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Was It Violence?

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Monday, Apr 21, 2008
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LhasaPoilce_01

It was unfortunate that when the protests started in Lhasa last month His Holiness made a statement threatening to resign because of “violence committed by Tibetans in his homeland” (AP). I don’t want to subject His Holiness’s use of the word “violence” to any kind of semantic scrutiny, in the manner of William Safire in the New York Times Magazine, but in a world raging with extreme political violence of the most appalling kind, it might not be out of place to offer a respectful suggestion to His Holiness and other Tibetan leaders that they should be careful (to a necessary obsessive degree) that their statements do not provide any kind of opportunity for Beijing (or its apologists in the West) to misrepresent what really happened or cast doubts on the essential righteousness of the Tibetan cause. His Holiness’s threat to resign also made it appear then that Tibetans in Lhasa had done something quite dreadful.

We can create a perspective correction of the events if we re-evaluate the meaning of “violence” in the context of real political conflicts taking place around the world at the time of the Lhasa protests. That same week in Iraq a female suicide bomber killed 40 and wounded 65 in Karbala. A week earlier two bombs in Baghdad’s Karrada district killed 62 and wounded 120. Two weeks earlier a suicide bomber killed 63 pilgrims and wounded scores in Iskandariya. A month earlier two female suicide bombers killed 72 at a Baghdad market. In early March Hamas was firing Qassam rockets into Israel and a week or two later Israel staged a deadly ground military operation in northern Gaza Strip, leaving around 130 Palestinians killed.

We know that in Lhasa some Chinese were beaten up in the first few days of the protests. A few quite badly. Shops were torched. There was no real looting, in the sense of stealing, for we have reports that the protesters pulled out goods from the shops, piled them in the streets and set them alight. It was a political statement. The worst thing that happened was the death of four young women, three Chinese and a Tibetan who were hiding inside a shop when it was torched. As terrible as this was, I think we can be fairly certain that no one intended to kill these young women. Official Chinese reports state that fourteen people were killed and China’s propagandists have used these deaths to whip up anti-Tibetan feelings among Chinese worldwide.

There was more than justifiable provocation for the Tibetan outburst, which occurred because monks, who a couple of days earlier had been conducting a peaceful demonstration, were beaten, arrested, (and according to some sources even killed) by Chinese security. When Mahatma Gandhi launched his non-cooperation movement in February 1922, shooting by police in Chauri Chaura in UP, resulted in satyagrahis attacking and burning a police station causing the death of 23 policemen. Gandhi called off the action and he blamed himself for not having prepared his people better. No serious student of Indian history regards this as Gandhi’s personal failure or the collapse or betrayal of the non-violent movement. When one is shaking the foundations of an empire, even in an avowedly non-violent way, as Gandhi did eighty years ago and Tibetans are doing right now, it would be unrealistic not to expect an untoward incident or two.

Tibetan protesters in Tibet have not had any training or education in non-violent activism as had Gandhi’s followers or civil rights activists in the American south in the sixties. Tibetan protesters had not even received some minimal direction from a central leadership. It was all individual initiative and courage. Considering this, the overall resolution and restraint of the protesters is movingly impressive. Yet it is important that Tibetans take a wider global and even historical view of their struggle. A discussion is urgently needed on how much Gandhi’s example and teachings on non-violence have influenced the Tibetan freedom movement. And if it hasn’t done so, how we can bring such a thing about. But I will save that discussion for a future blog.

Overall, the protests throughout Tibet have been as non-violent as one can seriously expect. Chinese reprisals have been swift and brutal. According to the TGIE over 150 Tibetans have been shot and many hundreds even thousands arrested. People are now living in absolute terror of Chinese Security raids and reprisals. So what does some incident of rock throwing or a punch-up or two tell us? Just that Tibetans are a peaceful people still, but that they are also human. That’s all there is to it.

Report of “violent protests” in Tibet have provided an opening to certain self-proclaimed “concerned but objective” types to segue their views into the hot topic of “Tibet Protests and the Beijing Olympics” and allowed them an opportunity to disparage the effort of Tibetan protesters and supporters, and cast doubts on the issue of Tibetan independence. My attention was drawn to this by a comment on my blog by “Rich” who mentioned his “dealing with so many China scholars and China-minded businessmen and politicians over the years, who even while often claiming to have sympathy for Tibet continue to undermine and oppose active struggle for Tibet’s freedom.” Another comment by “Jessica” referred me to an article by “Andrew Fischer” in the Guardian, which appears to have caused unnecessary misgivings and second-guessing among Tibet supporters in Britain. In similar vein there is Patrick French’s recent op-ed in the New York Times.

I would like to discuss this unusual counteraction to the Tibet protests in some depth, in a follow-up blog. If readers feel there is anyone or any particular article or op-ed that I should include in the coming discussion, do post a comment. Thanks.

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