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Igniting the Embers of Independence

Saturday, Oct 15, 2011


In mid-December last year, Mohamed Bouazizi, a humble Tunisian street-vendor of fruits and vegetables, set himself on fire to protest the confiscation of his produce and the daily harassment and humiliation inflicted on him by police and local officials. His act set of demonstrations and riots throughout Tunisia which intensified following Bouazizi’s death on January 4, leading the authoritarian regime and its leader to flee the country after 23 years of repressive and corrupt rule.

This and the events that followed, called the “Jasmine Revolution” or the “Arab Spring”, resulted in a peaceful revolution in Egypt, an armed uprising in Libya (resulting in the fall of its dictator), civil uprisings in Bahrain, Syria, and Yemen, and protests in Israel, Algeria, Iraq, Jordan, Morocco, Oman and elsewhere, that have yet to run their courses.

Just this year, in Tibet, starting twelve days after the death of Mohamed Bouazizi, we have had eight self-immolations – so far. And there are unsettling rumors of more to come. The latest happened after I had actually finished writing this post and late last night was doing some rewrites before forwarding it to other blog-sites and web-journals. This gave me the opportunity to put in the necessary addition – but the immediacy of it was unsettling. On October 15, 11.50 local time, a former monk of Kirti monastery Norbu Damdul set himself on fire in the central town of Ngaba. “Engulfed in flames, Norbu Damdul raised slogans demanding ‘Complete Independence for Tibet’ and ‘Return of His Holiness the Dalai Lama to Tibet’”.

Two self-immolations took place a week ago, on October 7th “At around 11.30 am Tibet time today, Choephel age 19 and Khayang 18, monks of Kirti monastery, set themselves ablaze in the central town of Ngaba district”. “Eyewitnesses have told sources in exile that as they were engulfed in flames they called for Tibetans to unite and rise up against the Chinese regime and raised slogans for Tibet’s freedom and the return of the Dalai Lama from exile.”

Three days before that, on October 3 at around 2 pm local time, a very young novice monk “Kesang Wangchuk walked out onto the main street of Ngaba town holding a photo of the Dalai Lama and shouting slogans protesting Chinese rule over Tibet. He then set himself ablaze.”

Last month, on September 26, two teenage monks of Kirti Monastery, Lobsang Kalsang, and Lobsang Kunchok, both around 18 years of age “set themselves on fire in an anti-China protest in the central town of Ngaba. Their whereabouts and condition are not yet known.”

The month before, on August 18, in A Tibetan monk, 29-year old Tsewang Norbu, a monk from Nyitso monastery in Tawu, died after setting fire to himself and calling for “freedom of worship, freedom and independence for Tibet, and the return of the Dalai Lama to Tibet”.

At the beginning of this year on March 16, afternoon, Phuntsog, a 16-year-old monk at Kirti monastery set himself on fire.

Readers should be reminded that two years earlier in February 27, 2009, A Kirti monk called Tapey was shot by police when he set himself on fire on. The police immediately took him away. He is said to have survived but his whereabouts are unknown.

All reports and comments in the exile Tibetan world have stressed the “tragic”, “terrible” “heartbreaking” and “desperate” aspects of these actions. Calls for international condemnation and UN intervention have been made by various political and activist organizations as well as foreign support groups. A number of demonstrations, vigils and hunger-strikes have taken place. Some concerns have been expressed that more self-immolations could happen and that a way to prevent or at least discourage such actions should be sought.

All these statements and acts of concern and support have been tremendous, and in fact such responses are crucial to make the world take notice of what is happening in Tibet. They only become somewhat misguided, even unconsciously condescending, if supporters fail to overcome their first natural reaction of dismay and horror, and are unable to view the sacrifices of the monks in the way that those young men wanted them to be seen: as calls to action for the cause of a free and independent Tibet. It is also counterproductive if the actions of these young men are misinterpreted as merely a call for human rights, religious freedom or even “autonomy” within the PRC as has been most bizarrely reported in the British paper, The Independent.

There can be no doubt that the men acted not out of despair, not because they could not go on living any longer, and not because they thought it was all over for the Tibetan freedom struggle. The reports on the immolations have been sketchy but what is clear is that they are all clear acts of political protest against Chinese rule in Tibet, with slogans calling for “Tibetan freedom and independence” (bhod rawang-rangzen) for Tibet and the return of the Dalai Lama to Tibet. The last demand must also be understood in its proper historical and political context, since the Dalai Lama has always been regarded, first and foremost, as the sovereign ruler of independent Tibet, not only by those who acknowledge him as their spiritual leader, but by Tibetans from other Buddhist sects, by Bonpos, Tibetan Muslims and Christians who have their own distinct spiritual leaders.

It is more than likely that the young men were inspired, as were nearly everyone in the Tibetan world then, by the sacrifice of Thupten Ngodup, former paratrooper and one of the liberators of Bangladesh, who set himself on fire in April 1998. He did it stone cold. He was fit and healthy, of cheerful disposition, with no money problems, and living in a free country, in a small meditation hut surrounded by flowers. But he did it for bhod rawang-rangzen, for Tibetan freedom and independence.

The eight young men must also have heard or read of Mohammed Buazizi, especially after Chinese bloggers and activists, at the beginning of this year, spread the news of the Arab Spring throughout the PRC and began calling on the Chinese people to start their own Jasmine Revolution. Fifteen foreign journalists were arrested on 6th March, in “the biggest showdown between Chinese authorities and foreign media in more than two decades.” This call for revolution spread to about thirteen cities (as well as Hong Kong and Taiwan) and definitely alarmed China’s leaders. The Atlantic quoted Hilary Clinton: “They’re worried, and they are trying to stop history, which is a fool’s errand. They cannot do it. But they’re going to hold it off as long as possible.” The New York Times reported that Beijing police had banned the sale of jasmine flowers at various flower markets, causing wholesale prices to collapse. Subsequently thirty-five prominent human rights activists were arrested, the highest-profile arrest being that of the courageous and protean artist Ai Weiwei.

The self-immolations of the eight young monks were revolutionary acts of ultimate sacrifice to rouse the Tibetan people to action, in much the way as Mohammed Buazizi’s self-immolation, woke up the oppressed people of the Middle East from many many decades of fear, apathy, cynicism and weariness – and goaded them to overthrow their dictators, supreme leaders and presidents-for-life.

A New Leadership

These revolutionary acts taking place in Tibet this year, and from 2008 onwards, seem to indicate that the direction of the Tibetan struggle is now definitely coming from inside Tibet. I mean the “direction” of the freedom struggle, not the leadership of the refugee community for which there is now a non-governmental administration to replace the earlier Tibetan government in exile – probably the longest running-exile government of the Cold War period, in a manner of speaking, while it existed.

Exile governments in the Cold War era have had a fairly dismal record of returning to liberate the countries they had earlier been forced to flee, even when most of these governments were recognized and supported by such great powers as USA and Britain. Poland maintained an exile government in London during World War II and later the Soviet occupation, but it was only the long civil resistance movement of Solidarność (Solidarity), the independent trade-union movement within Poland that freed the country from the Soviet yoke in 1990.

The Czechs also had an exile government in London during the war, which returned to Czechoslovakia in 1945, but the country was effectively absorbed into the Soviet block, especially after ‘68 when Russian tanks rolled into Prague. Czechoslovakia only became free in December 1989, entirely through the efforts and sacrifice of the Czech people in Czechoslovakia through the “Velvet Revolution” (sametová revoluce).

Even under Soviet occupation the Baltic States managed to retain a few independent diplomatic representatives in Europe. Lithuania had consulates in Chicago and Rome, while the Latvian Diplomatic Service maintained representation for independent Latvia in their offices in New York and London. Only Estonia had an exile government in Sweden from 1953 to 1992 (and a consulate in New York). But freedom came to the Baltic states entirely through indigenous campaigns of civil resistance in the late 1980s, one being “The Singing Revolution.” A documentary film (now on DVD) with that title was released in 2007 and is required viewing for all Tibetan activists. The most spectacular (literally) and best-known of these campaigns was the “Baltic Chain” (or the Chain of Freedom) a peaceful political demonstration that occurred on August 23, 1989. Approximately two million people joined hands to form a human chain spanning over 600 kilometers across the three Baltic states. Such symbolic yet powerful actions not only brought about the freedom of these ancient nations but directly contributed to the dissolution of the Soviet Union.

What is striking about all these successful revolutions is that exile governments in no way brought about, or even seem to have contributed to, the civil uprisings that eventually liberated these countries. Freedom came to the people of these occupied nations through their own effort, courage and sacrifice. Of course, these struggles benefited from the major geopolitical shifts that occurred throughout the world in the eighties and nineties.

I’m dredging up these accounts of freedom struggles and exile governments, since our own Tibetan government-in-exile pulled the plug on itself this summer. Many acquaintances of mine, former officials and Rangzen activists were deeply shocked and troubled by the Dalai Lama’s decision to end the exile government and substitute it with a kind of NGO. There was even concern and alarm that the Tibetan issue, the cause of Tibetan freedom itself, might have been fatally harmed, because of the crisis in Dharamshala.

Of course in the first decade or so of our exile the exile government was truly indispensable, not just for the freedom struggle or the preservation of Tibetan culture, but for us to just hang on to a bare-bones identity. In spite of the internal wrangling, that I have written about before, there can be no doubt that the exile government did an amazing job in the first couple of decades after March 1959. I started working full-time for the exile government in 1968, though I worked as a volunteer teacher a few years earlier, during my school winter vacations. I was really surprised and impressed by the organization of the exile government and the dedication of its officials. I hope one day to put together as full an account of how the first Tibetan refugees overcame so many formidable obstacles to set up the exile government, and – why (over time) this government gave up its core mission, and became an organization whose sole apparent purpose appears to be to perpetuate itself, in regressively more ignominious and farcical ways.

In the last piece I wrote in this blog, Ending to Begin, I argued for the Dalai Lama retaining a symbolic role as head of state of the Tibetan nation, and condemned the downgrading of the exile government to the role of an NGO. I did not clearly see then that not only had the political life-span of the exile government run its natural course, but that the perhaps the resignation of the Dalai Lama and the ending of the government-in-exile was a timely event.

If we cast our minds back to the revolutionary events of 2008, the year when Lhasa was in flames, I am sure we can recall the thousands of Tibetans throughout the plateau rushing out of their monasteries, homes and tents, riding their horses down the mountainsides, all waving the national flag and all calling for Tibetan freedom and independence. We also surely remember the five major exile organization that united to create the People’s Uprising Movement and launched the peace march to Tibet. Exile Tibetans (and friends) the world-over staged enormous adrenalin charged protests and “creative action campaigns” supporting the Tibet uprisings and opposing the Beijing Olympics and the Torch Relay.

What we may have subliminally blocked out of our memory is the Dalai Lama’s statement that he would resign because Tibetans in Lhasa had rioted. We might have also forgotten the Dalai Lama ordering the five organizations to halt their march to Tibet, and prime-minister Samdong Rimpoche creating “Solidarity Committees” so as to take over the protest organizations to emasculate them and stop demonstrators from burning Chinese flags or shouting such slogans as “Free Tibet” or “China Out of Tibet.” A few years earlier Samdong Rinpoche had forbidden Tibetans from demonstrating against Chinese leaders visiting the USA. Could all the events of 2008 have led to something bigger? I clearly remember they were extraordinary in their sweep and energy. There was a definite feel of new beginnings and radical possibilities. But we will never know now, will we? Dharamshala, exercising the usual spiritual and emotional blackmail, gradually let the air out of everyone’s hopes and high-spirits, and concluded that year with an orgy of collective hypocrisy and sycophancy that was also called the November Special Meeting.

My biggest fear, my secret nightmare, is also rooted in my one lifelong dream. My dream is that in the not too distant future during an economic downturn in China, concurrently with some major internal conflict (even a revolution), rangzen uprisings will break out all over Tibet (and possibly Turkestan or Mongolia) and a real opportunity to seize Tibetan independence will finally come our way. This scenario is not as fanciful as it appears. It has happened before, in its entirety, in 1912.

But then my nightmare takes over. In the not too distant future, when the revolution happens, the Tibetan leadership, “persuaded” by its sponsors in the West who want to keep the Chinese economy afloat so their investment portfolios don’t take a hit, declare that Tibet is a part of the PRC and that Tibetans have no other aspiration except to be loyal citizens of the PRC. Pretty much what they are saying right now. A desperate China might even throw Dharamshala a bone and allow another delegation (the 23rd ?) to visit Beijing or even allow the Dalai Lama a visit to Mt. Wutaishan (riwo-tsenga). But it would kill the revolution stone-dead.

This time around the Dalai Lama has not made any direct statement about the self-immolations, and the exile-administration has not called for it to be stopped. I am grateful for this reprieve, but I’m not holding my breath. Yet perhaps, finally, the leadership of the struggle has truly passed on to those willing to die for it.

The Way Forward

The way forward for those of us in exile who believe in Rangzen is to connect with our brothers and sisters in Tibet, and find a way to contribute to the coming revolution. And we have a definite role to play, the same way that many young Arabs who had lived or had studied in the USA or Europe joined the uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya and provided the communication, medical, media and other skills that enabled the success of the Arab Spring.

We cannot go into all that now. It will have to be deliberated thoroughly in a forum of those committed to rangzen. I am confident this will happen soon. That said, there is some outstanding business that must be taken care of right now, here in this post. Our first task is to send a message to the people in Tibet. They have definitely heard of the resignation of the Dalai Lama and the closure of the exile government. Many must be confused and some have no doubt concluded that exiles have given up the cause. So we must send them a message, very clearly and very loudly, that whatever the mixed messages from Dharamshala, the rangzen struggle goes on, world over, and that it has become profoundly inspired and energized by the courage, commitment and sacrifice of so many inside Tibet. A most fitting moment and occasion to send this message would be the 10th March commemoration in 2012. This coming March will be particularly significant as it marks exactly 100 years when we rose up against the Chinese empire and created a free and independent Tibet.

On October 1911 revolution broke out in China. Chinese troops in Tibet went on a looting spree and terrorized the population of Lhasa city. The great historian Shakabpa tell us that the 13th Dalai Lama, in exile in Darjeeling, sent two of his officials Jampa Tendar and Trimon Norbu Wangyal, to Lhasa to take charge of the resistance. On the 26th of March 2012 they declared war on the Chinese and Manchu troops stationed there and fierce fighting broke out throughout the city. After nearly a year of hard and brutal fighting, the Chinese surrendered and were deported to China, via India. The 13th Dalai Lama entered a free Tibet the next year.

This coming March 10th, 2012, all Tibetans and friends should gather together in super demonstration/commemoration/festival events, like we have never had before. These gatherings should be so enormous, expressive, innovative, and attention-getting, that the world, but far more importantly, our brothers and sisters in Tibet will hear our collective refrain (ramgyo) to the message of revolution, freedom and independence they have sent us from over the high mountains and grasslands of Tibet. The message they have sent us all these years through their songs, poems, writings, demonstrations and flag-raisings; and also through their tears, their pain, their devastated lives and fiery sacrifices. The fires that were lit in Delhi, Kirti and Kanze have died down now, but to paraphrase His Holiness “…the flame of truth will never be fully extinguished”, and it is for us to guard and nurture these precious burning embers of truth, freedom and independence till the moment comes, and soon, when we can re-ignite them brightly in the hearts of all our people throughout the entire Tibetan plateau.

* * *

*Tibetan historians use the expression “nurturing the embers of the dharma” (tempae mero solwa) to describe the lonely but heroic struggle of a few dedicated scholars and teachers who kept the Buddha dharma alive in Tibet after the breakup of the Tibetan Empire, and eventually brought about the second or “later transmission” (tempa chidhar) of Buddhism to Tibet.

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  • avatar Christophe Besuchet says:

    The time has indeed come to unequivocally and vociferously respond to these calls for actions so painfully expressed by Tibetans living under China’s occupation. Now that the Tibetan government is dead, let’s make sure that the voices of freedom coming out of Tibet are not expressed in vain, nor will be the subsequent tortures and hardship inflicted on these true patriots.

    A massive March 10th next year is the minimum we can do and we should all participate in a way or another to make it big. But we should also all work, on a daily basis, to spread the real purpose of these self-immolations: let’s talk around us, let’s make noise and let’s make sure that no one believe that these people died “in struggle for autonomy” as The Independent newspaper put it. We ought at least to be the spokespersons of theses voices, and not the proxies of some jerky community leaders who prevent us from wearing “Free Tibet” t-shirts or from getting too close to Chinese embassies: let’s raise our fists and express our support, in the streets and online.

    The Dalai Lama resignation may well take a larger turn than expected. With a government reduced to the size of a refugee organization, it is time to consider new avenues and I agree with Jamyang Norbu that Tibetans should look for a new leadership. His remarks on exiled governments is particularly striking…

    As for Rangzen embers, here are a few lines from Peter Gabriel’s “Steven Biko” song:

    You can blow out a candle
    But you can’t blow out a fire
    Once the flames begin to catch
    The wind will blow it higher

    — Peter Gabriel, “Steven Biko”, 1980

    Peter Gabriel at Skoll 2011, singing for Archbishop Desmond Tutu

    A much earlier version of “Biko”, released for the film “Cry Freedom”

  • avatar carlo buldrini says:

    Dear Jamyang Norbu, writing somewhere in this Blog, I said that we have entered in a completely new phase and the question is: “What to do now?”. Your suggestion to make “this coming March 10th, 2012″ an event “like we have never had before”, could be an appropriate answer. I think your idea should be publicized everywhere. Probably an internet site should be open for this purpose (not for debate, but for collecting adhesions and initiatives). Of course the five Organizations of the People’s Uprising Movement of 2008 should be in the forefront. But what will be more important, is to reach inside Tibet and, particularly, the “dark rooms” of the Tibetan monasteris where, in many occasions, the revolt has originated.
    Eight cases of self-immolations and, as you have noticed, the Dalai Lama is silent. I was in Delhi on 28 April 1998 and I saw the face of the Dalai Lama coming out from the Lohia Hospital where, few hours later, Thupten Ngodup died. I have no dobts of the great pain the Dalai Lama is suffering because of these self-immolations. But then, why his silence?
    Because, I think, he hunderstand that the problem is not moral, ethical or religious but “political”. And, probably, he wants to stick to his decision of total “devolution”. But was the answer of his “heir” (Lobsang Sangay) to the call of these Tibetan martyrs? To resume the “dialogue” of Lodi Gyari and Kelsang Gyaltsen with the Chinese. (A dialogue that, if it ever succeed, will have the maximum result of a house arrest in Beijing for the Dalai Lama like the one that had Choekyi Gyaltsen (the X Panchen Lama). The sad conclusion is that, even after less than 100 days, Lobsang Sangay seems to have failed.
    But this is NOT, like someone says, a “dark time for Tibet”. On the contrary, I think, the new situation has a tremendous potential. The eight martyrs from Tibet are asking to radicalize the struggle. After the devolution everything has changed. Even one of the goals of the Rangzen Alliance which asks for “The return of His Holiness the Dalai Lama as the sovreign head-of-state…” seems to be old-fashioned now.

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