Commentary  A burning issue

Tibet and the politics of resistance

 “Where ever there is oppression, there is resistance” 

—China’s statement at the Shanghai Communiqué, February 28, 1972

In the four decades that have passed since the Shanghai Communiqué, when China and the U.S. agreed to “renounce and reject hegemony in the Asia-Pacific region,” many of the dynamics in Asia have changed. A one-time warrior community that inhabited the highlands of the Himalayas has now become a diaspora community in exile scattered all across the globe. To the millions of Tibetans that live outside of Tibet, returning to their homeland remains a difficult yet attainable dream.

Despite the retelling of the history of Tibet in mainstream Hollywood movies (such as Seven Years in Tibet), this story remains one that is not well understood.  February 13, 2013 marked the centennial of the 13th Dalai Lama declaring the independence of Tibet. Since 2009, 102 Tibetans have self-immolated themselves as a sign of protest against the oppression they face inside of Tibet. After all, the Chinese did get it right – here is indeed resistance when there is oppression! Over 6,000 monasteries that the Tibetans consider places of higher learning have been destroyed. Lhasa, the holy capital city of Tibet and the seat of the Dalai Lama, has become an army base for stationing military troops. (Of course, these ‘facts’ cannot be completely verified, as the media in the People’s Repbulic of China (PRC) is under the tight leash of the Communist Party of China.)

When Mohamed Bouazizi, a fruit seller from Tunisia, set himself on fire, the act resonated across the Arab world. This one act of despair started a chain of events that we now know as the Arab Spring. Many months later, the world still recollects the incident. But the world does not extend the same logic to Tibet; I refuse to accept this state of apathy.

History has proved time and again that the seemingly impossible can become a reality. The fall of the Berlin Wall, and subsequent disintegration of the Soviet Union, is a good example. The value of the tactic of self-immolation is questionable; it is our duty to ensure that these lives are not lost in vain. The monks, nuns, and other people who have burned to death resorted to it as a tool to draw attention to the worsening state of affairs in Tibet. That the self-immolations have peaked over the last year is an indicator of how dire things are, but also Tibetans’ perseverance. The example of India’s freedom struggle is a lesson in tenacity and non-violence that gave Gandhi to the world. Very recently, the successful incorporation of Palestine as a non-member observer at the United Nations sends encouraging signs. We need to extend this empathy to the Buddhist nation.

In his book, China’s Water Warriors, Andrew C. Mertha highlights the increasingly important role played inside China by non-governmental organizations that have started policing and influencing the decision making process. This is a trend that is on the rise and definitely heartening. The role of civil society in bringing about social change by influencing general public opinion and support for intervention cannot be stressed more. The Tibetans are peace-loving by nature and have drafted a ‘middle way policy’ for resolving their dispute with China. The middle way policy recognizes Tibet as an autonomous state under Chinese suzerainty. Although this is a tricky stance to negotiate, it is symbolic of the Tibetan willingness to resolve this long-standing conflict. A free and neutral Tibet is important politically, economically, strategically, and environmentally – not just for Southeast Asia but for the world at large.

There are several grassroots campaigns such as International Campaign for Tibet (a Washington, D.C.-based lobby group), Students for a Free Tibet (a network with over 640 chapters of students rallying for the cause of a free Tibet) and non-governmental organizations such as Machik (which works with the Tibetan community inside Tibet to improve their quality of life). Instead of silently watching, we can choose to act – here and now. Your action could even be just learning as much as possible about the Tibetan cause and disseminating it. Indeed, wasn’t it an excited conversation among a group of people (mostly students), who cared about changing the world, that started Occupy Wall Street – or closer to home Idle No More?!

Swathi is a Master’s student in electrical engineering who spent a summer in Dharamshala, India living with the Tibetan community-in-exile while working for the Central Tibetan administration. For those interested in some action or conversation, write to