For five decades, the People’s Republic of China has been proclaiming the death of the Tibetan resistance. In the 1950-60s, they discursively denied the existence of the Tibetan resistance army by referring to them as “high class separatists” and “rebel bandits.” Since then, they have attempted to curb any resistance by immediately putting down protests through arrests, beatings, imprisonments, disappearances (remember the 11th Panchen Lama?), and deaths. The PRC has done everything they can to give the impression that resistance in Tibet—armed or peaceful, coordinated or everyday—is a rare and unwise exception to their benevolent rule, is conducted only by monks or members of the “Dalai clique,” and is not representative of the majority of the Tibetan people who love the Chinese motherland.
Yesterday, therefore, marked a major departure from this stance, perhaps for the first time ever. On Thursday, March 20, 2008, the PRC government acknowledged that Tibetan protest is widespread. That is, it is not just confined to Lhasa or to monks, but is spread throughout Tibetan areas of China and is being committed by Tibetans from all backgrounds—by monks, laypeople, and students, and by men and women, young and old.
Why does this matter?
As I see it, Chinese acknowledgement that there is widespread Tibetan dissent—or, at a minimum, widespread adherence to the Dalai Lama—signifies a major departure from their longstanding policy of publicly diminishing the importance, depth, and breadth of any anti-Chinese sentiment in Tibet. Knowing about it privately as they have for decades is one thing, but to acknowledge it publicly signals a turning point. However, turning to what I am not certain: to further castigating the Dalai Lama for (supposedly) inciting the protests? To cracking down harder on the protesters? Or perhaps to some sort of more reasoned responsiveness? A resuming of talks with the Dalai Lama? An independent or U.N. inquiry into the situation? I simply don’t know.
Let me share what I do know with you. My best sources of information have been through other scholars and my Tibetan friends, specifically, through anonymous reports from inside Tibet (that at least one of my colleagues outside Tibet has deemed reliable and circulates among fellow scholars). Who writes these reports, I don’t know. How they get them out, I don’t know. Who they are sent to, and who translates them from Chinese into English, I don’t know. What do the reports say? This:
- Protests began on March 6 in eastern Tibet, not on March 10, the Tibetan Uprising Day;
Protesters have included monks and “ordinary” laypeople from the beginning;
Protest cries and signs have included the following:
a. Han Chinese Out of Tibet
b. Tibet Independence
c. Free Tibet
d. Long Life to the Dalai Lama
e. Hold Dialogue with the Dalai Lama
f. Allow Tibet to Enjoy High Degree of Autonomy;
Protests have been overwhelmingly peaceful (or at least peaceful until police or army engagement);
Protests have taken place in the Tibet Autonomous Region, in Tibetan areas of Gansu, Qinghai, and Sichuan, as well as in the Chinese cities of Beijing, Chengdu, and Lanzhou;
Protests have ranged in size from small groups to over 10,000 people;
Mass arrests have taken place. Reports suggest in the thousands;
Many people have been killed. No tally is given other than “many;”
Ganden, Sera, and Drepung Monasteries in the Lhasa area have had water and food cut off to them since March 10-11;
In many places, Tibetans have taken down the Chinese state flag and replaced it with the Tibetan flag or a Buddhist flag; and,
There has been a massive influx of Chinese military forces into Tibetan areas throughout the country.
If you’ve been following the protests online, the above goes well beyond anything you’ve probably read. Given what I know about Tibet and how information circulates in and out of Tibet under Chinese rule, I have no good reason to question the reports’ veracity. If anything, I fear that what we don’t know is more (and worse) than what we do know.
As for the Dalai Lama, the former head of the Tibetan state and current India-based head of the exile Tibetan community and government, he has lashed out at Chinese suggestions that he is behind the protests and that he is truly seeking independence rather than meaningful autonomy for Tibet. He has also accused China of being guilty of “cultural genocide” in Tibet, and has gone so far as to say that he will resign his exile political post if Tibetans reject his nonviolent struggle in favor of violence.
Lets be clear here: although they are a much romanticized group, Tibetans are not genetically nonviolent. They are a people with a complex, not monolithic society, religion, and history. Like people just about everywhere, Tibetans have long been fluent in both nonviolent and violent practices and philosophies.
Thus, although Tibetans may try to adhere to the Dalai Lama’s Middle-Way Approach, and to practice nonviolence over violence (as the most moral choice), or desire autonomy over independence (as the most practical option), ordinary Tibetans are not the Dalai Lama. They are not trained since a young age in Buddhist philosophy, meditation, and statecraft. They are not reincarnations of Chenrezig, the embodiment of wisdom and compassion. Tibetans are regular people trying to make their way through (this) life.
And right now, today, at this moment, Tibetans inside Tibet are raising their voices, and some their arms, against Chinese rule. They’re angry and sad and frustrated and they’re taking action in ways that we haven’t seen since the 1950s. Death of the resistance?
The resistance is dead! Long live the resistance!