When instability peaks

Series of self-immolations, mass protests by Tibetan Buddhists usher hints of Tibetan Spring.

Protest in Tibet (photo credit: Saransh Sehgal)
Protest in Tibet
(photo credit: Saransh Sehgal)
Protests by Tibetans who defy Beijing’s sovereignty have been routine for 50 years. However, over the past 11 months a new type of demonstration by Tibetan Buddhists, mostly monks and nuns, has taken place, shocking the world community. Tibetan Buddhists are sacrificing their lives by setting themselves on fire, sending the message loud and clear – the Tibet issue is alive.
Close to two dozen self-immolations and mass protests have occurred in the ethnic Tibetan areas of Sichuan and Gansu provinces inside China – the epicenter of the most violent period for Tibetans since 2008, when the deadly rioting in Tibet’s capital, Lhasa, extended to Tibetan areas in neighboring provinces. Today, the Himalayan plateau region inside China is causing fears the growing instability in a region inside the rising economic superpower might become a massive popular uprising.
The reasons are obvious; the communist regime’s despotic cultural and religious policies toward Tibetans, the massive influx of Han Chinese into Tibetan-populated areas and Tibetans’ frustration given the absence of their spiritual head the Dalai Lama, who since the failed uprising in 1959 fled to India and never returned.
The region’s social unrest is such that almost every week news emerges of another self-immolation or protest, and Chinese military clampdowns on Tibetans are becoming widespread. Because of these intensified tensions over the past year, Beijing has flooded the area with troops and closed Tibetan regions to foreigners entirely, even barring the international media.
According to the Chinese government, all this is the fault of the Tibetan exiles and the 14th Dalai Lama, who Beijing claims is a separatist and a wolf in monk’s robes and blames for every unrest related to Tibetans.
The Dalai Lama hasn’t been saying much publicly with regard to the recent crisis, however, Tibet’s third-highest monk, the exiled 17th Gyalwang Karmapa, Ogyen Trinley Dorje, who also resides in Dharamsala (the base in exile of the Dalai Lama and thousands of Tibetan exiles in India) urged Beijing to confess the real human distress of Tibetans and take full responsibility for what is happening in Tibet.
Many would say Tibet seems to have little history in common with Israel. Yet much like the Jews after the devastation of the Second Temple, today Tibetans face a similar unnerving task of conserving their religious culture and hopes of nationalism while facing an uncertain exile.
The writer focuses on the geopolitics of Tibet and stories that touch the Himalayan region.
Exclusive interview with Dr. Lobsang Sangay, Tibetan Government in Exile
In an exclusive telephone conversation with Dr. Lobsang Sangay, the prime minister of the self-proclaimed Tibetan Government in Exile in India, says China has made Tibetans’ lives worse and the protests are calling world attention to China’s brutality inside Tibet. Sangay became prime minister last year when the Dalai Lama devolved his political powers as a leader of Tibet to the government in exile. Sangay heads the highest political position in the exile community.
Here are a few excerpts from the interview:
How do you see the Tibet unrest which has triggered series of self-immolations and mass protests in the Tibetan areas inside China?
It’s turning out to be another tragic situation, where unfortunately Tibetans are ready to die rather than live under the Chinese repressive policies and occupation of Tibet. The Chinese government is continuing its military buildup and undeclared martial law. There were so many troops before, and with the current unrest they are sending hundreds and thousands more.
What is your view on Beijing’s approach to the recent unrest inside the Tibetan areas?
There are now taking it seriously because recently Chinese premier Wen Jiabao commented on the tragedy, but unfortunately they have made it into a blame game and denial. And in fact local Chinese officials in Aba [province in China’s western Sichuan region, the epicenter of recent turmoil] have declared war against the protesters.
The point is, which country and its government declares war against its own people? On the one hand when Chinese people protest they are allowed to protest anywhere they want – be it Beijing or Lhasa – and are treated with moderation, their voices and grievances are addressed. On the other hand, as far as Tibetans are concerned they, in their own place, cannot gather peacefully.
Would you term the Tibet crisis a “Tibetan Spring”?
There was a massive uprising inside Tibet in March 2008, and what is now happening is the continuation of that with increasing Chinese crackdown and resistance against China’s repressive policies by Tibetans.
The entire thing is turning out to be a massive protest against Chinese policies. Now, whether it will take nationwide or not... is in the hands of the Chinese government. If they deal with it with leniency, more moderately, we can find a peaceful solution to the issue.
What do you think is the real cause of these recent incidents?
The main cause, I think, is the rejection by Tibetans of the Chinese occupation of Tibet, and the question of Tibetan ethnicity. ...Fifty years of Beijing’s policies have failed to produce any good for Tibetans. Our religion and cultural identity is almost vanishing from Tibet.
What do the Tibetan exiles fear? Is there something they wish for?
What we are trying to do is we have urged Tibetans from the very beginning not to protest inside Tibet, given the harsh consequences of getting arrested. We have always said life is precious, and in January we urged Tibetans to refrain from taking extreme steps. His Holiness the Dalai Lama has always discouraged such actions and we continue to maintain that. Despite this, Tibetans inside Tibet are still protesting and giving up their lives and it becomes our sacred duty to show solidarity and highlight the voices and cries of those Tibetans who are self-immolating as they speak for Tibetan freedom and the return of His Holiness the Dalai Lama to Tibet.How do you think the world should react to this unrest?
We welcome all the support from different countries, but what we’d like to see is concrete action. The embassy officials could visit these affected areas and show concerns locally as well, and then investigate the reality and the reason why Tibetans are protesting and why there is a crackdown – and inform their respective governments.
And particularly for Asia; Tibet is very relevant from a geopolitical point of view, and in history it has played a great role in the central Asian region. Tibet has 10 rivers flowing from the region. It is a major source of water to the south Asian region. But since the Chinese occupation worse effects have been seen inside Tibet, ...directly affecting the climate in the Asian region. All the neighboring countries are affected by... China’s rise – so the Asian organizations such as SAARC should press the Chinese government as the world wishes for a more moderate and reasonable China. Because what is happening in China is detrimental to its image, and the claim of peaceful rising is nothing but a threat.
There will be new leadership in China as Xi Jingping will succeed Hu as general secretary and president in 2012. Do you think it will be fruitful for the Tibet negotiations with the Tibetan exiles?
The call by Hu Jintao for harmony within China is not happening in Tibet. But we remain always hopeful that any change in the leadership, with new personality and new thinking, will be productive.
[For] the past 50 years, it has not been possible, so we hope the new leadership will rethink Tibet policy. From our side we are always willing to have dialogue to solve the Tibet issue peacefully and we stand for genuine autonomy within the People’s Republic of China.
How do you think the conditions will change in the future?
We want a peaceful situation, we do not want another tragedy unfolding inside Tibet. That is our hope, but given the military buildup, it’s a no tourist zone and even barred to international media, so even if a tragedy unfolds inside Tibet no one will know what happened. Such is the situation.
– S.S.