Friday, November 2, 2012

Speaking on Aljazeera's "The Stream"

5 Reasons to Hope for Tibet

This piece was published in the Huffington Post in October 2012. Click here to see the original. 
Last week, while attending a democracy conference in Peru, I met dozens of activists, journalists, parliamentarians, and political prisoners from various corners of the world. Almost everyone I spoke with wanted to know one thing about Tibet. Will the upcoming Chinese leadership transition bring change to Tibet? Will Xi Jinping change Tibet in a way Hu Jintao didn't?
"Dictators don't bring change," I reminded them. "It's the people who make change by forcing the hands of the dictators."
In this sense, Tibet has already changed. At the moment, this change may be hard to notice, as Tibet reels under a wave of self-immolations exacerbated by China's escalating repression. Just this past week seven Tibetans set themselves on fire to protest Chinese rule. In the last 12 months, roughly 60 Tibetans have burned themselves for freedom - this means every six days, a Tibetan goes up in flames.
Tragic as this wave of self-immolations is, one must look beyond the headlines to hear the incredibly uplifting stories of noncooperation, cultural renaissance, and creative resistance that have transformed Tibetan activism - and changed Tibet irreversibly. In the bigger arc of Tibetan resistance, China has already lost Tibet; its control over Tibet remains purely military in nature, which has become vastly overextended.
Amid this difficult chapter in Tibetan history, it is important to remember that there are many reasons to be hopeful about Tibet's future. Below are just five of them.
REASON 1: Freedom is contagious. From Burma to Tunisia to Yemen to Egypt, democratic forces are winning. Of course the transition from dictatorship to democracy - and from occupation to freedom - has its challenges, but these are challenges Tibetans are eager to embrace. As freedom around the world expands, the brotherhood of dictatorships is increasingly isolated. This net growth in freedom and democracy worldwide will impact Tibet, China, and other leftover police states at every level - psychological, social, cultural and political. China leads the unfree world but this world is shrinking, leading to an erosion of the Chinese Communist Party's domestic control and global legitimacy.
REASON 2: Noncooperation in Tibet. Tibetan activists, who have traditionally relied on high-risk protest tactics, are now adding to their arsenal the more low-key but potent tools of noncooperation and direct intervention: they're boycotting Chinese businesses and institutions. In Kardze and Ngaba, Tibetans avoid Chinese restaurants, choosing to support to Tibetan restaurants - a Gandhian example of economic noncooperation. In Khawa Karpo eastern Tibet, tired of protesting Chinese mining companies, Tibetan villagers pushed $300,000 worth of mining equipment into the river - a model of direct intervention. Among all the nonviolent tactics, noncooperation and direct intervention have the best track record of dismantling the pillars of oppression.
REASON 3: Lhakar weaponizes culture. Lhakar, a homegrown grassroots movement using culture to advance freedom, is shifting power away from the Chinese occupiers and into the hands of every Tibetan. Lhakar has reversed five decades of China's campaign to sinicize Tibetan culture. Tibetans are proudly wearing their traditional dress, speaking and texting in Tibetan, and using art, literature, poetry and music to express their desire for freedom and faith in the Dalai Lama. Songs, books and music videos with politically charged lyrics routinely become best-sellers in Tibet, signaling a modern Tibetan renaissance. In many anti-colonial struggles, successful political revolutions were preceded by cultural renaissance, which is now in full swing in Tibet. Lhakar makes it easier - and less costly - for everyone to participate in activism, thus increasing the long-term costs to the Chinese government. China's hold over the unruly Tibetan plateau has never been weaker, and Tibetan resistance has never been stronger.
REASON 4: Internet = information = freedom. The Chinese government's hold on Tibet, as well as China, depends on its totalitarian control over information and ability to keep its masses ignorant. Today this control is fragile, thanks to the Internet. The Chinese government faces a much more formidable foe in its own people than it did a decade ago, because of the speed at which information now travels. Beijing's censorship apparatus is routinely defeated by the ingenuity of Chinese and Tibetan netizens searching for the truth and refusing to be firewalled.
REASON 5: Dictatorships also age and die. Totalitarianism is a dead end. The CCP has been able to survive until now by tweaking its system, but tweaks are no longer enough to save it from growing public unrest, looming environmental devastation, endemic corruption and a slowing economy. According to China scholar Minxin Pei, one-party dictatorships have inherent flaws in their foundation that limit their existence beyond several decades, even in the case of the most enduring regimes. The Soviet Union crumbled in its 74th year, the Mexican regime in its 71st year, the Kuomintang in its 73rd year. The CCP is 63 years old and, Pei argues, has little more than 10 years left on its clock - if it's lucky enough to survive that long.
Now is not the time to despair. It is the time to take action and tip the scales of history toward freedom in Tibet. A free Tibet, aside from protecting Asia's water tower and providing a buffer between the world's two most populous (and nuclear) nations, will enshrine nonviolence as the supreme weapon for resolving conflict and fighting oppression.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Gandhi and Lord Irwin talk man to man

Reading "Gandhi Wields the Weapon of Moral Power," a book written by Gene Sharp in 1960, I came across these gems:

"According to nationalist sources, from March 12, 1930 to March 5, 1931, 100,000 Indians had entered the numerous prisons, detention camps and improvised jails. A modest estimate shows that at least 17,000 of these prisoners were women."

This was during the height of the Noncooperation Movement in 1930-31, when Indian grassroots activism reached its apex. These arrests, detentions and imprisonments were going on at a time when Lord Irwin and Mahatma Gandhi were pursuing negotiations. The below lines offer a window into the relationship between these two men, and make one wonder if among the ranks of Chinese officials there might be a leader with a humanity approaching that of Lord Irwin.

"Lord Irwin and Gandhi met again on February 27th at 2:30pm. The discussions continued until late afternoon, when Gandhi was accustomed to eating. Mirabehn brought his dinner composed of forty dates and a pint of goat's milk. Gandhi ate them and the talks continued until 5:50 pm. That evening Gandhi walked unescorted five miles from Dr. Ansari's house where he was staying to the Viceregal palace to see Irwin again. He remained with him till after midnight, and Gandhi began his walk back. "Good night," he said to Irwin. "Good night, Mr. Gandhi, and my prayers go with you," Irwin replied. When Gandhi reached the dwelling it was past 2am and the Working Committee was waiting for him. The talks that day had been free, frank and friendly. Now things had to be considered by the Working Committee."

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Why Beijing has already lost

Every year, in the days leading up to June 4th, Chinese authorities have consistently banned the words ‘Tiananmen’ and ‘June 4′ – a place and a date. But this time around, the Chinese government has outdone itself. It went further, banning neutral words such as ‘square,’ and the numbers 6, 4, and 89. Not to mention images of candles.

When a government feels so existentially threatened by mere numbers, shapes and images, it has fundamentally lost its power and legitimacy. The Chinese authorities have gone nuts. And why shouldn’t they?

From Tunisia to Egypt to Burma, dictators are losing and democracy is gaining. This net growth in freedom worldwide is the most reliable indicator of where China too is headed. The more freedom grows around the world, the harder it gets for the remaining dictatorships and the leftover tyrants to survive.

That’s why Beijing is cracking down on its netizens, activists, and innocent citizens. That’s why it is escalating its repression in Tibet and East Turkestan. That’s why China’s internal security budget has surpassed its national defense budget. Like a wounded and dying tiger, it is making one last lunge for survival.

But if history holds any lesson, then the Chinese government’s days are numbered. The Chinese regime’s repressive streak – arresting people for the smallest of crimes, shooting at monks who are already burning, banning words and dates and even numbers – is reminiscent of the way the Soviet Union behaved in its final years, the way Milosevic behaved in his final months, and the way Mubarak and Ben Ali behaved in their final weeks.

This is the ultimate sign that the Chinese government has already been struck down in the great battle with freedom and democracy. It has no power, only the apparatus of power; it has no legitimacy, only the facade of legitimacy. Thus, it is only a matter of time before democracy comes to China, before freedom comes to Tibet.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Calm before the Storm: Tibetans Observe a Quiet Losar

Today is Losar, the first day of the Tibetan Lunar Year 2139.

Many people describe Losar, somewhat inadequately, as the Tibetan equivalent of the western New Year. But Losar is much more than just a marker between two separate years; it is a day steeped in religious rituals and spiritual symbolism. Losar for Tibetans is like several holidays wrapped into one; it delights children and adults alike, reunites families and renews friendships, reminding us of who we are as a people, and as a nation.

This Losar, however, will be a quiet one. From Lhasa to Lithang, Golok to Dharamsala, and Ngaba to New York, there will be no fireworks, no merrymaking, no exchange of gifts. For this is no ordinary time. In the past year, 22 Tibetans have set themselves on fire in the most pure and powerful expression of defiance to Chinese rule. The self-immolations in Tibet have shocked the world and galvanized the Tibet movement. Just last week, Dhamchoe Sangpo and Nangdrol self-immolated. Their demands were clear: freedom for Tibet and the return of the Dalai Lama.

In an expression of national grief, Tibetans everywhere are foregoing festivities today to salute those who have given their lives for freedom this past year. Though we are aware that grief alone does not bring about revolutionary change, there is something undeniably powerful about this collective mourning because it is an act that we Tibetans control, a phenomenon that the Chinese government cannot stop.

In many parts of Tibet, Chinese authorities have been paying Tibetan families to celebrate Losar. In a perverse attempt to create a picture of normalcy, the authorities have been almost begging Tibetans to "have a good time" on Losar. Tibetans, by canceling the festivities and taking control over their own lives, are seizing power away from the state through this widespread act of civil disobedience.

Deciding how to mark Losar is perhaps the most poignant expression of the Tibetan people's growing cultural and social sovereignty, the foundation upon which political freedom can be built. Our collective grief and spiritual reflection this Losar is an act of resilience, of defiance, and ultimately, of hope. As we pay tribute to those who have selflessly offered their lives to advance our cause, let us remember what they died for, and recommit ourselves to the goal of a free Tibet.

This Losar, we urge you to honor the Tibetan heroes of 2138 by taking a pledge of resistance for Tibet. Here are some examples of the pledges Tibetans and our supporters are making today:

- I pledge to update my MP or Congressperson every week about Tibet.
- I pledge to boycott Made-in-China products.
- I pledge to recruit a new member to the Tibetan Freedom Movement every month.
- I pledge to join a Tibet rally or vigil at least once a month.
- I pledge to join Rangzen Circle to sustain SFT's work for Tibetan freedom:

To make your pledge, please visit: Here you can read more about how Tibetans are exercising control over their social and cultural lives and building a vibrant self-reliance, non-cooperation movement that is starting to shake the very foundations of China's colonial rule in Tibet.

May the Tibetan Water Dragon Year 2139 bring us closer to a free and independent Tibet.

Bho Gyalo. Victory to Tibet.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

What Remains Undiscussed About Self-immolations

Every Tibetan who has self-immolated to date made a profoundly important decision that remains undiscussed: the decision not to take a single Chinese life, whether that of an innocent civilian or a military personnel. Yet Beijing has claimed that self-immolation is a terrorist act, in a move that can only be understood as a self-destructive policy aimed at driving Tibetans toward real terrorism.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

A Prophecy and a Woman from Lhasa

The Mayan prophecy that the world will end in 2012 has spawned hundreds of books, films, plays and satires. Although the public fascination with apocalyptic stories does not necessarily translate into real belief, I admit to secretly subscribing to an alternative vision of a 2012 apocalypse - one where the world is cleansed of tyranny, colonialism, and totalitarianism.

If the watershed events of the past year were any indication, we have reason to believe that in 2012 dictatorships everywhere will have a harder time withstanding the wave of resistance that is brewing in the streets, on the web, in the tea houses, and in people's minds.

Barely three weeks into the year, we're seeing groundbreaking change in Burma, where hundreds of political prisoners have been released and Aung San Suu Kyi has gone from being a prisoner of the state to the nation's most esteemed stateswoman. As the structures of oppression fall - whether in neighboring Burma or in distant Tunisia - the democratic pressure on China intensifies.

Tibetans are at the forefront of this revolutionary wave. In the last 11 months, 16 Tibetans have set fire to themselves in protest of Chinese rule, laying bare the colossal failure of China's colonial project in Tibet. The self-immolations - as overwhelming as they are underreported - are a flashpoint for the growing resistance movement in Tibet. Beijing is quickly learning that it can imprison Tibetans, but not their ideas, their words, or their dreams.

In spite of China's pitch-black oppression, Tibetans are charging forward, armed with their nonviolent weaponry of political protest, economic noncooperation, civil disobedience, cultural renaissance and social innovation. And while we have been devastated by each incident of self-immolation, we have also been inspired by the unparalleled courage and sacrifice that motivated these acts.

It was with a similar courage that a hundred years ago, on March 26, 1912, Tibetans formally declared war against Imperial China, effectively ending the Manchu invasion of Tibet. In 1913, the 13th Dalai Lama formally declared Tibetan independence.

2012 marks a century since the collapse of the Manchu empire. My vision of apocalyptic change in China does not seem out of place at a time when people across the Chinese empire are restless for freedom from corruption, inequality, pollution, poverty and repression. The message from Tibet is clear: there is no turning back. I believe Tibetans will once again be ready to seize the moment and restore Tibet's independence, taking our rightful place in the global community of sovereign nations.

My belief in this future is reaffirmed every day, not only by the tectonic political shifts that are changing the world beneath our feet, but also by my personal interactions with friends and strangers - sometimes at the most unexpected moments.

A few days ago at the Kalachakra in Bodh Gaya, India, I saw a middle-aged woman with a familiar face walking past me. I caught her attention with a respectful nod and asked, "Achala, have we met before?"

She smiled and replied in impeccable Lhasa dialect, "Not sure... but where are you from?" Answering that I was from New York but previously from Dharamsala, I asked where she was from.

"Well, I'm from Lhasa," she replied courteously. With a Lhasa accent that strong, I thought to myself, it was almost unnecessary to name the place.

"Oh, really?" I couldn't conceal my excitement at meeting someone from Tibet. "I must have seen you in Lhasa then; I was there in 2007 for a few days. I must have seen you in Bharkor Square."

"Ah, that explains it," her eyes twinkled. I could tell that she felt extremely fortunate to be one of the few thousand Tibetans to cut through China's nightmarish political restrictions to attend the Kalachakra in India. As we parted, she held my hand tightly in a way older Tibetans do when saying farewell to close relatives. With a calm yet intense gaze, she said:

"We will meet again. I think we will all meet again, very soon, back home."

We both knew what she meant. I said, yes, we absolutely will.