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2008: Tremor on the Roof of the World

Tuesday, Apr 1, 2008
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The repression of the recent demonstrations in Tibet has shocked international public opinion. Thousands of Tibetans took to the streets, first in Lhasa, then in other towns, waving the Tibetan national flag and chanting slogans demanding independence. They represent a clear rejection of 60 years of Chinese domination.

However, the presence of monks among the movement’s leaders has prompted questions about the real nature of the uprising, often described as a “Buddhist revolt”. Despite the brutality of police counter-measures, the unusual violence of many demonstrators has also blurred the image of a reputedly non-violent struggle. Rioters have targeted some Chinese and Hui Muslim civilians, suggesting the revolt may have ethnic or religious motives.

Symbolically the demonstrations started on 10March, the anniversary of the 1959 uprising in Lhasa against Chinese intervention. The repression of this popular movement precipitated the flight of the Dalai Lama and his government to India.

The Buddhist religion is an integral part of Tibet’s identity but hostility to China now dominates nationalist sentiment. Though the majority of the population seems resigned, hatred of China is finding more virulent outlets. Beijing may accuse the Dalai Lama of being the main troublemaker, but a new generation is emerging over which the nation’s spiritual leader has less influence.

As China has strengthened its hold on the country, with a steadily increasing influx of settlers, Tibetans have been gradually sidelined. Development has not delivered its promised benefits and economic investment, largely colonialist in its aims, has failed to appease discontent exacerbated by persistent nationalism.

The violence that disfigured the “Chinese Lhasa” is not typical of the independence movement as a whole. Protests have brought together secular and religious elements, the latter brandishing portraits of the Dalai Lama as well as the Tibetan flag. Seen by his supporters as an exiled head of state, the spiritual guide has lost none of his authority, enjoying widespread recognition in and outside Tibet, even if some militants are advocating more direct action. He is still the cement of national unity. In their way even the Chinese authorities acknowledge his importance. As the Tibet Communist Party leader, Zhang Qingli, put it: “We are in the midst of a life-and-death struggle with the Dalai clique.”

The attitude of Tibetans living abroad to the Dalai Lama and the issue of independence is more complex. Independence has been a taboo ever since their leader officially abandoned the idea and confirmed his policy of openness and dialogue with Beijing. In October 2002 he explicitly appealed to militants to refrain from any form of anti-Chinese demonstration in public all over the world, in order to create a propitious atmosphere for dialogue. The call for restraint left many militants confused and discouraged.

Until the outbreak of the recent unrest, China seemed to have achieved its ends, no longer the target of public criticism and credited with new respectability on account of its “goodwill”. Meanwhile, in the political arena, it arrogantly dismissed demands for autonomy. The Tibetan independence movement has played on this behaviour, though it seems in some doubt as to what to do next.

Among those in exile there is no unified movement pulling together the various organisations advocating independence. None of them has managed to set out new proposals, replacing or complementing the line adopted by the government in exile. Most pro-independence campaigning inside Tibet is the work of isolated individuals or spontaneous, unpredictable gatherings without any clearly formulated strategy or goal.

The media build-up to the Olympic Games in Beijing offered a unique opportunity to denounce Chinese hegemony to the world. In India the five main pro-independence organisations joined forces to organise a march back into Tibet, setting out on 10March. The Indian authorities promptly banned the operation, triggering the departure of another wave of marchers. Demonstrations started in Lhasa at the same time, gathering strength and spreading to other towns in Tibet and other provinces once occupied by Tibetans, which has not happened before. But though the movement has achieved a certain popular and militant synergy, it lacks political direction and visibility, raising the larger question of how Tibetans are represented and what means are available for them to express demands.

Most Tibetans still living in their home country see the government in exile as a legitimate entity, because it is consistent with the principle of the Dalai Lama’s sovereignty and rule. But they are wary of the government, blamed for not finding a solution to their present predicament and giving up the goal of independence. This disaffection spares the Dalai Lama himself.

However a distinction needs to be made between the government’s diplomatic efforts and the work of the Tibetan parliament in exile as a representative body. The parliament is supposed to represent the Tibetan people in its entirety, at home and abroad, if only symbolically due to the impossibility of organising a vote in Tibet. Its only real electorate is the exiled community in India and Nepal, organised according to the three regions that traditionally formed Tibet. The five Buddhist schools also have their representatives, as do expatriates living in Europe and North America. The complex overlapping of constituencies does not make it any easier to determine quite what the parliament stands for.

The root problem is the Tibetans’ inability to institute proper political debate. The parliament operates without parties. The draft constitution does not condemn this. It simply does not refer to it, despite reforms on the separation of executive, legislative and judicial powers, voting rights, and the election of MPs and the prime minister by universal suffrage. But setting up democratic institutions is not enough to achieve democracy, particularly without parties to defend contrasting political ideals or goals. It is immediately obvious that there is no way of voicing the underlying split between advocates of independence, and those in favour of autonomy. At the last general election, in exile, in March 2006, some MPs backed independence, but they have made no attempt since to put their commitment into practice. Of course it is difficult to oppose openly the views of the Dalai Lama.

There is little chance of political parties being formed in the near future, even if an increasing number of MPs now support independence, with talk of a pressure group on the sidelines of the parliament. The present situation – the precarious condition of refugees, the limited tolerance India can afford as their host, pressure from foreign governments not to upset the status quo, and Chinese reprisals targeting Tibetans at home – leaves the pro-independence section very little room for manoeuvre.

So the country may be on the brink of an uprising but it lacks the political direction and voice without which the Lhasa spring will never bear fruit. 


(Le Monde diplomatique, avril 2008)

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