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Opinion: Tibetans make Gandhi proud

They might not be out marching on the streets, but Tibetans are quietly — and steadily — exercising their rights.

Ever since the late 1960s when the last of the Tibetan guerillas buried their guns at Mustang base in Nepal, Tibetans have remained loyal to the principles of nonviolence. After four decades, strategy and execution are catching up with the principles.

In an epic case of nonviolent triumph over tyranny, villagers in Markham in eastern Tibet won a victory reminiscent of the civil rights movement in their strategic use of nonviolence and demonstration of courage. Like many other Tibetan towns, Markham became a target of China’s resource extraction industry in 2007. The pollution from Zhongkai Co.’s mining operation poisoned the local water, and yaks and sheep began losing their hooves. By May 2009, 26 humans and 2,460 cattle had died in Markham as a result of Zhongkai. The residents petitioned and protested against the company, without success.

On May 16, 2009, they raised the stakes — not by marching in the street but by sitting down. Using this intervention tactic, 500 Tibetans linked arms and sat down, blockading the only road to the mining site. The authorities responded predictably, sending armed police to clear up the situation. The Tibetans did not budge. The police announced they would shoot those who didn’t disperse. But the blockaders had taken a collective pledge to “do or die.” When the authorities realized they had only two options — massacre all 500 Tibetans and create an international publicity disaster or shut down the mining operation — they buckled. On June 8, the Chinese authorities agreed to cease the mining operation, handing the Tibetans an unprecedented victory.

Fifty years after Chinese troops marched into Lhasa, Tibetans are marching in Gandhi’s footsteps, demonstrating not only courage but also a deeper understanding of strategic nonviolence as they fight for fundamental rights in small, winnable battles. Markham, Lhakar and the No Losar movement are but three examples that represent a new era of activism in Tibet where Tibetans are more strategic and relentless. China may patrol the streets but it’s the Tibetans who control the resistance.

Tenzin Dorjee is the executive director of Students for a Free Tibet, an international grassroots organization working for Tibetan freedom, human rights and independence.