Tibetans lose patience after 50 years of peaceful protest

The Dalai Lama has kept Tibetans' response to China's cultural domination peaceful. But China persists, and the Dalai Lama's influence is declining.

How much can Tibet endure? It's a question that hardly anyone in the West wishes to ask. After all, those who have made it a habit to force themselves on some fragile states in the name of human rights and democracy tend to develop very cold feet when they face China.

But it's a question that Tibetans want to have asked - and answered. For more than five decades, they have been exemplars of nonviolent protest - and through all that time their condition has only worsened.

The latest proof of the extent to which Beijing has eradicated the Tibetan way of life came in the form of an exhaustive report published last month by Human Rights Watch.

According to this study, more than two million Tibetans have been forced into what China calls "new socialist villages" over the last seven years. Satellite imagery collected by HRW shows rows of newly-built, identical houses and apartment blocks.

To some, this will look like progress, a move away from the backwardness of rural life. But to the Tibetans who have been subjected to this programme, it's only the newest phase in a process that began with China's "peaceful liberation" of Tibet in 1951: to erase from Tibetans' emotional and mental make-up their sense of who they are, and to integrate them, through forced changes to their way of living, into the homogenous revolutionary China conceived by Mao Zedong.

China may be changing but in Tibet the revolution is still unfolding, still claiming its victims. This is why Beijing did not stop at resettling the Tibetans. As HRW reports, the central government has also dispatched 20,000 officials to monitor the Tibetans under the slogan "solidify the foundations, benefit the masses".

To many Tibetans, China's unyielding push to erase Tibetan identity has only confirmed the futility of nonviolent protest. They may have downgraded their original demand for full independence from China to a call for autonomy within its boundaries, but all the same, Tibet remains the most intensely policed region under Chinese administration.

Hundreds of thousands of Tibetans have rejected the prosperity of China, choosing instead life as refugees in remote places. And yet wherever they go around the world, they find themselves marginalised by national leaders anxious not to offend China.

In a desperate attempt to draw the world's attention to their cause, more than 100 Tibetans have set fire to their own bodies in the past two years. But even these sacrifices, in clear violation of Buddhist precepts, have failed to provoke any meaningful outrage in places that matter.

The global indifference to Tibetans has only emboldened the Chinese government. On Saturday, July 6, police in Sichuan province opened fire on a group of monks who had gathered peacefully to celebrate the birthday of the Dalai Lama. At least two monks were seriously wounded. The Chinese official responsible for ethnic minorities, Yu Zhengsheng, reacted to this atrocity with yet more belligerence, vowing to "deepen the struggle against the Dalai clique".

This is a self-wounding approach to the problem because, for all visceral reactions he evokes in Beijing, the Dalai Lama is perhaps the last best Tibetan ally that China has. For years, it is the Dalai Lama who has prevented Tibetans from embracing violence.

But Beijing's refusal to deal with him has substantially eroded his authority within the Tibetan community in exile. Certainly, the Dalai Lama continues to be revered as a spiritual leader by almost all Tibetans. But a restless generation of young Tibetans is questioning his political acumen. What, they ask, has our nonviolent struggle given us? Why, they wonder, are we directing violence at ourselves rather than at our tormentors?

Any eruption of violence would in many respects mark not so much a new beginning as a return to the 1960s when, backed by the CIA, Tibetan insurgents launched a series of spectacular attacks against the Chinese army.

No one should doubt the Tibetans' capacity to start another violent insurgency against Beijing. Nor should we take for granted their continued commitment to peaceful protest, if all it generates is violent reprisals.

Perhaps aware of such a possibility, the Dalai Lama spent the last decade modernising the Tibetan resistance movement. He has weakened his own office, created political institutions, and encouraged the young to participate in them.

So it is that Tibet now has a democratically elected government in exile. But it's not clear how effective it can be. When Lobsang Sangay, a charismatic Harvard-trained lawyer, was elected prime minister, India, which hosts the government in exile, was not represented at his swearing-in ceremony. No minister in the Indian government will be seen in public with Sangay. And whenever a senior Chinese official visits India, New Delhi is quick to invoke penal codes dating back to the British Raj to round up anyone of Tibetan appearance.

Young Tibetans in exile have absorbed more than their share of humiliations. As Tenzin Tsundue, an activist and writer living in India, puts it in his poem My Tibetanness: "Thirty-nine years in exile/ Yet no nation supports us … We are refugees here/ People of a lost country/ Citizen to no nation."

Tsundue is the creation of exile, of repression, of a hopelessness that no foreign power wishes to recognise. There are hundreds of thousands like Tsundue, and he's giving voice to their deepest aspirations when he writes: "I am a Tibetan/ But I am not from Tibet/ Never been there/ Yet I dream/ of dying there".

If the molestation of Tibet continues, and if the world remains indifferent to the plight of Tibetans, the full implications of Tsundue's words will become clear in the not too distant future.

Kapil Komireddi, an Indian journalist, has written from South Asia, Eastern Europe and the Middle East