Of Tibetans Banning “Free Tibet”

Tibetan Protest in Vancouver, BC. Oct 21, 2005.

A simmering dispute in the Tibetan diaspora came to boil this past week when organizers of the annual Tibetan National Uprising day rally in New York City publicly clashed with demonstrators that carried placards and shouted slogans containing the words “Free Tibet”. The opposing counterparts fell in two camps: those who advocate for Rangzen (Tibetan independence; absolute freedom from China) and those who favour Umay-Lam (Middle-Way Path or genuine autonomy; similar in some respects to Hong Kong’s “One Country, Two System” setup). The Umay-Lam supporters, it seems, wanted nothing to do with “Free Tibet” at this year’s rally.

Even though the point of contention in New York City on March 10, 2015, rested on what was and wasn’t permissible at the event, the discord points to a deeper issue: One that has been debated vociferously many times in India, and is finally wedging itself in the burgeoning Tibetan communities in North America. On the face of it, the question is about determining Tibetan sovereignty and the future of Tibet. What this incident points to though, is the more complicated question of who decides the future of Tibet.

March 10 is observed by Tibetans as the Tibetan National Uprising Day. The day commemorates the moment in 1959 when Tibetans in Lhasa revolted against the Chinese military presence in their city. The popular uprising precipitated violent crackdowns throughout the city and much of Tibet, and hastened the flight of a then 23-year old Dalai Lama from his homeland and into India. It is after the brutal suppression of the actions on March 10, 1959, that the Chinese occupation of Tibet, for all intents and purposes, became total.

For many Tibetans living outside Tibet, March 10 is an important day marked to honour the struggle of the Tibetans from that period, and the many resistance movements that sprang up afterwards. It is fundamentally and unapologetically nationalistic in spirit; the rare, political event that is bereft of any religious or cultural underpinnings, insofar as a Tibetan event can be secularized.

The day serves as a reminder for Tibetans to reassert the importance and relevance of their struggle for freedom from Chinese rule in Tibet, and for some Tibetans to reassert their Tibetan identity. Participating in a March 10 event, in a way, excises some measure of a survivor’s guilt.

On the Tibetan National Uprising Day, Tibetans (and Tibetan supporters) gather to rally through the streets of their adopted hometowns, displaying banners and shouting slogans that range from “Free Tibet, China Out!” to “Long Live the Dalai Lama!”. A cross-section of generations, from old Tibetan ladies clad in traditional dresses to 10-year olds excused from schools (if the March 10 rally falls on a school day), walk in procession for a couple of hours, before meeting at a point (usually in front of a Chinese embassy or consulate building) where they continue their chants, and then hear from a lineup of speakers that features the rally organizers, Tibetan community leaders, and local politicians. The demonstration concludes shortly thereafter.

Protest in front of Chinese consulate, Vancouver, BC. Oct 5, 2005.

The organizers of these events typically include representatives from Tibetan area community groups, Tibetan Youth Congress, Students for a Free Tibet, and other Tibet support groups. Although their core mandates and operations may differ, in the lead-up to this day, the groups form a temporary coalition of sorts to ensure that the March 10 rally takes place on a unified front. The average Tibetan rally participant is not affiliated with any group in particular; she is there simply as a Tibetan individual observing the Tibetan National Uprising Day.

By now, most Tibetans in North America, and elsewhere, have heard or read about what transpired in New York City on March 10, 2015. For the rest of that week, Tibetans have been deluged with Facebook posts and Youtube videos, from those defending one group or another, to expressions of shock and outrage. There have also been calls for unity and reconciliation, and plenty of invocations of the Dalai Lama’s name as a way to bring the discussion back into focus. Through it all, the debate on Rangzen versus Umay-Lam continues unabated.

The defining moment of the altercation in New York City might just be the perplexed look on the face of the non-Tibetan policeman trying to maintain peace at the rally, sternly reminding the quarreling participants of what “freedom of speech” entails. It was like seeing an official trying to break up a fight between two cheerleaders of the same team during a game of high school football.

For many observers, this incident highlights the precarious pedestal on which we rest the ideals of democracy. Even within a community as small and homogeneous as the Tibetans, there is no overarching, monolithic set of principles, other than devotion to the Dalai Lama, the Buddhist faith, and opposition to the Chinese.

The presumed bifurcation of the Tibetan strategy to regain control of Tibet from China is in many ways the natural evolution of a movement that is now entering its sixth decade. India’s 190-year long struggle for independence (which inspired much of exile-Tibet’s non-violent philosophy) was never uniform—from its inception to the final moments when the British Raj ships left the subcontinent, and even thereafter. The same is true for South Africa’s fight against the apartheid regime.

Tibetans in exile have pledged to live in a system that is democratic; we even have a special day for it (September 2nd). The issue here is not the fact that democracy is messy. Rather, it is about the legitimacy and relevance of the voices of Tibetans who live outside of Tibet proclaiming what’s best for the state of Tibet.

In both India and South Africa, the fight for independence and basic human rights were waged from the heart of the conflagration. The leaders put their lives on the line, right where the injustices were taking place; ultimately, their sacrifice paid off. The Tibetan struggle for freedom right now, at least in the diaspora, finds itself in a curious state of wanting a cake and eating it at the same time. Imagine a Mandela that asked his countrymen and women to not lose hope, or appealed to a global conscience, not from inside the walls of his cell on Robben Island, but from somewhere outside of South Africa. Would he have been taken as seriously? And yet, this is the position that we Tibetans find ourselves in.

To paraphrase Jorge Luis Borges, the advocates of Rangzen and Umay-Lam are not all that dissimilar from two bald men vigorously arguing over a comb.

Ultimately, Tibetans on the outside, numbering at around 150,000, will have to reckon with the fact that it will be the Tibetans currently living inside Tibet (more than 7 million) who will decide the future of Tibet. Some of them have made their wishes very clear by dousing their bodies in flames. And others continue to define their identity and culture through literature, arts, entrepreneurship—through the simple act of bearing witness on a day-to-day basis. Those of us living outside of Tibet, with no “skin in the game”, can do our part by making sure our adopted countries do not help perpetuate the violent occupation of Tibet by China. Whether that’s by confronting Canadian mining executives who seek to pilfer Tibetan resources at the cost of the local economy and environment, or by organizing demonstrations to welcome Chinese officials in our cities, all we can do is lend a voice to those who live, work, and exist as Tibetans inside Tibet.

The notion that certain slogans may offend Chinese sensibilities and therefore disrupt Umay-Lam objectives demonstrates how polemic and academic the struggle has become over here. That sentiment, which may just turn out to be moot in the grand scheme of things, is a step removed from banning the Tibetan national flag at March 10 rallies. The flag, after all, is an enduring, persistent symbol of Tibet’s independent past and is consequently banned inside Tibet. So is, coincidentally, the slogan “Free Tibet”.

Follow me on Twitter: @gelekb


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