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"On my part, I remain committed to the process of dialogue. It is my firm belief that dialogue and a willingness to look with honesty and clarity at the reality of Tibet can lead us to a viable solution."

Was It Violence?

April 23, 2008

Jamyang Norbu

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

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.

Read this and other writings on my blog Shadow Tibet at
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