What Beijing calls the Tibet Autonomous Region of China is once again smoldering, with monks in the small town of Aba in Sichuan Province and elsewhere self-immolating to protest against repression that aims to snuff out Tibetan religion, language, culture and an age-old way of life. The number of monks who have set themselves on fire is said to be more than 20 and rising. There are reports of some lay people taking to self-immolation as an act of solidarity with the monks and just out of plain frustration.
According to reports in the Guardian and Sydney Morning Herald, the town of Aba, the scene of the largest number of acts of self-immolation, is ringed by a blanket presence of police and security people.
“Heavily armed police are set up at every intersection … beside army trucks full of soldiers in riot gear,” Philip Wen reported from Aba in the Sydney Morning Herald.
“Despite flooding Aba with security personnel, the protests continue,” Jonathan Watts reported from Aba in the Guardian.
Watts quotes Kate Saunders of the International Campaign for Tibet, who said: “In Tibet, the monasteries serve the function of universities. What is happening now is like a military blockade of Oxford and Cambridge. It’s as if the UK tried to prevent students from studying anything except what the government wanted them to study.”
The unrest has also spread to the Tibetan areas of Qinghai Province.
Of course, with such a massive show of force, the Chinese authorities will succeed in crushing the unrest this time, as they have done before. However, should it not make Beijing pause and reflect on why the Tibetan issue is not going away, since Tibet was forcibly annexed in the 1950s?
That is not the way the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leadership operates. To reflect on policies that are not working and might require a new approach is considered a sign of weakness. In dealing with Tibet’s seemingly intractable problem it is easy to simply deny that there is a problem.
The CCP leadership blames it all on Tibetan leader the Dalai Lama and his “plot” to split Tibet from China. He is a “wolf in sheep’s clothing” talking of peace and reconciliation while doing just the opposite. Therefore, it is none of Beijing’s fault.
Consider the Dalai Lama’s role. He is the spiritual leader of the Tibetan people. He recently relinquished his political mantle to his elected prime minister. It would appear that the institution of the Dalai Lama might cease to exist after the present incumbent departs this world. This will effectively deprive the Chinese government of the ability to foist their own Dalai Lama on Tibetans. Beijing will still do it, but its candidate will lack legitimacy and popular acceptance among Tibetans.
Beijing, therefore, might be well advised to enter into talks with the Dalai Lama, while he is still around, for a peaceful resolution of the issue. He has publicly said a number of times that he is not for a separate Tibet. He only seeks meaningful autonomy for Tibet, with Beijing retaining control of defense, currency and foreign affairs.
The on-off talks between the two sides have been off again for some time now.
Why is China not interested? Because it does not trust the Dalai Lama. Beijing thinks it is his way of working toward a separate Tibet. It defies logic, though. For example, how will an autonomous Tibet, with real control vested in the central government, be able to defy China?
What China obviously fears is that an autonomous Tibet will seek to preserve its religion, culture and traditional way of life. And this doesn’t suit China. With its policies of Han settlement of Tibet, where the Tibetans might soon become a minority with no say in how their affairs are run, Beijing is in no mood to grant real autonomy. The Tibetans will soon, if they have not already, become strangers in their own land.
Indeed, by slicing off parts of the Tibetan region and attaching them to neighboring Han provinces, Beijing has already parceled out their land. The herdsmen, removed from their traditional mountainous grazing lands, have been set up in ghettos to work as casual labor, doing whatever they can find to earn a living.
There is even a suggestion at higher party levels that the government should adopt a more overt assimilationist policy and do away with ethnic “privileges” altogether, as they are an obstacle to national cohesion. In other words, Tibetans might cease to be a distinct ethnic group.
No wonder such repressive policies are driving Tibetans to the wall.
It is now more than 60 years since China incorporated Tibet, but it is still seething. Isn’t it time for Beijing to reflect on the failure of its policies and create an accommodative policy framework based on real autonomy for Tibet?
According to Pico Iyer, an expert on Tibet and the Dalai Lama: “Over the decades I’ve known him, the Dalai Lama has always been adept at pointing out logically how Tibet’s interests and China’s converge — bringing geopolitics and Buddhist principles together.”
The Dalai Lama is saddened that China is single-mindedly pursuing greed and at some point — as Pico Iyer recalls in his conversations with the Tibetan leader — he says Beijing is going to have to find some other form of support, at a level deeper than just growth rates.
In the meantime, there is not much hope for Tibet’s agony.
Sushil Seth is a commentator in Australia.
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