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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.

A Tibetan girl lights a candle during Losar 2009, Tibet's New Year, in memory of those killed during China's 2008 crackdown following the Tibet uprising, Feb. 25, 2009. (Gopal Chitrakar/Reuters)

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?