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A struggle at the crossroads

December 4, 2011

AFTER about 40 minutes winding up gravelly roads and hairpin bends, I knew I had arrived when the car began passing monks in deep red robes and dread-locked hippies with increasing regularity. Up in the cool hills of India’s Himachal Pradesh state, the provincial town of McLeod Ganj is one of the foremost spiritual meccas of the world, thanks to its most famous resident, the 14th Dalai Lama. When this suburb of the city of Dharamsala became the permanent seat of the Buddhist leader in 1960, other Tibetans, visitors, devotees and dignitaries began arriving in droves so much so that McLeod Ganj now resembles more a mini-Tibet than the colonial hill station that its name suggests.
The peaceful atmosphere belies one of the most turbulent periods of Tibetan history since the Dalai Lama fled across the Himalayas into exile in India. I was in town with a group of young Asians drawn by the spiritual offering of the place as well as our curiosity over a continuous series of headlines involving the community.
Earlier this year, much to the chagrin of Beijing, a Tibetan government-in-exile was democratically elected with Harvard-educated Lobsang Sangay as its prime minister. Then came the Dalai Lama’s devolution of the administrative and political powers to the new government, ending a 2,500-year history of absolute rule by the holder of the spiritual position. More recently, things took a turn for the worse as cases of self-immolation by Buddhist monks and nuns began to surface just as the Dalai Lama found himself refused visas by a growing number of countries.
Far from a straightforward cause involving territorial sovereignty, the Tibetan struggle has in fact taken many twists and turns to envelop issues of economic and cultural survival as well as environmental conservation. Meeting the prime minister at his unheated office one chilly evening, we quizzed him on the reasons behind the dozen self-immolations that have taken place since February 2009.
“On a human level, we are horrified and saddened by the news and it pains us greatly to hear of them. The Tibetan leadership does not encourage self-immolations. They only occur because people feel their lives are no longer worth living. All we can do is to try to speak for them and explain why they did it,” he said.
Born in India, Sangay is part of the first generation of Tibetans born in exile who are beginning to assume leadership of a cause that many already see as a lost one, especially with the shift in global balance of power from the West to the East led by a rising China. Yet, far from dying down, the Tibetan struggle appears to have taken on greater urgency.
The first major sign that things are not well within Tibet emerged in the run-up to the 2008 Beijing Olympics when a mass uprising in Lhasa caught China offguard. Since then, smaller-scale protests have erupted despite a heavy clampdown by Chinese security forces. Sangay, a former student activist, views these developments with mixed feelings.
“We have always hoped for change, but for the last 15 years, we have seen only the same hardline position. Both sides have met nine times since 2002 but since January 2010, there have been no talks. Each time a revolution happens, there are reasons for optimism but Tibet maintains an establishment of non-violence,” he said.
Acknowledging the realities of the struggle, Sangay said the cause is no longer about outright independence but one seeking autonomy within China. “What we are asking for is less than what Hongkong or Macau get … The 1984 Chinese autonomy laws are good but they are not implemented. For example, the Chinese want to encourage assimilation, so Tibetan language is not allowed. Tibetans do not have economic equality with the Chinese and they are not consulted on matters of the environment.”
In a July 2011 White Paper published to mark the 60th anniversary of Tibet’s “peaceful liberation”, the Chinese State Council, however, hailed the “profound political, social and economic changes that have taken place in Tibet”.
“Within six decades, Tibet has achieved development that would normally call for a millennium. Under the leadership of the Communist Party of China and the Chinese government, the people of Tibet have created a miracle,” the report was cited as saying in China’s Xinhua news.
According to the paper, Tibet has received more than RMB300 billion (RM149.5 billion) in financial subsidies and RMB160 billion (RM79.7 billion) in direct investment from the central government. Disputing claims by the exiled Tibetan leadership, the document went on to say that ecological conservation “has progressed rapidly” while ethnic culture in Tibet “is enjoying unprecedented prosperity”.
Undeniably though, Beijing has found itself uncertain of how to respond to the growing number of self-immolations, many of which took place in the ethnic Tibetan parts of Sichuan Province. Blaming instigation by “separatists” outside of China, troop presence has been increased in affected areas, but Beijing is also reported to have announced a new policy to provide every monk with pension, medical insurance and minimum living allowances.
Addressing China’s position, the Sangay agreed that the Chinese have brought modernisation to Tibet. However, the issue is less about money pouring into the region than about the equality of distribution and the treatment of Tibetans, he added. “If a Chinese is paid RMB50 (RM24.90), a Tibetan would be paid RMB30 (RM15) … Our priority is to preserve Tibetan culture and identity. If the bid for real autonomy succeeds, it would be important for the Tibetan leadership to work out how many (Han Chinese) can settle in Tibet, much as the same way things are managed in Hongkong,” he said.
The reasons for Chinese suspicion towards the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan leadership are as complex as they are plentiful. Few unfamiliar with the Tibetan struggle would realise that the issue of territorial sovereignty extends far deeper than commonly understood. According to the Tibetan leadership, the area designated as the Tibetan Autonomous Region by the Chinese government covers only half the total area inhabited by Tibetan peoples. Many Tibetans believe Tibet proper includes the Kham region in the east (now a part of Sichuan Province) and the Amdo region in the northeast (now a part of Qinghai Province).
Other than land, at stake is also control of vast resources. The Tibetan Plateau is the repository of great mineral wealth and the source of 10 major rivers in Asia, including the Yangtze, Yellow River, Indus, Ganges, Brahmaputra, Irrawaddy and Mekong. According to the Tibetan government’s Environment and Development Desk, ecological negligence and heavy damming of the great rivers have changed the ecosystem of the plateau. Since 1.3 billion people downstream depend on the river systems for their livelihood, the issue of environmental conservation has also been red-flagged.
Last but not least is the issue of race and security. Chinese history is replete with tales of resistance and humiliation by “barbarian” tribes from its northwest frontier. For the first time in 2,000 years, the central Chinese government has been able to secure its ethnically diverse outlying regions. Beijing’s uncompromising stance towards Tibet cannot be viewed separately from this perspective.
“If the issue is about trust, Tibet is willing to meet Chinese requests half-way to win their trust,” Sangay said. “The risk now is that by China rejecting all overtures, the young begin to feel that no matter what we give up, there is no reciprocity. They start to think that they should just go for independence and embarrass the Chinese government.”
As though bearing up his prediction, the Tibetan Youth Congress (TYC) is gearing up for more civil disobedience. Increasingly youth leaders are speaking up against the Middle Path approach of the Dalai Lama to accept autonomy under the Chinese flag.
“We feel that the current language is not strong enough. The Chinese State Council has labelled the TYC a terrorist organisation but we do not advocate violence. We see ourselves as paper and mind guerillas,” TYC general-secretary Tenzin Chokey said.
Tapping on youth discontent, the TYC points to the rising number of immolations and uprisings as a sign that Tibetans are no longer willing to settle for autonomy.
“(Tibetans still living in China-ruled Tibet) now want independence because they have seen the worst of Chinese rule. The Chinese want Tibet for natural resources, for their border security, for assimilation and for land occupation. They do not want to solve the problem of Tibet. They are just waiting for the Dalai Lama to die so that the issue will go away by itself,” Chokey said.
If this is the case, the Tibet issue may yet fester for years to come. Among Tibetans, the belief is widespread that the Dalai Lama will live to a ripe old age of 113. In previous pronouncements, the spiritual leader has also said he would either appoint a successor before passing on or reincarnate outside of Tibet.
At this crossroads, the voice of Tibet, which has for so long been represented by the views of the Dalai Lama, is likely to be split many ways. The Middle Path for autonomy will remain the central official way but it is now less and less certain how persuasive it will be for younger, bolder and more desperate Tibetans. Standing between democracy and obedience to a central figure, between independence and autonomy, and between youthful idealism and experienced realism, further upheavals seem unavoidable.
Tibet will continue to appear in the news, but whether or not the headlines will signal a new thaw or take on a more extreme shock quality will depend on how the new Tibetan leadership can assuage the concerns of Chinese, how the Chinese will accept the plurality of Tibetan views, and how the international community can push both sides to find an acceptable solution to the plight of ordinary Tibetans.

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