As this piece is being written, reports are coming in from Tibet by the minute of mass protests, arrests, the killing of demonstrators, the blockade of monasteries, and now the imposition of martial law. Not strictly limited to Lhasa, word has also filtered through of demonstrations in Kham and Amdo, far to the east.
A combination of factors has come together, including Tibetan awareness of China’s sensitivity to negative international attention in the build-up to the Olympics and the arrival of March 10, the day when Tibetans mark the 1959 uprising against China.
But the most important element has to be the persistent, underlying resentment of China’s presence in Tibet. The banned Tibetan national flag has been unfurled in Lhasa and on its streets the familiar cry for Tibet’s independence has been shouted.
By contrast, just last month in Dharamsala, Samdhong Rinpoche, the Tibetan prime minister in exile, opened a conference meant to highlight and support the Dalai Lama’s policy of compromise with China. The Dalai Lama and the exiled Tibetan leadership in the early 70s made the decision to accept Tibet as a part of China (a policy change announced publicly only in 1988).
The new policy sought to gain “real autonomy” for Tibet: as envisioned by the Dalai Lama, Tibet would control all areas of policy except for foreign and military affairs, which would remain in the hands of the Chinese central government.
In the years that followed, China, nimbly taking account of the Dalai Lama’s political naivete and desperation, has held firmly to its position and made no substantive concessions to the Tibetan exiles.
All the while the Dalai Lama and his officials have continuously ratcheted down their position: from Tibetan independence, to “real autonomy”, to simple “cultural rights”. Now, the Tibetans are taking it down yet another notch, asking only for “those minimum rights that are protected” under China’s constitution and its law on regional ethnic autonomy.
It is unlikely that the events of the last few days will alter China’s basic strategy. Make no mistake: China will impose order over Tibet — most likely with scant regard for the niceties of international human rights’ norms — and re-evaluate its security strategy to see how to proactively avoid a repetition of these events. But in spite of the inevitable black eye that China’s image will acquire, there is little chance that the larger international strategy for handling the Tibet issue will change.
China found that the Dalai Lama, who long ago renounced independence as a goal, could be easily manipulated to effectively serve as a spokesperson for its position. Thus, for years China has met almost every pronouncement of his position with calls that he reject Tibetan independence more clearly and more categorically. Until just recently the Dalai Lama took these as indications that China simply didn’t understand his policy. And so he reiterated his rejection of Tibetan independence to world leaders at every opportunity, sometimes asking that they make his stand clear to China.
With large numbers of Chinese officials handling foreign affairs and nationality issues, there is no way that China could not understand what the Dalai Lama says. It is the Dalai Lama and his government in exile, who do not understand China. Just last week, before the latest demonstrations began, China accused the Dalai Lama of working to sabotage the Beijing Olympics. The reaction was exactly what China wanted: the Dalai Lama declared his firm support for China’s Olympics.
The taint of illegitimacy, which has always attached itself to China’s incorporation of Tibet, has largely been marginalised by the Dalai Lama where it counts: the halls of international power. If the current spate of protests in Tibet don’t reverse the process, no other proof is needed as to the effectiveness of China’s strategy. Here too the Dalai Lama’s reaction has been predictable. He has deplored the unresolved resentment in Tibet and the violence on both sides, but aside from calling for dialogue he has lent no support to the demands of the Tibetan demonstrators.
The reactive nature of the exiled Tibetan government’s China policy was made amply clear in the recent commotion over the Dalai Lama’s successor. China’s plans to seek out and enthrone the next Dalai Lama on its own have been known for well over a decade. Nevertheless, the Dalai Lama admitted that he and his government in exile had really come to no decision about how they would manage the search for and recognition of the next Dalai Lama.
China has long been convinced that the Dalai Lama’s passing will deflate the Tibet issue as an international concern. It will handle the succession process by itself, installing its own Dalai Lama on its own terms. It has done this with a Panchen Lama who is rejected by most Tibetans and has long believed it can now install a Dalai Lama with little regard for popular approval.
In India, the Dalai Lama’s stated uncertainty about selecting his successor, combined with the fractures that lie under the surface of the exiled community, may make it likely that at his passing he will leave a resident Tibetan refugee community adrift. For all of his missteps in dealing with China, the Dalai Lama’s achievement in securing the cohesion and stability of the exiled community is considerable. And he is the most universally recognisable symbol of Tibet. Given what has just transpired in Tibet, China feels that the elimination of that symbol can come none too soon.
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Originally published in The Times of India.