Amidst the horrific violence of the last few days, somebody’s been working overtime to marginalize the Dalai Lama and undercut him as the leader of the worldwide Tibetan movement.
Not just the Chinese.
I’m talking to you, Tsewang Rigzin.
Tibetan unrest in China is not just a problem for the PRC. It’s a major problem for the Tibetan emigre movement, which is threatening to fissure because of conflicts between moderates and militants.
And if things end badly, the question will be, did the militants fatally miscalculate the cost of confrontation, not only to themselves but the Dalai Lama?
Finally, this side of the story is starting to trickle into the Western media.
From the UK’s Daily Telegraph :
“There is a growing frustration within the Tibetan community, especially in the young generation,” Tsewang Rigzin said. “I certainly hope the Middle Way approach will be reviewed. As we can see from the protests here and all over the world, the Tibetan people remain committed to achieving independence.”
The Middle Way is the Dalai Lama’s incremental approach of engagement with China, leading to autonomy, not independence.
As for Tsewang Rigzin, expressions of individual militancy are only part of the story.
Tsewang Rigzin is president of the Tibetan Youth Congress.
The Tibetan Youth Congress (TYC) describes itself as the largest Tibetan emigre NGO, with 30,000 members and over 80 chapters.
It’s pretty militant.
Its Secretary for Cultural Affairs, Lhakpa Tsering, set himself on fire in Mumbai in November 2006 to protest Hu Jintao’s visit—an interesting nugget that the Washington Post’s Rama Lakshmi failed to share with her readers when she quoted Tsering’s emotional account of a phone call from Lhasa during the current unrest.
Actually, he set his pants on fire, which makes it sound somehow different, eschewing the whole-body suicide approach for a badly burned leg. He’s got a picture of the event on his blog.
The TYC’s stated “sole objective” is to “restore Tibet’s lost independence .”
More importantly—and for some reason inexplicably unaddressed in the Telegraph article or, as I can determine, any other Western coverage of the unrest—the Tibetan Youth Congress is a founding member of the Tibetan People’s Uprising Movement (TPUM), which has called for “direct action” inside and outside Tibet in the cause of Tibetan independence.
Tsewang Rigzin was elected president of the TYC in December 2007. TPUM was formed in January 2008.
Its manifesto is a piece of defiant oratory:
It is time for Tibetans to take control of our future through a unified and coordinated resistance movement. We must now proclaim to the Chinese and to the world that the desire for freedom still burns in the heart of every Tibetan, both inside Tibet and in exile. In particular, the time has come for Tibetans in exile to boldly demonstrate that even after 50 years, we long to return to our homeland. A return march from exile in India back home to Tibet is being organized and will revive the spirit of the 1959 Uprising.
The 2008 Olympics will mark the culmination of almost 50 years of Tibetan resistance in exile. We will use this historic moment to reinvigorate the Tibetan freedom movement and bring our exile struggle for freedom back to Tibet. Through tireless work and an unwavering commitment to truth and justice, we will bring about another uprising that will shake China’s control in Tibet and mark the beginning of the end of China’s occupation.[emph added]
As an entity, the TPUM has been MIA since the Tibet unrest erupted.
Perhaps its leaders have made the expedient calculation that, since that Tibet is in the grips of a real uprising, the best way to avoid alienating Western support with expressions of radical militancy–and deny the Chinese government a very real and effective propaganda target–is for the TPUM to fade away.
Thanks to the TPUM disappearing act, TPUM principals are available for quotes, but only as leaders of their constituent NGOs.
However, now that TPUM members are going on record with the Western media dissing the Dalai Lama, a critical examination of their role in the current unrest inside China, and, more importantly, the merits of the TPUM strategy should be forthcoming. Maybe.
Of course, if the whole thing turns into a bloody fiasco, the TPUM–or its real story–may never resurface.
Given its stated commitment to direct action—not only direct action in principle, but direct action to disrupt the Beijing Olympics, something that has to occur on a pretty tight timeline—one has to wonder if the TPUM was involved in orchestrating the March 10 protests in Lhasa that sparked the confrontation and demonstrations throughout the Tibetan ethnic areas of the People’s Republic of China.
The press has not explored the possible TPUM connection, even in light of the report of two European tourists concerning a large, organized demonstration in Lhasa’s main Bokhara Square on March 10–several hundred monks appeared at 6:00 pm to form a ring around the police in the sqaure– that triggered a violent Chinese security reaction and subsequent rioting at the same time the TPUM was organizing a protest march to from Dharamsala to Indian border with Tibet.
It should be said that TPUM members haven’t taken responsibility for the protests and unrest inside China. Beyond its manifesto calling for an uprising, the TPUM’s main public initiative has been an abortive attempt for a non-violent march from Dharamsala to the Indian border. And ample resentment exists throughout the Tibetan areas to make it plausible to conclude that many of the protests erupted spontaneoously.
AP reports that B. Tsering of the Tibetan Women’s Association disavowed any guiding role for emigres in the unrest:
Despite China’s charge that the Dalai Lama and his supporters planned the uprising, the protests in Tibet and cities around the world were spontaneous — organized by local Tibetan groups and their sympathizers, B. Tsering said.
“If this continues I’m afraid the Tibetan people might lose control. It could get difficult,” she said. “Lots of demonstrations are decided on by the young people and we can’t control them.
Nevertheless, she took the rather contradictory step of defending and explaining activities inside China that emigres are supposedly not involved with :
TIBETAN exiles in India have accused the Chinese Government of distorting the nature of the protests in Tibet.
The president of the Tibetan Women’s Association, B. Tsering, said the Chinese Government had released misleading images to the world’s media that portray the Tibetan protest as violent.
The Tibetan Women’s Association is a founding member of the TPUM, something the Sydney Morning Herald and the AP both neglected to report–or were not told.
I guess, as far as press availabilities are concerned, the TPUM is as of now the uprising that dares not speak its name.
More believably, in line with Western reports of violence, rioting, and looting in Lhasa, and in contrast to the possibly self-serving narrative of Tsering, the Dalai Lama stated in his press conference:
“Please help stop violence from Chinese side and also from Tibetan side.”
Regardless of what the TPUM did before its fadeout, and even if the TPUM just a collection of big-talk and little-action emigres, rest assured that the Chinese media will be happy to connect the TPUM dots as they see fit…once they’ve dealt with their primary political foe, the Dalai Lama.
On March 17 I wrote:
Assuming that TPUM has thought this thing [trying to get an Olympic boycott] through, the conclusion would be that they are consciously trying to elicit Chinese over-reaction, exacerbate the crackdown, and alienate more and more Tibetans from the idea of accommodation with the PRC.
[This approach] would also involve abandoning the moral high ground that the Dalai Lama has assiduously cultivated for fifty years…
What’s happened since then?
The Chinese have seized on the riots to discredit the Dalai Lama.
By linking the Dalai Lama to the unrest—which he opposes (and the Chinese know he opposes)—the Chinese are forcing the Dalai Lama either to repudiate the Tibetan militants and split the emigre Tibetan movement, or endorse the insurrection and permit the Chinese to portray him as an impotent captive of extremist forces.
For those unfamiliar with the Chinese pattern of denunciation, polarization, division, and destruction this is a classic tactic–call it Police State 101–intended to isolate the target of a purge by forcing him to denounce his associates—or force the target to incriminate himself by not forswearing alliance with a vulnerable, isolated, and discredited element that the Chinese government is about to land on like a ton of bricks.
What does the Dalai Lama do? Support the militants? Or denounce them?
What he does is search—desperately–for the third or middle way out :
“I say to China and the Tibetans — don’t commit violence,” the Nobel Peace laureate told reporters. …
He said that “if things become out of control,” his “only option is to completely resign.”
“If the Tibetans were to choose the path of violence, he would have to resign because he is completely committed to nonviolence,” Tenzin Taklha said. “He would resign as the political leader and head of state, but not as the Dalai Lama. He will always be the Dalai Lama.”
In case the point needs to be driven home with a 50-pound sledge, the Dalai Lama’s threat to resign is not meant to intimidate the Chinese. There’s nothing the PRC would like better than to see their Nobel Peace Prize-winner adversary sideline himself from Tibet’s political struggle.
It’s a statement to Tibetan militants that the Dalai Lama refuses to be stampeded from his advocacy of non-violence and engagement with the Chinese government on an autonomy platform.
Interestingly and I might say somewhat pathetically, the Dalai Lama is still trying to define Tibetan dissent as a non-violent movement and create political space for himself by questioning whether the undeniable violence is being stirred up by outside agitators—the Chinese:
It’s possible some Chinese agents are involved there,” he said. “Sometimes totalitarian regimes are very clever, so it is important to investigate.”
Given understandable Tibetan anger against the occupation being manifested in dozens if not hundreds of outbursts, the Chinese will have no shortage of atrocity tales and photographs to brandish without fomenting incidents or generating forgeries .
In fact, they’ve probably already got enough material.
From Xinhua :
Thirteen innocent civilians were burned or stabbed to death, [Qiangba Puncog, chairman of the Tibet autonomous regional government] said, adding that calm had returned to Lhasa.
On Friday, violence involving physical assault, destruction of property, looting and arson broke out in urban Lhasa. Rioters set fires at more than 300 locations, including 214 homes and shops, and smashed and burned 56 vehicles.
In one case, a civilian was doused with gasoline and burned to death by rioters.
Sixty-one members of the armed police were injured, including six critically. Rioters beat a police officer into a coma and cut a fist-size piece of flesh out of his buttock, he said.
Wonder if the 2008 Lhasa riots will follow the 18th century War of Jenkin’s Ear into body-part historiography as “The War of the Policeman’s Buttock Chunk”.
But to return to the TPUM and its previously announced strategy, I see it borrowing from the Chinese playbook by advocating polarizing actions that undercut the middle ground out from under people that might be interested in appeasing the PRC, or at least repudiate the moderates willing to put up with Beijing’s prolonged and cynical effort to “negotiate” the emigre movement into exhausted impotence.
However, if they hope to exploit the unrest inside the PRC to advance an alternative to the Dalai Lama’s peaceful engagement, the TPUM isn’t dealing from a position of sufficient strength to benefit from polarizing the Tibetan community, or “energizing the base” as American politicians might say.
Instead, it is in danger of making the critical and perhaps fatal error of dividing its own forces instead of the enemy’s, thereby weakening its own already precarious position instead of strengthening it.
The most immediate result of Tibetan militancy will be to unite the Chinese and isolate the moderates on the Tibetan side, while undermining the political standing of Tibet’s most effective political figure, the Dalai Lama, as spokesman for a unified, internationally popular political and diplomatic movement.
That’s bad politics and dumb tactics…and it’s exactly what the Chinese have been trying to accomplish for the last five decades.
The worst case is that the Tibetan unrest and toothless Western censure unite Chinese elite and Chinese public opinion in favor of another one of those major security actions against Tibet’s isolated people and fragile institutions that seem to happen every twenty years.
This one might end up destroying the Dalai Lama’s authority as a leader, encourage the Chinese to further interfere in Tibetan politics and culture by aggressively inserting itself into the search for the next reincarnation, split Tibetan Bhuddism between a PRC-sponsored Dalai Lama in Lhasa and an untested child in Dharamsala, redefine the emigres as a collection of secular, angry–and vulnerable–dissidents, and put the Tibetan regions securely under Beijing’s thumb for another generation.
That’s a potential win big enough to compensate for some embarrassment at the Olympics.
Don’t be surprised if the Chinese invoke the Global War on Terror, that magic elixir of oppressive state power, to justify going after TPUM, Tibetan monks, and any other source of actual or potential resistance.
Heck, it’s already happening, as the Tibetan Women’s Association’s B. Tsering realizes:
“One of the most disturbing realities is that China is now trying to give the picture that Tibetans have adopted terrorism to raise our issues,” she said.
An eagerly draconian Chinese response may elicit ever more powerful resistance from the Tibetans, insurrection, and even independence.
But the alternative is that the Chinese successfully mobilize their power to quash political and religious opposition inside Tibet, resulting in the discrediting of the independence movement and the political destruction of the TPUM.
Especially if the West, already committed to supporting PRC sovereignty over Tibet, finds even less reason to support Tibetan dissidents if the Dalai Lama is out of the picture.
The persona of the benevolent and moderate Dalai Lama is critical to the fortunes of every Tibetan emigre group.
With Tibetan activists now looking more like Steven Seagals than Mahatma Gandhis and the Dalai Lama threatening to resign, how to keep the West’s goodwill is probably the topic of some anxious discussion at TPUM headquarters.
I wonder if Nancy Pelosi and Richard Gere will be as eager to go to bat for Tsewang Rigzin as they now do for the Dalai Lama.
In my previous post, I wrote:
If world opinion starts to regard direct action in Tibet as a Buddhist intifada led by confrontational hotheads, with monasteries and nunneries filling the role of extremist madrassahs, then the international opinion that stands between China and the most brutal public security and occupation measures may crumble and leave the Tibetan independence movement worse off than it is now.
Well, straight from China Matters’ lips to Barbara Demick’s ear.
In the print edition of the March 18 LA Times, “Years of Grievance Erupt into Outrage”, Demick writes:
The…Dalai Lama is revered as a god-kind by Tibetans, and insults toward him elicit a visceral response—not unlike the violent response of some Muslims to perceived slights against Muhammad.
Heckuva job, Tsewang.
As a footnote to this post, I’d like to thank Helena Cobham for taking on the job of analogy cop by gently but firmly by pointing out that my equation of the Intifada in Gaza and unrest in Tibet in my previous post is only useful as a discussion of tactics. The overall situations, legally, demographically, and in terms of acknowledged international standing differ markedly in the two instances.
Somewhat more bombastically, Bernard at Moon Over Alabama questioned some of my assertions and observations. I think he’s off base in his criticisms, but he did perform the valuable service of documenting the degree to which the NGOs that make up the TPUM have been playing footsie with the neocons in the US government and taking democracy promotion money.
Now that the protective aura of unity and moderation with which the Dalai Lama was able to envelop the Tibetan emigres for so many years is being slowly stripped away, a more critical and investigatory approach toward the Tibetan independence movement may be forthcoming in the international media.