my sojourn to dharmasala

What has been the driving force behind the new found courage among Tibetans and supporters who have done everything from spoiling the torch events to steering the boycotting Olympics campaign?

Did it begin with the momentum of calls for boycott of the Olympics in support of the Burmese monks protest in Aug 2007? Or did the discontent arise from the growing dissatisfaction among the younger generation who are frustrated with the Dalai Lama’s middle ground approach of negotiating for autonomy for Tibet with the Chinese authorities which has yet to yield any progress?

Journalistic curiosity propelled me to take a trip to Dharamsala, the site of the largest Tibetans in exile and the headquarters of the Dalai Lama to gain better insight of the Tibetan struggle. I wanted to understand whether a chasm had formed as a result of two opposing strategies, one to engage and the other involving protests, at times violent, – a far cry from civil disobedience that the Dalai Lama had always asked of Tibetans. Can both strategies work in complement of one another or were they in fact in conflict?

Thirty-two year old Lobsang Paldona, a Tibetan exile, born in South India and who internally migrated to Dharamsala fifteen years ago is a Dalai Lama loyalist. A teacher with the Tibetan School Village funded by both the Indian government and funds from Tibetan sympathizers overseas, he does not see any contradiction in the two strategies. While he favours international pressure to force the Chinese to negotiate with the Dalai Lama, he is not uncomfortable with the recent turn events in March (10) when Tibetans protesters turned to ethnic violence for the first time.

He believes the orchestrated efforts like derailing events like torch handover will raise the visibility of the Tibetan struggle and force the eventual hand of the Chinese to the negotiating table.

“ However, the recent violence targeted toward the ethnic Chinese migrants is fuelled by the fear as a result of the continued cultural genocide taking place. This may well be our last opportunity to really fight for change as the Dalai Lama is now 67,” said Paldona.

“ If the Dalai Lama asks us to go back to Tibet, even though I have lived here all my life and love India, I will go as we understand the worry that rapid migration in Tibet and the cultural genocide, it may be necessary,” he said alluding to the fact Chinese will soon be outnumbering the Tibetans in Lhasa.

The Dalai Lama’s demands include autonomy in three provinces in the area of language, environment, culture and religion but not foreign affairs. However, little progress has been made despite the six rounds of talks between Beijing and the Dalai Lama since 2002. The latest talks ended July 3rd and no official response has been received from the Chinese.

Tibet came under the control of the People’s Republic of China following the invasion in 1952. By 1996, Tibetans had largely given up street protest. Protests however re-started in March this year and when rumours that monks detained on March 10th had been beaten in custody, hoards of Tibetan civilians started attacking the Chinese police and ethnic Han Chinese population. Soon protests were becoming widespread. About a fifth of the incidents (mainly peaceful ones) were staged by students, and most involved largely rural communities of farmers and nomads, the historic base of communist support.

” While we believe a political process is the best step, but clearly without India taking a stronger position with China, the future looks bleak, “ said Paldona. The recent attempt by the pro-independent groups to march to Tibet was severely hampered by Indian authorities at the border.

However it is evident growing numbers of youths do not share Paldona’s faith in the Dalai Lama.

Twenty-two year old Rinchen Tenzin Gurme is disenchanted with Dalai Lama’s middle road strategy.

He believes that the Dalai Lama is being “too soft” in supporting the Beijing regime and unlike the Dalai Lama’s call for autonomy, he wants nothing less than independence.
”The Dalai Lama is my spiritual leader and I respect him but in politics, we are all the same.”

In fact, he supports the widespread view that the focus by Dalai Lama with international tours, recently with US Republican presidential candidate, John McCain, has led many in exile and in Tibet to believe he is turning his back on the sufferings of Tibetans.

“ I have no recollection of Tibet and have not been back since leaving as a child at four, “ said Gurme, a painter.

He added the reasons for his reluctance to return to Tibet is the fear for his life He claimed his friends who went back in recent times were arrested, spending some six months in prison as young exiles are targeted. His bitterness toward the Chinese government is apparent – his father was a political prisoner for 23 years. He however insists he holds no ill feeling toward the Chinese.

“ Even the Chinese citizens have little rights in China, “ he said.

Both young men lend their support for an independent Tibet. While Paldona is hoping his prayers will help, Gurme, who is a painter, sells personally designed T-shirts to raise money for youth activism.

Monks residing in Dharamsala surprisingly do not agree with the Dalai Lama’s stand to support the Olympics. A group of monks that I spoke to – an incongruous image drinking coffee at the popular Tenyang Coffee Shop which arguably sells the best coffee in Dharamasala – view the growing violent protests as inevitable.

However while tacitly supporting protests leading toward the Olympics, the monks are worried that if violence does escalate, the Dalai Lama – who publicly announced that he will resign- will be forced to do so.

The 11th Panchen Lama of Tibet, the next reincarnation of the next spiritual leader and who continues to be incarcerated by the Chinese also weighs heavily on the monks. The Panchen Lama, who would be 19 year old, was abducted along with his family thirteen years ago. Despite international outcry, his whereabouts and well-being remain unknown.
Acts of defiance will surely continue. In Dharmasala, every Monday a candle vigil is held in solidarity with the martys who have died in the struggle. The monks show their solidarity through their 24 hour continued hunger strike. The two pronged approach of engagement and resistance appears to be a problem only to the Chinese government. As history has shown time and time again, the inside and outside strategy and the flexibility in tactics as was hailed a success by the ANC in the anti-apartheid struggle, has worked. If there is something the Buddhists understand, its patience.

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