On January 20, 2012 I participated in a Voice of America TV discussion on the Tibetan self-immolations in their Tibetan language program, Kunleng. I made the following points.
When discussing the possible reasons for the developments in Tibet, I mentioned that there was “One Central Factor and Two Major Points.”
The one central factor is obviously the broader issue of Chinese rule over Tibet for the past 60 years or so. While Chinese authorities continue to call it peaceful liberation, their policies during these period did not correspond to a liberation.
The two major factors may be, what could be called “immediate causes.” The first is that in the wake of the pan-Tibetan protests of 2008, the Chinese authorities launched a policy of relentless repression that alienated the Tibetans. Tibetans found that their concerns were not being given a hearing. This was further exacerbated by deliberate encouragement of nationalistic fervor among ethnic Chinese by the authorities that resulted in increased tensions between Tibetans and Chinese.
The second factor is that Chinese policies have increasingly let to the virtual absence of any space for Tibetans to express themselves even on matters relating to their religion, culture, and way of life. The misguided Chinese official attitude of seeing all Tibetan activities as “political” has resulted in an environment that has no escape valve for the expression of Tibetan grievances.
What is the message from the Tibetan self-immolations? I would venture to say that there are at least three.
First, this is yet another harsh, but nonetheless clear, indication that the new generation of Tibetans are leading the campaign in Tibet. All of the individuals who committed self-immolation have been born after 1964, and so have been nurtured under the Chinese Communist society. These are individuals who have not seen old Tibet their only experience is life under the current regime. Therefore, it is a clear signal to the authorities of the failure of their policies.
Secondly, the developments are indications of the emergence of a new reality in Tibetan society. They could be taken as indicators of the radicalization of the Tibetan movement. With access to information about happenings in the Chinese society, even though they may not be aware of many international developments, Tibetans are increasingly becoming aware of the discriminatory policies of the Chinese authorities.
Thirdly, the developments indicate that the Chinese authorities are victims of their own propaganda on Tibet that has led them to formulate misguided policies relating to Tibetans. On this, some of the Tibetan officials, both at the central level in Beijing as well as in the Tibetan areas, may have a hand as they may have been in providing misleading reports to the powers that be.
In any case, the developments have caught the Chinese authorities, the international community and the governments by surprise. As a result there are indications that governments are having internal discussions on the best approach to be adopted. Similarly, there is no doubt that hectic discussions would be going on within the Chinese leadership on this. The Chinese authorities should not commit the mistake of believing that increased repression is a solution to the ongoing crisis.
It is encouraging to see a Chinese nun, Miao Jue, in China writing about the Tibetan self-immolations and expressing her solidarity. Similarly, Chinese scholar Wang Lixiong has also given his analysis of the development on the blog of his wife, Woeser. These will strengthen the emerging Chinese public discourse on Tibet. In his essay, Wang Lixiong says, “The Dalai Lama has been pursuing autonomy within the frame-work of Chinese constitution, while China has always been implementing the laws of village self-rule. Then why can’t the struggle for Tibet’s genuine autonomy start with seeking autonomy for each Tibetan village?” He hints that Tibetans may want to learn from Wukan in China and make effort at the grassroots level, in the form of village elections. I see no contradiction between this and the Tibetan policy of finding an overall solution through dialogue with the Chinese leadership. Given that Tibetan areas are already dubbed autonomous, Tibetan villages should actually be having more freedom than a village like Wukan.
Even if the Chinese authorities do not want to consider the feelings of the Tibetan people, it is in China’s own interest that the Tibetan people’s concerns are redressed. Therefore, the Chinese people have as much a stake in encouraging a positive approach towards the crisis in Tibet as Tibetans have. They need to bear in mind the “One Central Factor and Two Major Points.”