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"We Tibetans are looking for a legitimate and meaningful autonomy, an arrangement that would enable Tibetans to live within the framework of the People’s Republic of China."

Reclaiming the Streets

March 19, 2008

By Gabriel Lafitte
New Matilda
17 Mar 2008


The monks and nuns leading the protest in Tibet know they will die - and
they're ready for it, writes adviser to the Tibetan Government-in-exile,
Gabriel Lafitte


The Tibetan revolt, like those of two and five decades ago, will be
crushed by the overwhelming might of the Chinese military. No match
could be more unequal: maroon-clad nuns and monks versus the machinery
of oppression of the global rising power. In recent months,
fast-response mobile tactical squads whose sole purpose is to quell the
masses have been overtly rehearsing on the streets of Tibetan towns for
just what they are now doing.

What is the point of revolt if it is almost certainly suicidal?

This uprising has many uniquely Tibetan characteristics. At street
level, a favourite item seized from Chinese shops was toilet rolls -
hardly the usual target of looters. Not that Tibetans, over millennia,
have felt much need for the paper rolls, or even for the basics of the
Chinese cuisine such as soy sauce. What the Tibetans did with the loo
paper was to hurl it over power lines, instantly making Lhasa, and other
Tibetan towns, Tibetan again. Right across the 25 per cent of China that
is ethnically and culturally Tibetan, the unrolled toilet paper looks
like wind horses, the white silken scarf khadags with which Tibetans
greet and bless each other. As all Tibetans know, they carry their
message on the wind: Victory to the gods!

That is what this revolt is about: making Tibet Tibetan once more. The
white scarves also protected Tibetan shopkeepers from attack as the
streets filled, for a short and costly moment of freedom, with Tibetans
smashing the businesses of immigrant Chinese traders.

Even in the most intoxicating moment of reclaiming the streets no
Tibetan could have forgotten the ever present security cameras, and the
network of informers penetrating deeply into urban Tibetan private
lives. No Tibetan could have been unmindful that the full repressive
power of a modernised, high-tech tyranny would hunt them down, and show
no mercy. All Tibetans know of former friends who, on release from
prison and torture, now shun old acquaintances because they are under
such intense pressure by their torturers to regularly name names of
those who privately voice thoughts that do not conform to the Party
line. These informers live in fear of being hauled in again, for further
torture, and of betraying their friends.

That is what makes this revolt uniquely Tibetan. It is no accident that
from the outset the protests were led by those who have already
renounced all ties to kin, dedicating their lives to serve all of
humanity, unconditionally. The nuns and monks of Tibet have taken vows
to work for the liberation of all sentient beings from all sources of
suffering - in the mind and in the external world. From the Dalai Lama
through to the newest novice, they train in meditation to cut attachment
to existence, to the existence of me ahead of all others.

They know they will die, and are ready for it. Just as in the great
Tibetan revolts of 1959 and 1987, many will die in secret prison cells,
after torture. When the world is no longer watching, or able to see,
Tibetans who risked all so as to focus the world - in this Olympic year
- on China's shame, will die.

What do Tibetans find so objectionable about today's China? Why is it
that Tibetans and Chinese, neighbours for thousands of years, cannot get on?

Media coverage focuses on immediate causes, but there is a deeper story.
Having worked with Tibetans for 30 years, having seen Chinese
development projects in Tibet for myself, and having been briefly
imprisoned for it, I can share what my Tibetan friends tell me.
Contemporary Chinese capitalist modernity is as problematic for Tibetans
as past State violence and repression. China today pours money,
overwhelmingly State money, into Tibet, into railways, highways, tourist
infrastructure and a top-heavy administrative elite. Glass towers,
shopping malls, enormous brothels masquerading as discos, towering
offices, now dominate urban Tibetan skylines which only 20 years ago
were a sacred landscape of prayer flags, temples and meditation.

On the face of it, that's progress. If Lhasa now looks like any Chinese
boomtown, that's just the price of modernity - or so many outsiders say.
But Tibetans find themselves excluded from the material benefits of
modernity, watching powerlessly as gangs of non-Tibetan immigrants take
over even the unskilled jobs on construction sites and driving taxis.
Tibetans remain poor, socially excluded, on the margins of a
State-funded construction boom that reduces Tibetans to a minority meant
to smile for the tourist cameras as they try to focus on their spiritual
pilgrimage. The holy city of Lhasa, and all the big monasteries where
the protests began, have been swamped by mass Chinese tourism, poking
lenses into the most private devotions of those on the path to
enlightenment.

The new railway to Lhasa, less than two years in operation, accelerated
the tourism boom, the brothels and discos, and the marginalisation of
Tibetans. Most Tibetans live in a countryside as big as western Europe,
with their herds of yak, sheep and goats, eking an existence on land
rigidly allocated decades ago by Chinese bureaucrats who refuse to
re-divide land as families grow and new families form. Poverty among
Tibetans is endemic, even as statistics averaged for entire provinces,
bundling urban boom and rural neglect, proclaim rising standards of living.

The latest threat to Tibetan ways of life comes wrapped in an ideology
of environmentalism. In the name of protecting the Tibetan upper reaches
of China's great rivers - both the Yangtze and the Yellow - thousands of
Tibetan nomads are being forced off their land, and resettled in
miserable new towns in the middle of nowhere. Instantly, their
livelihoods and intimate knowledge of the land and sustainable
management, are useless - but they are seldom given training in new
skills or even compensation beyond a grain survival ration.

Now the nomads, in a huge and rapidly expanding area, are ecological
refugees, on the mistaken assumption that they are ignorantly and
carelessly to blame for degradation of a vast grassland second in size
only to Australia's pastoral inland. The nomads, compulsorily voiceless,
not allowed to form any NGOs of their own, have no opportunity to show
how deeply they care for the land, having sustained its productivity and
its wildlife over millennia. China's urban-based Party elite regards
nomads as stupid, uneducated, unscientific, greedy and destructive -
everything China is trying to get away from. There is no partnership
between authority and those on the land, because they are of different
races, with very different worldviews.

This is the bedrock of the revolt. The Chinese authorities hold rural
Tibetans in contempt, while urban educated Tibetans are viewed with
suspicion, their exclusive loyalty to China and the Party forever tested
by extreme "patriotic education" campaigns that make it compulsory to
denounce the most revered lamas.

To be a Tibetan in Tibet is a lot like being black in Mississippi 50
years ago. Travel within Tibet, migration from country to city, number
of livestock permitted, number of children permitted, all are rigidly
and oppressively controlled by an invasive bureaucracy. Meanwhile health
care and education, strictly on a capitalist user-pays basis, are
concentrated in urban areas. Only if you have the money upfront, and
connections, do you even get in the door of a hospital.

The monks and nuns, who devote their lives to clarifying and purifying
the mind, draw inspiration from the example of their teachers, and the
teachers of their teachers, the highest of all being the Dalai Lama.
China's Party leaders, including President Hu Jintao, who imposed
martial law the last time Tibet revolted, never seem to learn that
insisting on monks trampling or spitting on an image of the Dalai Lama
is only going to deepen Tibetan alienation.

The China the world glimpses briefly today is a China that has not, in
Tibet, changed as much as we would all hope. Tibet is stuck in a time
warp, of Marxist anti-religion propaganda, mass campaigns of
denunciation and thought reform. China's policies in Tibet are deeply
contradictory and self-defeating. China wants Tibetans to embrace and
love the motherland and the Party, but the punitive insistence on
stability always undermines the uneven, often exclusionary, progress
towards development.

China needs to be told by its friends that an empire cannot be made into
a nation by force. Australia, as a close friend and with a Prime
Minister fluent in Chinese, is uniquely placed to remind the isolated
and fearful Party leaders that they can gain much by listening to the
message of the rioters: give us a break. Australia could teach China
much about landcare, about rural communities and government working as
partners to repair long term damage, and about discovering the hard way
how to respect and reconcile with the Indigenous peoples.

As the Dalai Lama has always said: Tibetans and Chinese have gotten on
well in the past, and can do so again, but only if there is mutual
respect for fellow human beings who differ in their sources of happiness.

Tibetan monks and nuns are now dying, usually with equanimity and no
hatred, in order to maintain that difference.
CTC National Office 1425 René-Lévesque Blvd West, 3rd Floor, Montréal, Québec, Canada, H3G 1T7
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