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‘Tibet’s path to freedom mirrors challenges faced by Palestine, Ukraine’

News‘Tibet’s path to freedom mirrors challenges faced by Palestine, Ukraine’

Tenzin Tsundue is a leading Tibetan activist and a writer. While speaking to The Sunday Guardian on the occasion of the 65th anniversary of the Tibetan uprising, Tsundue reflects on Tibet’s struggle for independence, comparing it to global movements like Palestine and Ukraine. He highlights Tibet’s historical bid for independence in 1913 and the 1959 uprising against Chinese rule, resulting in over a million deaths and cultural destruction. Tsundue talks about China’s systematic suppression of Tibetan culture, including population influx and language restrictions. While acknowledging India’s support for Tibet, he calls for a more active international involvement. Edited excerpts.

Q: March 10 marks the 65th anniversary of the Tibetan Uprising which is perhaps the most significant event that Tibet witnessed since 1900 apart from declaring its independence from China in 1913 (proclamation of independence in 1913), an independence that lasted till 1950. My question to you is whether that brief time period of independence is now a part of history which is unlikely to be witnessed again? Given the military and diplomatic might that China now enjoys, do you believe that another uprising can happen?
A: The Tibetan National Uprising of 10 March 1959 marked the Tibetan people’s unrest all across Tibet against the Chinese invasion that slowly occupied Tibet in every sense. This uprising raised a robust Tibetan national resistance across three provinces of Tibet, and also resulted in His Holiness’ exile into India. China took twenty years to crush this wave of resistance, and by early 1980s, over a million Tibetans had been killed (one sixth of Tibetan population), more than six thousand monasteries destroyed and the treasures of the monasteries looted by Chinese communist leaders. Tibet was not the only victim of Chinese expansionism. East Turkestan, Southern Mongolia and Manchuria had been invaded and occupied. All of these four occupied countries today make 60% of China’s 9.6 million KM2.

I am happy you mentioned the thirteenth Dalai Lama’s Proclamation of Independence of Tibet of 1913. This gives me the opportunity to explain how this modern day China-Tibet conflict started. The 1911 Chinese war of Independence, Xinhai Revolution was overthrowing the 250 years of Manchu occupation as the foreigner rule and the first independent government was Republic of China with Dr Sun Yat Sen as the first Chinese President. In the enthusiasm, the Chinese freedom fighters were attempting to occupy neighbouring countries as an inheritance of power. When the Chinese war reached certain parts of Tibet, the 13th Dalai Lama escaped to India, but the Chinese were thwarted by the Tibetan army. Returning to Tibet, the Dalai Lama initiated legal reforms to draw Tibet out of backwardness and isolation.

That year in 1913, Tibet signed a treaty with Mongolia where the two neighbouring countries recognized each other’s independence (we must remind Mongolia this). And the next year Tibet signed the McMahon Treaty on 24 March 1914, which India recognizes even today as Tibet’s ceding of Tawang Region (Arunachal Pradesh) to British India in lieu of British India’s promise to intervene in demarcating the borders between Tibet and China.
Today, freedom struggles are no longer unilateral efforts but multi-interest geopolitics; Ukraine and Palestine are good examples right in front of us. Revolutions rise in those moments of hope when people are beaten to despair and are left with nothing to lose. Xi Jinping’s insecurity, international isolation of China are windows of hope for us, but ultimately the stringent measures in Tibet will push Tibetans towards another uprising.

Q: The uprising had brought the global focus on the human rights violations and the suppression of cultural and religious freedoms by the Chinese government in Tibet. How would you describe the situation in Tibet now?
A: In 1959, when the issue of Tibet was raised, small countries like El Salvador, Malaya, Ireland, Malta, Nicaragua, Thailand and Philippines spoke up for Tibet in the United Nations. The People’s Republic of China was not even a member of the UN. It was the time when Taiwan’s Republic of China represented the One China policy. Three resolutions were passed in the UN, 1959, 1961 and 1965 that condemned China’s atrocities in Tibet and recommended the right to self-determination for Tibet. Today, even though China wields a veto power in the UN, we are still able to shame China on its disastrous human rights records. And we are not alone. We have freedom fighters from East Turkestan, Southern Mongolia and Manchuria with us in doing this. Even the Chinese democracy activists from China and Hong Kong join us, Taiwan too.

Tibet’s second uprising of 2008 at the time of Beijing Olympics was a defining moment in the history of the Tibetan freedom movement. That year the uprising spread all across the Tibetan Plateau like forest fire, mostly led by anonymous youngsters. That year, we lost more than 500 Tibetans to Chinese bullets, thousands wounded and more than 10,000 arrested, some of whom are still in jail today.

The international community’s dependence on China trade and supply chains has tremendously raised pressure on mining in Tibet. China has been bombing Tibetan mountains and pasturelands to mine natural resources. China has been mining among others, lithium, gold, copper and rare-earths from Tibet and in the process rough swept Tibetan nomads and farmers from their ancestral lands and resettled them into “reservation” type artificial villages. The natural resources from Tibet and other occupied countries go into making cheap Made-in-China products, and countries around the world have benefited at the cost of Tibet.

This makes me believe that there is international community’s complicity in China’s occupation of Tibet. But the culture of consumerism in globalization has made consumers blind and apathetic to the sources of their profits. I have asked intellectuals, politicians, and the media in western countries to do more for Tibet because they have far too long benefited at the cost of Tibet.
Rivers from Tibet that feed more than one and half billion people in South and South East Asian countries and also China are being further dammed and parts of river and electricity diverted to power the industries in China. The recent case of Tibetan protest against further damming of the Yangtze River in Dege region in South Eastern Tibet is a case in point. Monks and nuns have been beaten during the peaceful protest, and over a thousand Tibetans have been arrested.

Q: A major concern in the international community regarding Tibet is the influx of Han Chinese migrants into Tibet that has led to dilution of Tibetan’s culture. Can you elaborate on that?
A: The last time I studied population influx in Tibet was China’s 2011 census where I saw the Tibetan population was one point less than six million, but the Chinese population in Tibet was standing at 13 million. The 2021 census was opaque and confusing. The statistics didn’t spell out racial proportions.

We are concerned about the homogenizing machinery that is Sinicizing culture, language and race in the occupied countries. Not only are inter-racial marriages encouraged, cultural practices like Buddhist pilgrimages, celebration of Buddhist festivals are discouraged, observation of Ramadan is banned in East Turkestan, Muslim women banned from wearing burqas and men from sporting beards.

Since three years, teaching Tibetan language in Tibet has been shut out of the system. Government run boarding schools do not teach Tibetan in China’s “bilingual policy”. Colonial boarding schools are turning Tibetan children into Chinese.

Racial profiling mechanisms in Tibet include DNA sampling. The Chinese government has been collecting DNA samples from children as young as six years old. Such scrutiny has shocked the world.

Q: India has—despite voices from certain quarters to not accommodate the Tibetan exiles as it would anger China—continued to stand with the Tibetan people for years now. How do the young members of the community see this relationship between India and Tibetan people?
A: Let me start by saying I am not a believer in charity in politics. Policies are driven by short or long term self-interest. As a Tibetan born in India, I believe Tibet attaches soft power value for now when India is not able to assert her full power against China’s expansionist aggression in the Himalayas.

But India’s relationship with China has been undulating from warm and cold, and now “abnormal” as Minister of External Affairs, S. Jaishankar reiterates again and again.
Younger generation Tibetans feel our relationship must go beyond “gratitude” and practically participate in dealing with China. Uprisings in Tibet and revolution within China can truly change the dynamics. There is no military solution between the two Asian giants.

Q: Don’t you think that the Tibetan freedom movement is more active on social media and international forums but has become subdued on the ground?
A: It’s the first time we are able to speak and be heard, even as we experiment vocalizing on social media platforms. Tibet has been always written about by others, today we are able to write our story ourselves, speak our mind in foreign languages and be there where our voices never reached. For the first time we have 80,000 Tibetans who are citizens of different countries in the world and they are able to demand governments to take action, pass resolutions. The new generation of Tibet is making this happen on platforms that our parents never had. The “ground” for us is no longer the street where our slogans were seldom heard, the ground has changed; it’s the media, parliament, academia, think-tanks, public debates, and conferences where old notions are thrashed out and new narratives are created.

Q: The Dalai Lama is the most prominent voice of the Tibetan movement. Why has the movement not been able to produce any other prominent face of the movement who is as commonly recognized as the Dalai Lama? Would you ascribe it to the policies followed by China at domestic and at the global level?
A: The fact that we have such a Dalai Lama is everything. We have one person among us who is the most respected and revered living person in the entire world among business tycoons, presidents, dictators and saints. But, we must also work towards leadership in the post Dalai Lama scenario, and it’s not easy. You must understand it’s been only 65 years since we emerged from isolation and experimented with democracy. The fact that we not only survived, but thrived as a refugee community is a huge success. And this is made possible due to India’s humanitarian support.

I believe as long as the US, India and all other countries affected by the dictatorial regime run by the Chinese Communist Party fight this evil, this will naturally support freedom for Tibet and democracy in China.

Q: What can countries like India and the United States do more to strengthen the Tibetan movement?
A: The United States’ global supremacy is being challenged and India’s Himalayan territorial integrity is being challenged, and the common adversary i.e. China is making these countries natural allies. In the long run they will realize that the only way to deal with China is work with the people of China’s occupied countries who have been fighting China for 75 years. Even the US and India were friends with China at one point of time. We have suffered every possible torture and trauma as a people and nation, and yet survived.

Q: You are a prominent member of the Tibetan exile community. How does it feel to be in exile and look forward and wait for something that perhaps might never happen?
A: “Tenzin, what’s your chance?” friends often ask me out of sympathy and sometimes mockingly, even the “educated” ones interrogated me. Once, I was even told “Go back if you want to protest”. I had gone to Tibet to fight. Got arrested, beaten, jailed and later thrown out saying “You are born in India. You are Indian. Get out.”

I understand. When China seems to have overwhelming power with menacing weapons, money and dictating terms on half of the world on business, people cannot imagine a free Tibet. But what has blighted the world’s imagination: money and weapons are exactly the same “power” that is causing China their agony in recent years and now. Increasingly the world over the definition of “development” has become unilateral—material growth.

My answer: “यार, गांधी से भी कभी पूछा गया होगा, यार तेरा भी कोई चांस है?” Gandhi too must have been asked the same question: “Gandhi, do you stand any chance?” Looking at the British Empire ruling two thirds of the world and arrogantly saying “The sun never sets on the British Empire”. Today, the entire UK can fit inside Rajasthan, one of the states of India. Empires come and go. India took 200 years and the Jews, 2000.

In 70 years of Chinese occupation, China has changed into the world’s industry and the only religion left in China is money. We fight with nonviolence and His Holiness the Dalai Lama is our leader. Our country may not be free today, but we are. And one who has freedom in the heart will remain free. Of course, Tibet will be free.

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