America meets Tibet: one century later

On Thursday, January 24, 2013, in Culture & History, by John N

“[Our] movement did not generate from any motives of disloyalty toward our government nor was it conceived in any spirit of lawlessness. Our sole objective was to resist and oust the Chinese who were oppressing our people… Not only was personal safety at sake, but our national institutions and way of life were being extinguished slowly and cunningly. Individual freedom had become non-existent since the Chinese invasion and the communist doctrine was being barbarously enforced. Patriotic people felt there was nothing left to look for or live for. We were rebelling not from choice but from sheer compulsion.”

Take a moment and try to guess who said the above quote. Was it one of the monks in the Jokhang or at Labrang Monastery, bravely risking their safety to tell visiting foreign journalists about the tensions which had erupted to the surface during the 2008 Tibetan Uprising? Was it a newly arrived Tibetan exile being interviewed in Nepal or India, weary and frostbitten from weeks of trudging across the Himalayas? Or was it perhaps one of the self-immolators, trying to describe what brought them to make such a decision?

In reality it was none of the above. Those words were spoken by Gompo Tashi Andrutsang in 1958, as the various Khampa resistance forces solidified into one pan-Tibetan movement. The quote, relayed by John Kenneth Knaus in his new book Beyond Shangri-La: America and Tibet’s Move into the Twenty-First Century, is one of many in the book that lend important perspectives on where the Tibet movement is today.

Take another example, this time of unkind words spoken to the Dalai Lama. Knaus quotes one New York Times article in which Beijing officials are said to be “prone to calling him uncomplimentary names to his face. ‘Barbarian’ is one of the least offensive of these.” In another, the Chinese government calls him an “irreligious, obstreperous profligate who is tyrannical and so unacceptable to the Tibetans.” Xinhua pieces in the last few weeks have been similarly insulting to His Holiness, but these two New York Times articles were actually published in 1908 and 1910, respectively. This, of course, means that these words were spoken by a different Chinese government (the ailing Qing Dynasty) about a different Dalai Lama (the Great 13th). Refusing to acknowledge the Tibetan people’s widespread devotion to the Dalai Lama seems to have become a regrettable heredity condition for successive Chinese governments.

Knaus also demonstrates how American support for Tibet has come in greater and smaller forms over the last century. At a time when the Chinese government consistently dismisses foreign concerns over their human rights abuses in Tibet as meddling in Chinese ‘internal affairs,’ this line certainly rings true: “We have been asked to believe it is all right for Chinese Communists to kill Tibetans, but that it is a provocation for us to talk about it.” This wasn’t said in response to a recent Chinese propaganda piece, though; it was actually American Ambassador Lodge addressing the UN in the 1950’s. Perhaps stranger are words that came from a place which isn’t counted among the great supporters of Tibet today: “It will not hurt the great Chinese people to open negotiations with the Dalai Lama for a peace settlement and to recognize the right of the small Tibetan people to control their own destiny, but it will greatly help the world, including China.” This idea of a win-win outcome is one that members of the Tibet movement advance frequently, but in this case it was put forth by the Cuban foreign minister in 1959.

Knaus has written a detailed and meticulous accounting of how Tibet and America have engaged each other over the last century. In the last chapter he characterizes Tibet’s future as ‘uncertain,’ with determined Tibetans and their supporters continuing to struggle for a mutually beneficial solution with China. The task of saving Tibet is monumental, but so too are the energies being devoted towards that goal. He concludes:

“By continuing to fulfill the commitments they have made to Tibet over the past half century, the United States and other freedom-seeking nations serve their common interest in an increasingly interdependent world. There would be two prizes to gain. The immediate one would be to convince the coming administrations in Beijing that China would benefit by ridding itself of a persistent domestic problem and international opprobrium. The other prize, a derivative one, would be for the citizens of the free world to discover that the way of life they have supported and promoted as a means of confronting Chinese expansionism continues and merits both sustained support and practice in their own increasingly uncertain, interconnected world beyond Shangri-La.”

Beyond Shangri-La is highly recommended for anyone eager to read more about Tibetan-American relations, and it works well as a counterpart to Orphans of the Cold War, in which Knaus described his personal experiences training Tibetan freedom fighters during his CIA career. Additionally, members of the International Campaign for Tibet may appreciate reading about the key roles played by ICT Executive Chairman Lodi Gyari, former president John Ackerly, and current president Mary Beth Markey within the Tibet movement over the last thirty years.

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