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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?"

Dalai Lama's Time Bomb

July 2, 2008

Some Tibetans have had it with the spiritual leader's nonviolence.
But as Gandhi showed, patience can be the deadliest of weapons.
By Salil Tripathi
Salon (USA)
July 1, 2008

It takes a particular form of confidence to sit across a negotiating
table, armed only with moral courage and wearing religious robes,
facing representatives of one of the world's biggest armies and one
of the five official nuclear powers in the world. That's just what is
happening this week, as representatives of the Dalai Lama -- whom the
Chinese continue to call "the splittist monk," or, as in an official
commentary in the New China News Agency yesterday, "a flunky" – went
to Beijing, ignoring the insults and instead praising reports that
nearly 1,000 Tibetans have been released from Chinese jails.

The Dalai Lama has not had it easy. This is the year of the Olympics
in Beijing, which many supporters of China would like to take place
unchallenged. The run of the Olympic torch earlier this summer was
marred by protests in Western capitals that pitted pro-Tibet
activists, some of whom are resisting the Dalai Lama's nonviolent
convictions, against fiercely nationalist Chinese students and
residents. The Dalai Lama found that government officials in several
Western countries historically sympathetic to the Tibetan cause were
curiously unavailable this year; even in Germany, where Chancellor
Angela Merkel has been vocal in condemning China's human rights
record, this year the Dalai Lama could only meet junior officials.

At one level, the struggle for Tibet's autonomy has become symbolic:
Tibetan independence appears impossible, and while awareness about
the cause has risen, nobody wants to do anything about it for fear of
offending China. Meanwhile, writing in the New York Times last month,
Nicholas Kristoff mentions two Tibetan monks, released recently from
Chinese prisons, where they have been beaten. Their patience is
wearing thin. Till when can we continue to remain nonviolent, they
ask Kristoff.

Those monks are not alone. Younger Tibetans are increasingly
frustrated, as they can't see any light at the end of the tunnel.
Jamyang Norbu, an acclaimed Tibetan writer in exile, believes the
Dalai Lama's approach is too conciliatory; the cause, he says, has
now been fossilized in its own myths.

Keeping the idea of Tibet alive is a formidable challenge. First,
there is the rise of China. Second, the perceived strategic
insignificance of Tibet. And third, what Tibetan activists call
China's cultural genocide in Tibet, as Han Chinese are making
Tibetans a minority in their own land. Since the Chinese influx,
Tibetan culture has been desecrated by the opening of karaoke bars
and brothels near monasteries and the building of in-your-face retail
centers opposite the Potala Palace. Many Tibetans have grown up with
only a dim recollection of the Dalai Lama and a limited awareness of
their faith and traditions.

During the recent uprisings, some Tibetan activists have turned
violent in the face of Chinese provocation. Has nonviolence had its day?

It would be a great tragedy if the Tibetan movement were to cast
aside its nonviolent activism, passive resistance, or civil
disobedience because violence seems more expedient. The pursuit of
nonviolence gives the Tibetan movement its moral appeal. And there is
no reason to believe that a violent uprising will succeed. If
Tibetans turn violent, they will have given up their moral appeal.
Violence, after all, has not given Palestinians the freedom they have
sought, either.

Indeed, of all the world leaders in major struggles of national
identity today, the Dalai Lama comes closest to following the model
associated with Gandhi, who was assassinated 60 years ago this year.
The key difference between them is that Gandhi fought a colonial
power, Britain, which was democratic at home. Tibet's oppressors
aren't. Does this mean nonviolence has only limited appeal and that
it can work only in certain contexts?

At one level, the Indian struggle does seem like an exception. Gandhi
used his training as a barrister from London to argue to the British
that their rule was unjust and illegal. And the British agreed and
left. But it was never that simple: Gandhi's struggle lasted a full
three decades, and during that period, the British often responded
with force, and at other times with cunning, subterfuge, and divisive
politics. They left in 1947 when they found that sustaining the
empire was no longer possible economically, politically, or morally.

And the Dalai Lama's struggle is not the only such: Even after the
Prague Spring faded, the playwright Vaclav Havel insisted that he'd
live the truth, not lies that the Soviet-backed Czechoslovak
government imposed. Like Gandhi, Havel was jailed, but he never gave
up. His patience and stubbornness were rewarded: Two decades later,
Havel became the Czech Republic's president. Democracies, even flawed
ones, understand this moral force: That's why Israel expelled the
nonviolent activist Mubarak Awad in the 1980s; now, Sari Nusseibeh is
giving Gandhian tactics another chance in the Middle East.

Violence always appears more expedient in the short run. But the
whole point of nonviolence is the choice of certain means over others
to attain particular ends. In February 1922, Indian activists were
marching through a small town called Chauri Chaura in northern India,
ostensibly part of Satyagraha, the nonviolent movement Gandhi
founded. They ran into a group of policemen. The activists shouted
slogans; the police beat them up. Just then, a larger group of
activists arrived and chased the policemen, who ran to the local
police station. The activists locked the police station from outside
and burned the building, killing over 20 policemen.

It was an isolated incident, and Gandhi could have viewed it as such.
But he termed the incident "a divine warning" and decided that
tempers had to cool. He would not surrender the moral authority he
sought to base, violent instincts; Gandhi knew what violence begat:
more violence. In one of the more memorable statements attributed to
him, Gandhi said: "An eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind."
Against the advice of his senior allies, he suspended the movement.

That's the answer to what the Dalai Lama should do if the Tibetan
uprising turns violent -- suspend the movement. He can do so, because
his sense of "time" differs from that of leaders in business and
politics. Corporations think of the next quarter. Politicians in a
democratic society think of the next election. Communists think a
generation ahead. But in the Dalai Lama they have a unique rival. If
he has to, he is prepared to wait for his next incarnation in order
not to surrender his moral authority.

Can the suffering of his followers wait that long, though? Some are
losing patience; some want freedom in this world, not from the world.
Can the Dalai Lama keep them calm even as he tries to shame the
Chinese into doing the right thing?

Overwhelming evidence seems to suggest not. This week's talks are
unlikely to yield much, if any, progress, and could push more
Tibetans to the boiling point. But listen to Gandhi again: "When I
despair, I remember that all through history the way of truth and
love has always won. There have been tyrants and murderers and for a
time they seem invincible, but in the end, they always fall -- think
of it, always."

Salil Tripathi is a writer based in London.
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