The Jewel in the Riots

20. Mar 2008

The Fourteenth Dalai Lama and Tibetan Freedom Fight

Trine Brox Ph.D. Fellow, Tibetan Studies Department of Cross-Cultural and Regional Studies University of Copenhagen

As the Tibetan exiles and their supporters commemorated the “Tibetan Uprising Day” on March 10, as every year since 1959, unusual news tickled out of Tibet: Hundreds of monks from the Drepung Monastery in the vicinity of Lhasa had marched downtown shouting slogans like “free Tibet” and “long live the Dalai Lama.” The monks had staged a peaceful demonstration demanding independence from China and the return of their exiled leader the Fourteenth Dalai Lama. It was 19 years since anyone had witnessed protests of this scale in Tibet. In 1989, the demonstrations were brutally suppressed and martial law was declared in Lhasa. Last week’s demonstrations were staged by monks, and although they where effectively stopped by the police, it had a contagious effect. Lhasa experienced a series of peaceful demonstrations the following days. By the fifth day, lay people had joined in the protests, and their anger and frustration transformed peaceful demonstrations into riots. Moreover, footage and reports released by the Tibetan Centre for Human Rights and Democracy, an NGO with reporters inside Tibet monitoring the situation, showed that the protests had spread to the eastern parts of Tibet as well.

At the time of writing—ten days after the initial protests broke out in Lhasa—there is no news about what is currently happening inside Tibet. The silence is disturbing. Lacking first hand reports, the Media has turned to the Dalai Lama. Now the headlines are questioning the role of the Dalai Lama and his leadership within and outside the Tibetan borders.

On the one hand headlines in the vein of “Wen Jiabao accuses Dalai Lama of organising riots” (Reuters, 18.03.08) tell us that China’s Premier blames the Dalai Lama of instigating the troubles, charging the exiled leader with the steering of his Tibetan marionettes. On the other hand, with headlines such as “Young Tibetans reject Dalai Lama’s lead” (CNN, 18.03.08) or “Younger generation rejects non-violent tradition” (The Guardian, 18.03.08) the press reports that there is a new generation of Tibetans who abrogates the Dalai Lama’s leadership and policies. Headlines such as these beg the questions on the extent of the Dalai Lama’s authority.

The Dalai Lama, holding the traditionally highest political and religious authority among Tibetans, may indeed exert enormous influence. Until now, however, he has used his enormous prestige strictly to bind the impatient to his creed of non-violence. Nonetheless, attempts become visible among the exiles to distinguish between the Dalai Lama as a religious leader and the Dalai Lama as a political leader of the freedom struggle. In that way some Tibetans try to advance alternative political strategies—or even oppose the policies of the Dalai Lama directly—while concurrently maintaining him as their religious leader and national progenitor.

The authority of the Dalai Lama The Fourteenth Dalai Lama is the foremost religious and political authority in the Tibetan society and has become the epitome of the Tibetan nation. He is Yizhin Norbu—”the wish-fulfilling jewel.” He is not a god, but he is worshipped as an incarnation of the Bodhisattva Avaloketisvara. Tibetans listen to him as a source for both spiritual advice and worldly guidance. Moreover, when he speaks in public, his words serve as political guidelines for the Tibetan people’s freedom movement. In the eyes of the majority of Tibetan exiles, the Dalai Lama has been, and still is, the undisputed political leader of Tibet. The Dalai Lama’s special authority means that the majority of the Tibetans are deeply devoted to him. During many talks that I have had, every time the Dalai Lama’s name was mentioned, Tibetans humbly lowered their heads with hands collected in front of them as in prayer and worship. It is also evident that the Fourteenth Dalai Lama enjoys enormous popular support in Tibet. When he spoke against wearing fur in a speech in Amaravati, India, in 2006, Tibetans inside Tibet demonstrated their loyalty to the Dalai Lama by throwing their fur lined coats on bonfires.

Thus, when the Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao accuses the Dalai Lama of orchestrating riots in Tibet, he is painfully aware that the Dalai Lama after forty-nine years in exile still has authority among the Tibetans. Nevertheless, nothing indicates that the Dalai Lama used this authority to incite riots. On the contrary, the Dalai Lama is against such riots.

The violence and vandalism carried out by mainly lay Tibetans in the wake of peaceful marches led by monks, are expressions of anger and frustration going against the clear and well-known guidelines outlined by the Dalai Lama. He has repeatedly spoken against a violent freedom struggle. Instead he has sought compromises with the Chinese government through his so-called middle way approach. With this policy, the Dalai Lama has been calling for negotiation and cooperation between the Tibetans and the Chinese to find a solution for what he calls “meaningful autonomy” in Tibet—not independence. Acts of violence, whether against others or oneself, are acts defying the stand of the Dalai Lama. That Tibetans now appear to disobey the Dalai Lama—their wish-fulfilling jewel—during acts of violence reveals the level of their frustration.

A new generation freedom fighters? The older generation generally obeys the Dalai Lama as a religious and political leader. Among the young Tibetans, however, there is more polyvocality: they express alternative political stands and at times are outright ‘disobedient.’ To prevent misunderstanding: Young Tibetans are not a homogeneous group speaking with a single voice. Although they do fight together under the banner of “Free Tibet,” some interpret this as “complete independence” while others follow the “meaningful autonomy” line of the Dalai Lama. Yet this is not tantamount to a generational divide, but rather a disagreement across generations. As for the methods to “free Tibet,” an overwhelming majority seem to support the Dalai Lama’s creed of non-violence, but the definition of non-violence varies: some believe that violence against oneself is not really violence. Therefore we have seen attempts of self-immolation as witnessed in Mumbai when twenty-four year old Lhagpa Tsering set him self on fire as a protest during the Chinese President Hu Jintao’s India visit on November 23, 2006. (This form of protest has also a long tradition, especially in East Asian Buddhism, visible, for example, during the Vietnam War.) Another example is the current hunger strikes of the hundred Tibetan exiles who were jailed in northern India on the fourth day of their march to Tibet that started on March 10. Such acts are ‘disobedient’ political acts by Tibetan exiles who concurrently venerate the Dalai Lama as their leader and as a father of the Tibetan nation. One activist, Thupten Tsering, once told me that Tibetans like himself, who fight for independence, have not denounced the Dalai Lama in any way. In fact, all Tibetans that I have interviewed made this same point. Thupten Tsering explains how it is possible to have deep religious faith in the Dalai Lama and see him as the highest authority while simultaneously disagreeing or opposing his political guidelines:

We respect him. He is a great teacher. I regard him as my father. I look at him like my parent and even with parents we have trouble sometimes, right? We don’t agree at some point. Then we make up. So I look at His Holiness that way. Sometimes I get upset, angry at him, but at the end of the day, he’s like my dad, you know.

The Dalai Lama is “His Holiness” also for those who have an alternative political stand. While the Dalai Lama as an exalted authority is a uniting force for the pan-Tibetan freedom struggle,
he is not able to unite all Tibetans under one single policy. As a political figure, he is like the parent that you respect and, at times, disagree with.

When the Fourteenth Dalai Lama began to focus on human rights and the protection of Tibetan culture, religion, and ecology, his move to replace “independence” with “meaningful autonomy” was partly a diplomatic gesture to show Beijing that he was willing to negotiate. The Dalai Lama claims that he is being “realistic.” Many bewildered Tibetans saw this as abandoning the Tibetan cause and taking a step backwards. Hence, while the Dalai Lama officially changed his stand from independence to autonomy, not everybody followed him: for example the most influent exile-Tibetan organisation, the Tibetan Youth Congress, but also parts of the older generation, some of whom had once taken part in the 1959 uprising in Lhasa and had even joined the Tibetan guerrilla to defend their faith and the Dalai Lama. Yet when the Tibetans inside Tibet today are shouting slogans and waving their national flag calling for freedom or independence, it is not because they are against the Dalai Lama’s leadership. On the contrary, they most certainly want him to return as their leader.

For those who still fight for independence, the dilemma they are facing is that while they remain loyal to the Dalai Lama’s exalted religious position, they do not always agree with him as a political strategist. As a result of this personal dilemma, they have begun to distinguish between the political and the religious aspects of the Dalai Lama’s authority. This is not so much a symptom of a split neither between generations, between the clergy and the lay people, nor between the exiles and those left behind in Tibet. Whether freedom is defined as independence or meaningful autonomy, when it comes to freedom struggle, as we saw on March 10, the Tibetans unite behind the image of the Dalai Lama and under the banner of “free Tibet.” The Tibetan-Chinese Dilemma “Dalai Lama Threatens to Resign” (New York Times, 19.03.08) was the latest headline phrased by the media as a warning from the Dalai Lama to the Tibetans that he will withdraw from his position if they do not abstain from using violence. His warning must be seen in line with the aforementioned attempts to separate the Dalai Lama’s dual position as a religious and political authority.

One aspect has apparently been overlooked by Western analysts. While this latest statement must be seen as the Dalai Lama’s stern warning to the Tibetans, the Chinese authorities would do good in taking notice of it. For a peaceful solution, they need the Dalai Lama’s authority among the Tibetans. But if they continue to put him in the tight spot of being behind the latest riots, forcing him to withdraw from the public, those Tibetans who have grown so impatient in recent years might then be the ones to be in command. The result will be disastrous for both sides. Yet the Chinese authorities are also facing a dilemma of their own: If they accept the Dalai Lama as a speaker for the Tibetans, they would give up the Party’s claim to sole representation, thus encouraging the many minority groups of their empire to intensify their struggle. The Chinese are facing either a Tibetan disaster now or a slow farewell to single party rule in the future. They cannot, however, invite the world to their “Journey of Harmony” (their motto for the Olympic Games 2008) and not enter into some sort of a dialogue about the Tibetan question.

Trine Brox is writing her Ph.D. dissertation on the contesting imaginations of democracy and democratisation in the Tibetan diaspora.

Also by Trine Brox: Brox, Trine 2003: Tibetansk kulturdiskurs: En undersøgelse og analyse af Dalai Lamas og de tibetanske eksilmyndigheders tibetansksprogede diskurs om kultur i årene 1979-2002, MA thesis, University of Copenhagen. —— 2006: “Tibetan Culture as the Battlefield: How the Term ‘Tibetan Culture’ is Utilized as a Political Strategy”, L. Schmithausen (ed.): Buddhismus in Geschichte und Gegenwart: Gewalt und Gewaltlosigkeit im Buddhismus. Weiterbildendes Studium (X), Hamburg: Universität Hamburg. Abt. für Kultur und Geschichte Indiens und Tibets, 85-105. —— [forthcoming]: “Changing the Tibetan Way? Contesting Secularisms in the Tibetan Diaspora”, P. Schwieger (ed.): Proceedings of the 11th Seminar of the International Association for Tibetan Studies: Bonn 2006. Bonn.