Arab Spring in Tibet?

Nov 29, 2011

Category: Urgyen Trinley Dorje

Above the deep chanting and the resonance of drums, I fancied hearing the shrieks of monks and nuns dying in a blaze. “Since March this year 11 brave Tibetans have set themselves on fire while calling for freedom in Tibet and the return of His Holiness the Dalai Lama to his homeland,” the 17th Karmapa Lama had announced. “These desperate acts, carried out by people with pure motivation are a cry against the injustice and repression under which they live.”
The Karmapa would have told us so in person if New Delhi had allowed him to attend the 900th anniversary of the birth of his lineage. We were in the 300-year-old Phodong monastery, 30 kms north of Gangtok, one of Sikkim’s three Karma Kagyu (the sect His Holiness heads) monasteries. All three are out of bounds for him. After much pleading and lobbying by his worshippers, the government allowed the Karmapa to visit the US twice. But a planned trip to Europe was forbidden. And despite protests and processions, he cannot set foot in Sikkim.

There was a stir among the devotees when Spalzes Angmo, a Ladakhi member of the National Commission for Minorities, claimed that the Centre will let him go where he wants if only the state government asks. Not so, retorted Karma Topden, Sikkim’s Rajya Sabha member for two sessions and former Indian ambassador to Mongolia, to applause. Both the chief minister, Pawan Kumar Chamling, and his predecessor, Nar Bahadur Bhandari, sitting among the guests, had asked repeatedly.

The usual reason given is that a lawsuit over the grand monastery at Rumtek that is his seat in India makes the matter sub judice. But that doesn’t explain why he can’t visit the other Karma Kagyu centres, including the New Raloag monastery where one of the four regents of the sect, Goshir Gyaltsap Rinpoche, is based. Gyaltsap Rinpoche was in Phodong scattering benediction in the monastery’s ornate gloom.

But though the Karmapa was not present in person, huge portraits of the young Tibetan monk graced Phodong’s courtyard. “Bring home His Holiness (sic) 17th Karmapa Ogyen Trinley Dorjee” read the banners. “We won’t rest until Karmapa is here in Sikkim.” The Karmapa was languishing at the Gyuto monastery near Dharamsala, guest of the Dalai Lama courtesy the government of India. He has been there ever since; unable any longer to put up with Chinese repression, he slipped out of Tsurphu, traditional seat of the Karmapa Lamas, one December night in 1999 and fled to India. Dorjee was then only 14.

Some people in Gangtok suspect he isn’t allowed into Sikkim because a new version of the Arab Spring may be unfolding in Tibet just over the mountains. Tibetans call their movement Lakhar, a strategic non-violent resistance that borrows from satyagraha as well as the older Irish strategy of non-cooperation directed against Capt. Boycott, the agent of an absentee English landowner. Every Wednesday Tibetans wear their traditional clothes, speak only Tibetan, eat only Tibetan food and buy only Tibetan goods. These seem simple enough, but given the officially sponsored Han Chinese influx into Tibet and their takeover of commerce, apparently it isn’t easy to be a Tibetan in Tibet.

Prof. Dibyendu Anand, who teaches International Relations at Westminster University and wrote Tibet: A Victim of Geopolitics, says that self-immolation “is in the tradition of politics that avoids harming the oppressor and seeks to raise awareness” while reminding Beijing and the world that “Tibetan people are facing a crisis in their everyday life.” Outsiders cannot know the causes and forms of repression “for a simple reason — the Chinese government allows no independent media, researcher or observer.”

But some news does trickle out and it’s known how harshly the Chinese responded to the self-immolation of a 21-year- old monk, Phuntsog, on the third anniversary of demonstrations in Ngaba Town when armed police shot dead at least 13 protesters. Troops were sent, dozens of people arrested, houses searched and hundreds of monks evicted from the monastery. Six monks, including Phuntsog’s brother and uncle, were sentenced for “plotting and assisting” in the self-immolation and for delaying hospital treatment. Phuntsog’s best friend, 16-year-old Darjee, was sentenced to three years re-education through labour, which the UN calls a “systematic form of inhuman and degrading treatment or punishment, if not torture”.

Another monk, Tsewang Norbu, 29, drank petrol, sprayed himself with more petrol and died ablaze crying “We Tibetans want freedom!”, “Long live the Dalai Lama!” and “Let the Dalai Lama return to Tibet!”

The Karmapa Lama does not condone self-immolation. Buddhists hold life precious and it grieves him that the victims are so young. “They had a long future ahead of them, an opportunity to contribute in ways that they have now foregone. To achieve anything worthwhile we need to preserve our lives.” There are few enough Tibetans as it is, “so every Tibetan life is of value to the cause of Tibet.”

He appeals to Beijing “to heed Tibetans’ legitimate demands and to enter into meaningful dialogue with them instead of brutally trying to achieve their silence” and “to right-thinking, freedom-loving people throughout the world” to deplore “the repression unleashed in the monasteries in Tibet, particularly in the Tibetan region of Sichuan”. Others appeal to New Delhi to respect Buddhist sensitivities worldwide and not restrict his freedom.

“No other country would have granted the Dalai Lama and 80,000 Tibetans asylum!” P.V. Narasimha Rao had retorted angrily when I questioned some trifling restriction. He was right. The retort rang in my ears as we left Phodong, but also the response it invited: to live up to that legacy, India must be equally generous with Buddhism’s second highest leader.

 The writer is a senior journalist, columnist and author



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