Monday, June 2, 2008

the dragon using the elephant

My column for Lititz Record. I normally like to save this until it gets published back home but with things coming to head, I'd like to put out the information as soon as possible. Photo credit goes to the excellent Tenzin Dasel of Without further ado:

The March to Tibet has made a liar out of me. More specifically, the Uttarkhand fuzz has dithered longer than I expected and the standoff continues. I should know better. I'm in India and everything takes longer than you expect. For example, my first trip to the post office in Bombay to pick up a letter resulted in talking to 17 people in 9 different locations. Still, I did not think the standoff with the police could last this long. Our scout now estimates 1000 cops for 350 marchers in this boring little valley with little more than a chai shop in either direction. The police stay in a lousy campground without enough food and nothing to do besides drinking chai and scratching themselves. They have been using a strange mix of friendly requests to leave and underhanded tactics to cut off supply lines and smear the march to the local press and people. Even if they initially supported the march as I would guess most of them did, they probably hate it now just out of boredom and frustration. It's a tough situation because the goal of the march is not to make the Indian police look like bad guys. However, the bosses of the police have bowed to economic pressure from China to remove a thorn from their side. China keeps inviting the Tibetans to come home, confident that no one wants to enter the dragon's den but then they get India to do their dirty work and stop people who come to take them at their word. That's not right.

Nasty tricks have been on the rise since the other foreigners and I got our "Quit India" notices. The District Magistrate of the state of Uttarakhand invited the presidents of the 5 NGO’s to a meeting to continue the endless rounds of negotiations with the authorities. When the presidents showed up for the meeting, the police took them to jail where they currently remain. That same day, the police confinscated almost all of the march support vehicles including the three big trucks for the kitchen crew and luggage transportation. They have been hassling the people buying food but the international headlines stating the police have been starving the march overstates the case.

I’m hiding out with the media team in a town not too far away so I get to hear all of the breaking news. Unfortunately, there’s no cell phone coverage at the campsite where the march has been stuck for over a week. Instead, they station a scout on top of the hill to get out information for the press releases. From this vantage point, he recently saw a khaki wave of policemen fill the road, marching toward the camp. When the marchers saw all of the police activity, they hurried across a small river to sit in the grass, arms locked tightly to each other while they sang prayers and listened to speeches from the leaders not yet in the klink. The police lined up along the road, arms folded on their chests ominously. They stood there staring for an hour before slowly returning to their campsite a kilometer up the road. The event repeated the next day with the same result. Yesterday, more buses and trucks rumbled past the campsite with reinforcements including another bus load of policewomen. Only women are allowed to touch the female protesters. Most of the female cops wear the conventional khaki uniform but some wear a rather odd looking khaki sari. It's not a flattering outfit but I tried to catch a few eyes when they took me away for questioning last week. Not surprisingly, no luck.

But enough about authority figures that leave a bad taste in my mouth. I just had the privilege of meeting a Tibetan authority who inspires me with his straight talk on the harsh geopolitical realities of the Tibet situation that most advocates don't realize or optimistically ignore. He takes a stubborn pride in his outcast status in Tibetan politics. Lhasang Tsering led the Tibetan Youth Congress during the most tumultuous years of Tibetan history since the 1959 Uprising. Two major events marked his term at the helm of the largest and most militant Tibetan organization: the Dalai Lama’s proclamation of the “Middle Way” approach and the 1989 uprisings in Lhasa. I’ll focus on the first event because the second is simply one more episode in Tibetan history where the people rise up, brutal suppression follows, the West thunders condemnations until the Chinese offer talks and then the whole sordid episode gets forgotten. It’s depressing and I’m going to skip it.

In 1987, the Dalai Lama threw out the monkey wrench that put the Tibetan people and the NGOs into a turmoil that still hasn’t quieted. Originally called the Strasburg proposal after the place of its proclamation, it’s now referred to as the “Middle Way” approach. The Dalai Lama announced that he would give up calling for Tibet’s independence in exchange for meaningful autonomy under China. Tsering, also in Europe at the time, became the first person to publicly announce opposition to the proposal when the Daily Telegraph called him for comments that day.

It’s hard to describe the devotion of Tibetans to the Dalai Lama because I've never seen anything like it. I believe he may be the greatest personality cult of this century. In my interviews, people eagerly state their devotion to him and seem keen on convincing me of their love. I am not just referring to monks who sometimes seem almost fanatical in their devotion. People of all ages and from all walks mention him frequently and I have never been in a Tibetan home that did not have his picture placed on a shrine. My best friend here, Tenzin Thapkay, states that he wants to free Tibet so His Holiness can return to his home, the beautiful Potala Palace. The only other rival for frequency of mention in Tibetan conversation is rangzen (independence) so you can imagine the chaos effect of the "Middle Way" approach. The goal had suddenly shifted drastically and people didn’t know what to do.

Tsering’s opposition to the Dalai Lama resulted in a poisoned atmosphere in Dharamsala, seat of the Tibetan government-in-exile. The government tried to restrict public support for the organization and the Dalai Lama threatened to not attend the TYC tri-yearly congress for the first time since its inception. The government secretly urged the people to vote against Tsering in the next election but he received a larger majority than ever. Unfortunately, he left the office after only a year, frustrated at the machinations of the government against him and his organization.

Now he sits before me wearing a subdued and practical outfit of khaki cargo pants and a polo shirt, sporting a long Fu Manchu. He’s a tough guy who’s not afraid state the truth no matter how unpleasant. In this respect, he’s similar to his friend, Jamyang Norbu, who I talked about last week. The first Tibetan intellectual I have heard advocate violence, metaphors frequently illustrate his beliefs. In one of his most powerful illustrations, Tsering compares Tibet to a little girl being raped. He asks, “Do you talk to the rapists or send them books about how to change? No. I go and hit them on the head even if they break my bones. It’s wrong on my part to not try to help. I’m not saying I’ll free Tibet but I will not surrender to the wrong China is doing." He has no plan to free his homeland. Both of us know the geopolitical realities that make the task almost impossible. “I am aware of the strength of China but ... one step forward by someone who doesn’t know the way is better than someone who sits but knows the way.”

Tsering spent the morning talking to the ten young Tibetan men here impatiently awaiting their marching orders. In those few hours, he filled them with fire. Already passionate, these guys have sat me down several times to repeat their willingness to die for rangzen. Some seem positively excited for martyrdom. After Tsering's visit, it got even more interesting when we started drinking that night. You probably know the pointlessness of the typical drunken conversation and for those of you who don’t drink, I’m sure it’s even more apparent. In a refreshing sight, as these guys drank their vodka, they simply became louder in their dedication to the cause. The toughest guy of this tough group had tears of frustration in his eyes as he plead the case for his country and declared his willingness to defend it with his life. He tends to punch when making points so I eventually sat across the room to prevent damage from his bruising logic.

If you'll allow me to don my wizards robes and peer into my crystal ball for a moment, I'll hazard a prediction confident in the fact that nobody will remember my words anyway. As Jamyang Norbu points out, "The word 'Rangzen' (Indepedence) is the most constant and powerful refrain in nearly all the protest documents coming out of Tibet... In fact, every political demonstration and protest has as its essential demand, independence for Tibet; followed by a demand for human rights, and expressions of loyalty to the Dalai Lama as the sovereign ruler of Tibet." The country still shakes from the recent protests, the most powerful since 1959 when the Dalai Lama had to flee the country. Tibet seethes at the human rights abuses and loss of their beloved Dalai Lama and the Tibetans in exile are ready to fight. The sanitized view of a peaceful people has a basis more in a Western charm campaign than history. When the Chinese invaded, the men rose up to fight and some regions had no men left to work the fields. All were dead, arrested or fighting in the Resistance.

That fire still burns bright. When the Dalai Lama dies, the largest check to armed resistance will be removed. I've talked to many men who dread that death of their beloved God on earth but plan to join the fray soon afterwards. I just finished reading and heavily annotating Che Guerva's "Guerrilla Warfare". Not a healthy book for someone young, idealistic and convinced of their own immortality like your author. It showed me that Tibet seems ripe for a Che style revolution that has the trust and help of the people. Che says, "The guerrilla is simply the people in uniform" and these people are ready to sacrifice for independence. I do not say such an armed revolution will be easy or successful but as Lhasang Tsering says, "It is not about winning or losing, it is about right and wrong."

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