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The Asian side of the world

Jean-François Sabouret

Part two. National challenges and their strategies to overcome them

What do the Tibetans want?

Anne-Marie Blondeau

Texte intégral

1June 2008

2Since the protests in Lhasa (in 1987 until 1989), witnessed by Western bystanders, media interest has faded, and politically speaking, the controversies in Tibet were on par with those of China’s human rights; the Dalai Lama was heard not claiming independence for his country, but for “greater autonomy” within the People’s Republic of China (PRC). The events of last March brutally reminded the world that people were suffering and were refusing to be part of a system where might was right.

3While the Chinese military and police repression continues to exert itself with impunity in all Tibetan regions, which are closed off to foreigners (who is talking about the damage and victims of the recent earthquake in the Tibetan areas of Sichuan?), one has to wonder what caused this uprising and its possible implications for the future of the Tibetans.

4Talking about Tibet immediately provokes discussions of pro-or anti-Tibetans or pro-or anti-Buddhists. Everyone has a say and some, perhaps through pure ignorance, regurgitate the Chinese propaganda. Therefore, before turning to recent events, it is relevant to examine the Chinese government’s arguments about denying the international community their right to scrutinise Tibet. The first of these arguments is that Tibet is a strictly internal matter, as it has supposedly been part of the Chinese territory since the Yuan dynasty in the 13th century. Any reliable historian will know that this is not true and the real reason for Tibet’s surrender to the Yuan Empire was only an accidental consequence of its surrender to Kubilai’s Mongol Empire, conqueror of China and founder of the Yuan dynasty. For example, Chinese maps did not include Tibet in the Chinese territory during this period or the following dynasties, including the Qing dynasty, which established a so-called “protectorate” in the 18th century. Without going any further, let us remind ourselves of the time of the Chinese nationalist revolution in 1911, the thirteenth Dalai Lama declared that, the Dalai Lamas having cut ties with the Chinese emperors, and Tibet was independent and had to fight to preserve this independence (which remained the case until the Chinese invasion in 1950).

5Another of the Chinese government’s claims is that the People’s Liberation Army freed the Tibetan people from the harshness of a feudal and slave society governed by the clergy and nobility; a society that the Dalai Lama would like to restore. Of course, like many other countries at the time, a rigid class system imposed heavy taxes and inflicted labour on its people, and subjected a part of the population to serfdom, but to varying degrees, depending on the region and the master. Incidentally, if the Tibetans are happier in the new socialist society, why would they protest and why would more than 2,000 of them flee every year at the risk of being arrested, tortured or even killed? As for the so-called unspoken will of the Dalai Lama to restore “theocracy”, it makes no sense if we consider the Tibetans’ refusal to return to the former society and also the refusal of democratisation of the government in exile, which was imposed by the Dalai Lama, not to mention his declarations, however false some may judge them to be.

6Coming back to the recent protests, it was surprising to see the extent and distance beyond which they moved outside of the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR, central and western Tibet), in the former eastern provinces of Kham and Amdo, which have been integrated into the provinces of Qinghai, Gansu, Sichuan and Yunnan, by the Chinese government. Out of the hundred or so protests to date, most of them took place in these regions. The Chinese government reacted, as always, by denouncing a conspiracy by the “separatist” Dalai Lama, supported by Tibetan organisations in exile, such as the Tibetan Youth Congress, which was declared a “terrorist organisation”. The only proof of this conspiracy to this day was the fact that the uprising began at around the same time. It is forgotten that 10th March, the first day of protests in Lhasa, is the anniversary of the uprising in Lhasa in 1959, which saw the Dalai Lama go into exile, an anniversary celebrated around the world, but forbidden by the Chinese authorities in TAR and other Tibetan areas. It is also forgotten that with the Internet (despite being censored) and mobile phones, Tibetans have access to information that they did not have before. They knew about the traditional speech of the Dalai Lama on this day, which was unusually aggressive towards the Chinese policy in Tibet. Therefore, we do not need a conspiracy to imagine that when the protests of their fellow Tibetans in exile, and those in Lhasa broke out when the Olympic flame came to their country, they unleashed their frustration and despair in their own protests that spread like wildfire.

7The real question is “why did they protests occur?”, which is obviously indicative of the failure of the policy pursued by the PRC for more than fifty years in Tibet. The Western media extensively covered the events and simplified the reports, by giving them the title “Tibetan monks protest.” Most of the uprising followed the well-known plan of action of the 1987-1989 protests. People belonging to a religious order (monks or nuns) began a peace protest and were arrested, and beaten. Revolts broke out and people began claiming their freedom. However, after having analysed the films and photographs, which were circulated on the internet, in which laymen were seen doing the “toughest” things (using their physical strength), it was observed that, especially in the East, they were sometimes the only participants. There are various reasons that forced them to undertake such desperate actions. Some have suggested economic reasons. The Tibetans are excluded from the development of their country, which is heavily financed by the Chinese government, but this does not have any effect on the population. Many young unemployed people from the city dream of being able to afford modern luxuries including motorcycles, cars, mobile phones, fashionable clothes, but being out of work, they spend their time in bars and karaokes and it is possible that these Lhasa “trouble-makers” were the ones those who attacked Chinese shopkeepers and their goods. Yet, having studied the slogans written on the placards of the protesters, it was rare for Tibetans to be able to express themselves alongside Westerners; their claims were, however, for another cause, for example “religious freedom”, “the return of the Dalai Lama”, “freedom”, or “Tibet for the Tibetans” and “Chinese brothers outside of Tibet”.

8“Religious freedom” and the “return of the Dalai Lama”, which were the most popular slogans to be seen and heard, seemed somewhat usual, illustrating the misunderstanding of the very nature of the Tibetan culture where the secular and sacred are closely interwoven (and this ignorance is probably the most serious mistake made by Chinese politicians). Since launching the “Chinese Western Development Plan” in the 2000s, the already strict control of the monasteries and religious practice intensified (for example, the interference of the state in appointing the highest religious authorities, forbidding Tibetan civil servants to have an altar in their house, to participate in religious activities at home and at school and forbidding them to celebrate certain festivities etc.). At the same time, Beijing’s wariness towards “separatist” Tibetans turned into paranoia, triggering an outbreak of attacks against the Dalai Lama and which stretched to the banning of his photograph in Tibetan regions outside TAR (those found guilty were arrested and sentenced to at least three years in prison), the increase of compulsory sessions of political re-education, not only in the monasteries, but also for laymen and, since the March events, for Tibetan civil servants as well. During these sessions, each person had to sign a paper condemning the Dalai Lama and declaring allegiance of Tibet to the “motherland”. An unexpected outcome of this ideological influence stimulated perhaps a newfound political conscience among Tibetans who thought of themselves as being rather different from the Chinese. The construction of national unity was being witnessed, bringing together – around the emblematic figure of the Dalai Lama – Tibetans from the centre and the East, who were not always on the same side in the past. The best example, which we can give of this is that of demonstrators in eastern Tibet, marching with the Tibetan flag, bringing down the Chinese flag and replacing it with the Tibetan flag, a flag created under the rule of the thirteenth Dalai Lama during which the separatist trends of the eastern provinces had sometimes provoked violent conflicts with the Lhasa government.

9The Chinese Western Development Plan also deepened the Tibetans’ frustration in the social and culture sphere. The adoption of a liberal economic system by China led to the end of free healthcare for the Tibetans; there is now a fee, usually more than what people can afford, for going to the hospital and buying medication. New tuition fees prevent many families from sending their children to school. Due to concerns of economic efficiency, the place of Tibetan language has been reduced from the educational system; from secondary school onwards, all classes are taught in Chinese. The same applies for the only Tibetan university in Lhasa and also in administration. Most rural Tibetans do not speak Chinese and feel that they are becoming strangers in their own towns. This especially attracted Chinese migrants, who took all the jobs, including the small ones (for example, bicycle, taxis, tailors), which the Tibetans, on the whole without any professional training, was competent of doing. In addition, the anger of the villagers, who had been relocated (i. e. during the construction of Lhasa’s railway) and expropriated, pastoral and nomadic populations, which were particularly large in numbers in eastern Tibet, which was made more intense by the Chinese authorities closed off their land, thus putting an end to the traditional nomadisation process. These groups of people strongly encouraged to settle down, but who are being rehoused in tiny cement shacks that were built in a hurry in the city suburbs, without being offered any jobs. Some supported themselves through agriculture and breeding, which expanded the urban sub-proletariat.

10Concerning the mistakes made by Chinese politicians in Tibet, which endanger the very survival of the Tibetan culture, the list goes on. For example, many young contemporary Tibetan writers, who were trained in China, do not know how to write in their language and in Chinese. Will the recent uprising make the Chinese government listen to the demands of the Tibetans and change its policy? This is doubtful, given the brutality of the repression; besides even “a wide cultural autonomy”, which, for the Dalai Lama is unthinkable because it would open the lid on claims from other “national minorities”, such as the Uyghur and the Mongolians. The weight of the Chinese public opinion must be taken account, united with impressive nationalist fervour, having seen images of the Tibetan protests being shown again and again by official television channels, and of their compatriots being attacked in Lhasa. The Chinese are shocked by the “ungratefulness” of the Tibetans to whom, it is said, China has brought liberty and progress. The right for self-determination seems far from being granted to the Tibetans.


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