China fears the living Tibetans – not those who set fire to themselves

By Dibyesh Anand

The eyes of the international media may be on Tibet once again, but this wave of self-immolation will not help its people.

Protest by self-immolation is a new phenomenon in Tibet. Stories of young people burning themselves in protest against the draconian policies and practices of the Chinese government are coming out of the country on almost a daily basis. Unfortunately, both the Chinese government and the Tibetan leaders in exile are responding to this human tragedy solely in terms of a blame game.

The Tibetan exile government as well as the activists ascribe self-immolations to the repressive nature of the Chinese rule that leaves Tibetans with no other option but to sacrifice their lives to remind the world of their pain. The Chinese government blames the Dalai Lama and the exiles for encouraging this form of protest to create more instability inside China and generate international sympathy. This politics of blame marshals the same old adversarial vocabulary that has been the hallmark of Sino-Tibetan relations since 1959 and has failed to achieve any accommodation so far. It certainly falls short of addressing the immediate crisis in hand – the loss of human lives due to the copycat phenomenon of self-immolation.

The fact that Tibet is back in the international news and the exiles in India and the west are galvanising their movement in solidarity with the self-immolating protesters indicates that the acts are already having some impact. But at what cost? Does any of this make the key demand of Tibetans inside Tibet – the return of the Dalai Lama and the right to be treated with dignity – closer to fruition?

Self-immolation is not nonviolent. It is, in fact, a violence against oneself. Harming one's own corporeal being is unjustifiable and goes against most interpretations of Buddhism. It certainly goes against the hard work put by the Dalai Lama and other Tibetan religious figures to equate Tibetan Buddhism and identity with nonviolence. Though violence, as much as nonviolence, was always part and parcel of Tibetan history and culture, the 14th Dalai Lama has been singularly successful in associating the Tibet cause with nonviolence. Won't his lifetime's work go waste if this novel form of political protest spreads like a wildfire? No community can exercise patience, something that nonviolent resistance demands, in the face of young men killing themselves.

Collective politics, especially at times of stress and in a context of repression, tends to become rapidly radicalised as individuals feel the pressure to perform in specific ways. Compromise becomes a bad word. And as the performance of patriotism and loyalty toward the Dalai Lama become associated with immolating oneself to protest against the Chinese rule, more Tibetan lives will be lost in the coming days. How does that benefit the Tibetan cause?

International media will soon lose interest for the repetitive deaths are not newsworthy ("what's new?") and there is no powerful foreign government interested in rocking the Chinese boat. With the ongoing economic crisis at home and major changes in west Asia and north Africa that are exposing western government's hypocrisy toward democracy and human rights, it is naive to believe that any additional pressure would be applied on China. In any case, the Chinese government's main concern is what people within China feel. Given the almost total censorship of information in the country as well as the widespread Han chauvinism that perceives Tibetans as insolent younger brothers to be taken care of by the more progressive Han Chinese majority, self-immolations will not bring about solidarity with the tens of millions of marginalised Chinese. In fact, the Chinese government will get an opportunity to portray Tibetans as religious fanatics who cannot be reasoned with. The victory of the Tibetan movement in terms of getting international attention will prove to be pyrrhic.

So the exile leadership faces a dilemma and has two options.

Should it use the protests to rejuvenate Tibetans and their supporters all over the world, even if it means indirectly encouraging the attractiveness of this heroic sacrifice for the already-suffering young Tibetans inside China? Or should it highlight the continuing oppression of Tibetans inside China but at the same time discourage self-immolation by publicly calling for, and privately working for, the Tibetans in the affected region to treasure their lives for the survival of the nation? The new political leadership underLobsang Sangay, the prime minister of the government in exile, has so far been to go for the first option.

But it needs to address the disjuncture between the commitment to the middle way of the Dalai Lama (which entails genuine autonomy for the Tibetans within the People's Republic of China and struggle to seek that through nonviolent means) and the actual reality of a struggle where individual lives are being sacrificed.
However, it is the religious leaders in exile who must take the initiative here. It is they who should go for the second option. The Karmapa, the third highest lama in Tibetan Buddhist hierarchy, has expressed his discomfort with political suicides. Other individual lamas too have expressed their disquiet. But we are still waiting for the Dalai Lama to make his views known on this. Will he go with the political leadership's strategy of solidarity with self-immolation or will he adopt a less popular but religiously compatible stance of requesting the Tibetans inside China not to indulge in self-immolation? Of all the people, he knows best that China does not fear the dead or the dying monks. It fears the living ones.

NOTE -- Dibyesh Anand is an expert on majority-minority in China and India, and has penned several of interesting articles on Tibet in recent times. Currently the author is here in the town, at the seat of Tibetan government in exile.

Stay tuned to TIBET TELEGRAPH for more news and views on Tibet and Tibetan life, and on areas of interest to the Tibetan readers.

No comments:

Post a Comment