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In Ravaging China, Quake Pushes Tibet to Sidelines

May 23, 2008

Elisabeth Rosenthal
The New York Times
May 22, 2008

As the Dalai Lama toured European capitals this week, the British
prime minister closed the door to 10 Downing Street and agreed to
meet him only as part of an "interfaith dialogue." In Germany, most
government officials declined to talk with him at all.

It was a precipitous comedown from just a few weeks ago, when
Tibetans and their supporters unexpectedly upstaged Beijing's
elaborate global torch relay and catapulted Tibet's cause to the
forefront of the world's human rights agenda. The German and British
leaders let it be known then that they would skip the opening
ceremony of the Olympics.

The shift is, partly, tectonic. An earthquake in China's Sichuan
Province killed tens of thousands of Chinese, evoking an outpouring
of global sympathy for China and turning it overnight from victimizer
to victim.

Tibetan opponents of Beijing, like advocates of several other leading
human rights causes, have been consigned once again to play David to
China's Goliath, struggling to compete with its growing diplomatic
and economic clout worldwide.

But the Tibetan movement has also struggled to stay in the limelight
because it remains a fractious and informal hodgepodge of cultural,
religious, and political groups. It is united by deep emotional
sympathy rather than by organization or cash. Increasingly, there are
even differences over how closely to hew to the Dalai Lama's vision
of nonviolent diplomacy seeking something short of an independent Tibet.

"The protests this spring put Tibet at the forefront of human rights
issue -- they accomplished a lot -- but I think the interest can't go
further right now," said John Kamm, a leading human rights advocate
whose San Francisco-based organization, Dui Hua Foundation, has
helped free prominent Chinese political prisoners.

"Now the Chinese people are in a state of mourning," he said. "I'm
not suggesting that we stop putting pressure on China, but we should
use judgment in where and when to direct the fire."

That leaves Tibetan exiles and their Western supporters in a
quandary. The Olympic torch, now back on Chinese soil, is scheduled
to arrive in Tibet in just three weeks, an act that Tibetan activists
once considered a potential rallying point against Chinese rule in
what Beijing calls the Tibet Autonomous Region.

Instead, Tibet groups have been forced to lobby quietly. They are
asking board members of the International Olympic Committee as well
as of corporate Olympic sponsors like Coca-Cola to consider
withdrawing support for the torch relay unless China cancels the
Tibet segment, a campaign that shows few signs of success.

Eager for allies, some Tibetan groups have joined hands with Falun
Gong, a Chinese spiritual and exercise movement that Beijing outlawed
as a cult. Though Falun Gong does not enjoy the cachet among
politicians and celebrities that Tibet does, it has money and a
tight, if secret, organization. Tibetan groups have joined in a
number of events sponsored by Falun Gong this year as part of its
human rights torch relay.

At one time, overseas Tibetans were notable for attracting more
high-profile supporters, like the actor Richard Gere, as well as for
the widespread appeal of Tibetan Buddhism. The Dalai Lama, Tibet's
spiritual leader in the exile, has been an energetic, outgoing public
face and spokesman.

The outbreak of riots in Tibet in March -- which Tibetans say were
spontaneous and Beijing says were carefully orchestrated -- prompted
a heavy Chinese crackdown and sparked sympathy demonstrations in
London, Paris, and San Francisco. At times, the Tibetans appeared to
hijack the Olympics for their own cause.

Pro-Tibet groups have become more emboldened, forming new alliances
and finding themselves deluged with volunteers and donations. About
200 new chapters of Students for a Free Tibet have been started in
the past six months, in places like Estonia, the Czech Republic and
the state of Montana.

SUSTAINING MOMENTUM

But sustaining that momentum has been difficult. "It is a challenge
to keep people engaged," said Lhadon Tethong, executive director of
Students for a Free Tibet, which operates on a budget of about
$400,000 a year from a ramshackle office above a dry cleaners in New
York's Alphabet City. "There's no substitute for China bringing the
Olympic torch into your neighborhood."

The movement is also grossly overmatched. Even in the midst of the
quake tragedy, the Chinese government has ramped up attacks on the
Dalai Lama as well as international pro-Tibet groups, charging them
with collusion. On Wednesday, Chinese officials warned Germany
against "conniving" with the Dalai Lama, who they said was promoting
anti-China separatists activities on German soil.

Beijing also took steps to defuse the movement by inviting the Dalai
Lama to resume talks. The discussions have continued off and on for
years without producing any concrete result. But Beijing's decision
to resume them after the Tibetan unrest met the main demand of the
White House and European powers, which have since toned down
expression of concern about Tibet.

Beijing has not relaxed its attacks, however. In recent weeks, the
Chinese state news media have been featuring stories blaming foreign
groups like the International Committee for Tibet and the New
York-based Trace Foundation, run by George Soros's daughter, for
organizing global protests and fomenting unrest in Tibet.

Trace, which finances middle-school education and health care
projects in Tibet in cooperation with Chinese partners, has protested
and says the allegation places its Tibetan staff in danger.

Likewise, Chinese embassies have become far more active in mobilizing
Chinese studying in Europe and the United States through Chinese
students and scholars associations, which exist at almost every
Western University and often receive financing from the Chinese government.

"The Tibet affair has revealed that the consulates are more active
with these groups that we realized before," said an Ivy League
administrator, who did not want to be named because of the trouble it
could bring. "It does seem they coordinated some of the actions,"
providing buses and the like.

PURSUING DIFFERENT GOALS

Despite Beijing's allegations that the Dalai Lama and others have
colluded against it, the Tibet movement in the West is not nearly so
focused, those with long experience in it say.

"There is a level of organization but it's certainly not the type of
organization that China portrays it to be," said Mary Beth Markey, of
the International Campaign for Tibet in Washington, whose primary
function is lobbying governments, but does nothing in the way of direct action.

In fact, there is even little consensus on long-term goals. The Dalai
Lama, who lives in exile in Dharmsala, India, says he would settle
for increased autonomy for Tibet within China and has steadfastly
cautioned against confronting the Chinese in Tibet.

While the Dalai Lama is revered, groups like Students for a Free
Tibet and Free Tibet Campaign in London now work toward more radical
goals, reflecting the coming of age of young Tibetans-in-exile who
mix the values of Europe and the United States with those of their
ancestral home.

"In '87 a lot of the talent was still in Dharmsala, but by 1999, most
of those people had migrated to Canada, the U.K. and the U.S.," said
Patrick French, a former executive of the London-based Free Tibet
Campaign, and author of "Tibet, Tibet."

"In the West, such people started lobbying and taking action," he
said. "They represent an American version of how the Tibet problem
should be solved."

With its guerrilla style "actions," Students for a Free Tibet has
little in common with the far more established International Campaign
for Tibet, which shares a staid Washington townhouse with the Dalai
Lama's representative to the United States.

The International Campaign for Tibet accepts the Dalai Lama's limited
goal of greater autonomy and religious freedom for the Tibetan
people. But the students' group wants more. "Yes, we want
independence for Tibet -- that is what the Tibetan people want," said
Tenzin Dorjee, vice director of Students for a Free Tibet, who tried
to unfurl a banner on the Eiffel Tower during the Paris torch relay
and last year achieved that goal at Everest Base Camp. "We have the
utmost love for His Holiness and respect for his leadership, and we
know where Tibet would be now without him.

"But we are inspired not just by his divinity, but also his humanity.
So we can disagree with some of his ideas."

Bob Thurman, founder and director of Tibet House, a star-studded New
York foundation, which focuses on Tibetan culture and heritage, said
that the Dalai Lama's position is far more moderate than activist
groups elsewhere. Even so, he is anathema to Beijing.

"There is no formal organization," Mr. Thurman acknowledged. "The
Dalai Lama is beloved at a grass-roots level worldwide, which is why
there's been such activity. So for the Chinese to call him a wolf and
a jackal, as they have been doing, is not productive. At this point,
what better advocate do they have?"

In reality, even the movement's most activist organizations seem
often to have only tenuous control over the attention surrounding
Tibet. Along the torch's route in Paris, the vast majority of people
who gathered to protest had checked the route on the Internet and
come on their own. Organized protests by Tibet groups largely missed
the mark, or were lost in the crowd. That included two Tibetan nuns
famous for their protests while in prison in China, who the
International Campaign for Tibet had brought to both London and Paris
for interviews. They ended up standing silently, lost in the boisterous crowd.

CLOSING DOORS TO DISCORD

Still, the Chinese are taking no chances, carefully closing all doors
to discord.

The government is refusing applications from climbers for the Chinese
approach to Everest. Most projects by nongovernmental organizations
are now on hold; international meetings for more than 50 people are
banned, even in Beijing.

Matt Whitticase, an officer of the London-based Free Tibet Campaign,
said there had been a "pretty systematic effort to undermine our work
in recent weeks." The group's server has been deluged with "Trojan"
e-mail messages, which spread a virus that allows outsiders to read
their e-mail messages and to send out further messages in its name.

John Kamm has been negotiating with the Chinese to offer amnesty to
some political prisoners in honor of the Olympics, a project that is
now on hold "during the relief efforts."

But he hopes that the earthquake may provide a face-saving exit for
China from a torch relay that has often been more embarrassment than
celebration. Already, the relay has recently been scaled back in
response to the disaster.

"The Dalai Lama said he's praying for the victims," said Mr. Kamm,
noting that many of the hard-hit areas had large ethnic Tibetan
populations. "Maybe this will give the government the opportunity to
cancel the relay in Tibet."
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