Gwynne Dyer: Tibetans in flames

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      The number of Tibetans burning themselves to death in protests against Chinese policy has grown very fast recently: the first self-immolation was in 2009, but 22 of the 30 incidents happened in the past year. And while at first it was only Buddhist monks and nuns who were setting themselves on fire, in the past month both a teenage girl and a mother of four have chosen to die in this gruesome way.

      The Chinese response has been repression and abuse. The affected provinces have been flooded with security forces, and Communist Party officials have condemned the protesters as anarchists, terrorists, and rebels—or, in the words of one official, “rats” born of “weasels”.

      The state-controlled media claim that the deaths are orchestrated by the Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhism, who has lived in exile in India since 1959. They also insist that the Dalai Lama’s real goal is separatism—the revival of the independent Tibet that existed until the Chinese troops marched back in in 1951—although the protesters themselves demand only the return of the Dalai Lama and respect for their culture and religion.

      The Chinese media work themselves up into a lather of indignation about the alleged intention of these “separatists” not only to fracture the sacred unity of the Chinese homeland, but to expel the large number of Han Chinese settlers who have immigrated to Tibet. As the Xinhua News Agency put it: “How similar it is to the Holocaust committed by Hitler on the Jews!”

      Well, not similar at all, really. Even though many Tibetans fear “cultural genocide” if the Han Chinese immigrants become a majority in Tibet (and they are probably right to suspect that this is why Beijing subsidizes the immigration), there is still a distinction between Panzer divisions and extermination camps on the one hand, and monks and teenage girls burning themselves to death on the other.

      Meanwhile, the Dalai Lama goes on doing what he does best: he keeps Tibet before the world’s attention. As part of that process, he visits world leaders and collects various honours like the Nobel Peace Prize—and he never attacks the Chinese regime directly.

      Instead, he patiently and politely insists that China must respect Tibet’s cultural and religious autonomy. He never demands Tibetan independence, nor does he let his followers in the large Tibetan exile community talk about independence. And, of course, he laments the self-immolations.

      Yet the Dalai Lama also believes that he will one day return to Tibet. He is 76 years old, but he is in good health, “so I am expecting another 10, 20 years,” he told a BBC interviewer this week. “Within that [time], definitely things will change".

      What does he think will change? Surely not the attitude of the Chinese Communist regime, which will never allow him to return to Tibet, since it fears that would unleash a great wave of anti-Chinese nationalism. Well, then, he must think the Chinese regime itself will eventually change.

      Of course he does. Most people who know any history think that. Despite the death of Communist ideology in China, the regime has managed to stay in power for almost a quarter-century since the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989, but it has been helped by continuous, high-speed economic growth. Would it survive a major recession?

      Nobody knows, but there is certainly a reasonable chance of regime change in China in the next 10 or 20 years. And that would be Tibet’s great opportunity, as the Dalai Lama must know.

      The precedent is what happened when Communist Party rule ended in the old Soviet Union 21 years ago. The Soviet Union was the old Russian empire under a new name, and only about half of its population was ethnically Russian. When it collapsed, all the republics with non-Russian majorities took their independence.

      The People’s Republic of China is more homogeneous: 90 percent of its population is Han Chinese. But in the few areas that still have non-Chinese majorities, like Tibet, separation would be possible when regime change happens in Beijing—on two conditions. It would have to happen fast, and it can only happen if the Chinese people do not see Tibetans as enemies.

      It has to happen fast because the window of opportunity doesn’t stay open long: once a new regime is firmly established, no politician who wants a long career will take the blame for negotiating “the division of the motherland”. And if the Chinese worry that an independent Tibet would fall under the influence of their great Asian rival, India, or if they are under attack by Tibetan terrorists, they will be very reluctant to let the Tibetans go.

      The Dalai Lama certainly knows all this, too. His job, therefore, is to keep the spirits of the Tibetans up while waiting for the window of opportunity to open—and to keep the impatient younger generation from launching some futile “war of liberation” involving terrorist attacks in the meantime. He has been successful in that for a long time, but the wave of self-immolations is a warning that patience may be running out.

      Comments

      14 Comments

      petr aardvark

      May 16, 2012 at 11:12am

      well, growing up in a communist country I never thought there would be regime change in the USSR much less a collapse and disintegration in my lifetime and when it came it happened pretty quickly. The old guard that brought in the communist regime is long gone, and I'd say that each generation of leadership is not as ruthless as the previous one, All it takes is a handful of individuals - as in the 1968 Prague spring (which came too early) or with Gorbachev. Mass communication and public opinion are very powerful which is why China has the great firewall to control the internet.. China is headed for trouble, one only has to look at the huge property boom (google China's Ghost cities) there are empty apartment blocks and shopping malls everywhere, and at the same time, thanks to the one child policy there is an aging population with less young people to support them. Thirdly, China will probably be more affected by increasing temperatures due to global warming. All these factors are going to cause some interesting changes.

      cochran

      May 16, 2012 at 1:24pm

      We like to point fingers at Chinese internal immigration policies, but are loathe to condemn the Israeli atrocities inflicted against the Palestinian population, for the last 62 years. Or perhaps, we could move closer to home, with the putsch that overthrew a democratic government in Honduras, with Canadian mining and textile corporations' tacit support? Should I mention Canada's disgraceful participation in the overthrow of the Aristide government in Haiti? And, instead of sending aid during their tragic earthquake, we sent in destroyers and humvees; ostensibly to control the looting that would occur when desperate people react to such calamities. China's removal of the dictatorship that was the monastery's exploitation of the youth (fodder for their great agricultural holdings) for their corporate purposes, has served the country positively. Read: "When Serfs Rose Up In Tibet" (1956), for a fresh perpective on human rights!

      Victoria Bruce

      May 16, 2012 at 4:07pm

      cochran: Gwynne Dyer has written extensively on the Israeli occupation of Palestine, and how it is inhumane and ultimately bad for the long term interests of Israelis.
      Just type Dyer Israel in the straight.com Search box at the top of this page and see a dozen articles just on the first page of search results.

      KiDDAA Magazine

      May 16, 2012 at 8:13pm

      China has basically helped wipe out the Tibetans like the Israelis have the Palestinians. Except for there is little or no media in North America on the Palestinian genocide and not much on Tibet but a few white hippies who mean well.
      As the same time most North Americans could care less about Uganda, DR Congo, Libya, Algeria and other parts of Africa unless Kanye West, Bono or CNN (Lying news Network) talks about it. Witness the #Kony phenonema.
      Dozens of Tibetans have set themselves on fire, much like Palestinian hunger strikers and activist like Rachel Corrie who was bulldozered to death by Israelis.
      Our present media structure is racist and exists with agenda, by Dyer, Georgia Straight, The Guardian, The Voice, KiDDAA Magazine any many other independent media are changing that alsong with the internet.

      Bob Pellow

      May 17, 2012 at 6:40am

      Gwynne's analysis and gentle advice should be heeded by world leaders everywhere. A better world would result.

      hAYOKA

      May 17, 2012 at 8:54am

      China + Red Army Dictators = HORRORS for ALL

      P.Peto

      May 18, 2012 at 4:36pm

      The Dalai Lama, like the Pope,is a religious anachronism and a reactionary. The western press and film have portrayed pre-chinese Tibet as a shangra La but was in actual fact a fuedal fiefdom. The chinese have reoccupied their longtime hinterland and introduced modern reforms to a recalcitrant population. It's not much different to the neo-colonialism practiced currently by the West in the Middle East. Get real,put away your romantic mythology and stop idolizing the Dalai Lama! Self immolation will probably be a futile Buddist gesture althoughit has worked to spark change in Vietnam and Tunesia.

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      Cynical Bastard

      May 19, 2012 at 12:53am

      Dyer is pretty spot on with this observation actually. If the Dalai Lama had any political acumen, he'd know that right now, a violent revolution would not have any chance of success as the CCP is fully capable and willing to use overwhelming force to suppress it. Historically, China has always controlled neighbouring territories such as Tibet when it was strong, and lost it when it was weak. And it is the same right now. His best option is to bide his time.

      What the biggest question is, why does he persist on drawing the ire of the CPP and by extension the Han chinese by cuddling up to the West? The way I see it, he is hoping for a certain amount of foreign intervention, or at least pressure on China not to reinvade, if and when the time comes to attempt to break away. However, that aid might not come, judging by the number of foreign interventions historically. On the other hand, long term, in a situation where there isn't significant political turmoil in China, Tibet has no hope of independence without somesort of goodwill between Tibetans and Han chinese.

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      Geronimo

      May 20, 2012 at 2:56am

      There seems to be a lot of interest in freeing Tibet from Chinese occupation. But where is all the interest in freeing the First Nations from Canadian occupation? Shouldn't we clear our own conscience before we try to "fix" other people's problems?

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