Hundreds of Tibet supporters in India gathered at the Dalai Lama’s temple in Himachal Pradesh on Sunday, to mark 60 years of the Tibetan uprising in Lhasa and the subsequent Chinese crackdown that drove their spiritual leader into exile and reportedly killed thousands.
The March 10 anniversary is a bitter one for Tibetans. Supporters of the 83-year-old Nobel Peace laureate showed up to express solidarity all around the world, from Boston City Hall to the Buddhist shrine in Dharamsala, where the Dalai Lama established a government-in-exile after escaping the brutal crackdown in 1959.
What happened at Dharamsala?
People chanted and prayed in the Indian hill station that the Dalai Lama has called home for six decades; some had “Free Tibet” painted on their faces along with the
“Tibet belongs to Tibetans,” said Prime Minister-in-exile Lobsang Sangay addressing the devotees, although the Dalai Lama himself was absent. “Sixty years of the occupation of Tibet and the repression of Tibetans is too long,” he said at the event, which was also a celebration of Tibetan culture, with parliamentarians from 10 nations in attendance.
Meanwhile, protestors marched in the national capital with posters and slogans to free Tibet, while riot gear patrolled the streets.
History of the Chinese occupation of Tibet
Tibet secured independence from China for a brief period in the early 20th century before Chinese troops invaded the country again. This period of independence was a few years before the present Dalai Lama, the 14th incarnation of Tibetan Buddhism’s supreme religious leader, was enthroned as the head of the state.
On March 10, Beijing sent troops to the Buddhist Himalayan country claiming to liberate Tibet which it has ruled since 1951. In reality, it was only suppressing protests against the Chinese authority, which were slowly and steadily growing more violent.
Monasteries were destroyed and a significant threat was posed to the Dalai Lama’s safety in 1959. Denied the right to arm his soldiers or have bodyguards, his supporters suspected an ambush and surrounded the Norbulingka palace enabling the spiritual icon to flee in the guise of a soldier.
Following this, China brutally crushed the fledgling Tibetan revolt, killing tens of thousands of Tibetans in the bloodshed that followed, according to the government-in-exile. Refugees poured over the border into Dharamsala to flee Chinese repression.
Sixty years later, political and religious repression continues over what is largely seen as a territorial and strategic power grab by China. Several international experts concede that China may have brought economic growth to the region, but it continues to treat Tibetans as second-class citizens on their own land.
All eyes on the Dalai Lama
Despite global uproar against the decades of China’s occupation and visible support from western nations and powerful
It continues to eradicate the Tibetan culture with systemic policies and has become more oppressive, reportedly stalling all flow of information into Tibet. Chinese officials even vilify the Dalai Lama saying he is a separatist who wants an independent Tibet, even though since 1988, he has publicly sought genuine autonomy for Tibetans within the People’s Republic of China.
According to Sarah Sewell, special coordinator on Tibetan issues during the Obama administration, however, “Increasingly, we see that countries that have typically spoken out on behalf of Tibet are now shying away from doing so. Heads of state, leaders of parliament, are more reluctant to meet with His Holiness the Dalai Lama. This means that the symbolic act of visibly, for example, having the president or the secretary of state welcome His Holiness the Dalai Lama into official meeting rooms is really important diplomatic symbolism. That’s absent right now.”
What do Tibetans want?
According to Chinese history expert Max Oidtmann, “The primary goal of most Tibetans would be to get more respect from the Chinese state and to actually receive the privileges which are guaranteed to them by the Chinese constitution.”
While PM Sangay too fosters the demands for a middle path—autonomy within China—Tibetan activists around the world are at the fore of an active grassroots movement that would settle for nothing less than complete freedom and demilitarisation.
Media reports often rankle with news of monks immolating themselves or risking detainment for staging public protests against China’s iron grip on their homeland. They shout slogans like ”We want human rights,” and ”Return of the Dalai Lama in Tibet.”
Other high-profile protests occurred before the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing when members of an
The revolution continues
The need to engage China in a public diplomatic forum on the Tibet issue cannot recede into the background. But the resilience of the Tibetans is clear when one thinks of the resources that the Chinese state has thrown at occupying Tibet and crushing Tibetan spirit for over seven decades. Every grain of logic suggests that the resistance should have died by now.
“And it’s not—far from it. I think that the resistance spirit that was in the streets in Lhasa in March 1959 still exists with an entirely new generation of Tibetans inside Tibet where protests and resistance continues to this day,” said Lhadon Tethong, director of the Tibet Action Institute, at a rally in Boston on March 8. Before 2009, for example, there was no known occurrence of self-immolation as a form of protest inside Tibet.
While the Dalai Lama calls them acts of great desperation and urges the Chinese government to respond to such incidents more seriously to avoid instability in the region, Tibetans are no longer waiting for Tibetan leaders in-exile to negotiate with the Chinese Communist cadre. They have seen that decade-long
“…[They] know[ing] that such torture is in store for them in Chinese
They continue to post pamphlets stating that if the crackdown continues “many more people were prepared to give up their lives.”
Why it matters to us
Meanwhile, China continues to defend its policies with regard to Tibet, causing ceaseless concern for Indian border patrol. Border-standoffs have revived in the recent past, especially since the Doklam encounter, leading to an increase in surveillance and security measures across the 3,488 km Himalayan boundary.
However, it must be recalled that Jawahar Lal Nehru’s policy to demarcate the Indian border with the Tibet Autonomous Region of China was one of the two reasons behind the 1962 border skirmish. The other reason was the decision to offer asylum to the Dalai Lama after he crossed over on March 31, 1959.
Despite India’s insistence that dialogue with China is the only way out to sort out the Tibet issue, China has slandered and spread lies about Indians reportedly training Tibetan youth for rebellion and about the Dalai Lama being a terrorist out to splinter China.
With over 100,000 Tibetans living in exile in India, the possibility of instigating another rebellion to dismantle the Chinese Communist Party-government in Tibet isn’t that far-fetched. In fact, l
In the prolonged absence of the spiritual leader and of another strong guiding force, Tibetans scattered across the world are likely to have only solitary acts of protest to show for their resistance, in the foreseeable future.
Prarthana Mitra is Staff Writer at Qrius