Home Articles An overview of the Non-violent struggle of the Tibetan people

An overview of the Non-violent struggle of the Tibetan people


In the late 1980’s the big news was that peace was breaking out in Asia. One after the other, from Afghanistan to Cambodia, the killing fields happily reverted to their traditional role of feeding people. And Asia – or those regions racked by invasion and civil war – prepared for a long break from slaughter. But a decade or so later, the welcoming sound of peace breaking out is now a faint echo among the sound and fury of renewed war and carnage. From Indonesia to Kosovo the world is back to doing what it does best:

The unravelling of the international system imposed on the world by the big powers after the Second World War has thrown up numerous movements for independence. All are violent ones or have the potential of being calamitous. The latest and bloodiest is the war in Kosovo. Europe, which has given us two world wars but since then looked upon by the rest of us as a haven of peace and stability, is once again back to the business of war.

With old and new hot spots flaring across the globe, the question is how have the Tibetans managed to keep their freedom struggle non-violent for so long? And why is Tibet’s non-violent struggle for freedom relevant and important to the rest of the world?

A part of the answer lies in the personality of the Dalai Lama and his Buddhist beliefs. His uncompromising attitude towards violence and his unquestioned moral authority among the Tibetan people have prevented the Tibetans in Tibet and in exile from taking up arms. And in the Tibetans’ ability to keep their struggle non-violent lies the ability of a large part of Asia to check itself from falling into the abyss of violence and civil strife. A sustained Tibetan arm struggle could trigger a similar upsurge of ethnic anger and violence among the Uighurs of Xinjiang and Mongols of Inner Mongolia where discontent and ethnic pride have continued to simmer and flare. Like the Tibetans, the Mongols and Uighurs bristle at their boot-heel subjugation by China. The consequences of violence breaking out in any of these parts would be unpredictable for China and Asia. The recent accidental but tragic NATO bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade has provoked both fear and anger among the Chinese who suspect that this accident could also be replicated in China where the regime faces similar tense situation with non-Chinese peoples.

The Tibetan struggle initially started off as a violent and desperate reaction to the Chinese communist invasion and occupation of Tibet. The comparative military strength and leadership qualities of China and Tibet did not deter the rag-tag Tibetan army in challenging one of the world’s largest fighting machines. The battle-hardened PLA, flushed with victory over the nationalist Chinese, simply brushed aside the Tibetan army in its onward march to Lhasa.

The defeat of the Tibetan government forces led to the signing of the 17-Point Agreement in which Tibet was forced to admit that it was a part of China. In return China promised to leave Tibet’s traditional social order intact and respect the power and prerogatives of the Dalai Lama. In this way, from 1951 to 1959 Buddhist Tibet co-existed un-easily with communist China. Some Chinese scholars trace the origins of the present one country, two systems concept with which Hong Kong lives under Chinese sovereignty to this agreement China made with Tibet.

However Hong Kong because of its financial clout provides China a powerful incentive to keep its promises. Tibet, despite its mass and bulk, had no such incentives to offer. Beijing soon began to nibble away at the influence of both the Tibetan government and the monasteries. China also began to impose drastic socialist reforms on eastern and northeastern Tibet, which sparked Tibetan resentment, compelling the Tibetans to take matters into their own hands. Suspecting that communist China was striking at the very root of Tibet’s separate cultural and ethnic identity, the Tibetans formed a nucleus of a resistance movement. Comprising mainly of Khamba tribesmen, the resistance that began in eastern Tibet within a couple of years engulfed the whole of Tibet.

The vicious cycle of Chinese repression and Tibetan resentment presented the Tibetan government and specifically the Dalai Lama with a tricky task of how to handle Tibetan people’s anger or caution patience in the face of the incremental demands of the Chinese authorities for more influence in Tibet. In the choice the Dalai Lama made between his pacifist religious beliefs and his people’s natural instinct to take to arms lies the genesis of the Tibetan philosophy of non-violence. Throughout the 1950’s the Dalai Lama felt that he was sitting between two volcanoes, each likely to erupt at any moment. He knew the dire consequences if the Tibetans pitted their raging anger against the might of China. It was the classic case of the rock and the egg. If the egg was thrown at the rock, the egg was smashed. If the rock was thrown at the egg, the egg was smashed.

Above all the Dalai Lama was torn between his roles as both the political and spiritual leader of Tibet and his helplessness in the face of growing Tibetan anger and rapidly diminishing Chinese patience. In My Land and My People, the Dalai Lama wrote, “Worst of all, I felt I was losing control of my own people. In the east they were being driven to barbarism. In central Tibet they were growing more determined to resort to violence; and I felt that I would not be able to stop them much longer, even though I could not approve of violence and did not believe it could possibly help us.”

At the same time, he was torn between admiration for Tibetan courage and fortitude in the face of insurmountable odds and his need, as the head of state, to salvage the best deal for his people. At least, he wanted to avoid bloodbath brought about by a headlong collision between Tibetan nationalism and Chinese military might. At the most, through quiet diplomacy, he hoped that he would prevail on the Chinese authorities to respect the autonomous status promised to Tibet and in this way preserve it’s distinct cultural heritage.

In 1956, the Dalai Lama was invited to participate in the Buddha Jayanti commemorations in New Delhi. He visited Rajghat where he was able to meditate more deeply on the philosophy of non-violence as advocated by Gandhi. “I wished most fervently that I had had the privilege of meeting him in this world. But standing there, I felt I had come in close touch with him, and I felt his advice would always be that I should follow the path of peace. I determined more strongly that ever that I could never associate with acts of violence.”

The non-violence philosophy the Dalai Lama brought to the Tibetan struggle was shaped not only by his Buddhist beliefs, but also by his judgement that Tibet’s distinct cultural and ethnic identity could best be preserved through a policy of dialogue with the Chinese authorities.

However, in the 1950’s the Dalai Lama was only in his teens. The Tibetan struggle had gone too far into a violent phase for the his peaceful approach to make any appreciable impact on the resistance movement. The fiery cauldron of repression and resistance boiled over in March 1959 when Tibetans took to the streets of Lhasa to demand for independence. The Chinese reaction was predictable and brutal. The result, in terms of human lives, was catastrophic. By whatever estimate the calculations are based on, the Tibetan population was decimated. According to official Chinese data, in the fighting in the 1950’s, the crackdown on the 1959 uprising and the mopping up exercise which followed, about 87,000 Tibetans were killed in central Tibet alone. Tibetan exiles put the total number of Tibetans killed at 1.2 million.

The Dalai Lama, followed by thousands of Tibetan refugees, sought asylum in India. But the resistance movement continued from new bases in Mustang in Nepal. However, because of the rapproachment between the United States and China in the early 1970’s, the CIA funding for the resistance movement dried up. At the same time the Nepalese army moved in to disarm the Tibetan guerrillas. The guerrillas refused. The Dalai Lama intervened by sending an emissary with a taped message urging them to peacefully surrender their arms. The guerrillas surrendered, but several, torn apart by the need to obey their political and spiritual leader and their commitment to the cause of Tibetan freedom, committed suicide. This ended the violent phase of the Tibetan freedom struggle and a critical chapter in Tibetan history was closed.

In exile the Dalai Lama had more time to reflect on the Tibetan situation and how he could deal with it. Right from the start he and his advisers realised that the issue of Tibet could only be solved satisfactorily through a process of negotiations with the Chinese government. However in the 60’s and early 70’s, China was in no mood to talk. It was pre-occupied by political strife and the madness of the Cultural Revolution. The power struggle within the leadership was veering China toward the precipice of social chaos and institutional collapse. The brutality of the Cultural Revolution was felt not only in China but also in Tibet, where monasteries and temples were razed to the ground, monks and nuns defrocked and where one nastier political campaign followed another.

Because of this, many young Tibetans questioned the relevance and effectiveness of the non-violent strategy the Dalai Lama advocated. They pointed out that their opponent was a one-party dictatorship. They argued at least the British, for all their colonial greed and rapaciousness, respected the rule of law. Gandhi and his non-violent philosophy succeeded because the British were great sticklers, if not for the spirit of law but at least for the semblance of justice being done. The Chinese, the Tibetan youth argued, believed with almost religious fervour in Mao’s dictum that political power grew from the barrel of a gun. Turning the other cheek was for the Chinese, who lived through more than half a century of social upheaval, civil war and revolution, an exercise in unadulterated stupidity. The Chinese believed that revolution was not a garden party but a calculated act of violence to achieve desired ends. How could non-violence succeed against such a regime? Tibetan refugee youth argued.

The response the Dalai Lama made against these compelling arguments was shaped by two factors: his Buddhist beliefs and the ground reality.

For Buddhist everywhere life in all its diverse forms is sacred. To be born a human being is a privilege because this gives a person the opportunity to attain enlightenment, the highest spiritual goal of being freed from the cycle of birth and rebirth. By killing a person you are committing the worst negative act because you are depriving that person of the chance of becoming enlightened. On the other hand, Buddhists believe that your enemy is your best teacher because he teaches you the virtues of patience and tolerance, virtues vital on the difficult path to enlightenment.

As for the geo-politics of the Tibetan situation, the Dalai Lama believes that any sort of armed Tibetan uprising would constitute mass suicide. An armed uprising would be the best excuse for China to obliterate the Tibetans from the face of the earth. At the same time, there was no country in the world that would be willing to provide arms and ammunition to the Tibetans to sustain their struggle.

Instead the Dalai Lama made his own proposal of the Middle Way Approach, carefully crafted on non-violence and on a policy of not seeking outright independence for Tibet. He explained his ideas in two documents, the Five Point Peace Plan and the Strasbourg Proposal. He announced his Five Point Peace Plan at the US Congress in September 1987 and the Strasbourg Proposal to the European Parliament in June 1988. In the Five Point Peace Plan, the Dalai Lama called for the transformation of the whole of Tibet into a zone of peace and the commencement of earnest negotiations on the future status of Tibet and of relations between Tibetan and Chinese peoples. Dalai Lama felt that Tibet was ideally situated for fulfilling the role of a sanctuary of peace in the heart of Asia. Tibet’s historic status as a neutral buffer state contributed to the stability of the entire continent. In the Strasbourg Proposal, the Dalai Lama said that the whole of Tibet should become a self-governing democratic political entity founded on law by agreement of the people for the common good and the protection of themselves and their environment in association with the People’s Republic of China.

Though its reaction was muted, a section of the exiled Tibetan youth expressed outrage, labeling the Dalai Lama’s proposal as a sell-out. These young Tibetans contended that no one had the right to compromise on
Tibetan independence.

The reaction from Beijing was equally scathing. China said that discussion of independence, semi-independence and independence in a disguised form was out of the question. The Chinese leadership would not accept these as agenda in any future discussions on the status of Tibet. The Chinese government considered the Dalai Lama’s demand for a truly autonomous Tibet, in which the Tibetans could manage their own affairs, as Tibetan independence in disguise.

Despite the Chinese government’s outright rejection of the Dalai Lama’s major diplomatic initiative, there was a glimmer of hope in 1988 and 1989 that the Chinese side would come to the negotiating table to settle the matter peacefully. The 1989 upsurge of pro-democracy movement in China and the subsequent massacre of students at Tiananmen squashed all hopes of that. The hardliners in the leadership, who got the upper hand in the power struggle sparked off by the Tiananmen Square student movement, wanted nothing to do with the Dalai Lama. They calculated that the Dalai Lama’s approaching mortality would put an end to what they considered a small irritant.

The hard-liners’ position was strengthened when in 1987, 1988 and 1989 Tibet was rocked by a series of independence demonstrations. The demonstrations threw up some angry Tibetans who burned Chinese police stations, and set police vehicles on fire. China jettisoned its earlier relatively liberal policy in favour of the policy of “merciless repression.” In 1989 Beijing clamped Lhasa under martial law, which lasted more than a year, much longer than the one imposed in Beijing in the aftermath of the students’ uprising.

However, for his efforts the Dalai Lama was awarded the 1989 Nobel Peace Prize for his constructive and forward-looking initiatives in the cause of peace. This greatly enhanced the Dalai Lama’s international stature but did not help change the ground reality in Tibet or China’s hard-line attitude to the question of Tibet.

In fact, the Dalai Lama was faced with the same dilemma he faced in the 1950’s: the uncompromising attitude of the new generation of Tibetans and the implacable will of the Chinese government. Faced with the same old problem in a new context, the Dalai Lama said that if the mainstream Tibet movement favoured violence then there is nothing for him to do except to step down from the leadership of the Tibetan struggle. And he took a step only he could take: he took the moral high ground. He went to his people in exile and proposed that a referendum be held on the goals of the Tibetan struggle. In his 10 March statement of 1994 the Dalai Lama explained that he was criticized by a section of the Tibetan community for the concessions he made to the Chinese government. On the other hand, the Chinese government rejected these concessions outright. In view of this he felt that there was nothing for him to do except to go to the Tibetan people and let them decide what they really wanted. He proposed four goals: independence, self-determination, his own middle way approach and satyagraha. Tibetans had to choose one. Whatever decision, the Dalai Lama said, the Tibetans made would be followed by him and his administration. But he made the condition that whether the Tibetans decided the end goal of the Tibetan struggle was independence or autonomy the means must only be non-violent. He would not compromise on this core issue.

The Tibetan parliament-in-exile conducted a preliminary opinion survey in 1997. 65% of the Tibetan refugee community said that they had implicit faith in the Dalai Lama . Whatever he decided would be acceptable to them. They said a full-fledged referendum was not necessary. Messages from Tibetans in Tibet supported the majority view.

by the Thubten Samphel / www.friendsoftibet.org