Echoing across Tibet

On Friday, June 21, 2013, in China, Culture & History, Dalai Lama, by John N

In a recent article posted to the China Tibet Online (CTO) section of state-run People’s Daily Online, Ellen Liu wrote:

Some immolators called for “the return of the Dalai Lama” to Tibet, which were echoed by exiled Tibetans overseas.

The rest of the article is full of the illogical arguments and fallacies which typically define CTO pieces, but that sentence on its own is worthy of some attention.  It’s a clear example of a strategy that Chinese authorities and their propaganda outlets have employed repeatedly over recent years in which they seek to create the impression of a gulf between the wishes and desires of Tibetans inside and outside Tibet.  Tibetans in exile are free to express their beliefs, which makes it impossible for CTO to claim that they don’t want the Dalai Lama to return to Tibet.  Inside China, however, authentic Tibetan voices are relentlessly marginalized, and in this vacuum CTO and other Chinese propaganda outlets often claim to speak for Tibetans.

In doing so, they have made the implication that only self-immolators and “exiled Tibetans” want the Dalai Lama to return to Tibet.  It’s true that since 1959 a constant flow of Tibetans have gone into exile, many of whom were driven at least partially by the desire to be closer to the Dalai Lama.  Each one is given a private audience with him on arrival in India.  But contrary to what CTO and other Party mouthpieces suggest, today the struggle inside Tibet between Tibetans voicing their support for the Dalai Lama and Chinese authorities working to silence them is as fierce as ever.  A series of news items and reports from the last few months alone helps to illustrate this point.

One recent example comes from Dzatoe township in Yushul prefecture, where local Tibetans etched a prayer for the long life of the Dalai Lama onto the face of a cliff in March.  Days later, according to an RFA report, security forces arrived and erased the prayer.  This concern- not just for his return, but also for his well-being and long life- has been echoed by Tibetans across Tibet whenever they are given a chance to speak.  Eight hundred miles away, at the Labrang monastery, a monk explained that the Dalai Lama “is always in our hearts” as he spoke to a Reuters journalist in February.  Just a few weeks earlier a farmer from the same region told USA Today that Tibetans “all want the Dalai Lama to return and religious freedom for Tibet… No matter how developed Tibet becomes, our hearts will always be empty if the Dalai Lama does not return to Tibet.”

It isn’t only journalists picking up on this sentiment.  Ben Hillman, an Australian academic, wrote about a conversation he had with a nomad in eastern Tibet in March:

‘We are sad because our lama is not among us. It’s been a long time since he left. Most people, including me, have never seen him. We want the Dalai Lama to come back.’

I asked him, Do many other people you know feel the same way?’

‘Yes – all of them.’

Until they get their wish, some Tibetans have tried to make do with symbolic measures.  This week during the opening ceremonies of an enormous monastic debate festival in Tawu, Kardze prefecture, a portrait of the Dalai Lama was ceremonially enthroned and left in a position of honor according to the Tibet Post.  Over the next ten days 3,000 monks from across the Kham area of eastern Tibet will engage in Buddhist debates beneath the portrait.  This follows a gathering in Chigdril in February in which Tibetans displayed a portrait of the Dalai Lama on International Mother Language Day.  During that gathering young Tibetans read poetry and sang songs in Tibetan despite the risks of openly displaying their loyalty to the Dalai Lama.

When French news correspondent Cyril Payen arrived in Lhasa after evading the roadblocks and ID checks designed to keep journalists out of Tibet, he heard similar sentiments there.  A young Tibetan woman he interviewed told him “the Dalai Lama is like our sun.  But we cannot say that. If we do, then we would be put in jail.”  Sadly, she may have understated the risks: in May RFA reported that a Tibetan monk from Chamdo prefecture was beaten to death by Chinese police after they discovered him to be in possession of recordings of speeches by the Dalai Lama.  Imprisonment is a real possibility as well, though.  The Tibetan Center for Human Rights and Democracy (TCHRD) recently translated an essay written by Gartse Jigme, a Tibetan scholar monk, which appeared in his book “Courage of the Tibetan Kings.”  He was detained shortly after finishing the book, and has been sentenced to five years in prison for writing it.  In the essay Gartse Jigme states:

In the hearts of more than ninety nine percent of the Tibetan population, His Holiness the Dalai Lama dwells like a ray of sun. Therefore, no Tibetan will accept the constant demonization of His Holiness the Dalai Lama. Such a demonization is unbearable to the Tibetans. They will make every effort to resist it. If democracy truly exists, then the Chinese government must seriously take into account the wishes and yearning of more than ninety nine percent of the Tibetan population. They must conduct negotiations with either His Holiness the Dalai Lama or with his representatives, so that His Holiness could return to his homeland. Such an effort will reduce the conflict.

Ellen Liu, the CTO writer, was not wrong to say that the self-immolators and the exiled Tibetan population are in consensus about wanting to see His Holiness return to Lhasa.  She was wrong, however, to omit the fact that this request has also been made over and over again by Tibetans inside Tibet.  It may be appropriate to wonder why CTO relies on this kind of lie by omission; surely they realize that Tibetans won’t be convinced to abandon their relationship with the Dalai Lama by a few propaganda articles.  Foreigners, presumably the target audience for the English-language section of People’s Daily Online, are also unlikely to accept these claims when free access to information allows interested parties to hear directly from authentic Tibetan voices.  This leaves the Chinese populace and the Chinese leadership itself, which may use the support of articles like this to justify continuing their policies against engagement with the Dalai Lama.  Perhaps they are written simply to allow Chinese authorities to lie to themselves.


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