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Tibetan Nationhood -- A Quiet Revolution in the Making

February 15, 2010

Tenzin Dorjee
Khaleej Times (UAE)
February 14, 2010

Last year around this time Tibetans decided to
observe the traditional New Year -- or Losar --
as an occasion of mourning for those killed in
China’s crackdown in 2008 following the Tibet uprising.

Appeals to forego Losar celebrations spread via
text messages, blogs and word of mouth. On Losar,
Tibetans stayed at home and ignored the
fireworks, defying authorities who wanted them to
sing and dance for state media. Overnight
Tibetans turned silence — generally a sign of
submission — into a weapon of resistance. The No
Losar movement was nothing short of civil disobedience in full bloom.

On February 14, Tibetans will again greet Losar
with an air of defiance -- many are planning not
to celebrate while others will embrace cultural
traditions as an act of subversive resistance. A
couple of days later, US President Obama will
meet with His Holiness the Dalai Lama, sending a
signal of hope to Tibetans everywhere. The 2008
Tibetan uprising may now seem a distant memory,
but the dust of resistance is far from settled.
With the new year, a different kind of storm brews over the Tibetan plateau.

Tibetans from Lhasa and Lithang to Markham and
Ngaba have been engaging in experimental forms of
nonviolent resistance in the tradition of Mahatma
Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. Though China’s
intensified repression has created the illusion
of normalcy, Tibetans are ushering in a
grassroots revolution — one that strengthens
Tibetan nationhood and undermines the structure of Chinese colonialism.

This quiet revolution is perhaps best symbolised
by Lhakar -- a movement whose name means White
Wednesday. It’s no secret the Dalai Lama was born
on a Wednesday. Every week on this day, a growing
number of Tibetans in urban and rural Tibet are
making a political statement by wearing
traditional clothes, speaking Tibetan, performing
circumambulations, eating in Tibetan restaurants
and buying from Tibetan-owned businesses.

As a direct response to China’s 2008 crackdown,
Lhakar allows Tibetans to channel their protest
spirit into other methods of resistance that are
self-constructive (e.g. promoting Tibetan
language, culture and civil society) and
non-cooperative (e.g. refusing to support Chinese institutions and businesses.)

In the fight for human rights and independence,
Tibetans have routinely used the most visible
form of resistance: street demonstrations. But
since Beijing put the streets under lockdown, the
resistance has moved indoors into private space.
Lhakar participants practice Tibetan tradition in
their homes, exercising whatever limited rights
they have in their daily lives to strengthen
their political, cultural and social identity.

These individual actions, taken collectively in
such bastions of resistance as Kardze and Ngaba
in eastern Tibet, have compromised Chinese
businesses and prompted more than a few Chinese
settlers to leave Tibet. In one particular town,
all Chinese shops are said to have closed except
for one that sells CDs of Dalai Lama teachings.
Though humble in scale, these noncooperation
tactics evoke Gandhi’s boycott of British textile
and are inspiring thousands to action.

According to the 2009 Freedom House survey of
over 200 countries and territories, Tibet ranks
as "least free" both in political rights and
civil liberties. In this environment,
noncooperation tactics are often more suitable
than protest tactics; they lower the risk of
arrest. You can punish people for protesting in
the streets, but how do you punish someone for staying at home?

Ever since the late 1960s when the last of the
Tibetan guerillas buried their guns at Mustang
base in Nepal, Tibetans have remained loyal to
the principles of nonviolence. After four
decades, strategy and execution are catching up with the principles.

In an epic case of nonviolent triumph over
tyranny, villagers in Markham in eastern Tibet
won a victory reminiscent of the civil rights
movement in their strategic use of nonviolence
and demonstration of courage. Like many other
Tibetan towns, Markham became a target of China’s
resource extraction industry in 2007. The
pollution from Zhongkai Co.’s mining operation
poisoned the local water, and yaks and sheep began losing their hooves.

On May 16, 2009, they raised the stakes -- not by
marching in the street but by sitting down. Using
this intervention tactic, 500 Tibetans linked
arms and sat down, blockading the only road to
the mining site. The authorities responded
predictably, sending armed police to clear up the
situation. The Tibetans did not budge. The police
announced they would shoot those who didn’t
disperse. But the blockaders had taken a collective pledge to "do or die."

When the authorities realised they had only two
options -- massacre all 500 Tibetans and create
an international publicity disaster or shut down
the mining operation — they buckled. On June 8,
the Chinese authorities agreed to cease the
mining operation, handing the Tibetans an unprecedented victory.

Fifty years after Chinese troops marched into
Lhasa, Tibetans are marching in Gandhi’s
footsteps, demonstrating not only courage but
also a deeper understanding of strategic
nonviolence as they fight for fundamental rights
in small, winnable battles. Markham, Lhakar and
the No Losar movement are but three examples that
represent a new era of activism in Tibet where
Tibetans are more strategic and relentless. China
may patrol the streets but it’s the Tibetans who control the resistance.

Tenzin Dorjee is the executive director of
Students for a Free Tibet, an international
grassroots organisation working for Tibetan
freedom, human rights and independence.
CTC National Office 1425 René-Lévesque Blvd West, 3rd Floor, Montréal, Québec, Canada, H3G 1T7
T: (514) 487-0665   ctcoffice@tibet.ca
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