Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Is the Tibetan Freedom Movement Entering a New Phase?

Since His Holiness the Dalai Lama's March 10 statement on his decision to devolve political leadership of the Tibetan government-in-exile to a democratically elected leader, a major question has been circulating among Tibetans, Chinese, and their supporters: Will the Tibetan freedom movement enter a new phase?  Looking at recent events in Chinese-controlled Tibet and in exile, that question seems to be echoing much louder.

First, Tibetans in Chinese-controlled Tibet have taken unprecedented non-violent actions by self-immolating themselves to voice their anger against continued Chinese repression as well as restrictions including the religious freedom.  So far, eleven Tibetans have self-immolated and six of them died in doing so.  Recently, there were few self-immolation attempts by exile Tibetans in Kathmandu, Nepal and New Delhi, India.

The newly elected Tibetan leadership-in-exile does not encourage self-immolations or protests inside Tibet.  However, they have not issued any statement requesting Tibetans to stop the practice.

Second, Tibetans living in exile have resorted to desperate acts to seek international attention regarding the self-immolations such as the recent storming of the Chinese embassies in Vienna, Austria and Paris, France, during which the Chinese national flag was torn down.  What might these unprecedented actions mean to China as well as to Tibetans?

What do these actions say to China?

As repeatedly noted by Tibet experts, the acts provide a clear message to the Chinese government that its policy of repression in Tibet is not succeeding in making Tibetans happy.  Therefore, China may have to formulate new and more relaxed policies to meet the primary needs and aspirations of ethnic minorities in general, and of the Tibetan minority in particular.

The self-immolations within and outside Chinese-controlled Tibet may be a massive warning sign for China.  Until now, the acts have remained non-violent. However, they also indicate the potential for violent activities from Tibetans who may be willing to sacrifice their lives.

Further, these acts indicate that the Tibetan freedom struggle will continue far beyond the life of the present Dalai Lama.

The Chinese government may have to reassess their stand and policies on resolving the Tibet issue while the Dalai Lama is still alive.  Though His Holiness may no longer be a political leader, he could still provide the leverage that could benefit both China and Tibet in peacefully resolving the situation.

What do these acts say to Tibetans?

Tibetans are often romanticized as the sacred people of Shangri-La and upholders of peace, compassion, love, and non-violence.  In the realm of international politics, Tibetans are generally sympathized with.  However, the sympathy and support of governments, organizations, and individuals may weaken if Tibetans resort to such desperate acts as storming the Chinese Embassy.

These acts not only discomfit the host country but may also impact the future inflow of Tibetans into other countries - provoking restrictions on visas or the granting of asylum and subsidies.

Moreover, irrespective of whether individual Tibetans stand for complete independence or genuine autonomy, they may need to show some degree of sensitivity towards the general feelings of the Chinese masses.

Accommodation of those feelings may one day prove the biggest gain for the Tibetan freedom movement.  That being the case, Tibetans may have to resist tearing up the Chinese national flag and consider reassessing some of their protest slogans.


In conclusion, with the devolution of the Dalai Lama's political power, it is logical to see some changes in the Tibetan freedom movement.  However, it may be too early to say whether the Tibetan freedom movement is entering a new phase.

Considering the recent spate of desperate acts, the Chinese government and the Tibetan people may not have the luxury of time.  If they do not respond to these acts soon, the chances of the Tibetan political movement entering a new phase may be high - a new phase that may be beyond the reach of the present Dalai Lama.

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