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Tibet's Second Uprising

April 9, 2008

How will Beijing proceed after the historic Tibetan uprising of March
2008? And how will the Tibetans themselves?

By : Bhuchung K Tsering
April 2008

Himal Magazine's commentary on Tibet situation

March has always been a tense time in Tibet. This year, however, what
could have been just another demonstration by a group of monks in Lhasa
on 10 March 2008 instead metamorphosed into a pan-Tibet assertion of
rights. At press time the situation is yet to stabilise, and there is no
indication that the Chinese authorities are looking to take the
situation in a positive direction. From available information, there is
little doubt that the underlying cause of the current unrest is
ultimately the misplaced policy initiatives that the Chinese government
has undertaken in Tibet over the past several decades. The anger that
has boiled over this time, however, dwarfs any public frustration vented
during the period. Indeed, in terms of significance, the March 2008
demonstrations are comparable less to the widely discussed incidents of
1987 or 1989, than to the first Uprising Day, which took place in Tibet
in March 1959, as the Dalai Lama fled into India.

There are three elements that need to be recognised regarding the size
and nature of the recent protests in Tibet. First, although the
demonstrations began in Lhasa, the domino effect was seen not only in
different parts of the Tibet Autonomous Region, but more significantly
in the Tibetan areas in present-day Qinghai, Gansu and Sichuan
provinces. This signified, for the first time since 1959, an essentially
pan-Tibetan uprising, focused on Chinese rule and calling widely for the
return of the Dalai Lama.

Second, common to nearly all of the demonstrations was the fact that the
majority of the participants were quite young, appearing to be from the
age group that came of age long after 1959. Most thus belong to the
generation that has not even seen the Dalai Lama in person, unless they
have been part of the fortunate few who were able to secure passports
and permits to visit India.

Third, the age issue aside, it is crucial to note that protesters have
been from all sections of Tibetan society. In addition to the ‘urban’
monks and nuns, as well as the lay people in Lhasa, nomads in eastern
and northeastern Tibet have come out to make their voices heard, as have
students in Beijing, Lanzhou and Chengdu – all clearly and courageously
exercising their common grievances against the authorities.

Unaware in Beijing
If the recent happenings on the plateau prove anything it is that the
Tibetans remain unhappy with their treatment by Beijing; and that, for
its part, Beijing has not altered its way of dealing with the Tibetans.
Rather, the government has continued its longstanding approach of trying
to quell the rebellion by force. This not only runs counter to
international norms of human and civil rights, but belies a basic
ignorance of Tibetan sentiments. Indeed, when the first demonstrations
began, the authorities in Lhasa seem to have been caught wholly unaware.
This was further exacerbated by the fact that nearly all of Lhasa’s top
officials were in Beijing at the time, attending the annual session of
the National People’s Congress. Perhaps this explains the dramatic
failure of the government machinery that might otherwise have helped to
de-escalate the crisis.

As tensions grew and violence spread, the result was the deaths of both
Tibetans and Chinese. It may be a long while before credible casualty
figures emerge, and current estimates vary wildly. The Chinese
government talks of a figure of around 20 dead, all of which are said to
be Chinese. The Tibetan government-in-exile, meanwhile, has claimed the
Tibetan death toll to be more than 100. And, if observers were to go by
the graphic photos that have emerged, the number of Tibetans killed does
seem likely to be high.

Even while accusing fingers are being pointed at Beijing for its
reaction to the ongoing unrest, more should be made of the role played
by the local-level Communist Party underlings. If the political leaders
in Lhasa or Amdo or Kham areas had been filing accurate reports in
recent years, the simmering Tibetan discontent would not have caught the
Beijing leadership so ignorant of the situation on the ground. As such,
we have seen a series of accusations emanating not only from a
relatively oblivious officialdom in Beijing, but also from local
leaders, particularly in Lhasa, adamantly defending their failure of
administration. Above all, this vitriol and recrimination has been aimed
at the “Dalai clique”.

This is unfortunate. The Chinese leaders still do not comprehend the
strong bond between the Tibetan people and the Dalai Lama. Indeed, one
of the most significant causes of the current demonstrations has to be
traced back to the Chinese government’s continuous denigration of the
Dalai Lama’s person. Further, the selective reporting by the
state-controlled media of the uprising has been useful to Chinese
officials in encouraging Han chauvinism and hatred towards Tibetans.
Such an approach could well come back to hound Beijing in the days to come.

In comparison to this, the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan leadership in
Dharamsala have been taking steps to lessen tension on the plateau. The
Dalai Lama took it upon himself to threaten to resign from his political
role if the people of Tibet continued to indulge in violence. Prime
Minister-in-exile Samdhong Rinpoche has also been wringing his hands
over his government’s helplessness in the face of what is going on in
Tibet. Meanwhile, in the charged atmosphere, voices from within the
Tibetan diaspora are calling for the Tibetan leadership to provide more
active direction to the Tibet movement.

12 suggestions
What of the future? First, the ongoing Tibetan-Chinese dialogue process,
which has passed through six rounds since 2002, now faces its greatest
challenge yet. Even before the recent demonstrations, both the
international community and the Tibetan people had been increasingly
discouraged by the lack of progress. In the evolving context, the Dalai
Lama has reiterated his commitment to both his Middle Way approach and
the dialogue process, while Premier Wen has also suggested that the
channel for dialogue is open. But regardless of how the mood changes in
Beijing after calm returns to the streets, Tibetan public opinion will
be strongly against any resumption of dialogue under the old framework.
The Speaker of the Tibetan Parliament-in-Exile, Karma Chophel, has
already said, on 23 March 2008, that given the way the Chinese
authorities have been denigrating the Dalai Lama and the approach they
have taken in the current development in Tibet, it is difficult to see
how the talks can be held in the near future.

What can the Chinese government do at this juncture? The situation in
Tibet represents a serious loss of face for the Chinese leadership
anxious to put its best foot forward for the Beijing Olympics in the
coming summer. We should not forget that the day after the news of the
violent clash broke from Lhasa was also the day that President Hu Jintao
was to be celebrating his ‘re-election’ as president. It is appropriate
to worry that the Beijing officials might not be psychologically
prepared for rational thought at this time. But there is no avoiding the
fact that a serious review of China’s Tibet policy is now due, coupled
with a forward-looking approach. What this means would be a turning-away
from the reigning principle: that it is only through the use of force
that Beijing can establish a semblance of normalcy in the Tibetan areas
of China.

This will require significant political courage on the part of the
entire line-up of Beijing’s leadership, starting with Hu Jintao. Beijing
must also stop provoking ultra-nationalistic fervour among ethnic
Chinese, and prepare Chinese society to look at Tibet through a new
prism. In this, the petition submitted to the government by over 30
notably courageous Chinese scholars, lawyers, journalists and
human-rights activists on 22 March 2008 is encouraging. (The full
petition can be found on Himal's website..)

The document, translated as “Twelve Suggestions for Dealing with the
Tibetan Situation”, includes such noteworthy proposals as: stopping the
“one-sided propaganda of the official Chinese media”; making public any
proof of the Dalai Lama’s alleged involvement in inciting the recent
unrest; inviting the United Nations Commission on Human Rights to
conduct an investigation into the recent events; realising and learning
from the fact that the widespread nature of the current uprisings prove
that “there are serious mistakes in the work that has been done with
regard to Tibet”; and abiding by the Chinese Constitution’s guarantees
of freedoms of speech and religious belief. Finally, point number 12
read as follows:

We hold that we must eliminate animosity and bring about national
reconciliation, not continue to increase divisions between
nationalities. A country that wishes to avoid the partition of its
territory must first avoid divisions among its nationalities. Therefore,
we appeal to the leaders of our country to hold direct dialogue with the
Dalai Lama.

Such voices from the civil society in China hold the promise of calming
the vitiated atmosphere. But for the moment, only a few facts are
certain. The 10 March 1959 uprising began a new chapter in the history
of modern Tibet. That chapter was full of tragedy. Given what has now
taken place 49 years later, wise counsel will need to prevail in Beijing
in order that this second Tibetan uprising, as tragic as it has been,
will result in a positive outcome for both the Tibetans and the Chinese.
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