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Tibet: One diaspora, two paths

September 22, 2008

The 14th Dalai Lama

Despite its homogeneous appearance, two views have divided the Tibet 
movement: regional autonomy within a China framework or full 
independence, Denis Burke writes for ISN Security Watch.

By Denis Burke for ISN Security Watch, ETH Zurich  18 Sep 2008

Almost fifty years after the Dalai Lama left the region, Tibet's 
community in exile and the Tibet movement seem remarkably unified in 
their quest for independence. As soon as the International Olympic 
Committee announced that Beijing was to host the 2008 Summer Olympics, 
Tibet support groups began preparing for protests. The media attention 
afforded by an event of this size was simply too big to miss.

This was to be Tibet's year as much as China's if the support groups 
had had their way. In March unrest broke out across Tibet on a scale 
unseen for 20 years. Still, the Games went ahead without major 
disruption and were received in the international press as a triumph. 
Beijing conceded to more negotiations on the independence issue, 
enough to keep the international press off its back. Once again, Tibet 
had failed to successfully capture the spotlight.

The search for new strategies among the exiled Tibetans may end up 
bringing differences to the surface and jeopardizing the famed unity 
of the exiles.

With very occasional exceptions, pursuit of Tibetan self-determination 
is enacted through nonviolent means. The primary point where 
disagreement occurs is on the Dalai Lama's pursuit of increased 
autonomy within greater China and not independence. Though support for 
the Dalai Lama is practically universal, many Tibet groups continue to 
seek full independence for the region.

Aside from designs for Tibet's future, discontent among the diaspora 
has sprung from regional, historical and religious differences. Tibet 
was not a unified political entity prior to occupation by China. The 
reach of the Dalai Lama's government in Tibet was limited and a 
homogenous sense of Tibetan identity did not extend to the large 
outlying provinces of Kham or Amdo. Tibetans outside Tibet now find 
that the culture and language of U-Tsang - the province where the 
capital Lhasa is situated - have come to dominate the exile community. 
Tibet has traditionally been home to a wide variety of schools and 
sects of Buddhism, many of which have come to be underrepresented or 
marginalized in exile.

Nationalism at home

Nationalism within Tibet itself is difficult to measure. It appears 
that the devotion most Tibetans have always felt to the Dalai Lama 
continues unshaken. Of course there are Tibetans whose families 
benefited from the Chinese occupation and where their loyalties lie is 
a difficult guess. Judging from the stories of recently arrived 
refugees in India and Nepal, it seems that Tibetans in Tibet are aware 
of the actions and policies of the Government in Exile. However, such 
awareness and unshaken loyalty to the Dalai Lama do not always equal 
support for government policies.

The March 2008 unrest in ethnically Tibetan portions of China has led 
to fresh analyses of the prevailing will of Tibetans within Tibet. 
Barry Zellen's April Viewpoint article for the Center for Contemporary 
Conflict echoed the prevailing thought at the time: The Olympic Games 
were rapidly approaching and, suddenly, it seemed that the patience of 
Tibetans on the ground had given out. According to Zellen, it is quite 
likely that this was the result of frustration with the lack of 
progress of any attempted negotiated solution to Tibet's half century 
of discontent.

Zellen, among others, wondered if the protests were linked to two 
other issues that had made the headlines in the preceding months: 
Kosovo and Burma (Myanmar). Kosovo had seceded from Serbia and Burma 
had briefly caught world attention when protests across the country 
spiraled out of control.

Though it is not impossible that news of the Burmese protests had 
filtered into Tibet, the chances that Kosovo had been widely 
publicized or discussed among Tibetans in Tibet seems less likely, as 
Zellen illustrates. Claiming a causal connection between these events 
is probably a stretch.

Nevertheless, the observation of a connecting theme of eroded patience 
is not so easily refuted. It is too early to speculate about the 
permanency or the extent of that frustration in Tibet but it does show 
a departure from the unified, Dalai Lama-centered nationalism that had 
characterized smaller protests in recent years.

The political agenda in exile

Outside of Tibet, the overwhelming majority of Tibetans support the 
Dalai Lama and the non-violent approach. The goals of almost all Tibet 
support groups (including non-Tibetan supporters) are broadly similar. 
Some disagreement stems from the Dalai Lama's political agenda as 
outlined 20 years ago before the European Parliament: the so-called 
Middle Way Approach.

The core point of the Approach is that it specifically demands 
autonomy within China and not independence. However, several key 
organizations such as International Tibet Independence Movement, 
Friends of Tibet and the Tibetan Youth Congress - which has often 
stood for the de facto voice of opposition to the elected government 
-  continue to campaign for Tibetan independence and explicitly state 
as much in their mission statements or press releases.

Even so, the Dalai Lama, many exile government ministers, and indeed 
the proponents of independence themselves, often argue that calling 
for independence rather than autonomy is not dissent: It merely 
suggests an effective multiparty democracy.

Religion and politics, a questionable mix

But whether Tibetans are calling for independence or autonomy their 
political aspirations seem inextricably linked to religion. Wang 
Lixiong, a prominent thinker on the Tibet issue, has expressed concern 
that the virulent links between Tibetan religion and politics must be 
a serious counterweight for any Chinese leader considering the 
autonomy question. Analysts of the Tibetan process of democratization 
such as Jane Ardley have suggested that true democracy will evade the 
exile community as long as the Dalai Lama is venerated as a deity.

It should come as no surprise then that the more controversial and 
divisive differences often spring from religious perspectives.

Typically considered third in line to the Dalai Lama, the Karmapa Lama 
is a figure who may end up playing a major role in Tibet's future. The 
lineage of the Karmapa Lama is older even than the Dalai Lama's. After 
the previous Karmapa died in 1981, two candidates were recognized as 
his successor. The Dalai Lama and a majority of others recognized 
Ogyen Trinley Dorje as his reincarnation. However, the authorities 
typically responsible for selecting the Karmapa (a process the Dalai 
Lamas traditionally had little involvement with) amongst a minority of 
others recognized Trinley Thaye Dorje. Conspiracy theories and 
intrigues concerning the dual recognition abound.

Far more controversial are the recent actions of the Shugden Dorje 
sect. The current Dalai Lama has expressed concerns that the worship 
of the protector deity Shugden Dorje is inappropriate for a non-
theistic religion like Buddhism and that the practices of the sect are 
cultish, sectarian and divisive. Both inside and outside of Tibet, the 
Dalai Lama's reservations, and later condemnation, of the group led 
them to lose support. The sect has responded with accusations of 
persecution. According to a Tibetinfonet report, during an April press 
conference, representatives from the Shugden Dorje sect compared the 
Dalai Lama's handling of the group to apartheid.

The group's supporters went even further, accusing the Tibetan 
Government in Exile for poisoning Chinese-Indian relations and 
alleging that the Dalai Lama had instigated the March violence, at 
times closely echoing Chinese media accounts of the events. The group 
is allegedly funded by the Chinese government.

Unity first

Considering the size of the Tibetan diaspora and its relative lack of 
homogeneity before going into exile, its unity is remarkable. However, 
the political and religious divides mentioned above - not to mention 
accusations of historical revisionism on all sides - present a 
challenge to that unity today, particularly in light of the 
disappointments of 2008.

Many of Tibet's most prominent activists spent the run up to the 
Olympics in prison. The next round of China-Tibet negotiations is due 
in October. In many ways, it is too early to measure the extent of the 
damage to the Tibet campaign in this Olympic year.

Noticing the impact that these events have had on unity and morale, 
the Dalai Lama has called an emergency meeting of prominent figures of 
Tibet's exile community for November. According to a Reuters report, 
the special session "would see wide-ranging discussions about the 
future of the Tibetan movement."


Denis Burke is a writer and editor based in Amsterdam where he 
recently completed research on Chinese-Tibetan affairs in the 21st 
century.
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