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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?"

Return to Tibet: Why The March Matters

June 23, 2008

By Tenzing Sonam
June 21, 2008

The Return March to Tibet ended three days ago at the entrance to the
remote border town of Darchula, deep in the hills of Uttarakhand
state. The fifty remaining marchers surrendered peacefully, albeit
with great emotion and passion, to several hundred policemen who
blocked their way. Having intermittently filmed the progress of the
march from its inception in Dharamsala right up to its conclusion at
Darchula, and having spent 14 days camped out with the marchers
during the police blockade at Seraghat and Banspatan, I believe that
the significance of this march goes beyond simply a judgment on
whether it achieved its stated goal of reaching Tibet or not. In its
own humble way, the Return March to Tibet could possibly signal a
turning point in exile Tibetan politics; it could be remembered as
the first genuinely democratic action initiated and carried out by
ordinary Tibetans desperate to do their bit for the larger Tibetan
cause, despite opposition and even condemnation from within their own

Five NGOs who, between them, represent a significant proportion of
the Tibetan diaspora, but who don't necessarily share the same
political objectives, managed to come together under the banner,
Tibetan People's Uprising Movement, to initiate and carry out this
action. This in itself is a laudable effort. Too often in exile we
have seen the larger goal of working for the cause of Tibet
sacrificed in the interests of petty in-fighting and personal
squabbling. It has not been easy for the five organisations to
cooperate in this manner, particularly as there have been divisive
elements within some of the groups that have opposed this
collaborative effort and sought to undermine it. The Return March to
Tibet has proved that when individual organisations put aside their
differences and join forces in the interests of a larger common goal,
they can not only work together effectively but can also attract
support and participation from a much broader section of the community.

During the 'siege' of Banspatan, I was privileged to observe the
marchers at close quarters and to share in some of their trials and
tribulations. The first thing that impressed me was the fact that
they represented the entire cross-section of Tibetan society: the
youngest was 17, the oldest was in his 70s; there were newcomers from
Tibet, and those who had spent their entire lives in exile; there
were monks and nuns, and there were laypersons; and most
interestingly, there were ardent supporters of both independence and
the Middle Way Approach for genuine autonomy.

There was a strong sense of solidarity among the marchers that
expressed itself in some unexpected ways. The first time the police
came out in full force in a show of intimidation, and then retreated,
the marchers expressed their relief in a spontaneous eruption of song
and dance. Young monks who had recently escaped from the Tawu region
of Kham, recalled the songs and dances of their youth and before
long, they were joined by the other marchers. A Toepa gorshay (round
dance) broke out and suddenly, the Amdowas and Khampas in the group
had linked hands with their Central Tibetan cousins and were stepping
in time with gusto. The tension that had hung over the camp soon
dissipated. One could only guess at what the few watching policemen
and the local villagers made of this carnival-like atmosphere so soon
after the tense showdown. To me, there was something quintessentially
Tibetan about the scene. Watching them filled me with a deep yearning
for all the things we were losing as a people and a nation.

The days were hot at Banspatan and during the long, sultry
afternoons, there were animated discussions in many of the tents. I
filmed one such debate. A group of monks were embroiled in an
exchange of such passion and ferocity that to a casual observer, it
might have appeared as if they were on the verge of coming to blows.
Shoving and pushing each other in the manner of a particularly heated
dialectical debate, they were discussing the relative merits of the
Middle Way Approach and independence as a goal for the Tibetan
struggle. Proponents of both positions held their ground and tried to
convince the other of the validity of their arguments, while
onlookers joined in from the sidelines with their own comments. This
was not a stray incident; over the next few days, I heard the same
debate continuing in different tents and with different voices, but
always with the same enthusiasm and excitement. Such passionate and
open discussions about the direction of our political movement are
still rare in our exile community, and I was encouraged by this sign
that things might be changing.

Before the march began in Dharamsala, I interviewed several marchers.
One of the questions I asked was what they would do if the Dalai Lama
asked them to stop the march. The interviewees included monks, nuns
and lay people, both young and old. These were hardly radical
activists. On the contrary, they were for the most part, ordinary
Tibetans, all devoted and loyal followers of their spiritual leader.
Yet, each one answered without hesitation that they would continue
the march no matter what happened. They had made a commitment that
they were determined to fulfil, and they believed that they were
engaged in a non-violent action that was for the benefit of the
larger Tibetan cause. Their determination was put to the test when
first, the newly instituted Solidarity Committee, and then the Dalai
Lama himself, asked the organisers to end the march. But despite the
pressure, the march continued. I interviewed several of the marchers
again about what they thought about this apparent opposition to the
wishes of the Dalai Lama, and was struck by the political maturity of
some of their replies. The Dalai Lama, they said, was bound by his
endless compassion to consider the larger good of all humanity and
therefore, was incapable of supporting any action that might lead to
a confrontation, whether with the Chinese or with the Indian
authorities. They, on the other hand, had a responsibility to do
something and as long as their motivation was pure and their actions
non-violent, they were certain that they were not going against their
leader's wishes.

The Return March to Tibet is one of the few times ordinary Tibetans
have marched, literally, to the beat of their own convictions. In
this, it echoes the spirit of the Lhasa Uprising of March 1959, when
thousands of Tibetans, in an attempt to protect the Dalai Lama,
refused to leave the Norbulingka Palace despite the appeals of their
leader. This is in keeping with the stated aim of the Tibetan
People's Uprising Movement, which is to revive the spirit of the
Lhasa Uprising and to bring about an end to China's illegal
occupation of Tibet through non-violent action. That morning in
Darchula, when the last of the marchers was bodily carried into a bus
and driven out of Uttarakhand state, I felt sad but also optimistic.
What I had just witnessed seemed to represent not so much the end of
a particular action but the beginning of a new-found sense of
individual responsibility and political activism. None of us may have
any answers about how or when the Tibetan situation will be resolved,
but what we exile Tibetans can do is to strengthen our democratic
foundations by exercising our rights to free expression and action.
In the long term, the existence of a strong, democratic exile
establishment may be one of the only sources of hope and
encouragement for the people of Tibet.

Tenzing Sonam is a filmmaker and writer currently based in New Delhi.
He is the co-director of White Crane Films (

The views expressed in this piece are that of the author and the
publication of the piece on this website does not necessarily reflect
their endorsement by the website.
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