The Pain of Tibet

5 minute read
Simon Elegant

I first met Dorje in front of the gates of the Longwu Monastery in Tongren, a town in China’s far-western Qinghai province. Like the majority there, he was an ethnic Tibetan, a nomadic yak breeder in town on a pilgrimage. While friendly toward foreigners, Dorje nodded at the video cameras mounted above the road and said we’d better speak somewhere private. It’s a grim commentary on the iron grip China maintains on Tibetan areas of the country that even a yak herdsman knows to be wary of video surveillance. In a sheltered corner of the monastery’s walls, Dorje enumerated the wrongs visited on ordinary Tibetans by the Chinese authorities: beatings, arbitrary arrests and lengthy jail sentences, extortion, forced attendance at public vilifications of exiled Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama. The list went on, culminating in attempts to make Tibetans celebrate the Lunar New Year, something Dorje and others told me they had refused to do out of respect for Tibetans killed in Lhasa last March when anti-Chinese protests turned violent. (See pictures of the Dalai Lama.)

Beijing says 19 people, mostly innocent Chinese shopkeepers, were killed in the unrest, but it’s still by no means clear exactly what happened or how many died. The truth may be irrelevant compared with what Tibetans believe took place. During my trip through Qinghai, it became clear that ordinary Tibetans believe hundreds, possibly thousands of their compatriots were gunned down. When I asked Dorje if last year’s protests could eventually be forgotten, he shook his head. “Even my son’s sons and their sons will remember. We will never forget,” he said.

The hardening attitudes on both sides mean there is no relief ahead for the Tibetan people. “I think violence is inevitable,” says Lobsang Sangay, a senior fellow at Harvard Law’s East Asian Legal Studies program who focuses on human rights in Tibet. So it’s imperative for both sides to do their utmost to clear the logjam that has blocked progress since the Dalai Lama was forced to flee Lhasa nearly 50 years ago. On the Chinese side, there’s little doubt that some officials realize their strategy of oppression at home and stonewalling overseas will one day backfire. But as Tibet scholar Robert Barnett of Columbia University says, their chance of influencing Beijing’s policy before it is too late is vanishingly small: “Eventually, the hard-liners are going to be thrown out for having bungled their tasks. But by the time that happens, the chance of negotiating with the Dalai Lama might well have passed, and China will be stuck with an internal quagmire of its own making.”

That leaves the Tibetan side, whose exile community has shown increasing signs of fracturing as younger Tibetans push for an approach different from the Dalai Lama’s “middle way,” which stresses patient negotiation. But short of launching an intifadeh that would condemn the Tibetan people to even greater suffering, there appears to be no realistic alternative that could increase pressure on Beijing.

The problem is, the middle way has hit a brick wall. Even the Dalai Lama recently said he had “given up” on negotiating with the Chinese and hinted he might step down, fearing that his position “is only becoming an obstruction instead of helping find a solution to the Tibet issue.” Yet as an international celebrity and a deity to his people, he is the only person who can shift the equation. And the issue is pressing; he turns 74 in July.

That is why it may be time for the Dalai Lama to acknowledge that he has failed. For all his success in keeping the issue of Tibet on the world stage, this has not made and will not make one iota of difference to Beijing. His government-in-exile has always insisted on discussions about such matters as self-rule. Now it is time for one final, bold stroke: an announcement that the Dalai Lama is willing to return without any preconditions. Though Beijing has said it would accept him back on those terms, it is possible that the Chinese leadership–mindful of the return of exiles like the Ayatullah Khomeini to Iran–will try to block his path or refuse to live up to its promise to allow the Dalai Lama to go back to Tibet. But such a result would only broaden support and sympathy for the Tibetan cause.

And there are more optimistic scenarios. The Dalai Lama’s presence in China might allow for improvement in the way Tibetans are treated. Whatever the possible outcomes, this last, desperate gesture is one that has to be made. The only alternative is for Dorje’s son’s sons and their sons to continue to live in a long, anguished twilight as communist cadres, Coca-Cola and Chinese immigrants slowly snuff out Tibet’s unique heritage.

See pictures of the Dalai Lama’s six decades of spiritual leadership.

See pictures of Tibet.

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