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Truth and a Thousand Raised fists

Saturday, Nov 22, 2003
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In rallying international support for the Tibetan cause, His Holiness the Dalai Lama has often said that he believes eventually the cause will bear fruit and be successful because the Tibetan people “have truth on their side.” It is a beautiful statement – reminiscent of Reverend Doctor King’s famous quote: “I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality.” However, the fundamental premise of the statement deserves some examination, especially insofar as it relates to the current struggle for Tibetan rights and statehood.

It is certainly the case that from any objective point of view the Tibetan cause is indeed “right”— it would be difficult if not impossible to morally justify the Chinese invasion and subsequent occupation of Tibet, though certain apologist scholars have tried.  However, to assume that the inherent ‘correctness’ of the Tibetan cause will eventually lead to some form of victory is something of a logical leap.

Many cultures throughout history have had truth on their side — ‘truth’ in this case meaning an ethical or spiritual or philosophical base that on some larger moral scale made them more ‘right’ than their neighbors. And many of these cultures ended up completely demolished by those same neighbors, simply because the neighbors had bigger guns.

The Moriori tribe of the Chatham Islands, for instance, were certainly more pleasant folk than their warlike Maori cousins 500 miles to the west. They were pastoralists, shared their resources, and had a tradition of resolving disputes peacefully. This ‘correctness’ didn’t seem to matter much to the Maori, however. When an army of gun and axe-wielding Maori invaded in 1835 they slaughtered, cooked, and ate thousands of Moriori, enslaved the survivors, and over the next several years systematically whittled the Moriori population down to zero.

If history is any judge, a society’s ethical or moral fabric has little to do with its success and longevity — or even its lasting contributions to global culture. The Egyptians sustained an empire for 3,000 years based on the blood sweat and tears of the masses. Ancient Rome was a terribly brutal society, yet many of its innovations form the foundation of our modern world. The 13th century Mongols were arguably the most effective fighting force the world has ever seen. They didn’t win because they had truth on their side; they won because they had a fearsome cavalry and composite bows with a range of 300 yards.

It’s a simple concept but it bears repeating: just because you’re right doesn’t mean you win. It takes a lot more than having the right viewpoint or the right angle. It takes action.

That is, of course, if you’re actually trying to win something. And there’s the rub

At the recent international Tibet Support Group conference in Prague, Venerable Samdhong Rinpoche gave a speech on the Gandhian concept of Satyagraha in which he invoked the word “truth” with regularity. The Government in Exile’s Middle Path approach, according to Rinpoche, is based on strict adherence to the guiding principle of truth. He also said that for the Satyagrahi there is no victory and no battle, and no struggle against a foe. The Satyagrahi is steadfast in his or her pursuit of truth. And in being a living example of truth, the Satyagrahi changes the heart of the adversary.

Rinpoche didn’t have much time to deliver his speech, so he couldn’t get in to exactly how this alchemical process takes place, but it was certainly clear that in pursuing the Middle Path approach with the Chinese government, the Tibetan Government in Exile has essentially adopted a policy of non-confrontation based on Buddhist principles. In other words, the TGIE is not seeking to ‘win’ anything, but rather to come to a mutually beneficial agreement with the Chinese leadership.

In a world that seems increasingly devoid of any type of ethical foundation, it is certainly admirable that the Government in Exile is basing its governmental policies on moral and ethical principles. However, in the day to day reality of the Tibetan rights movement, it becomes somewhat problematic because, in fact, the majority of Tibetans in Exile are trying to win something. Their struggle is a struggle specifically for statehood, and not necessarily for larger ethical principles. And I would hazard an educated inji guess that for most Tibetans, changing the hearts of the Chinese leaders is not foremost on their agenda.

Also, relying on truth alone to create change among the Chinese leadership may prove to be a tricky proposition. First of all, it assumes that Power cares one bit about truth. The Chinese leadership live in a world in which political power ‘grows from the barrel of a gun’ and truth is not some lofty ethical concept but rather a creation of the Ministry of Propaganda. The idea that eventually the Chinese will have to come to the negotiating table because, essentially, “we’re right,” is a sketchy one at best; as is the notion that the hearts of the Chinese leaders — the same people who have no qualms about executing 4,000 of their own citizens per year — will be changed by philosophical revelation or with a few friendly handshakes and warm Tibetan smiles.

If the historical record is any indication, the Chinese government — like most governments who have faced nonviolent resistance movements — will come to the negotiating table only when they are forced to — when international outrage over the Tibet issue is such that they can’t afford not to negotiate. Such was the case with the Apartheid movement, the Civil Rights movement, and, of course, with the movement for Indian independence under the leadership of Mahatmi Gandhi.

Gandhi, who wrote at length on concepts of Satyagraha and truth, was an extremely confrontational activist, whose ‘truth’ ruffled more than a few feathers. When asked about the term ‘Passive resistance’ Gandhi replied: “I’ve never advocated anything passive in my life.” In other words, he didn’t free India by being nice. And the British did not withdraw from India simply because they had a change of heart. They did so because Gandhi made India absolutely ungovernable for the British through sustained, concerted, nonviolent direct action. Yes, he adhered to principles of truth. He also waged consumer boycotts and hunger strikes and marched people headlong into cavalry charges.  His truth was accompanied… by a thousand raised fists.

Gandhi-ji — whom members of the Tibetan Government in Exile quote and reference fairly regularly in their writings and speeches — was not an advocate of any type of Middle Path approach. His attitude to the British was simple: “The British government in India has not only deprived the Indian people of their freedom but has based itself on the exploitation of the masses, and has ruined India economically, politically, culturally and spiritually … Therefore … India must sever the British connection and attain Purna Swaraj or complete independence.

Under Gandhi’s leadership in the 1930s, over 60,000 Satyagrahis committed acts of nonviolent resistance and were sent to prison. Inspired by the writings of Henry David Thoreau, Gandhi directly advocated civil disobedience and openly encouraged people to break unjust laws. The Satyagrahis under Gandhi may have acted with the higher purpose of ‘truth’, but they were also — quite simply — rabble-rousers.

Martin Luther King, at that time a young Reverend just out of school, took direct note of Gandhi’s accomplishments. He visited India and shortly thereafter wrote: “nonviolent resistance is the most potent weapon available to oppressed people in their struggle for freedom.” (Note the use of the word ‘weapon’). He went on to train people in how to face police dogs, billy clubs, and fire hoses with nonviolent tactics. He, like Gandhi, was an expert in staging events that provoked police violence, in order to raise the public’s indignation at an inherently unjust situation.

Dr. King identified four pillars of nonviolent resistance. The fourth — and absolutely essential — pillar, was direct action. King wrote: “Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such crises and establish such creative tension that a community that has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue.” Words like ‘force’ and ‘confront’ are common to King, Gandhi, and Thoreau’s writings on nonviolent resistance. In fact no nonviolent struggle — be it in Peru, or El Salvador, or Seattle — has ever succeeded without direct confrontation.

Religious leaders in particular have a long history of direct confrontation. Many of the Buddha’s actions were extremely unpopular during his time — allowing women to join the religious order and questioning the fundamental basis of the caste system was a direct affront to the corrupt Brahmanical system of ancient India. Jesus Christ’s challenge of the social and religious establishment led to his crucifixion. Martin Luther’s ‘protest’ spawned a rift in the most powerful institution in the world. Reverend Doctor King broke laws and did time in prison. These people were activists, who literally changed the course of history with their unpopular, confrontational views.

His Holiness the Dalai Lama has obviously chosen a slightly different path — and his adherence to principles of universal compassion, justice, and truth have definitely been a large part of why the Tibetan cause has gained so much support worldwide. Leaders who ordinarily would never have taken a political stand on Central Asian politics have embraced the Tibetan cause because of the tireless efforts of His Holiness. The result is that Tibet has a great number of allies around the world—thousands of citizens who desire to help, and government officials who are more than willing to sign Tibet-related resolutions, make public statements, and even bring up the Tibet issue in closed door meetings with Chinese officials. This support cannot be underestimated, but without the fourth pillar of direct action it does not make a complete nonviolent movement.

Around the world there are causes with far less global support than the Tibet movement that have been incredibly effective in achieving their goals because of their willingness to be confrontational, to take risks, and to ask – with no holds barred – for what they want. In many places — from Ogoniland to U’wa country — resistance movements are led or at least fueled by very visible uprisings from within — a luxury the Tibetans inside Tibet don’t have because of the extreme level of state control exerted by the Chinese government. The Burma movement, for example, has gained much international attention because pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi has voluntarily chosen exile and house arrest in her own land.

For various reasons, the Tibet movement does not enjoy such scenarios – and of course is faced with a very formidable adversary. But far from having truth as its ‘only weapon’, the Tibet movement actually has a very large arsenal that gives it the potential to be one of the most powerful and successful nonviolent movements in history. The Tibet movement boasts a formidable force of over 100,000 Tibetans in exile, many of whom are young and energetic and ready to protest. The Tibet movement also has the active participation of hundreds of Tibet Support Groups and student groups in over 100 countries around the world. The movement has access to the skillsets, knowledge, and resources of some of the most prominent nonviolent activists in the world, and most of all, the movement can draw on an incredibly rich cultural history of resistance to the Chinese, both violent and nonviolent.

With this as background, the Tibet movement, through its campaigns and constant pressuring has already created real leverage with the Chinese government. When Chinese government documents bemoan the effectiveness of the Tibetan resistance movement, they speak not only of His Holiness’ public talks and his visits with world leaders, but also of the boycotts, demonstrations, and mass actions of the TSG movement at large. Campaigns like the World Bank, PetroChina, and the Beijing Olympics are singled out as being particular annoyances for Chinese leaders, as is the constant heckling that Jiang Zemin, Zhu Rongji, and Hu Jintao face whenever they travel abroad.

The message to be gleaned from this — and from the fact that the Chinese leadership is showing concrete interest in dialogue for the first time in nearly fifteen years — is that the nonviolent direct action employed by TSGs is working, and that an essential piece — in fact the essential piece of changing the situation in Tibet is continued, concerted nonviolent resistance.

The Chinese government will not come to the negotiating table out of whim or fancy. It is doubtful they will come based solely on international diplomacy or closed door contact. On the contrary, Beijing will agree to negotiate a solution to the Tibet issue based on what they perceive the consequences to be if they don’t. If there is no leverage, if there are no perceived consequences, then no solution will be granted — at least no meaningful one. The Chinese government is well aware that the vast majority of Tibetans in Exile are in favor of Tibetan independence and that this group, were it ever allowed to return to Tibet, could pose a serious problem to internal stability. Therefore the Chinese leadership will not loosen their grip on Tibet in the slightest — even to grant His Holiness’s vision of genuine autonomy — and risk losing the country altogether unless they absolutely know that the alternative is worse. That the humiliation and financial burden and international outcry they will face will be so great that they are even willing to risk losing their precious ‘one China’ to avoid it.

The sad truth — which both Gandhi and King wrote about at length — is that power does not budge unless it is forced to. No global struggle for rights — violent or nonviolent — has been solved simply by saying the right things, or having the right angle at the right time, or by being accommodating and friendly to the right people. The Russian revolution, one of the most shocking, improbable revolutions of all time given the odds, succeeded simply because there were enough people who were fed up and were willing to risk it all.  Truth certainly helps, but it is not a prerequisite. All you really need is enough people to get it done.

And the Tibet movement has enough people — hundreds of thousands of people, in fact. Would the Chinese government be able to withstand the international crisis that would be created by a thousand dedicated young Tibetans marching, Gandhian-style, across the Tibetan border with the eyes of the world fixed upon them? If a popular uprising similar to the 1987 demonstrations were to erupt in Lhasa tomorrow, would the Chinese be able to get away with the same brutal repression they did 16 years ago? Will Beijing be able to sustain their standard, air-tight lockdown of freedoms during the Olympic Games in 2008? The times have changed for the Chinese government. As merciless as their repression continues to be, they cannot hide their abuses the way they used to. The same level of media secrecy simply does not exist. Support for Tibet is greater than ever around the world. And we are this close. The time is ripe for nonviolent action. Now, more than ever.

And as for truth having the final word in reality, who can say? If Doctor King was right and we do live in a moral universe then doubtlessly those who have truth on their side will eventually be rewarded. If he was right, then Tibetans can look forward to reaping the benefits of their moral high ground at some point in the not too distant future. But we certainly cannot assume this to be the case. Relying on a provident universe to take care of our hopes and desires and dreams is somewhat irresponsible, especially when lives are at stake. Instead, the future must be forged by the actions of individual people. A Free Tibet must be created by all of us. And it is imminently possible.

At the TSG conference in Prague — the capital of a nation whose communist nightmare came crashing down thanks to the concerted efforts of a united people — one of the conference organizers said in a closing statement: “dreams of freedom do come true, with surprising quickness…”

All it takes is action. Truth, yes… and a thousand raised fists.

Tibet will be Free.

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