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The violently peaceful struggle for Tibet

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Prayers in front of the Jokhang temple

Many years later, as he faced how the Dalai Lama became a political inconvenience for an increasing number of world leaders, the former emissary of the Dalai Lama, Gelek Rinpoche was to remember those distant afternoons when the poet Allen Ginsberg, the composer Philip Glass, the author Robert Thurman and the actor Richard Gere jointly planned fully-booked glamorous events for his Buddhist Jewel Heart organizations based in Ann Arbor, Chicago, and New York. At that time, the end of the Cold War was so recent that many notions lacked names, and in order to describe them, it was necessary to invent.

The belief of the Dalai Lama as a “man of peace” was pragmatically shared by all Western politicians, media and left-thinking intellectuals who depicted the people of Tibet as by nature honest, gentle and kind. This belief helped spread the perception of Tibetan culture as a compassionate and non-violent one, and of Tibet as a civilization where, under the Lamas, peace and happiness prevailed and that this condition of happiness could be taken up worldwide.

Just a few years before the end of the Cold War, the film Seven Years in Tibet featuring Brad Pitt posited that Tibetans revere life so much that they refuse to kill even worms and that the “Chinese are brutal; the Tibetans are gentle.” The Tibet activist and actor Richard Gere spoke of “Beijing’s savage oppression of the gentle Tibetan people.” Western media referred to the Dalai Lama as an apostle of world peace and happiness, and the idea that the Tibetan people are naturally peaceful became an obvious truth for all.

The rhetoric of the (cultural) genocide

In 2001, a few days before the International Olympic Committee met in Moscow to award the 2008 Games to Beijing, Gelek Rinpoche, acting as the Dalai Lama’s envoy for the occasion, approached the General Director of the International Olympic Committee and confident in the Tibetan struggle narrative that had gained good traction by then, demanded that the Games should be denied because “China has been executing a policy in Tibet of ethnic and cultural genocide against the Tibetan people, and intended to erase the Tibetan people from the face of the Earth.”

In 1959 after Gelek Rinpoche accompanied the Dalai Lama in his flight to India, both thought that in the near future China would totally exterminate the Tibetan race. In reports from 1959 and 1960, the CIA-funded International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) claimed that China was committing genocide in Tibet by eradicating the Tibetans through restrictions on religion that were destroying their way of life. A few years later the Dalai Lama mitigated his certitudes and admitted that China’s aim was not physical annihilation, but assimilation and subordination, stating that China “seems to attempt the extermination of religion and culture and even the absorption of the Tibetan race.”

Today it is historically irrefutable that there were substantial causalities in Tibet due to the vicious actions of Mao-era China, as there were throughout the country. However, there has never been credible evidence showing that physical genocide has been perpetrated in Tibet aiming at the extermination of Tibetans. Claims that a fifth of the Tibetan population was annihilated from 1959 to 1979 through executions, famines, imprisonment, and other means are without any evidentiary roots. Mao was at war with an ideology, not the nation of Tibetan people alone. Absent the nexus to physical genocide, a claim of cultural genocide becomes no more than a rhetorical construct, a conjecture in need of a name that would become the foundation justification for the Tibetan struggle.

The notion of cultural genocide in Tibet resonated in the West because it is a largely unexamined concept. Even where the phrase itself is not used, Western media reflexively alluded to the idea. For example, in late 2017, the US Congressional-Executive Commission on China, headed by Senator Marco Rubio, invited the actor Richard Gere as “someone who is knowledgeable about the political situation in Tibet” to testify before the committee. In his testimony, the actor stated that “under Chinese rule, the Tibetan language and culture have been suppressed”. In reality, the education system in Tibet has been tailored to the cultural specificities of Tibetans by developing primary level schooling in the Tibetan language and secondary level schooling on a bilingual basis, adding Chinese languages and supplementary English lessons to the curriculum. Gere’s assumed expertise in Tibetan matters has never been called in question because it fitted a definite agenda.

Others have posited that cultural genocide does not only mean killing, it also means limiting births among Tibetans. A lawyer who headed the US-based Tibet Justice Centre advanced such allegations, and the Dalai Lama stated that China is “forcing strict family planning rules on my people” in order “to make us a minority in our own land.” The fact is, family planning and the “one child” policy, however, even where coercive, were part of China’s policy over the entire Chinese territory for decades, and not just imposed on Tibet.

Some Tibetan leaders in exile and Western NGOs claimed that “Tibetans are not even permitted to undertake routine religious activities”. They asserted that 6,000 monasteries were destroyed before or during the Mao’s Cultural Revolution and that “the handful of surviving monasteries are being used as public toilets and barracks while monks and nuns in Tibet have been forced by the Chinese to defecate on religious objects”. Such claims are anachronisms designed to imply that a second Maoist Cultural Revolution is ongoing in Tibet. Yet mass participation in routine religious activities is evident to even sceptical observers and the occasional tourist.

Western journalists reported that in Tibet many hundreds of Tibetans prostrate themselves at temples daily, while US human rights officials visiting Lhasa saw pilgrims crowded in front of the Jokhang, one of Tibet’s most important temples, to perform ritual worship. They do not challenge China’s claims that every year more than one million people visit the Jokhang. As for the major monasteries on the Tibetan plateau, Western reporters have noted that the there are now 300 more lamaseries and temples in the Tibet than existed in the region before 1951. Again, such figures are not disputed.

Chinese state efforts to preserve Tibetan cultural accomplishments and popularize Tibetan culture by creating venues for its development are ignored in Western discourse because such efforts conflict with the idea of cultural genocide in Tibet. Rather, exile Tibet leaders and Western NGOs reject performing arts in Tibet as inauthentic and have stated that “in this calculated cultural genocide the Chinese make every effort to remove any vestige of Tibetan character in the performing arts.”

Even artists educated in contemporary Tibet who emigrate to India, such as Gongkar Gyatso, are spurned as polluted. Exiled Tibetan authorities are unhappy that the main trend in Tibetan art, in or out of Tibet, has been modernistic. They consider religious scroll painting to be the only authentic Tibetan style, and disapprove all other painting styles produced by ethnic Tibetans as being corrupted by Chinese influences. The reference to the arts and cultural genocide is a classic nationalist juxtaposition of the inauthentic in “occupied Tibet” to the “pure” preserved culture of the exiles and allied Western-based NGOs. One exponent of those NGOs is the New York-based Tibet House, founded in 1987 by Robert Thurman (father of actress Uma Thurman), actor Richard Gere and composer Philip Glass (among others). Ironically, in the fields of literature, architecture, art, film, and music alike, Chinese intellectuals and artists have been turning more and more frequently to Tibet as a source of inspiration.

Lhasa, like many large cities around the world, has abundant outlets for prostitution, gambling, and drugs. Exiled Tibet leaders and Western NGOs try to attribute such “vices” found in Tibet’s cities to cultural corrosion due to the Chinese presence. The Washington based International Campaign for Tibet, represented by its main public exponent, the actor Richard Gere, has stated: “We are concerned that more and more young Tibetans are being tempted by the very worst aspects of Chinese culture.” However, none of the “vices” complained of are specifically Chinese, and might equally be attributed to the influence of “the West”. While exiled Tibetan leaders and Western NGOs object to the cultural impact of the Han-Chinese in Tibet, they are usually much less concerned about the Western influence on traditional Tibetan culture.

Even the late Elliot Sperling, an expert on Tibet and passionate supporter of the exiled Tibetan cause, observed that “within certain limits China does make efforts to accommodate Tibetan cultural expression” and “the cultural activity taking place all over the Tibetan plateau cannot be ignored.” Other supporters of the exiled Tibetan cause, including Tibet scholar Professor Robert Barnett and German Green Party leader Antje Vollmer, also recognized the inaccuracy of the cultural genocide claim.

It has been said that the notion of genocide is marked by conceptual confusion, often compounded by its rhetorical and populist use on the part of those seeking to inflame and stigmatise social and political discourse. It is equally common for nationalists to deploy a charge of cultural genocide against changes they oppose in traditional lifestyles. The Dalai Lama often states that he is concerned most of all about the preservation of culture. His main international alliance, however, is with politicians in the US, a country whose hegemony plays a major strategic role in eroding traditional cultures, including in Europe, China and Tibet.

The unanimity on pacifism

But let’s go back to the few crucial days before the International Olympic Committee met in Moscow in 2001 to award the 2008 Games to Beijing. Gelek Rinpoche approached the General Director of the International Olympic Committee as envoy of the Dalai Lama, and claimed that there “has not been one single terrorist incident in all the 50 years of the Tibetan struggle for independence”. The dogmatic stance on non-violence was always effective in obfuscating memories and attracting consent. Yet Gelek Rinpoche must have remembered the bombings in Lhasa, the large-scale armed revolts, the guerrilla warfare, the large quantity of weaponry airdropped by the CIA, the gangs of rioters that burned dozens of policemen and killed hundred of civilians, the hate campaigns demonizing opponents of the Tibetan government in exile, seen as antagonistic to the authority of the Dalai Lama, the oppressive measures against the Dorje Shugden religious practice banned and considered heretic by the Dalai Lama, the related series of dynamite blasts in the Tibetan Dartsedo and Lithang counties driven by hatred of Dorje Shugden practitioners, the endorsements of terrorism by the largest Tibetan exile organization, the Tibetan Youth Congress (TYC) and its extreme nationalist slogans, like “no Chinese in Tibet is innocent”… while the Dalai Lama encouraged others to use such expressions to make himself look more conciliatory in comparison.

In fact, exile leaders have only in the last few decades claimed that nonviolence is essential to Tibetan culture and underlies Tibetan strategy. While the Dalai Lama gives a speech every March 10 to mark the 1959 Lhasa uprising, his first mention of nonviolence in that speech only came in 1988. And it was only in 1996 that the Tibet Parliament in Exile adopted nonviolence as a fundamental principle of the Tibetan Government in Exile.

The Dalai Lama at a public event in Europe

Over the years, the Dalai Lama propagated its “middle way” approach of Tibet as an autonomous region inside China, with the use of such terms as “peace” and “non-violence”, affecting compassion and benevolence in order to gain international empathy and support. Looking beyond the conciliatory words and charismatic smile, however, it is not difficult to find evidence that the exiled Tibetan leadership has been willing to both threaten and resort to violence, and to carry out violence under the guise of non-violence. In truth they have never abandoned their ultimate goal of “Tibetan independence”. This undisclosed intent is explicitly reflected in all known Western-based NGOs advocating for human rights in Tibet which openly proclaim “Tibet Independence” (or “Free Tibet” or in the Tibetan language “Rangzen”) as their ultimate objective.

The image of a pacifist Dalai Lama facing a belligerent China has obstructed any settlement of the Tibet question. It has reinforced the idea that a “Free Tibet” can only be possible if China disintegrates. It has allowed Western elites to demand that because the Dalai Lama is perceived as a “man of peace” China has to negotiate with him unconditionally, which it would not do unless he first accepted Tibet as an inalienable and legitimate part of China. Because he refused to do so, the Chinese government linked him to hostile Western forces who seek China’s dismantling.

However, in recent years, the massive economic power China has become has made the Dalai Lama a political danger for an increasing number of world leaders and nations, who now shy away from him for fear of inciting China’s ire or endangering economic relations with China. Even Pope Francis, considered an audacious religious leader, reportedly declined a meeting in Rome with the Dalai Lama. And President Donald Trump, who might be expected to endorse the decades-long US efforts to destabilize China and to back US-based NGOs active in propaganda campaigns for human rights in Tibet, suggested that financially supporting the “Free Tibet” cause is a “waste of money”. Of late, even the Indian authorities hosting the Tibetan leadership and the Dalai Lama have cancelled important commemoratory events with him.

In reality, the Dalai Lama’s persona impedes a compromise for as long as the discourse prevents differentiation between his religious and political roles and the narrative remains a binary one which idolises him as peaceful and demonizes China as the brutal perpetrator of a cultural genocide in Tibet. China has over the last three decades relaxed draconian and cruel Mao-era rules, by opening the door to private sector capitalism. With its adoption of capitalistic mechanisms, China has accumulated immense financial assets which are today vital to the nourishment of the worldwide economy, particularly in Western countries that have accumulated huge debts.

Also over the last three decades, China has relaxed the draconian Mao-era rules on religion by allowing individuals to practice a religion of their choice. There are now significantly more adherents of Buddhism than members of the Communist Party – there are 90 million members of Communist Party of China, compared to some 250 million Buddhists and 200,000 registered Buddhist monks. Additionally, the Chinese president, Xi Jinping, is constantly moderating his attitude to Tibet and Buddhism, among other reasons because his wife is profoundly Buddhist.

The reverence for (non)-violence

When in 2001, Gelek Rinpoche approached the International Olympic Committee to protest against the 2008 Olympic Games being awarded to Beijing, he must have remembered the distant years before the Chinese invasion in 1951, when the Tibet was ruled by aristocrats, clerics, and manor owners and had a brutal social hierarchy and a system of serfdom similar to pre-feudal times; he must have remembered the distant year of 1959 when the Dalai Lama and two of his brothers enrolled by the CIA, along with other clerics and aristocrats, launched a large-scale armed revolt against officials stationed in Tibet and massacred local Tibetans who supported Chinese communism. The Dalai Lama was not only well-informed of the action but gave it his active blessing. Years later he wrote in his book My Spiritual Autobiography: “Every one of them is armed to the teeth, and even my personal cook is carrying a bazooka, with his waist belt full of ammunition. He has been well trained by the CIA…”

After the Dalai Lama fled to India, escorted by his entourage of clerics and aristocrats, he reorganized an army and waited to fight his way back to Tibet. In 1960 in Mustang, a county in northern Nepal, he rebuilt an anti-Chinese guerrilla force. In 1962, with support from external powers, he built a Special Frontier Force composed of mainly Tibetan exiles, most of them from aristocrat families. From 1961 to 1965, these forces sneaked across the border 204 times to harass Chinese border troops and Tibetan civilians. According to disclosed US archives, the Dalai Lama first established contact with the US government in 1951. During the armed rebellion in Tibet, the CIA not only sent agents to help the Dalai Lama and his entourage of clerics and aristocrats to flee but also purposefully trained militants to support his forces and airdropped a large quantity of weaponry.

On September 21, 1987, the Dalai Lama made a speech to the US Congress, calling for Tibetan independence. On September 27, in the square of the Jokhang Temple, a group of lamas shouted separatist slogans, attacked police, and injured many civilians. On October 1, a small gang of rioters raided the police station on Barkhor Street in Lhasa and burned seven cars, leaving dozens of policemen injured. The rioters proclaimed that the Dalai Lama was fighting for Tibetan independence. They demanded the support of spectators and the general public and threatened personal retaliation against those who failed to join them. On March 5, 1988, during the Monlam Prayer Festival, a gang of rioters stormed into local Party and government offices and police stations around Jokhang Temple and Barkhor Street, smashing and burning cars and shops, leading to 299 police and civilian casualties. From March 5 to 7, 1989, Lhasa witnessed another riot in which one policeman was shot dead, 40 others were injured, and 107 shops, 24 government offices, primary schools and neighbourhood committees were destroyed. On March 11, 1992, nine Tibetan separatists attacked the Chinese embassy in India with firebombs.

The (non)-violence around the Olympic Games 2008 in Beijing

“The Olympic Games in 2008 in Beijing will be a symbol of peace, friendship, and progress, which is welcomed and cherished by all peoples” commented the International Olympic Committee in 2001, during the ceremony awarding the 2008 Games to Beijing.

In May 2007, the Tibetan independence movement, including exiled Tibetan leaders and Western NGOs supporting them, held a meeting in Brussels and agreed on a strategic plan to launch a campaign to boycott the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games. Later, two NGOs in the US (International Campaign for Tibet and Students for a Free Tibet) and two in India (the Tibetan Youth Congress and the Tibetan Women’s Association) advocating for human rights in Tibet put forward a proposal for an uprising in Tibet, believing the 2008 Olympic Games was the last chance to achieve Tibetan independence. They decided to take advantage of this occasion while China was the spotlight of international attention before the start of the Olympic Games.

On January 4 and January 25, 2008, Tibetan independence activists held press conferences in New Delhi, releasing proposals for this uprising, spreading the news on more than 100 websites, and encouraging the instigation of constant large-scale uprisings for March 10, 2008, the date corresponding to the anniversary of the uprising in 1959. On March 10, the Dalai Lama made a speech, urging his followers within Chinese territory to engage in violence. On the same day, the Tibetan Youth Congress (TYC) made a statement, claiming that it would “now seize a most important opportunity never before seen in our struggle for independence – the upcoming Olympic Games,” and that it would “spare neither blood nor life for Tibetan independence.”

Uprisings took place in Tibet four days later than planned, on March 14, 2008. That day, a mob converged in the downtown area of Lhasa, assaulting innocent bystanders with weapons including rocks, daggers, and clubs, smashing and looting vehicles, shops, banks, the Telecom business offices, and government properties, severely disrupting social order, and causing heavy losses of life and property. During the violent incidents, there were over 300 cases of arson, while 908 shops, seven schools, 120 houses, and five hospitals were severely damaged. Ten bank branches were looted, at least 20 buildings were burnt to the ground, and 84 vehicles were torched. Most seriously, a total of 18 people were burned or hacked to death, and 382 people were injured – 58 of them seriously.

After these incidents, the Dalai Lama himself released a declaration through his personal secretariat, describing the riots as “peaceful protests.” On March 16, he said in an interview with BBC that he would not ask the rioters to stop because their demands came from the Tibetan people, and he had to respect their will. In the meantime, the Tibetan Youth Congress (TYC), passed a resolution to “immediately organize guerrillas to infiltrate China for armed struggle.” The head of the TYC claimed that they were ready to sacrifice another 100 Tibetans to reach complete victory.

Western NGOs advocating for human rights in Tibet, and in particular activists from “Students for a Free Tibet” engaged in a series of sabotage activities directed at the Beijing Olympic Games. They interfered with important ceremonies, including disrupting the torch-lighting ceremony in Greece, and attempting to grab the Olympic torch during the torch relay in various countries, provoking a strong reaction from the international community and a pandemonium at the International Olympic Committee in Lausanne, as its General Director, Urs Lacotte, revealed during a lunch at the edge of Lake Geneva, explaining how the Committee did not foresee such an organized outbreak.

The main claims of the activists were: China continues its crackdowns on freedom of religion in Tibet; China is using the Olympics to misrepresent the unique culture of Tibet as Chinese, as it has chosen an endangered Tibetan animal, the Tibetan antelope, as one of its Olympic mascots; China has failed to follow the call of the International Campaign for Tibet to end human rights abuses in Tibet and negotiate a peace agreement with Tibet’s exiled leader, the Dalai Lama…

The self-immolation marathon after the Olympic Games 2008

After the Western media coverage of riots in Tibet in 2008, in which the Dalai Lama was identified as a peacemaker to whom China refused to talk, the proportion of journalists who saw China as the world’s biggest threat doubled. Time magazine named the Dalai Lama the most influential person in the world and the Western general public saw the Dalai Lama as the most respected world leader. The notion he is a pacifist was so pervasive that it circulated from the West to China for some months.

Following some success in drawing media attention during the Beijing Olympic Games incidents, the exiled Tibetan leadership began to encourage Tibetan lamas and lay followers inside China and India to engage in acts of self-immolation, leading to a series of such incidents in a number of regions. This ongoing campaign started in 2009 but had its roots in a few isolated cases that began around 1998 outside Tibet.

The US-based NGOs stated that self-immolation acts by Tibetans were an assertion of the Tibetan identity in the face of “cultural genocide”. This proclamation, however, disregarded the fact that suicide is forbidden in Buddhism. The campaign was heavily exploited around the world and praised by NGOs advocating for human rights in Tibet, but also by NATO-backed think tanks. These included Freedom House, whose specific role is to monitor freedom of the press around the world and which ranked Tibet as the worst possible place, saying self-immolations were the result of a lack of freedom. However, the most extreme illustration of the alliance of the US government in the self-immolation campaign can be seen in the documents of The Congressional-Executive Commission on China (www.cecc.gov). This body promotes the self-immolation strategy aimed at achieving “Tibetan freedom” and the Dalai Lama’s return in Tibet, and sees the collapse of China as an implicit goal.

In some cases acts of self-immolation were exploited to support fundraising activities, particularly in the US, and to obtain governmental subsidies for NGOs or the exiled Tibetan leadership, with wide support from cultural exponents like Hollywood actors and famous musicians, whose numbers had boomed since those distant afternoons when the poet Allen Ginsberg, the composer Philip Glass, the author Robert Thurman and the actor Richard Gere first laid their plans to drum up support for US-based Buddhist organizations.

US-based NGO banner praising self-immolation in Tibet

On May 29, 2012, at a TYC candlelight rally to glorify Tibetans who had set themselves alight, the leader of the rally claimed, “Tibetan independence will neither fall from the sky nor grow from the earth; rather it relies on our efforts and action and needs sacrifice.” From September 25 to 28, 2012, the exiled Tibetan leadership convened the Second Special Meeting of Tibetans in Exile, proclaiming self-immolation as the highest form of non-violence, hailing its victims as “national heroes,” building memorials and raising special funds for them. They still vigorously preach that “self-immolation does not go against Buddhist doctrine” and that “self-immolation is martyrdom and a Bodhisattva deed,” duping Buddhist believers in Tibet, and particularly innocent young people, and setting them on an incendiary path to ruin. The unavoidable consequence was a rapid increase in self-immolations. In addition, the TYC issued the Martyr Award in 2013 to Monks of the Kirti Monastery who self-immolated and in 2016 to self-immolators in Tibet and in exile who sacrificed their lives.

Investigations by China’s public security organs into incidents of self-immolation clearly revealed that these protesters were being manipulated and instigated by the highest levels of the exiled Tibetan leadership. Kirti Monastery in the Aba Tibetan and Qiang Autonomous Prefecture is where the greatest number of self-immolation incidents took place; it has been proved that those promoting these incidents have close links with the Tibetan exile leadership.

The investigation of the security organs revealed that the Tibetan exile leadership has four ways of instigating self-immolation: first, planning incidents from abroad through a so-called “press liaison group” based in the Kirti Monastery in Sichuan and the Kirti Monastery in India; second, sending TYC members into Tibet to incite self-immolation; third, mobilizing activists returning from overseas to assist in self-immolation; and fourth, using the Internet and NGOs’ social media reach to hype up self-immolation.

The exiled Tibetan leadership has allegedly released a Self-immolation Guide on the Internet – an instruction manual to incite and instruct Tibetans residing within China to burn themselves. The author of this manual is Chabdak Lhamo Kyab, who served for two terms as a member of the Tibetan government in exile, known now as the Central Tibetan Government (CTA) and was the head of a clandestine resistance movement and also a public relations counsellor of the Dalai Lama. He now resides in France.

The Self-immolation Guide is a book consisting of four parts: the first part advocates the idea that self-immolators are great, honourable and intrepid heroes and that both these male and female heroes should always be prepared to sacrifice themselves for a just cause. The second part gives detailed instructions on preparations for self-immolation, including picking important days and places, leaving written or recorded last words, and asking trustworthy friends to help record videos or take photos. The third part introduces self-immolation slogans, instructing victims to always shout the same slogans. And the fourth part illustrates other activities that might accompany self-immolation. The book also contains the timeline of protests since 2009; the life stories of the protesters; the international community’s support for the movement; and the exiled Tibetan leadership’s efforts to gain global support. “The book”, said one source of the leadership “has nothing to do with encouraging self-immolation”. At present, the existence of the book has been officially denied by the exiled Tibetan leadership.

Performing self-immolation in public is itself an act of violence, intended to create an atmosphere of terror and of horror. On this issue of principle, the Dalai Lama played an important role. For example, on November 8, 2011, when a new series of self-immolations had just begun, he said in an interview that the point was that self-immolation demanded courage and that “cultural genocide” was the reason behind these “courageous acts”. He thereby both showed his appreciation for and approval of self-immolators and promoted his rhetoric of cultural genocide.

On January 3, 2012, he defended self-immolation on the basis that it was superficially an act of violence, but what differentiated violence and non-violence was the motives and aims behind each act, and only an act driven by hatred and anger could be defined as violence. It was clear that he regarded self-immolation as non-violent protest. On October 8, 2012, he said in an interview that he was sure that self-immolators were sacrificing themselves with a sincere motivation and for the benefit of Buddhism and the well-being of Tibetans, and that, from the Buddhist point of view, it was a positive act. Through these words, he has repeatedly and explicitly offered his approval of and praise for self-immolation. He has also hosted a dharma assembly, in his capacity as a religious leader, to expiate the sins of the dead, chant scriptures and pray for them, a promise which turns out to be very persuasive to believers in Tibetan Buddhism. Only recently has the Dalai Lama revised his views on the effectiveness of self-immolation.

Since the Olympic Games of 2008, over 150 Tibetans have set themselves on fire in protest, including 41 monks and eight nuns. Only very few of Tibet’s Buddhist clerics or exponents of the human rights community have dared to speak out in Western countries against glorifying, praising or promoting acts of self-immolation for political gain. Also among exile Tibetans, any advocacy against self-immolation is considered incompatible with the agenda of the Tibetan government in exile, and very few would dare provoke the rage of the Dalai Lama for fear of reprisal. Recently, personalities that dared to speak out against the campaign of self-immolation were systematically attacked on social media in what appeared to be a coordinated slander campaign, organized through anonymous accounts. One luminary who did speak out was Tsem Tulku Rinpoche, the spiritual leader of the Malaysian based Buddhist organisation Kechara, who publicly and forcefully opposed the campaign of self-immolation, particularly after a succession of incidents prior the vote of the US budget bill 2018, which included grants to the exiled Tibetan leaders that were in danger of being rejected by Congress. He was severely punished on the social media for his call for non-violence and was tagged a ‘Chinese spy’ because he upheld a core Buddhist teaching of non-violence.

The fading unity for the Tibetan cause on the path to the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing

These violent initiatives succeeded in gaining world media focus on the Tibetan issue but ultimately failed to change the equation with China and tilt the balance in favour of the Dalai Lama’s government in exile. As questions of the Tibetan leadership’s adequacy became louder over the years, the Dalai Lama and exile leaders have constantly stoked the flames of division between Tibetans, sowing discord and inciting  inter-religious animosity and divisions. Part of the motivation it was to distract Tibetan refugees from the reality that their exiled Tibetan leaders were unable, after 60 years, to offer a realistic prospective for their return to Tibet, or at least formulate a plan for their integration into Indian society.

Since the failure of the attempted rebellions in 1959 and 2008, a series of particularly divisive issues for the Buddhist community, both within Tibet and abroad have been introduced by the Tibetan leadership. The Karmapa controversy was one where the Dalai Lama created conditions for rivalry to beset the Karma Kagyu sect, the second largest school of Buddhism which prevails until this day. As for the largest Tibetan Buddhism school, the Gelug, enmity was introduced by outlawing the worship of one of the sect’s most popular deity, Dorje Shugden, a nearly 400-year old practice that began in the 17th century and has become a major practice in Tibetan Buddhism. The Dorje Shugden de facto ban has already existed for two decades since it was initiated by the Dalai Lama and has slowly stirred disunity in Tibet and among the exiled Tibetan communities, leading the Chinese government to consider the Dorje Shugden conflict an important front for undermining what it says are efforts promoted by the Dalai Lama aimed at destabilizing China.

This religious hostility has been fed by considerable propaganda and counterpropaganda efforts during the last two decades and it is still an ongoing battle. It has been continuously observed that Dorje Shugden followers, monks, and monasteries in Tibet and abroad are used as scapegoat and portrayed as heretic, demonic and sectarian, and are branded as Chinese Communist Party supporters or Chinese spies by most NGOs advocating in western countries for the exiled Tibetan leadership’s goals. In historical terms, the situation and implications may call to mind Martin Luther’s reformation of Christianity centuries ago.

Most nations acknowledge Tibet as a part of China, while none formally recognizes the exiled Tibetan leadership, the Central Tibetan Administration (CTA) – yet a number of them sustain the cause of the exiles in other ways. Because of the need for Western support of the exiled government and the significant role played by externally-based NGOs supporting Tibetan independence, democratizing elements have been added to self-governance in exile, and the vocabulary of human rights, development, environmental protection, and so forth has been deployed by the CTA and supported by Western NGOs. In reality, spirituality and aristocracy are linked through Tibet’s traditional system of theocratic government, in which politics and religion were tightly knit. Many exiled government officials continue to promote this system as ideal for Tibet, including the present prime minister of the CTA, Dr. Lobsang Sangay, who recently reaffirmed the urgency of strengthening efforts to facilitate the return of the Dalai Lama to his native land and his former residence in Lhasa, the Potala palace.

However, the repeated requests of many exile leaders to pass orders banning critical voices from any Tibet-related events, accusing such voices to be Chinese spies and/or Dorje Shugden heretics, stand in stark contradiction to democratic principles. Critical voices expose, for example, claims of corruption inside the CTA; some complain that instead of focusing on practical efforts to improve the everyday lives of Tibetan refugees in India, the CTA has often preferred political point-scoring against China; others still have expressed criticism of the Dalai Lama or of the CTA’s theocratic orientation.

The US President’s attitude reflects the waning support for the Tibetan cause and a change in perception of the Dalai Lama’s role as peacemaker. The cause has suffered a gradual dissipation of international goodwill, particularly among the CTA’s immediate neighbours and Indian hosts. Countries such as India, Mongolia, and Nepal have traditionally tolerated the activities of the exile leaders and the Dalai Lama, and by doing so risked annoying China, the region’s most powerful nation.

“The Winter Olympic Games in 2022 in Beijing will be a symbol of peace, friendship and prosperity, which is welcomed and cherished by all peoples” comments the International Olympic Committee, recognizing its world-class venue legacy from the 2008 Olympic Summer Games. In the last years, the Dalai Lama has embodied an intensified sentiment of political embarrassment among world leaders who seek stable political and profitable economic alliances with China. Beijing 2022 will form part of the future narrative of Tibet and it will be interesting to see if the support for the Dalai Lama will completely evaporate into the clouds of nostalgia for the poems of Allen Ginsberg, the music of Philip Glass, the books of Robert Thurman or the movies of Richard Gere.

Political leaders often conquer international stature by conducting war, but the personas of only a few men of peace – such as Gandhi, King, and Mandela – are prominent. The Dalai Lama’s “apostle of nonviolence” persona was built at the end of the Cold War, alongside a campaign to internationalize the Tibet struggle by fostering protests in Tibet, mobilizing Western converts to Tibetan Buddhism, and exploiting the Dalai Lama’s capacity to engage Western political and media elites. Boosted by his 1989 Nobel Peace Prize, US excoriations of China and the expectation of its collapse after the Cold War, the Dalai Lama became an international symbol of peace. He successfully combined his divine significance with his political struggle in exile under a veil of non-violence, compassion and selflessness. After decades of internationalization as he reaches the last lines of the book of his life, synonyms of the Dalai Lama as peacemaker are still discursive givens. Only time will tell whether he will be immortalized on the celestial Olympus with Gandhi, King, and Mandela or exiled from the collective memory of mankind.

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East Asia

South Korea’s Potential for Global Influence is Weakened by its Mistreatment of Women

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In recent years, the Republic of Korea has become a pop culture juggernaut.

Eight years after “Gangnam Style” went global, K-Pop still reigns supreme with boy band BTS topping charts and issuing IPOs. Bong Joon-ho’s film “Parasite” swept last year’s Oscars, kimchi now has UNESCO cultural heritage status, while Samsung smartphones are used all over the world, second only to the mighty Apple.

The global appeal of the Korean Wave, known as “Hallyu,” recently attracted the attention of a report from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, which argued that this rising soft power could in turn boost South Korea’s global influence and drive diplomatic leadership on a broad range of transnational issues, from climate change to public health to democracy promotion.

This all sounds great, but there remains a nagging problem. Despite its flourishing culture, there have also been a string of scandals highlighting the plight of women in the country, who facing everything from inequality to workplace discrimination and rampant sexual harassment.

By any measure, the problem is significant and costly to the country’s interests. According to a 2019 report by the World Economic Forum, South Korea ranks 124 out of 149 countries in the world in terms of economic opportunity for women, while another report cites the highest gender pay gap among OECD nations at 35%. This low level of female participation in the economy is not only a drag on future GDP growth, but also coincides with a parallel mental health crisis: suicides among Korean women in their 20s have jumped by more than 40 percent in the last year, at the same time that male deaths are in decline.

Mistreatment of women in Korea may be a feature, not a bug, of the system. A recent string of sexual abuse scandals has reached the highest levels of the country’s political elites.

This past July, the country was shocked to wake up to the news that the popular Mayor of Seoul Park Won-soon had committed suicide when accusations of sexual assault against his secretary were made public. Mayor Park had built his image as stalwart champion of women’s rights, and yet, the secretary, who has been threatened and blamed following the suicide, says that she “felt defenseless and weak before the immense power” of the Mayor.

Months later, we are discovering the very people meant to protect the victims instead act to protect the alleged perpetrators. Congresswoman Nam In-soon, one of South Korea’s highest profile women’s rights activists, is being called on to resign after it was revealed that she leaked news of the sexual harassment investigation into Mayor Park. Another member of congress, Yoon Mee-hyang, was forced out of the ruling Democratic Party after facing criminal charges of embezzlement from the “comfort women” charity she used to direct, which raised money for survivors of World War II military brothels.

Before Mayor Park’s suicide and the comfort women scandal, there were many others. Last year, South Chungcheong Province Governor Ahn Hee-jung was convicted on nine counts of rape and sentenced to three and half years in prison. Mayor of Busan Oh Keo-Don was forced to resign following the assault accusation. Ahn Tae-geun, a former senior prosecutor whose case had become symbolic for the #MeToo movement, had his conviction overturned earlier this year.

These patterns stand in stark contrast to the image the government seeks to project.

In public speeches, President Moon Jae-in frequently advocates in defense of women’s rights in speeches and interviews. Speaking at the last UN General Assembly, he declared a commitment to inclusiveness and reducing inequalities. The ruling DPK has long associated itself with rights activists, and has made gestures toward combating misconduct and mistreatment of women – but critics say they aren’t doing enough. A headline on CNN last summer went so far as to call out the hypocrisy: “South Korea’s President says he’s a feminist. Three of his allies have been accused of sex crimes.”

Despite numerous protest movements and well supported marches, Korea has not yet experienced a breakthrough #MeToo moment. According to media testimonials, many women continue to face significant obstacles to advance in their careers. Even after 70,000 women marched last year to protest the prolific abuse of spy cams set up in bathrooms and changing rooms, patriarchal attitudes continue. This month, guidelines published on an official government website advising pregnant women to cook, clean, and to lose weight for their husbands after childbirth caused a social media uproar.

This is a deeply concerning problem. As highlighted by the Carnegie report, Korea’s role as a “middle power” in a such a volatile region would be highly welcome, and not just on things like climate and coronavirus vaccine distribution, but also their crucial role in containing North Korea’s nuclear ambitions and holding firm in the shadow of China’s expanding authoritarian reach.

Some Korean groups have advocated internationally against gender-based violence, which is undoubtedly a very worthy cause. But until the Moon government can get serious about tackling these inequalities and abuses at home, its efforts to project influence abroad will fail to meet potential.

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East Asia

Considering the Continental Dimension of the Indo-Pacific: The Mongolian Precedent

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The Indo-Pacific is now the site of global great-power competition and contestation. And, as a reflection of its growing importance in international discourse, a number of extra-regional actors adopted the concept last year. Among those adoptees, Mongolia set a unique precedent for the regional security discourse to actively consider the continental dimension of the Indo-Pacific by highlighting geopolitical convergences with other regional actors, and the strategic threat posed by Beijing’s “Silk Road Economic Belt”.

Mongolia in the Indo-Pacific

Actors who have adopted the Indo-Pacific concept vaguely define it as beginning in the Arabian Sea and ending in the Western Pacific Ocean. Much of the discourse is also driven by the US-China strategic competition in Southeast Asia, and the US’ attempt to counter Chinese influence in the Indian and Pacific Oceans, along with its regional partners and allies, e.g the India-Australia-Japan-US ‘Quad’. As a result, actors in the Indo-Pacific have generally focused on the development of maritime military and economic measures.

In early October, during a Japan-Mongolia Foreign Ministers’ Meeting, both sides agreed to continue consolidating their efforts in pursuing a “Free and Open Indo-Pacific”, in line with the promises of the 2018 Japan-Mongolia Summit.

Mongolia’s participation as a continental, extra-regional actor with limited maritime significance, shifts the geopolitical locus of the theatre, ever so slightly, north of Southeast Asia (the current focus). Ulaanbaatar’s adoption of the geostrategic theatre appears to be driven by continued Chinese antagonism, and a result of its “third neighbour” policy.

China continues to threaten Mongolia’s territorial sovereignty by claiming Inner Mongolia,clamp down on its cultural identity, and impose costs on Mongolia’s export-oriented economy. The last issue is critical, since Mongolia’s largest export partner, approximately92.78 percent of overall exports, is China. Enclosed between two large countries, Russia and China, Mongolia has traditionally maintained a “third neighbour” policy approach: building political and economic relationships with actors other than the aforementioned.

Given the continued animosity with Beijing, Ulaanbaatar has increasingly emphasised these other relations over the years. e.g. with the UK, the US, Japan, etc. In 2019 President Khaltmaagiin Battulga visited New Delhi to develop deeper ties with another “third neighbour” state. Mongolia also shares the “like-minded” characteristics – a liberal democracy – to maintain and preserve a “free, fair, open and rules-based” order in the US-Japan Indo-Pacific strategy.

And so, actors looking to potentially partner with Mongolia or others with similar economic and connectivity deficits in Central and West Asia, will have to include, within their Indo-Pacific approaches, measures that involve non-littoral actors.

The BRI and Continental Asia

China’s rise as an expansionist Asian military and global economic power is at the core of the  Indo-Pacific security discourse. Beijing’s claims in the South China Sea (SCS), China’s growing naval power, and the colossal Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) form the major strategic threats to regional multilateralism and collective security.

The most long standing threat among them, the BRI, is divided into the transcontinental “silk route” and the maritime “silk road”. However, much of the Indo-Pacific discourse is dominated by the silk road, especially those projects directed towards the Indian Ocean Region (IOR). BRI projects in the IOR are crucial to Beijing’s expanding influence in South Asia and control on international energy and trade supply routes. Also hidden among the maritime/trans-continental connectivity and infrastructure projects, is China’s growing security presence in the region.

However, Mongolia’s entry directs attention to a dimension unique to the current maritime Indo-Pacific discourse –the silk route, that cuts across Central Asia, towards Europe and South Asia, with a similar number of projects in Southeast Asia.

Among the six ‘silk route’ projects, Mongolia’s concern is the China-Mongolia-Russia Economic Corridor (CMREC) that cuts through Eastern Mongolia, beginning in Ulanqab (or “Jining”) in Inner Mongolia, and ending at Ulan-Ude, in BurYatia, Russia. Similar projects include the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) and the China-Central Asia-West Asia Economic Corridor (CCWAEC).

Connecting the continental to the maritime is the main goal of the BRI. In fact, the project was first announced during a Chinese state visit to Central Asia in 2013. President Xi Jinping proposed the “Silk Road Economic Belt” with a vision to connect the Pacific Ocean to the Baltic Sea. Beijing’s vision of comprehensive global economic and military power requires a built path to various regions of the world, i.e infrastructure to facilitate dual-use logistics. Given the recent spate of BRI loans going bad, this vision continues to remain unfulfilled.

The continental dimension, Asia, is what makes the Indo-Pacific a theatre of global concern. Trans-continental connectivity, between and within Europe and Asia, narrows the distance between actors, and the shared interest in maintaining regional multilateralism and collective security ensures their continued participation in the Indo-Pacific. As more actors like Mongolia adopt the Indo-Pacific concept, connecting the continental to the maritime and vice versa, sans BRI, will become a strategic concern.

Mongolia’s entry into the theatre offers a unique precedent for those involved in maintaining and preserving a “free, fair, open and rules-based” Indo-Pacific to evaluate and initiate relationships between non-littoral actors and the maritime dimension.

The On-Ground Reality

However, there are a number of obstacles to actively consider continental Asia in the Indo-Pacific discourse. The two most important are geography and geopolitics.

Mongolia for example, is completely enclosed by two actors – Russia and China – who are averse and hostile to the idea of the Indo-Pacific. And, any “counter-BRI” connectivity project envisioned by other regional actors will have to go through their territories. The case of Afghanistan is similar. Divergences in geopolitical interests and ties with actors in the Arabian Sea, particularly with regard to Iran and Pakistan, stays the idea of trans-regional connectivity between Kabul and the world.

The geopolitical obstacle here is the dependent economic relationships that non-littorals in Asia have with Beijing. Mongolia is just one among many Central and West Asian states that have local economies indelibly tied to the political whims of Beijing. During the coronavirus pandemic, a period that saw considerable anti-China sentiment in the international community, Beijing has managed to maintain a level of trust and shared security with many Indo-Pacific states. National vaccination plans are based on the delivery of Chinese vaccines.

There is another reason why the security discourse on the Indo-Pacific is focused on maritime measures – maintaining and preserving the integrity of international Sea Lines of Communication (SLOC) and the respect for territorial sovereignty. In that endeavour, multilateral platforms like the Quad allows members to share historic and strategic advantages in the IOR and Pacific Ocean to counter Chinese expansionism in the Indo-Pacific’s various sub-regions.  On land however, in Central and South Asia, for example the clash in the Galwan river valley last year, Chinese incursions provoke bilateral responses giving it leeway to act with relative impunity.

Conclusion

While there are a number of real obstacles to consider the continental dimension of the Indo-Pacific, Mongolia sets a geopolitical precedent for a comprehensive geographic definition, one that includes both the maritime and continental. From this year on, states participating in the Indo-Pacific now have a reason to approach and include non-littoral actors in the Indo-Pacific.

This precedent also highlights the need to include the continental ‘silk route’ in the Indo-Pacific security discourse. Devising such a definition will be a similar exercise as to the amalgamation of the terms “Indo-Pacific” and “Asia-Pacific” to form the “Indo-Asia-Pacific”; now used at times in geostrategic discourse.

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East Asia

Time to play the Taiwan card

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At a time when the dragon is breathing fire, India must explore alternative tactics, perhaps establishment of formal diplomatic ties with Taiwan can be a landmark step

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The standoff on the Ladakh border between the Indian Army and the PLA (People’s Liberation Army) continues amid failing talks and casus belli measures being unleashed by the Chinese regime. While the union government and the armed forces make it clear that they will do whatever it takes to protect India’s sovereignty and integrity, precious little has been done on the foreign policy front. While India and its democratic allies which comprise the Quad security grouping declare their intent to form the ‘Asian NATO’, the Quad continues to suffer from indecisiveness which was pretty much evident when the Quad did not even issue a joint statement to condemn China at the foreign ministers meeting held last year, only America publicly called out China.

In such a situation, it is imperative that India explore alternate diplomatic and militaristic routes to tame the dragon.

Recognizing Taiwan

Establishing formal diplomatic ties with Taiwan after recognizing should be vigorously pursuing by South Block. Indo-Taiwan ties date back to the early 1950s when Chiang Kai Shek, the ex Chinese president and former head of state fled to the island of Formosa following the victory of Mao Zedong in the long drawn out Chinese civil war called on Nehru to establish and further ties with Formosa, however Nehru believing that Chiang was nothing but a “peanut” decided to ignore his call, choosing instead to concentrate on building ties with People’s Republic of China (PRC).

Seven decades on, plethora of changes has taken place on the foreign affairs front, while both China and India have developed considerably both militarily and economically the dragon has surpassed elephant to become an economic powerhouse in its own might. It has now embraced aggressiveness to enforce its 5th century vision of the ‘Middle Kingdom’. In such a situation providing legitimacy to the existence of Taiwan is a necessary first step.

Paradigm shift in policy

Establishing formal diplomatic ties with Taiwan will bring about a paradigm shift vis-à-vis India’s foreign policy. It will enforce the idea that liberal democracy is the last word in the battle of ideologies as Francis Fukuyama had visualized in his landmark book ‘The End of History and the Last Man’ and that there is no alternative to human rights and liberties, not even the Chinese model of ‘authoritarian development’. It will be the boldest step that any global leader has taken, not even the mighty US which has no formal diplomatic relations with Taiwan has taken this step.

Recognizing Taiwan will entail a lot of benefits for the mandarins of India’s foreign policy regime- firstly, Taiwan is a robust democracy with a booming economy, it will prove to be an alternative to China albeit in a relatively less proportion, secondly, India can bolster the legitimacy as the leader of the democratic world at a time when the democratic institutions in the US-often regarded as the cradle of democracy has been undermined.

Thirdly, India can get the support of another powerful ally in its attempt to carve out a new supply chain alliance which India-Japan-Australia formalized recently. Fourthly, recognizing Taiwan will make it clear to China that India means some serious business and if the need arises then India will not back down from sending dedicated naval and air assets in the disputed South China Sea region to enforce freedom of navigation principle in the resource rich region. Lastly, the Quad security grouping will be institutionalized which in the near future can even be extended to include new members, it will be the first time that India will be a part of any dedicated military and economic alliance which will deter the aggression of the Chinese war machine in the strategic Indian Ocean and Indo-Pacific Region.

Caveats remain

However the recognition may invite severe ramifications for India. China will be infuriated and can choose to ratchet up tensions with India. India must be extremely careful while dealing with China as China is our second largest bilateral trade partner and a key export partner of India with regard to raw materials and goods. According to a FICCI report, India imports more than 40% of several important goods like the API (Active Pharmaceutical Ingredients), television, chemicals, chips, textiles and many more.

The dragon will as a possible retaliatory measure can activate its propaganda machinery to wage psychological warfare with India. It can also activate its terror financing networks which for years remained a chronic internal security for India in the northeast of the country. China will also collaborate with its ‘iron brother’ Pakistan to try and deter India by intensifying terrorism in the Kashmir valley and elsewhere. Further, China can use its potent disinformation empire to try and peddle fake news about the credibility of India’s indigenous vaccines at a time when the light at the end of the tunnel of a pandemic stricken world has appeared.

Exercising caution

Keeping all the dangers in mind, the Modi government must keep national interests in mind. Despite all the risks, it must work with all the like- minded countries to take own the mighty dragon responsible for unleashing a deadly virus which has wrecked havoc on humanity. For the sake of the free world, India must take the hard step which will reinforce India’s position in cementing its place as the leader of the free world.

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