The long wait for Tibetan freedom

By Robert Barnett, Aljazeera America | March 24, 2014

On March 17, 1959, the Dalai Lama and his government fled Tibet into exile, after a 12-day uprising against Chinese rule in Lhasa, Tibet’s capital. Last week some 150,000 Tibetans who live as exiles around the world commemorated the anniversary with rituals, ceremonies and prayers for their eventual return to their homeland. But there are no signs they will be returning home anytime soon. A few days earlier, the Dalai Lama celebrated the Tibetan New Year with a small exile community in Minneapolis. The group is part of a growing Western-based diaspora of Tibetan exiles who are moving farther from India, where their community has been based since 1959. Some 20,000 Tibetans have relocated from South Asia to the United States and Europe since 1990. This year was the first time the Dalai Lama has spent the New Year’s festival in a Western country, and it may have been a signal designed to fluster Beijing with the prospect that he might one day move to North America, where he has formidable mobilizing power.

The exodus

The week before the Dalai Lama’s flight, eight years after China annexed Tibet, thousands of Tibetans gathered around the Dalai Lama’s summer palace to demand an end to Chinese rule. As the protests grew, the People’s Liberation Army prepared to launch a full-scale attack, then shelled the palace on March 17. That evening, after consulting with a Buddhist deity believed to protect the state, the Dalai Lama and a small escort made their way out of the city, undetected. After 14 days on foot and horseback, they crossed the Himalayas into India.

After violently quashing the uprising, the Chinese executed or imprisoned tens of thousands of Tibetans suspected of harboring sympathies — real or imagined — for the Dalai Lama’s government. Countless others were beaten to death, driven to suicide or dragged through the streets in public humiliation parades known as struggle sessions. By the time Chinese troops sealed Tibet’s borders, an estimated 80,000 Tibetans had followed their leader into exile.

The violent crackdowns were replaced by a state-led drive for rapid economic growth after the death of Mao Zedong in 1976. Today Lhasa is a sprawling modern city with lavish facilities, vast shopping malls, multiscreen cinemas, increasing wealth and high-tech infrastructure. Regardless of these improvements, expressions of dissent are not tolerated, all decisions are firmly in the hands of Chinese officials, and the Dalai Lama is increasingly maligned by the Chinese government and media.

Government in exile

Once he arrived in India, the Dalai Lama reconstituted his government at a former British hill station known as Dharamsala in northern India. Funded by donations and voluntary taxes raised from Tibetan exiles, the government established a web of agricultural settlements, schools, orphanages, craft centers and exile monasteries across India and Nepal for Tibetan refugees.

For the first 20 years of his exile, the Dalai Lama and his government pursued the goal of independence for Tibet. Until 1974, some 3,000 Tibetans based in Nepal, with supplies and funding from the Central Intelligence Agency, even carried out armed strikes inside Tibet. But in the late 1970s, after the U.S. realignment with Beijing, the Dalai Lama gave up pursuit of independence and began a series of talks with China about conditions under which he might return to Tibet. Since the late 1990s, he has said that if Tibetans are given a “high degree of autonomy,” he will return to his country and accept Chinese rule.

This approach has brought considerable diplomatic success. The Dalai Lama has attracted an exceptional degree of media and public support for his cause, and his unusual style of public politics has placed the Tibet issue high on the international agenda. In the last 10 years, despite threats from Beijing, the Dalai Lama has met with 37 presidents and prime ministers, including President Barack Obama on Feb. 21. Last week he delivered the opening prayer on the floor of the U.S. Senate, the highest religious leader to be invited to do so. It was a bipartisan slight by U.S. legislators against China.

Few other exile communities have ever achieved such public prominence, let alone one with only 150,000 people from a little-known, landlocked nation. But more important, this strategy led Chinese authorities to agree to talks with the Dalai Lama’s representatives, meeting 10 times from 2002 to 2010.

Geopolitical realignment

These meetings failed to lead to any concession from the Chinese side, which continues to condemn all the Dalai Lama’s statements as stratagems designed to divide China and win Tibetan independence. Other efforts by Tibetans in and outside the country have failed to produce better results. A wave of pro-independence protests inside Tibet in the late 1980s ended with a 20-year campaign of vilification by Beijing against the Dalai Lama. A resurgence of popular unrest in 2008 triggered a military crackdown in Tibet; now foreign travelers are allowed to visit only in closely monitored groups. Even the deaths by self-immolation of more than a hundred Tibetans in Tibet since 2011 in an effort to get China to allow their leader to return home before he dies (he will be 79 in July), have not softened China’s policies.

The Dalai Lama withdrew from official duties in 2011, handing over the running of the Tibetan government in exile to a lay politician, a move that was seen as a gesture to appease Beijing. In 2010, in another effort to get the Chinese authorities to agree to serious negotiations, the Dharamsala government even declared its readiness to accept the existing political system and constitution in China. Beijing denounced both gestures as hypocritical and since then has not agreed to further talks with the Tibetans.

Meanwhile, China’s global standing has risen, at the expense of Tibetan exiles. In 2007, Pope Benedict XVI refused to meet with the Dalai Lama. In 2008 Britain made explicit concessions to demands from Beijing on the Tibetan question. France and Denmark followed suit the following year. Spain, Italy and Belgium are thought to have avoided high-level meetings with him. In 2011, reportedly under pressure from Beijing, South Africa declined to issue him a visa, claiming that his application had been received too late. The number of foreign leaders willing to meet the exiled Tibetan leader has dropped sharply; only two did so last year, compared with 11 in 2001. Nepal was once a thriving base for 20,000 refugees from Tibet, but Chinese officials now regularly monitor and harass Tibetan refugees there and require Nepal to break up any protests or ceremonies supporting the Dalai Lama.

Divided diaspora

The new, younger Tibetan community in the West remains passionately engaged in Tibetan politics. Increasingly they use the Internet and social media to share news, organize support groups, stage campaigns, organize protests and lobby Western politicians. Some travel to India to help develop modern education, teach English and campaign for their cause with their fellow expatriates.

But this younger generation of exiles holds a less reverential attitude toward the Dalai Lama than its elders do. The refusal by the Chinese to respond to his concessions has fueled criticisms of his politics of compromise, leading to increasingly bitter exchanges between those who prefer his plan for a negotiated settlement and those who espouse the goal of complete independence for Tibet. So far, the majority of Tibetan exiles support the Dalai Lama’s acceptance of greater autonomy as their ultimate demand. But the struggle over this question diverts energy and focus from other, more pragmatic issues and points to future splits that could emerge once the Dalai Lama dies.

Meanwhile, the Tibetan youth in exile face a more urgent challenge: The gap between them and the 97 percent of Tibetans who remain inside the country is widening. It is likely that the future of the Tibetan issue will be decided by the Tibetans inside Tibet — estimated at 6 million people. They read and write in their mother tongue more fluently than their counterparts in exile. Many of them are also fluent in Chinese, the dominant language of trade, government and education in Tibet. As the standard of living rises, their politics is driven by pragmatic considerations rather than solely by nationalist convictions.

The younger exiles typically speak Tibetan but may not read or write the language well. Few know Chinese or its politics, and their future children may not even speak Tibetan. It’s unlikely that many of these exiles would move to Tibet even if conditions there improved. After the Dalai Lama dies, those in Tibet may come to see the exiled generation as having different interests from theirs or as lacking the skills and knowledge necessary to lead the effort to settle the dispute with China.

This does not mean China will face fewer problems in Tibet. In response to Beijing’s intolerance of any form of dissent, support for the Dalai Lama has soared among Tibetans in Tibet since 2008. China’s incessant public attacks on the Dalai Lama’s character and its heavy-handed policies have made him more popular now in Tibet than when he fled his country more than half a century ago. Younger Tibetans in the West are eager to remain significant in the effort to change China’s policies in Tibet. To do that, they will need to prove their relevance to their compatriots inside the country by learning Chinese or visiting and studying in Tibet. They might also need to include Chinese-speaking Tibetans from Tibet among their exile leaders and advisers. If that happened, such a coalition would pose significant challenges for China both inside and outside Tibet, even after the Dalai Lama is gone.

Robert Barnett is the director of modern Tibetan studies at Columbia University in New York City. His books include “Lhasa: Streets With Memories” and “Tibetan Modernities: Notes From the Field.”


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