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"As long as human rights are violated, there can be no foundation for peace. How can peace grow where speaking the truth is itself a crime?"

The Tibetan Intifada

June 9, 2008

By Michael Walzer
Dissent Magazine
Winter 2008

What happened in Tibet and the neighboring provinces might best be
called an intifada. I won't attempt a comparison with the first and
second Palestinian intifadas (the first is closer to the Tibetan
uprising, though it lasted much longer and probably involved a larger
proportion of the population). But I want to tell the Tibetan story
with the Palestinian story in the back of my mind.

We don't have much detailed information about the recent
demonstrations or about the repression. Accounts from Tibetan sources
tell of peaceful marches broken up by police and soldiers with clubs
and then with guns. Journalists confirm these accounts but tell also
of riots that involved the looting and burning of Chinese shops and
attacks on individual Chinese settlers. Official sources in Beijing
emphasize the attacks and insist that police and soldiers fired only
in self-defense. Most commentators assume what I will also assume,
that whatever the violence of the demonstrators, the violence of the
repression has been greater. It has also been highly effective very
quickly—a sign of its massiveness and probably of its brutality.

The leader of the Tibetans, the Dalai Lama, and many of his followers
live in exile. They supported the intifada, but criticized the
attacks on Chinese settlers; they also sharply rejected charges by
the Chinese government that they had instigated the uprising. While
participants in the demonstrations chanted slogans calling for an
independent Tibet, the official position of the Dalai Lama asks only
for religious freedom and some sort of autonomy. While supporters of
the intifada urged a boycott of the Beijing Olympics, the Dalai Lama
has refused to support boycott activity.

The Dalai Lama is committed to nonviolence, and so are most of his
followers. So far as I know, terrorism has never been practiced by
the Tibetans -- or even debated as a possible strategy. The
moderation of the official Tibetan political program is, I assume, an
example of reluctant realism. A two-state solution was never
acceptable to the Chinese government, and today it is no longer
possible (this is the biggest difference between Tibet and
Palestine). There is now a Han Chinese majority in Tibet, and no one
imagines the withdrawal of this population, though many of its
members probably long for the China they left behind. Tibetans are a
fairly small and dispersed minority in the neighboring provinces;
they too may long for their lost homeland, but they are unlikely ever
to return. Faced with a great power committed to a program of massive
settlement, they have lost the big political battle for independence.

The Palestinian intifada that began in 1987 led -- partly because
Israeli repression was nowhere near as brutal or effective as what we
have seen in Tibet and partly because Israel's Labor party won the
1992 elections -- to secret negotiations and then to the Oslo
agreement. Will the Tibetan intifada have similar results? I suspect
that it won't. The repression has been too successful, and there is
no opposition party that can contest an election -- and no real
elections to contest. But the fact that the Tibetans are asking for
so little should make it easy to reach an agreement on some measure
of autonomy. The Chinese government has an extraordinary opportunity
to resolve the Tibetan question and perhaps, at the same time, open
the way for an eventual resolution of the status of Taiwan. But while
the Tibetans are pragmatists, at this moment the Chinese are rigid
ideologues. Communist ideology is eroding (and in erosion there is
hope), but it has been replaced by a fierce nationalism that seems to
preclude an agreement on autonomy anytime soon.

Meanwhile, should the Western left be urging a boycott of the
Olympics? What about a boycott of Chinese scholars and universities
-- on the model of the boycott of Israeli scholars and universities
urged by many leftists? We have argued in Dissent against boycotts,
and I think that is the right position. But it isn't an argument for
silence. There are many forms of agitation and demonstration (as we
have recently seen in London and Paris). The people of Tibet have
every right to ask for our active support. But athletes and
academics, and diplomats too, should continue to meet even while we
agitate and demonstrate.

Michael Walzer is the co-editor of Dissent
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