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Part 3: Living in the Rubble, Satyagraha in Exile

[WTN-L World Tibet Network News. Published by The Canada Tibet Committee. Issue ID: 02/09/10; September 10, 2002.]

1. Living in the Rubble
2. Satyagraha in Exile

1. Living in the Rubble

By Matthew Akester
Himal, September 2002

Few governments, international institutions or religious organisations missed the chance to condemn the Taliban militia for their wanton demolition of the massive rock-cut Buddha statues at Bamiyan in March 2001, even those, such as the United States, which had failed to deplore the devastation of the country by civil war during the previous decade. But there was one conspicuous absentee from this facile chorus of international protest. It took a long week after the defiant iconoclasts had carried out their threat before the government of the People's Republic of China (PRC) published a statement in the English-language edition of its official newspaper expressing mild regret over the incident on behalf of the Chinese Buddhist Association - hardly an organisation representative of the party or government, but one which nonetheless functions exclusively in their interest.

Taliban vandalism had put the Chinese Communist Party in an embarrassing quandary: as a permanent United Nations Security Council member and ardent aspirant to world-power status, it was loathe to remain silent over such a flagrant violation of universal values, but to speak out would have been to risk attracting the aroused indignation of the international community towards its own, incomparably more heinous record. The muted press statement was a belated compromise masking this official discomfort, which it was hoped would go unnoticed in the wider world. Not for the first time in its dealings with China, the wider world unwittingly obliged.

The party leadership, and the Beijing regime at-large, is still in denial about the unspeakable crimes of the past against Tibet because it was never forced to own up to them and make amends. The party has retained power in the post-Mao era through the ruthless, relentless surveillance and intimidation of potential dissent, and in the last instance, as in the nation-wide student movement of 1989, by resorting to the use of massive state force. In the first decade of 'liberalisation' (prior to 1989), some reformist voices emerged within the top echelons of the leadership, but no clean break with the past was ever made. This has allowed the persistence of a certain neurotic, make-believe aura surrounding the official view of recent history.

In Tibet, for example, traditional settlements were typically clustered below the hilltop castles, or 'Dzong'-s, of local rulers. Every Dzong in the country was destroyed after the 1950s occupation with one exception, Gyantsé Dzong, which had been besieged and badly damaged during the 1904 British invasion. These days, this, the only surviving building of its kind in central Tibet, has been restored as an 'anti-British museum'. At the Bezeklik caves in the Turfan oasis in east Turkestan, a modern cement monument commemorates the pillage of 'Chinese' cultural treasures by Western imperialists. German explorer Albert von le Coq had the abandoned cave's frescoes removed and shipped back to Dresden shortly before the First World War. But for these European escapades, neither Gyantsé Dzong nor the Bezeklik paintings would have survived the communist invasion and Maoist terror half a century later, but that is irrelevant. The point is that foreigners must take the blame for ransacking China, and the party must be credited with restoring her honour. It is well illustrated in the 1990s propaganda epic, 'Birth of a Shooting Star', a eulogy of China's atom bomb programme in the early 1960s, wherein the shrewd, rough-edged but golden-hearted PLA commander (Li Xuejian) in charge of logistics rejects the designated test site at Dunhuang in the Gansu desert because of the threat to the nearby T'ang dynasty cave paintings. Rather than endanger China's ancient heritage, he subjects himself and his men to the hardships of the Gobi at Lop Nor. To accuse revolutionary heroes of cultural insensitivity, the film admonishes us, is slanderous nonsense.


Outsiders have tended to assume that the wholesale desecration of temples and annihilation of traditional architecture and artefacts was a temporary phenomenon associated with the madness of the so-called Cultural Revolution after 1966, but the evidence suggests otherwise. Monasteries in eastern Tibet were systematically looted and destroyed from the early 1950s onwards. When Mao was briefly dislodged from power in 1961-62 following the disastrous outcome of the Great Leap Forward, one of the measures instituted by his opponents was an ordinance for the protection of listed national monuments, in an attempt to stem the already high tide of cultural cannibalism. What distinguished the period of the Cultural Revolution from earlier attacks, was the policy of forcing ordinary people everywhere, particularly the educated and the devout, to destroy their heritage themselves. Many refused and paid with their lives. Those who survived did so amid the rubble and ashes, and with the bitter knowledge that every vestige of their past, their collective identity and values, had been taken from them not simply by a marauding army, but by their own involuntary hands, or those of their relatives and neighbours, terrorised by fear and desperation. It was in this frame of mind that China and its subject peoples re-emerged from decades of Maoist rule in the late 1970s.

Since then, the refusal of the party to loosen its grip on power has entailed that there is a similarly stubborn refusal to come to terms with the legacy of de-civilisation under communist party rule. In the case of Tibet, the state claims all the credit for the nominal re-construction efforts that have taken place since 1980, but except for the handful of 'national monuments' covered by the 1962 State Council ordinance, the funds (including taxes and bribes paid to predatory officials) and labour have been donated exclusively by ordinary people. Even where state funds were allocated, bureaucratic 'leakage' and sheer incompetence resulted in work so shoddy that fresh repairs became necessary within a few years, most notably in the much-vaunted 1991-94 restoration of the Potala palace. Or the great assembly hall at Ganden monastery built in the 1730s and pulled down by official order in 1969. The central government granted funds for rebuilding in the mid-1990s, work was completed in 2000, and already the foundations have begun to subside. Incidentally, most of the monks have meanwhile been expelled for resisting a draconian political re-education programme introduced in the same period.

Indeed, so far-fetched is the arrogance of current official presentations to the outside world on this issue that the PRC now routinely claims to have restored more Tibetan religious sites than were maintained by the Dalai Lama 's erstwhile 'slave-owner' government. To judge from a 'white paper' on 'cultural preservation' in Tibet put out on 22 June 2000 the central government has more than compensated for any losses "in such a special period as the Cultural Revolution" with lavish expenditure on the restoration of temples, the reprinting of Tibetan literature, the construction of a museum, the funding of Tibetan-language television broadcasts, and so on. The white paper on 'development' in Tibet (8 November 2001) refuses even to acknowledge such "special periods". During his landmark visit to the region in 1980, party secretary Hu Yaobang issued a tentative apology to China's Tibetan subjects for two decades of "leftist" misrule. But Hu's outburst is now considered to have been quite uncalled for. 'Development' in Tibet, says the 2001 document, has been on a steady upward curve ever since 'liberation' in 1950.

What is evident is an echo of defensiveness, the sense of denial and insecurity underlying the self-satisfied, cocksure bravado of current propaganda, and indeed policy. The party feels justified in dismissing any and all criticism of its record because it has retained the monopoly on force and effectively silenced dissent (at least in such sensitive margins as Tibet). But the peoples of China and other subject territories of the PRC still live in the rubble, psychological or actual, of their former civilisations, and the reality is that no amount of force can erase the memory of what has been destroyed, no amount of 'development' can legitimise such destruction.

2. Satyagraha in Exile

Himal, September 2002

After years of taking steps towards democratising the Tibetan government-in-exile in Dharamsala, the Dalai Lama in the summer of 2001 pushed through one of the most significant political reforms to date; the Tibetan diaspora would for the first time hold direct elections for the Kalon Tripa, or prime minister of the cabinet-in-exile. With the Dalai Lama stepping aside, at least on paper, as the political head of Tibetans in exile, an election followed on 29 July 2001. Tibetans in India, Nepal, Bhutan and around the world voted in overwhelming numbers for 62-year old monk Samdhong Rinpoche. In July, Himal interviewed Samdhong Rinpoche, and here we present excerpts.

Himal: What does it mean that Tibetans in exile have elected a monk rather than a secular leader, and where does this leave the Dalai Lama?

Samdhong Rinpoche: It was a curious question for me too. Basically my nature is anti-establishment; I have always opposed the establishment. Not on personal grounds but on principle and philosophical grounds. I have not been much of a public figure and I have never tried to become popular among the people. So, when I was nominated, I considered withdrawing my name. However, I was moved by the messages sent from inside Tibet that were very emotional and particularly asked me not to withdraw my candidacy. They had heard about it by very clandestinely listening to radio broadcasts. And His Holiness was not willing to allow me to withdraw because it would have disrupted the election process.

Himal: Were the Tibetans inside Tibet calling on you to run because they sense that the system in Dharamsala is nepotistic and corrupt?

SR: I have not analysed it in depth but my first-hand experience is that they did not consider who is a monk or who is a secular leader. From the feedback from people who voted for me I gather they trust me not to disobey His Holiness. Therefore, they have not chosen me as a great democratic leader but they have chosen me as a faithful follower of His Holiness.

Himal: If the Dalai Lama passes away during your tenure, what role will you have in the selection of the next Dalai Lama?

SR: During my tenure of five years, His Holiness will not leave the world. This much I know. Having said that, I am conscious that there is a need for clearly written rules and procedures on the part of the government-in-exile, or Tibetan government inside Tibet when we get genuine autonomy, for the searching and recognition of the next Dalai Lama, the 15th Dalai Lama. All procedures right now are in oral tradition and not in written documents. Now we have a legislative parliament and that parliament can legislate and make laws, and that law, if made in exile will be followed by all Tibetans in exile. And if we are able to go back, these types of important national legislations will be re-legislated inside Tibet.

Himal: How do you see the Tibetan government- in-exile viewed inside Tibet?

SR: The Tibetan people, in general, whether inside or outside, want a government headed by His Holiness. This is considered the legitimate government for them. The dissatisfaction among Tibetans inside and outside with the functioning of the Tibetan government-in-exile is because of the consistent Chinese propaganda and also the underground network to make people hate it. Many of these issues are enlarged through Chinese propaganda. For example, the corruption and nepotism within the government-in-exile, in the past or current, has been negligible. The reason they were able to blow it out of proportion was because there was not as much transparency in the government as there should have been. My cabinet's top priority is to make everything transparent with nothing confidential or secret.

Himal: How can the government-in-exile authentically represent the Tibetans inside Tibet when they, inside Tibet, are unable to express their views?

SR: There are two different things here. To represent their views and to represent their faith; these are different things. The government-in-exile represents the faith of Tibetans inside Tibet, and we cannot represent their view. If we did say we represented their views, then we could not call ourselves a truly democratic society because only those who have freedom and a vote live outside of Tibet.

Himal: After 50 years of Chinese rule, education and cultural assimilation, may some Tibetans inside Tibet question the Dalai Lama himself, as well as not believe in the legitimacy of your position?

SR: I think it is quite the contrary. I am sometimes surprised by how strong the faith and devotion to His Holiness is in the minds of those people that were born and brought up in occupied Tibet, in particular, those individuals who where educated in the Chinese system and indoctrinated by the communist party. They have not given up the devotion to His Holiness. Of course it is not a rational faith, it is a sort of blind faith. Year after year, more than 2000 Tibetans from Tibet, the majority of them youngsters, flee occupied Tibet. I meet them and I talk to them. They carry vastly different viewpoints on politics and social and economic issues but one point that they agree on is in their devotion to His Holiness.

Himal: What is the greatest threat to Tibetans inside Tibet right now?

SR: Marginalisation and Sinocisation. It is very dangerous where we are at right now in terms of assimilation of the Chinese culture and language. This follows the population transfer and is the greatest threat.

Himal: The Chinese do claim that there are more schools now than there were before the Dalai Lama fled Tibet.

SR: That is true, the number has increased and we do not challenge that statement. But, one, the rate of literacy has not increased among Tibetans. It is still very low. Common Tibetans cannot afford to send their children to school because of the cost. Two, at government schools, the education and language is not Tibetan, nor are the students examined in Tibetan but in Chinese. Thirdly, the schools are built in the towns and larger cities and the remote areas where nomads dwell do not have schools.

Himal: You are a champion of the non-violent approach known as satyagraha. Do you see satyagraha as political?

SR: Satyagraha may be political. Again, here it depends on how you define political. If you ask me if satyagraha is rajniti, then yes, I would say it is. Politics is English and is a broad term and can be interpreted in many ways. Rajniti means a system or activity which is related to the governance of a human society. In that case I would say satyagraha is definitely part of politics.

Himal: What is the difference between your satyagraha approach and the Dalai Lama's middle way approach?

SR: There is no difference. The middle way is the concept and philosophy. Satyagraha is the method to implement it.

Himal: What is the status of satyagraha inside Tibet? In 1997, you were planning to train satyagrahis at ashrams in India and place them inside Tibet.

SR: My concept of satyagraha is not only for Tibetans inside Tibet. Satyagraha is on principle opposed to all kinds of violence and all forms of injustice. The non-acceptance of injustice and violence is satyagraha. I am of the opinion that independence or autonomy for Tibet is a question of larger geo-political issues. Satyagraha is about day-to-day living. What I have spoken about for years is that Tibetans should perform their human responsibility inside Tibet. This includes non-cooperation and disobedience to the unjust Chinese rule. We always say we are more than willing to remain under Chinese rule, but the quality of rule that prevails at present is absolutely unacceptable. We do not oppose Chinese people. We do not oppose the Chinese becoming sovereign over us. We only oppose the method and way in which the Chinese are ruling in Tibet and this has to be changed. If that is not change d, we will not obey it. And for that, we may lose our lives but we should be ready to accept any punishment and suffering that may come. That is the basic idea of satyagraha.

Himal: Do you believe there is a significant population of Tibetans, especially young Tibetans, who are willing to go back to Tibet to carry out satyagraha?

SR: Gandhi said, "If I have a hundred satyagrahis then I can overthrow British rule within 24 hours". There were a lot more of his countrymen than there are Tibetans.

Himal: At present there are over 200 political prisoners in Drapchi prison in Lhasa, mostly monks and nuns, jailed for carrying out completely non-violent political demonstrations in the 1980s and 1990s. What does this say of satyagraha as an effective tool of protest?

SR: I think the non-violent nature of action was fine. But I think a small mistake with their actions was that they did not know what to demand from the Chinese. They only yelled 'free Tibet' slogans, and were easily labelled 'separatist' or 'splittist'. As the Chinese consider their national integrity with utmost importance, they can be blamed and imprisoned very easily. If their demands had been more specific, and on a smaller scale, then their satyagraha could have been more effective. For example, say nuns come to Lhasa to ask for permission to be admitted to a nunnery. If they are not allowed, then they must still stick to that demand for their admission. And if they are not allowed admission, they must stay at that nunnery whether they get food or no food. If action was carried out like this, then perhaps the authorities would not be able to imprison the nuns for such long periods of times, or they may not think there is a need to imprison them. Satyagraha needs to move through the grassroots level and step by step. It cannot ask immediately for the highest thing.

Himal: With all due respect, it is easy to talk about satyagraha for someone like yourself who speaks with freedom, unlike in the case of Gandhi or Aung san Sukyi. It seems that those who are calling for peaceful protest in Tibet are all outside Tibet.

SR: The Tibetans inside Tibet should do exactly three things. Number one, they should keep their Tibetan-ness intact, and try and bring up their children as Tibetans. This means more than just culture. It means preserving the core of being Tibetan against the huge influence of the Chinese. That is a difficult satyagraha to do. The second thing is that they should stop cooperating with the Chinese and the implementation of Chinese policies and have, if nothing else, an inner non-acceptance. Even if they are not able to express it with words or actions, there still must be a rejection and disassociation of these things from the core of their mind. This must be done without any hatred or intention to harm the Chinese people. Thirdly, everybody should do constructive work that is not dependent upon anyone telling them to do so, even if it is small. By these methods, everyone should become self-sufficient for their food, clothing and shelter. These basic needs must be produced by oneself so that one does not have to depend on the Chinese economy. These three things are important and dangerous. But if one is careful, they can do it.

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