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A Lesson from Our Burmese Brothers and Sisters

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Wednesday, Sep 26, 2007
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“I extend my support and solidarity with the recent peaceful movement for democracy in Burma. I fully support their call for freedom and democracy and take this opportunity to appeal to freedom-loving people all over the world to support such non-violent movements.” —Statement by His Holiness the Dalai Lama, September 24, 2007

As one commentator noted, Tibet and Burma are linked in many ways. Our peoples and languages are related, and we share a deep faith in Buddhism and the misfortune of brutal dictatorship. Our revered leaders have both won Nobel Peace Prizes, but are exiled or imprisoned. Our countries also both saw widespread protests in the late 1980s, which our respective regimes crushed violently.

With all these connections, it is clear that when something huge is happening in one country, the people of the other country should watch carefully. Right now, the massive protests in Burma hold a lesson for the people of Tibet – if we choose to listen.

What Is Happening in Burma?

Massive nonviolent demonstrations, led by Buddhist monks with the support of the people, are posing the most serious challenge to the Burmese military regime since the 1988 protests almost toppled the dictatorship

According to media reports, “As many as 100,000 protesters led by a phalanx of barefoot monks marched Monday through Yangon, the most powerful show of strength yet from a movement that has grown in a week from faltering demonstrations to one rivaling the failed 1988 pro-democracy uprising.”

These Burmese protests started about a month ago as a series of small demonstrations against the surge in government-set fuel prices, and quickly evolved into pro-democracy protests. The government arrested the leaders, and sent plainclothes thugs to beat up the protesters. More small protests kept popping up, thanks to information and images spread over mobile phones and the internet, in a way that was technologically impossible in 1988.

A major turning point occurred when three monks were injured at a demonstration in a small city called Pakokku on September 5. Monks in Pakokku briefly took government officials hostage and demanded the government’s apology.

When the government didn’t apologize, an increasingly large number of monks began demonstrating across the country. Tens of thousands of monks are now involved, loosely organized by a group of younger monks called the Alliance of All Burmese Buddhist Monks (the senior monastic leadership is seen as more cautious). The opposition National League for Democracy is linking forces with the monks, in what some people are saying is the “perfect storm.”

The Burmese government is in a bind. Monks are so revered that any crackdown on the clergy risks sparking an even larger confrontation with the people. In fact, lay people have recently taken to protecting the demonstrating monks by linking hands to form a human chain, blocking the military from getting close.

Most interestingly, the Associated Press reports that Burma’s “military rulers were showing the unexpected restraint because of pressure from the country’s key trading partner and diplomatic ally, China.” Why? Because of the 2008 Olympics.

“‘[Burma] is tolerating the protesters and not taking any action against the monks because of pressure from China,’ the diplomat told The Associated Press. ‘Beijing is to host the next summer’s Olympic Games. Everyone knows that China is the major supporter of the junta so if government takes any action it will affect the image of China.’” (China also doesn’t want a massacre interfering with its Burmese oil and infrastructure interests.)

These brave Burmese, although their timing is probably unintentional, are leveraging the unique window presented by the Beijing Olympics to challenge their repressive government in a way they could never do before. With the Olympic spotlight on China, the Burmese government’s protectors in Beijing are constrained. China simply cannot afford to have a massacre on its hands ten months before one of the most important international events in the history of the People’s Republic of China.

What Are The Lessons For Tibet?

There are four lessons relevant to anyone who cares about Tibet.

FIRST, the airing of economic grievances (in Burma, fuel prices) can quickly spiral when there is deep underlying resentment or unhappiness. The 1993 Lhasa demonstration (and the 1989 Tiananmen Square demonstration) started out partly as anti-inflation protests.

In Tibet today, especially around Lhasa, the massive and unprecedented influx of Chinese caused by the railroad is increasing economic tensions. The Chinese settlers are seen as taking jobs from Tibetans, and people blame the newcomers for rising crime rates. The surging population is also causing the price of food and other basic necessities to skyrocket.

All of this is creating a direct threat to Tibetan livelihoods. This compounds people’s deep, underlying unhappiness at Chinese rule and attacks on His Holiness. To say nothing of people’s despair at Order Number Five’s control over all Tibetan Buddhist reincarnations. Despite the air of normality, things in Tibet could get out of hand much faster than some of us realize.

SECOND, communication technology is far better today than in the 1980s. People are able to spread information and photos much more easily, even when a repressive government taps phones and censors the internet. Key factors in recent successful pro-democracy movements, such as in Serbia and Ukraine, have been information, inspiration, and coordination. These allowed demonstrations to grow, and also constrained the governments’ ability to crack down because the whole world would witness the violence in real-time.

China obviously tries to control phones, internet, newspapers, and radio in Tibet. But this control is not absolute, and in fact it is weaker than ever before. Even in a remote area of Kham, information and photos about Runngye Adak trickled out. If something similar happened in Lhasa, hypothetically, it would have a far, far larger impact.

THIRD, when the revered monastic community joins hands with lay people, together they are much more of a threat to the repressive government. This is something that Tibetans know well, but it is a useful reminder of our own history.

FOURTH, because of the 2008 Olympics, the People’s Republic of China is more constrained than at any time in its history. Even more so than when Gorbachev’s historic visit to Beijing gave the Tiananmen Square protests the space to grow large enough to almost bring down the Chinese Communist Party.

Obviously, the one thing the Chinese government will not willingly tolerate is a direct challenge to its rule. The Chinese government is not threatened by Burmese protesters in the same way that it would be by protests in Beijing or Lhasa.

Our hypothetical question is, if there were protests in Lhasa now, would the Chinese government hesitate in cracking down? It hesitated in Tiananmen Square, and it is forcing the Burmese government to do so now. Exactly how would China weigh the incalculable damage that a violent crackdown would have on its cherished Olympics, whose importance to the government cannot be underestimated? Would this hesitation be enough to allow a few small protests to spiral into a popular challenge to Chinese rule over Tibet?

By no means is this article meant to incite protests in Tibet. The decision to protest can only be made by Tibetans in Tibet who must face the brutal consequences of speaking out against Chinese rule. We on the outside do not have the right to sit comfortably on the sidelines and ask our countrymen and -women to put their lives on the line. And even if we did, why should they listen to us?

But we do have the right – indeed the obligation – to raise the level of discussion and debate amongst Tibetans both outside and inside of Tibet about strategy, timing, and consequences. Particularly with the lessons being learned right now from our fellow Buddhist freedom fighters in Burma, whom His Holiness supports.

Ultimately, unless the increasingly hopeless “dialogue” between Dharamsala and Beijing leads anywhere (for which we should not hold our collective breath), what we fundamentally need are viable alternative plans. And for this, Tibetans should take a broad perspective and look to the world around us. We have a unique window of opportunity available to us right now that has never existed before and will not come again. All of us – inside and outside Tibet – should take lessons and inspiration from the brave Burmese people, who remind us that faith and freedom, can and must challenge violence and dictatorship.

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