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Stigmata: The Passion of Tenzin Tsundue, the Tibetan Uprising and China

March 23, 2009

Tenzin Tsundue
Asia Pacific Journal: Japan Focus
March 21, 2009

On June 21, the Chinese government was able to
claim a victory of sorts, at least in terms of
the semiotics of state power, by orchestrating an
incident-free, albeit truncated Olympic torch relay through Lhasa.

Almost contemporaneously, a 1300-kilometer,
ninety day march through India to the Tibetan
border organized by the Tibetan People's Uprising
Movement (hereafter TPUM) fizzled to a miserable
conclusion as its last few dozen members were
arrested as they tried to peacefully shoulder
their way past a blockade of 200 Indian police in
the remote border town of Dharchula. The marchers
were released—and subsequently dispersed--amid international indifference.

The Tibetan People’s Uprising Movement

A key to understanding TPUM, its long march-- and
its possible role in the unrest that roiled
ethnic Tibetan regions of the People's Republic
of China in March 2008--may be found in the
personality of Tenzin Tsundue, the charismatic
author and activist who is trying to remake the
Tibetan exile movement, seemingly by force of his individual will.

Tenzin Tsundue, left, shouts slogans after
burning a 200 square meter Chinese flag which was
dragged through the streets in a procession led
by Tsundue, in Dharmsala, India, Nov. 22, 2006.
Hundreds of exiles took part in the procession
shouting 'Hu Jintao Go Back' and 'Free Tibet'
protesting the Chinese president's visit to India. AP Photo/Ashwini Bhatia

In March of this year, as riots spread across the
Tibetan areas, Tsundue languished in an Indian
prison, burning his hands with cigarettes--in
frustration? in expiation?--as the movement he
had struggled to create careened out of control,
and the grand gesture he hoped to orchestrate was
crushed by geopolitical realities.

Tsundue midwifed TPUM. His energy, ideas, and
prestige were apparently indispensable in helping
conceive TPUM, create its underlying coalition, and define its mission.

If bulletin board chatter is to be believed, he
was also instrumental in securing his ally
Tsewang Rigzin's election as president of the
Tibetan Youth Congress late last year -- mounting
what one poster characterized as "a giant
campaign" --thereby securing the commitment of
that group's resources and prestige to TPUM:

TPUM is a coalition of five leading NGOs in the
Tibetan exile movement: the Tibetan Youth
Congress, a relatively militant Tibetan
independence advocacy group; the National
Democracy Party of Tibet, its political arm; the
Tibetan Women's Association; Gu-Chu-Sam, an
organization of monks who were ex-political
prisoners inside the PRC; and Students for a Free
Tibet (India). Tsundue was at one time the
General Secretary of Students for a Free Tibet (India).

TPUM was established in November of last year in
an atmosphere of great urgency. The PRC was
responding to the aging Dalai Lama's overtures
with cynical temporizing. The 2008 Olympics
looked to be a showcase for China's economic and
political progress, and a chance to assert its
leading role throughout Asia at the expense of
Tibetan aspirations. The opening of the railroad
to Lhasa presaged the further integration of
Tibetan areas into the PRC and dilution of
Tibetan identity and nationalist fervor.

TPUM, while professing to respect the Dalai
Lama's stature as the embodiment of Tibetan
culture, repudiated his political concessions (he
had abandoned calls for Tibetan independence in
favor of autonomy) and his conciliatory tactics
(he supported the Beijing Olympics and
discouraged confrontational anti-PRC positions and statements).

Early this year, TPUM issued a defiant manifesto
and video appeal calling for Tibetan independence
and the stripping of the Olympics away from
Beijing. It announced a march of activists "to Tibet" from India.

And, most problematically -- and ambiguously --
TPUM seemed to call for corresponding direct
action from sympathizers inside Tibet.

TPUM and the Lhasa Uprising

The manifesto called for a "global movement of
Tibetans inside and outside of Tibet taking
control of our political destiny by engaging in direct action”.

The video appeal included the statement "we must
rise up and resist and bring about an even
greater Uprising. An Uprising that will shake the
Chinese government to its core."

And somehow, on May 10, in Lhasa, on the 49th
anniversary of Tibetan National Uprising Day, something happened.

A large group of monks emerged from their
monasteries that evening and appeared in Lhasa's
central square to engage in a silent protest.

Then, somebody on the monk side or the public
security side lost their cool, arrests were made,
and the situation deteriorated into a nasty
car-burning, store-torching, people-beating riot
conducted by Tibetan citizens of Lhasa against
the detested Chinese interlopers.

Rioters burn vehicles and shops in a street in
Lhasa, Tibet Autonomous Region March 14, 2008

Sympathetic demonstrations and actions spread to
multiple locations inside the PRC Tibetan areas
and triggered a crackdown, a disputed number of
deaths, a slew of arrests and -- in response to
an avalanche of negative press, opinion, and
demonstrations in the West that threw the Olympic
torch relay into chaos—a stream of vociferously
nationalistic and abusive articles in the Chinese
press concerning the role of TPUM and the Tibetan
Youth Congress in fomenting the disturbances.

Western media outlets -- apparently loath to abet
China's crude play of the "outside agitator" card
when widespread domestic discontent against PRC
rule was patent in the Tibetan areas -- didn't take the bait.

And on the one occasion I could find in which a
Western outlet solicited a comment from TPUM,
Tsewang Rigzin -- the leader of the Tibetan Youth
Congress and TPUM’s main organizational muscle --
denied any role in the protests inside China.

However, I don't think it's necessarily that simple.

As a matter of self-preservation, TPUM has to be
coy about organizing or encouraging any activities inside Tibet.

Currently, India is a lot more interested in
managing relations with China than accommodating
the dreams of the Tibetan exile community. If
there's a whiff of suspicion that Tibetan groups
inside India are working to destabilize PRC rule
in its ethnic Tibetan regions, arrest,
prohibition, or even deportation are the likely
fates awaiting TPUM and its members.

Even if TPUM had gone beyond hoping and wishing
to actively planning or encouraging a
manifestation in Lhasa on May 11, either directly
or through cut-outs, plausible deniability would
have to be maintained if the organization were to
continue to enjoy its safe haven in India.

To gain a better understanding of the goals and
activities of TPUM, it might be revealing to take
a look at TPUM's guiding light.

That's apparently not Tsewang Rigzin of the
relatively large (30,000 member) and high profile
Tibetan Youth Congress, who is the public face of
the Tibetan independence movement.

Tenzin Tsundue

It's Tenzin Tsundue, who lives the life of an
impoverished, itinerant Tibetan independence
activist, currently holding no position as far as
I can tell in TPUM or its constituent NGOs.

Tenzin Tsundue is a prolific author of poetry and
prose who has earned his place as the spokesman
for the younger generation of Tibetan exiles,
born outside their homeland, frustrated and
radicalized by their eroding identity and the
political impotence of their elders.

He won an Indian literary prize for a piece of
anguished non-fiction written in English, My Kind
of Exile, describing the profound alienation of young Tibetan exiles.

One passage provides an interesting perspective
on his remarkably strong feelings about the
Olympics -- and perhaps provides an insight into
TPUM’s passionate desire to strip the Games from Beijing:

In October 2000 the world was tuned in to the
Sydney Olympics. In the hostel, on D-day we were
all glued to the TV set eager for the opening
ceremony to begin. Halfway into the event I
realised that I couldn't see clearly anymore and
my face felt wet. I was crying. No, it wasn't the
fact that I dearly wished I was in Sydney or the
splendour of the atmosphere or the spirit of the
games. I tried hard to explain to those around
me. But they couldn't understand, couldn't even
begin to understand...how could they? They belong
to a nation. They have never had to conceive of
its loss, they have never had to cry for their
country. They belonged and had a space of their
own not only on the world map but also in the
Olympic games. Their countrymen could march
proudly, confident of their nationality, in their
national dress and with their national flag
flying high. I was so happy for them.

'Night comes down, but your stars are missing'

Neruda spoke for me when I was silent, drowned in
tears. Quietly watching the rest of the show I
was heavy and breathless. They talked about
borderlessness and building brotherhood through
the spirit of games. From the comfort of home
they talked about coming together for one
humanity and defying borders. What can I, a
refugee, talk about except the wish to go back home?

Tsundue cemented his renown by two high-profile
actions targeting high Chinese officials visiting
India, which started with daring climbs up
skyscrapers to unfurl pro-independence banners,
and concluded with his arrest and triumphant release.

He credits the pusillanimous response of the
Tibetan government in exile to his harassment by
the Indian authorities for catalyzing the five
NGOs to come together to form TPUM.

Tsundue cultivates the air of an ascetic -- a
restless wanderer, owning little more than the
clothes on his back, supporting himself by
selling books of his poetry from a
rucksack--whose holy cause is Tibetan independence.

His signature affectation is a red headscarf
bandana that he has vowed not to remove until
Tibet is free. He's worn it for eight years now,
raising interesting questions of hygiene,
mechanics, and textile engineering. The
smooth-pated and tidy Dalai Lama apparently
greeted him by asking, “Don't you feel hot and sweaty on your forehead?”

The picture is of a lone warrior. However, as a
recent interview in the Indian magazine Tehelka
reveals, Tsundue moved beyond individual action to organizing.

The March to Tibet

Tsundue was interviewed in the context of the
march to Tibet, which sputtered along
ignominiously until it ended at the Indian border
on June 18, continuously harassed by the Indian
authorities but not in a manner heavy-handed
enough to attract international attention and sympathy.

Describing his central role in the formation of TPUM, Tsundue said:

His Holiness and the Tibetan government-in-exile
don't want confrontation, so some of us began to
work on creating internal unity. We worked on
bringing the five key Tibetan NGOS together.
There has never been a common programme between
them. The Youth Congress, which is the largest
outfit, is committed to total freedom, while the
Women's Association, which is the second largest,
is closer to His Holiness' 'middle way' position
and wants only autonomy. It took months of
discussion before we presented an idea which
brought people together. The idea was to march
back to Tibet. We were going back to our own
country. ...So on January 4 this year, we
announced the Tibetan People’s Uprising Movement
and the march to Tibet. Right up to February, the
government said it was disassociating itself from
the NGOs. But there was such a swell in public
mood they were forced to say they are willing to
work with us. This is a major turn of events.


As noted above, Tsundue apparently took a
pro-active role to ensure that Tsewang Rigzin,
who is sympathetic to his strategy, was elected
head of the Tibetan Youth Congress.

Tsundue and Non-Violence

In the article, Tsundue repeatedly affirms his
commitment to non-violence, stating that this is
one point on which he and the Dalai Lama are in agreement.

However, in a 2005 New York Times Sunday Magazine
profile, The Restless Children of the Dalai Lama,
(which also notes in passing his already strong
preoccupation with the Beijing Olympics) he
indicated to a sympathetic interviewer that he
did not consider nonviolence as a Buddhist
imperative that he was bound to honor under all
circumstances. His commitment to non-violence is
less than absolute and, in a certain light, looks rather situational:

One evening at the Peace Cafe, [Tsundue] told me
that he could not rule out violence as a last
resort. "Seeking Buddhahood," he said, "is one
thing, and freedom for a country is another. We
are fighting for freedom in the world and not freedom from the world."

...

Tsundue ...said that he could not identify
Tibetan culture exclusively with Buddhism and
that the preference for nonviolent politics could
also become an excuse for passivity and inaction.
"Our leaders quote Gandhi," Tsundue said. "But
Gandhi saw British rule in India as an act of
violence and said that resistance to it was a
duty. I see the Chinese railway to Lhasa as a
similar act of violence. What's wrong with
blowing up a few bridges? How can such resistance be termed wrong and immoral?"

In the 2008 Tehelka article, he returns to the
issue of non-violence, drawing a distinction
between the Dalai Lama's commitment to
non-violence and non-confrontation with Gandhi's
willingness to confront the British.

And Tsundue went a step beyond Gandhi.

Asked to name his influences, he cited Gandhi...and Bhagat Singh.

A scramble to Wikipedia reveals that Bhagat Singh
was a fire-eating advocate of Indian independence
martyred by the British at the age of 24 in 1931,
entitled to the title of Shaheed, and a
posthumous hero to militant pro-independence Indian youth.

Singh, an atheist-anarchist-socialist, had rather
shaky non-violent credentials. He threw a bomb
into the Indian assembly, apparently to attract
attention but not wanting to hurt anybody.

However, after arrest he was tried and executed
by the British when they discovered Singh’s
culpability for an assassination he had botched,
botched unfortunately not in the way of not
succeeding, but in killing the wrong police
administrator in trying to avenge the beating
death of a leading activist during a non-violent protest.

Bhagat Singh in jail

The waters are further muddied by apparently
unsubstantiated allegations by militants that
Gandhi didn't employ his enormous influence with
the British Raj to commute Singh's sentence,
instead allowing him to go to his death.

Readers are welcome to unpack the parallels:
Singh/Tsundue vs. Gandhi/Dalai Lama as they see
fit. One author went the distance and spiked the
metaphorical ball in the end zone, declaring
Tsundue the Tibetan independence movement's "Che
Guerva [sic]/Gandhi love child.”

The TPUM and Non-Violence

An injudicious interview by the TYC's Tsewang
Rigzin with Corriere della Serra in March
reinforces a sense of TPUM's ambivalence about
non-violence, describing pacifism as "a blind
alley," international sympathy as useless, and an
alternate future in which Tibetan emigres turn to Palestinian-style violence.

It appears that Tsundue's doctrine does not
involve simple non-violence. It involves
non-violent confrontation with the option for
righteous violence in self-defence if the opponent escalates the situation.

Would that fit in with a risky maneuver to
encourage Buddhist monks in Lhasa to stage a
courageous, non-violent, silent protest that
would perhaps trigger a confrontation and
widespread unrest throughout the Tibetan areas of
the PRC -- and provide an electrifying context,
perhaps including a flood of refugees surging
toward India, for the appearance of a brave band
of Tibetan independence activists marching toward
their homeland just as the eyes of the world are
on China and its painstakingly choreographed Olympic torch photo-op in Lhasa?

I'm just speculating, of course. TPUM never
announced objectives for the March to Tibet,
preferring to respond ad hoc to the facts on the ground.

In the event, the situation inside the PRC
descended into violence so quickly -- and with
enough enthusiastic participation by anti-PRC
Tibetans—to utterly obscure any potential
narrative of a courageous, non-violent confrontation by the monks of Lhasa.

And the Chinese swept aside any political agenda
for the confrontation, framing the unrest in
terms of riot, sedition, and terrorism, and
undoubtedly putting irresistible pressure on the
Indian government to rein in Dharmsala and let
TPUM and its march wither on the vine.

Tsundue and the March

A question from Tehelka's reporter prompts an
interesting revelation from Tsundue concerning
his state of mind during the march:

How did you get these burns on both your hands?

Cigarettes. I did it to myself in jail a few
weeks ago. I had a very troubling time. We had
started on our march from Dharamsala, we were
arrested on the fourth day. ... What was most
frustrating was that while we were hearing that
the whole of Tibet was rising up and the Chinese
police was butchering them, I was supposed to be
in a free country but I was in jail and couldn't
do anything. We were in jail for 14 days; all 14
days, people were being killed in Tibet. It was a
most frustrating time. I urged our leaders to
call a hunger strike so things would go out of
hand and the police would have to release us. But
they thought this would further aggravate the
situation and create tension. I said, this is the
time to create tension, but they said it would
lead to more problems. So it was a very difficult time.

But why burn yourself? Was that to internalise the anger?

Yes, I think so (Long silence). It's not just
anger but also how to maintain peace (Laughs).

In addition to anger and peace, there is a third possibility: despair.

The despair of a man who has tried to will a
viable independence movement into existence by
the force of his intellect, energy, and
personality...but who now finds himself
humiliatingly incarcerated in an Indian jail
while a longed-for confrontation inside Lhasa,
instead of yielding catharsis, unity, and
triumph, quickly descended (no doubt with a
helpful shove from the Chinese) into chaos and bloodshed.

I wonder how Tsundue felt on June 21, after the
PRC government was able to conduct its Olympic torch run through Lhasa.

Three days earlier, the Long Marchers, shrunk to
a core of 57 people, tried to enter the Indian
border town of Darchula opposite Tibet.
Surrounded by Indian police, the marchers broke
into groups of four and tried to enter the town.

They were arrested by Indian police and
subsequently released. The March to Tibet was over.

Tsundue was apparently not there. He was
embroiled in legal proceedings in the city of
Dehra pertaining to his arrest in the early stage of the march.

Despite brave talk of the value of the March to
Tibet as a consciousness-raising exercise, it
looks more like a demoralizing defeat, whose most
dire consequences will be felt by the Tibetan
exiles themselves, and not the PRC.

It turns out the Dalai Lama had asked the
marchers to abandon their action and they
rebuffed him, exacerbating the existing division
between young militants and older moderates, no doubt to Beijing's delight.

One can probably add to that problem fresh
fissures within the pro-independence coalition
itself as the costs of the quixotic exercise are
tallied up, and the strategy, tactics, and
judgment of the movement's leaders are called
into question, perhaps even by the leaders themselves.

TPUM and the Olymics

Another test of TPUM’s continued viability and
relevance will come this August, as the Olympic
Games commence in Beijing and the Tibetan
independence movement strives for a meaningful
public relations and political triumph.

With the Chinese capital under tight control and
TPUM’s effectiveness open to question, it’s unclear what August will bring.

Will we see high profile unrest in the PRC’s
Tibetan areas that triggers calls for a boycott
of the opening ceremonies or more? A denunciation
of China’s Tibet policy by a medaling athlete? Or
just hastily unfurled and brusquely confiscated
flags and banners, and more mental and physical anguish for Tenzin Tsundue?

Or will we see something new and disturbing as
Tsundue and the younger generation of Tibetans
strive to articulate a political doctrine beyond
pure non-violence and TPUM tries to lead the
exile movement into its post-Dalai Lama future?

We may have an answer before the end of August.


China Hand is the author of the Asian affairs website China Matters.

This article was written for Japan Focus and posted on July 8, 2008.

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