facing those trying to resolve 'the Tibet issue' is that the status quo actually suits the international community very nicely. As long as Tibetans can be encouraged to maintain their non-violent stance and there is not much blood being openly spilled on the streets of Lhasa then governments can go on trading with China without too much protest from their own people.
Governments occasionally do their duty by mentioning human rights and China duly has a fit of pique but does nothing to change its ways. And that is that. It's by now a well-known ritual that does nothing to put in jeopardy trade links and access to the markets of the third-largest economy in the world. Boycotting Chinese goods or imposing trade restrictions could hit China where it hurts. But there is little inclination to do it. No-one really wants to say boo to the dragon too loudly.
The United Nations has been equally ineffectual. In 1959, 1961 and 1965 UN resolutions called for China to 'respect the human rights and freedoms of Tibetans'. Nothing changed. In March 1994 China persuaded the UN for the fourth year running to reject a modestly worded resolution criticizing its human-rights record. In the same year China avoided censure by only one vote at the annual meeting of the UN Human Rights Commission in Geneva.
Western legislators have often been ready to criticize China's policy in Tibet: the US Congress has passed many such resolutions, Australia's National Assembly did so in 1990 and the European Parliament has recently been adding an increasingly strong voice of complaint. But the words are not backed up by governmental action.
In 1993, for example, US President Clinton announced he would only renew China's Most Favoured Nation trading status if it cleaned up its human-rights record. At last, said supporters of Tibet. But Clinton turned out to be a paper tiger. A year later China had not improved its record and yet the status was renewed all the same.
Drops in the cup
So what can be done, apart from keeping up the pressure on politicians? Back in London I go and visit Phuntsok Wangyal, founder of the Tibet Foundation. A former resistance fighter who joined up at the age of 14, Phuntsok is well known for his strong views on independence.
But he wears quite a different hat at the Tibet Foundation. This non-political organization is doing things that can be done: small-scale development projects to improve the situation of Tibetans in Tibet, mainly in the areas of health, education, rural small business and pastoralism. To do these things they have to get the approval and co-operation of the Chinese. Is this, I ask, not akin to sleeping with the enemy?
'The Chinese know who I am and my personal views are unchanged. But I must not let that get in the way of working to improve the conditions of Tibetans. We have to deal with the Chinese. That is the reality.'
He firmly believes that the future lies with Tibetans inside Tibet, not with the exile community. And so the most important thing is to make sure those Tibetans are getting a good education and adequate healthcare. 'If they have these they will be better able to change the future circumstances of Tibetans.'
Some quite serious compromises have to be made. For example in the rural schools they are setting up for Tibetan children it is the Chinese version of history which has to be taught - the one that says Tibet is a part of China.
'We need not make everything political,' says Phuntsok. 'We must never forget the importance of educating our kids.'
Phuntsok's focused and specific approach is reflected in his views on bigger issues: like how to reach a settlement with China. 'What we need to do is ask ourselves - what is China afraid of? We know that when China is afraid it has to control everything. If we could allay some of those fears then maybe we could start getting somewhere with our negotiations.'
For example, China has always feared that if it did not occupy Tibet then India would. 'If there could be an assurance from India that this is not the case, it might help.'
Another fear is that China is going to run out of half the staple minerals essential to its economic growth within the next decade. 'Perhaps,' says Phuntsok, 'Tibet could commit itself to share some of its resources with China and to use Chinese rather than other foreign expertise to help extract them. This would be a way of protecting some of China's economic interests.'
This sounds like good sense. After all, it is economic rather than ideological interests that are keeping the Chinese in Tibet today. Though reducing Chinese migration to Tibet will be a harder issue to resolve.
On the issue of independence as the ultimate goal, however, Phuntsok remains as firm as ever.
'People have to have some hope - whether they achieve it or not. For example, I am a Buddhist and so enlightenment is my final objective. When I light a butter lamp, do prostrations, chant om mani padme hum, I am putting something into the cup that might in the end lead to the cup overflowing and enlightenment. I know that my attainment of enlightenment is unrealistic - yet I do it. It's a lot more unrealistic than the prospect of independence for Tibet. But it is very important to have an objective.'
In the course of researching and writing this issue of NI, time and again a wave of despair would wash over me. 'But it's hopeless,' I would say very quietly to myself. Phuntsok's approach is a powerful antidote to such despair. It's this kind of attitude which brought about the collapse of apartheid, the end of colonial rule in India and the restoration of democracy in Eastern Europe.
SUPPORT TIBET! GET IN TOUCH WITH ONE -
OR MORE - OF THE FOLLOWING GROUPS:
AOTEAROA/ NEW ZEALAND
Friends of Tibet PO Box 66002 Beachhaven, Auckland 10. Tel/fax: (09) 483 7275. www.friends-of-tibet.org.nz
Australian Tibet Council PO Box 1236, Potts Point, NSW 2011. Tel: (02) 9283 3466. Fax: (02) 9283 3846. www.atc.org.au
Amnesty International PO Box 1611, Broadway, NSW 2007. Tel: (02) 281 4188. www.amnesty.org.au
Tibet Support Group, 9 Islington Green, London NI 2XH. Tel: (0171) 359 7573. Fax: 354 1036. www.tibetsupport.org.uk
Tibet Foundation 1 St. James's Market, London SW1Y 4SB . Tel: (20) 7930 6001
Fax: (20) 7930 6002. www.tibet-foundation.org
ROKPA Trust, Samye Ling Tibetan Centre, Eskdalemuir, Langholm, Dumfriesshire, Scotland. Tel: (013873) 77323. Fax: 73223.
Canada Tibet Committee 4675 Coolbrook Avenue, Montreal, Quebec H3X 2K7. Tel: (514) 487 0665. Fax: 487 7825. www.tibet.ca
International Campaign for Tibet, 1825 K Street NW, Suite 520, Washington, DC 20006. Tel: (202) 785 1515. Fax: 785 4343. www.savetibet.org
The US Tibet Committee, 241 East 32nd St, NewYork NY 10016. Tel: (212) 213 5011. Fax: 779 9245. www.ustibet.org
SPECIAL THANKS to Tim Nunn and the Tibet Support Group UK for their help with this issue.
©Copyright: New Internationalist 1996
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