Opinion: Tibetans make Gandhi proud

NEW YORK — Last year around this time Tibetans decided to observe the traditional New Year — or Losar — as an occasion of mourning for those killed in China’s crackdown in 2008 following the Tibet uprising.

Appeals to forego Losar celebrations spread via text messages, blogs and word of mouth. On Losar, Tibetans stayed at home and ignored the fireworks, defying authorities who wanted them to sing and dance for state media. Overnight Tibetans turned silence — generally a sign of submission — into a weapon of resistance. The No Losar movement was nothing short of civil disobedience in full bloom.

On Feb. 14, Tibetans will again greet Losar with an air of defiance — many are planning not to celebrate while others will embrace cultural traditions as an act of subversive resistance. A couple of days later, U.S. President Obama will meet with His Holiness the Dalai Lama, sending a signal of hope to Tibetans everywhere. The 2008 Tibetan uprising may now seem a distant memory, but the dust of resistance is far from settled. With the new year, a different kind of storm brews over the Tibetan plateau.

Tibetans from Lhasa and Lithang to Markham and Ngaba have been engaging in experimental forms of nonviolent resistance in the tradition of Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. Though China’s intensified repression has created the illusion of normalcy, Tibetans are ushering in a grassroots revolution — one that strengthens Tibetan nationhood and undermines the structure of Chinese colonialism.

This quiet revolution is perhaps best symbolized by Lhakar — a movement whose name means White Wednesday. It’s no secret the Dalai Lama was born on a Wednesday. Every week on this day, a growing number of Tibetans in urban and rural Tibet are making a political statement by wearing traditional clothes, speaking Tibetan, performing circumambulations, eating in Tibetan restaurants and buying from Tibetan-owned businesses.

As a direct response to China’s 2008 crackdown, Lhakar allows Tibetans to channel their protest spirit into other methods of resistance that are self-constructive (e.g. promoting Tibetan language, culture and civil society) and non-cooperative (e.g. refusing to support Chinese institutions and businesses.)

In the fight for human rights and independence, Tibetans have routinely used the most visible form of resistance: street demonstrations. But since Beijing put the streets under lockdown, the resistance has moved indoors into private space. Lhakar participants practice Tibetan tradition in their homes, exercising whatever limited rights they have in their daily lives to strengthen their political, cultural and social identity.

These individual actions, taken collectively in such bastions of resistance as Kardze and Ngaba in eastern Tibet, have compromised Chinese businesses and prompted more than a few Chinese settlers to leave Tibet. In one particular town, all Chinese shops are said to have closed except for one that sells CDs of Dalai Lama teachings. Though humble in scale, these noncooperation tactics evoke Gandhi’s boycott of British textile and are inspiring thousands to action.

According to the 2009 Freedom House survey of over 200 countries and territories, Tibet ranks as “least free” both in political rights and civil liberties. In this environment, noncooperation tactics are often more suitable than protest tactics; they lower the risk of arrest. You can punish people for protesting in the streets, but how do you punish someone for staying at home?

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.