Young Tibetans question path of nonviolence
Unrest in Tibet has revealed a generational fault line that is likely to sharpen as Olympics near.
Dharamsala, India — Jigshe Tsering spends nearly every day inside a wire enclosure outside the Dalai Lama's residence. Like most of his fellow student hunger-strikers, who have vowed to remain inside their mock cages until China eases its crackdown, he fled Tibet hoping to find a better life close to the man who has long stood as the bulwark of Tibetan identity.
But grim reports of China's hard line against antigovernment protests that began there in March – illustrated by the poster-sized images of those allegedly killed or maimed by state forces that decorate town walls – have eroded his support for the spiritual leader's nonviolent strategy.
"We are always waiting and nothing has changed in Tibet," he says. "I want peace, but when you are pushed so much, you finally strike back."
The unrest in Tibet has revealed a generational fault line within the Tibetan community – one that is likely to sharpen as the Olympics draw closer. While they affirm their respect for the Dalai Lama as a religious figure, many Tibetans say they have lost faith in his "Middle Way" of coexistence to achieve political autonomy. Impatient with the approach that has brought their cause global sympathy – and little change on the ground, young activists say they are willing to consider a much broader array of actions to press their cause.
The Tibetan Youth Congress was formed in 1970 with the Dalai Lama's blessing. Today, it claims to have more than 30,000 active members and is one of several nongovernmental organizations that openly disagree with him, preferring radical tactics to dialogue in its drive for a separate state.
So far, this has included staging hunger strikes outside foreign embassies, a mass march back to Tibet, and a torch run that kicked off over the weekend to raise support for a global boycott of the Olympic Games slated for August in Beijing. Monday, police in Kathmandu, Nepal, beat back pro-Tibet protesters and detained nearly 300 after they attempted to storm a Chinese consular office.
Even bolder stunts are promised as the real torch makes its way up Mt. Everest and through the Tibetan capital of Lhasa in the weeks ahead.
China has angrily accused the Dalai Lama of planning and fomenting the recent anti-Chinese protests ahead of the Games. The Dalai Lama has denied this, offering to talk with Chinese officials and asking them to allow international observers into Tibet. A number of foreign leaders have also asked the Chinese to meet with the Dalai Lama.
But the confrontational tactics of Tibet activists have chafed at the moral authority of the Dalai Lama, who has repeatedly called on Tibetans to show restraint and announced he would step down if his followers embraced violence, which he has likened to "suicide" for the Tibetan cause.
Yet the Dalai Lama has stopped short of criticizing groups like the Tibetan Youth Congress, saying that debate helps foster a sense of democracy in the community.
One fundamental difference may prove troublesome, though: Mr. Rigzin's Youth Congress has refused to rule out violent struggle if, he said, Chinese repression does not stop.
"Our struggle has been nonviolent so far," he says, adding that violence is not his organization's position "right now."
A shift in that direction would undercut the Nobel Peace Prize winner, who has campaigned around the world on a platform of nonviolence since he fled Tibet in 1959, eight years after it came under Chinese control. He was followed by some 100,000 Tibetans, most of whom resettled in India, with the exception of a breakaway group that initiated a guerrilla campaign from Nepal that dried up in the mid-1970s.
The unity that has largely held until now is due to the Dalai Lama's strength of personality and the deep-seated belief among Tibetan Buddhists that he is a living deity, according to supporters.
Nevertheless, for thousands of Tibetans like Mr. Rigzin who have spent their entire lives abroad, the passing of time without result has moved them to pursue more active measures. Born in southern India to parents who left Tibet almost 50 years ago, he lived in Los Angeles; Portland, Ore.; and Minneapolis before returning to India to last year to head the Tibetan Youth Congress.
Within Tibet, critics say that bleak prospects amid a government-led development boom that has bypassed Tibetans have fueled tensions, especially among youth that are a couple generations – and many miles – removed from the Dalai Lama.
"We suspect the older generation in Tibet still believe strongly in His Holiness," says Chukora Tsering Agloe, of the Tibetan Center for Human Rights and Democracy in Dharamsala. "The younger generation is in a more spontaneous pressure-cooker situation where they have no opportunities and can't take it any more."
Lhadon Tethong, executive director of Students for a Free Tibet in Dharamsala, says that the economic growth that has accompanied the massive resettlement of ethnic Han Chinese into Tibetan-populated areas has frustrated thousands of poor, uneducated Tibetans who left rural areas in search of a steady livelihood, only to be shunted aside. "The protests show how youth are torn between [violence and nonviolence]," she says.
At the same time, she adds, they have also shown that Tibetans are human beings, "not perfect saints that are calm under any circumstance."
In Dharamsala, seat of the government in exile, a charged atmosphere prevails. Protesters with painted faces wave Tibetan flags and march through the narrow streets throughout the day, shouting "Free Tibet" and "Stop the Killing."
"We want peace, but I see what's happening to our people over there and I think maybe there is no choice [but to fight]," says Choephel, a former monk who escaped to India five years ago and refused to give his last name since he hopes to return. He claims his 23-year-old nephew, Sangji, was killed by Chinese forces two weeks ago in Amdo city, along with five others whose bodies have not yet been recovered.
Phuntsok Tsering, a soft-spoken teen who arrived from Tibet days after protests flared, said he understood the feelings of anger shared by many of his friends. But, sitting on a bunk at the Tibetan Reception Center, he said he would remain committed to nonviolence.
"As long as His Holiness is alive, there is no other way than the Middle Path," he says, describing the moment he saw the leader for the first time. "I am blessed to be near him."
Still, some older Tibetans who have lived through the events of the past 50 years insist that passive resistance has failed. Jamyang Norbu, a former guerrilla-turned-novelist, has said the Dalai Lama should acknowledge that he was able to leave Tibet in 1959 only thanks to countrymen who took up arms on his behalf.
"Ultimately, he owes his freedom and status to people who were ready to use violence," he said.
For the time being, the Tibetan Youth Congress is focused on the Olympics, which he says present a rare opportunity to rally worldwide attention to alleged human rights violations by the Chinese government in Tibet. Foreign companies have been pressured to withdraw their sponsorship, petitions circulate on the Internet, and more protests are set to coincide with the official torch relay.
But Rigzin would not provide any details because of concerns over Chinese infiltration, an issue the Dalai Lama, who favors the event, has himself touched on.
Asked whether he fears a violent turn by his organization sometime in the foreseeable future would lead to a loss of international support, Rigzin deferred. "We'll have to see what happens if and when we cross that bridge," he says, in American-accented English. "That would be a different scenario."