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Tibet's Secret Weapon: An Opinion

October 27, 2008

By Rebecca Novick
The Huffington Post
October 24, 2008

Tibet has slipped away from the world's headlines. But even though no
foreign journalists are allowed into the region to report on it,
Tibetans have continued to protest China's repressive policies in
ways that boggle the mind and perplex the authorities. The Dalai Lama
has described violent resistance in Tibet as "suicide" for good
reason. Tibetans can never hope to go toe-to-toe with China's
military machine. But they have something else.

When a Tibetan nun named Ani Pachen was placed in solitary
confinement for a nine-month stretch during her 21-year imprisonment,
she decided to use the time to perform a Buddhist retreat. When the
guards opened the door to her tiny, filthy cell to let her out, she
requested them to close it, explaining that she hadn't finished her
retreat. I would have paid good money to see the looks on their
faces. "If they can't break the spirit of one old woman," she told
me, "how can they break the spirit of the Tibetan people?"

It is this spirit that is Tibet's secret weapon. It rallies against
despair, inspires extraordinary acts of defiance, values moral
principle over external authority, and places inner conviction above
brute force.

Ani Pachen's courage, though remarkable, is not unique. Beijing's
on-going crackdown in Tibet has brought about something that China's
leaders didn't expect but should have predicted--a grassroots
movement of solidarity among Tibetans, and with it, a seemingly
limitless number of men and women willing to risk imprisonment and
even death for a single gesture of freedom.

Very few have heard of them or about what they did. Each one knew
that their actions meant certain arrest, beatings and torture, and to
be sentenced to a Chinese gulag by a justice system that is always
stacked against them. Long after Tibet had been replaced by the hot
new story, these incidents and many others like them, have continued
to play out on the Tibetan plateau.

Rigden Lhamo, a 21-year-old student, walked over to her county
government headquarters, unfurled the banned Tibetan flag, and
shouted for freedom. A young nun, Tsering Tsomo, stood on a street
corner by herself handing out leaflets calling for the return of the
Dalai Lama. Police pummeled her with iron rods before hauling her off
to a detention center. The same day, over two hundred nuns from her
nunnery demonstrated in solidarity with Tsering, and headed towards
the County headquarters demanding her release. They were intercepted
by security forces who attacked them with electric cattle prods and
iron rods. Ten of the nuns were seriously injured.

Four young men, Asang, Ngoesoe, Jamsang and Gadho, went to a festival
that the authorities had planned as a celebration of the Olympics.
Attendance by Tibetans was compulsory. In full view of local
officials, the four men began to shout that this was not a time to
celebrate but rather a time to mourn and pray for those who had
suffered in the Spring protests. Their act inspired all the Tibetans
to defy the official orders and to pack up their tents and go home.

A nineteen-year-old girl, Yoten Tso, staged a lone protest outside
the county police station in Kardze, an area of Tibet under such
tight control that it was described as a "war zone" by a recent visitor.

For most Chinese people, such acts are incomprehensible. What on
earth is up with these Tibetans? We gave them discos and proper roads
and this is how they repay us? As one bemused Chinese shopkeeper in
Lhasa put it, "They're a very strange people. They don't care about
material things. They only care about things of the spirit."

If Tibetans expressed their frustrations en masse with violence, then
China's leaders might well be relieved. They could then happily
personify all Tibetans as barbarous terrorists intent on dividing the
Motherland, launch a full-scale military campaign, and further
escalate the suppressive tactics in which the People's Republic of
China are so well versed. This would help to distract its own people
from the internal forces that are presently challenging the country's
social harmony and stability--conditions that the State tout ad
nauseam as being essential to its wellbeing.

But although some Tibetans have indeed resorted to violence as the
last refuge of despair, most are resisting China's policies in Tibet
in ways that make no sense to the officials who impose them. Tibetans
seem to be willing to suffer rather than to act against their
conscience, refuse to pay more than lip service to communist
ideology, and love liberty more than good plumbing. Scholar John
Powers sums up China's official response to this as "the beatings
will continue until morale improves." But what if someone would
rather be beaten than to live a life he doesn't believe in? Tibet's
secret weapon is what gave Ani Pachen the strength to ask the prison
guards to close her cell door--a holy alliance with the forces of
truth and goodness, and the courage to put everything on the line to
represent them.

Today, all over Tibet, enthusiastic communists are trying to change
the way that Tibetans think; in a nutshell, to love the Party, to
love the Motherland, and not to love the Dalai Lama. But even when
they can get Tibetans to say it, they can't get them to mean it. In
fact, recent reports from Tibet suggest that the effect of this
so-called 'Patriotic Re-education' is making Tibetans feel even more
loyal to the Dalai Lama and his 'clique' in exile and even less
Chinese. And this is what really vexes China's leaders and raises
their voices into an ear-shattering pitch.

China controls Tibet's infrastructure, resources, and economy. It has
colonized its culture and religion. It has flooded neighborhoods with
police and military, and built a system of surveillance and social
monitoring to rival anything in Orwell's imagination. There is no
question that China has Tibet. But what it wants most will always
elude it -- the hearts and minds of the Tibetan people.

Rebecca Novick is a writer and Executive Producer of The Tibet
Connection radio program. She is currently based in Dharamsala, India.
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