Tibet's Uncertain Future

In this personal essay, writer Maura Moynihan finds some hope for the future among Tibetans.
2009-03-23
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Tibetan protesters in Dharamsala, ready to take the fight for Tibet into the future.
Maura Moynihan
By Maura Moynihan

On March 20, the Tibetan government in exile based in Dharamsala, India, convened a news conference to show a new film smuggled out of Tibet.

The film was said to show Chinese police kicking and beating Tibetans civilians lying bound and bleeding on the ground during the 2008 uprising.

It also tells the story of Tendar, a 22-year-old deputy at a telecom company in Lhasa who saw a throng of Chinese policemen beating a monk and tried to persuade the police to show mercy.

For this, he was thrown into jail, tortured with electric cattle prods, burned with cigarettes, and had nails hammered into his feet. The film shows Tendar’s mutilated body after he was taken to the Lhasa People’s Hospital, where doctors failed to save him.

The most horrific aspect of these images is that they are simply the latest additions to a lengthy archive of China’s barbarous treatment of the Tibetan people.

Excerpt from a seven-minute video released by the Tibetan government in exile in Dharamsala, on March 20, 2009


Dharamsala is filled with survivors of torture and labor camps. You often pass them on Jogibara Road, walking in and out of the reception center for new refugees and the Gu Chu Sum Society for ex-political prisoners who have escaped into exile.

If China’s policies for developing Tibet proceed as planned—with more population transfer, mining, urbanization, persecution of Buddhism, vilification of the Dalai Lama, and the continued use of torture and extreme repression to silence all protest—many fear Tibet is doomed.

But the 2008 populist uprising that united all Tibetan cultural zones under Chinese rule has also ignited a nationalist fervor among the young exiles.

“I remember the uprisings inside in Tibet in the 1980s,” says Tenzin Choeying, Indian national director of Students for a Free Tibet. “2008 politicized Tibetan youth in exile."

"The Chinese Communists are so paranoid, their only response to protest is a military one. We should see this as the last effort by a totalitarian government to control and suppress, but this cannot go on forever," Choeying says.

"China is changing, people’s ideas of freedom are getting bigger day by day. Our civilization is strong. We’ve survived this long under the Chinese Communist Party.”

'Stalemate' in Tibet

“There is a stalemate in Tibet, and the immediate future is ugly,” says poet-activist Tenzin Tsundue, stoking a fire at the Rangzen Ashram, an antique bungalow in lower Dharamsala filled with books, maps, laptops, and volunteers.

The Tibetan people’s determination is very strong, so there are many reasons to be hopeful about the future."
The Dalai Lama
“We don’t kill, so we don’t make headlines with suicide bombers," Tsundue says. "If Tibetans took up violence, which we could have done a long time ago, China and the media would be all over it. We are not giving it to them."

"They think that our nonviolent activism is just politically correct or strategic, but for us, nonviolence is a basic principle of life, even with our enemy China.”

The Chinese Communist Party has launched an aggressive new propaganda thrust, with nine new television channels, blaming the Dalai Lama for inciting “splittism” and calling protests “violent riots,” in a bid to justify the vast military presence across the Tibetan plateau.

“Tibet could be the catalyst for revolution in China, ” says Tsundue, fielding nonstop calls and text messages from a worn-out cell phone. "In Tibet, people are willing to sacrifice their lives for change."

"This could spread the fire of revolution to other parts of China and ignite people’s aspirations for freedom and democracy, which is the Communist Party’s biggest fear.”

New focus on Tibet

Before the uprising of 2008, Tibet was frequently dismissed as a lost cause, but today think tanks in Asia and the West are re-examining the issue.

In conversations around Dharamsala, Tibetans are proud of the young activists who have kept China on the defensive about its rule in Tibet and have provoked a visibly authoritarian response from Chinese officials.

Thupten Samdup has been traveling throughout the Tibetan disapora mobilizing young talent for the 2011 election of the Kalon Tripa, the Tibetan prime minister in exile.

“The next Kalon Tripa will govern from 2011-2016. These will be crucial years for Tibet and for the Dalai Lama,” says Thupten, who has become the Tibetan David Axelrod, with a campaign slogan “Future Won’t Wait.”

“We have so many people ready to work, to develop new strategies and ideas for the battles that lie ahead. I’m impressed by the talent I've seen out there,” he says.

Damaged image

“Tibet is a serious problem for China that won’t go away, ” says Tenzin Choeying of Students for a Free Tibet. “The movement should have died in the 60s when we were so poor and desperate. We didn’t lose hope then. Why should we now?"

"We are not the only people living under Chinese Communist rule. We internationalized the issue. We can be positive catalysts for democratic change and democracy in China.”

The Dalai Lama, meanwhile, speaking from his hillside temple above the Kangra Valley, suggests cause for hope.

“Many Chinese intellectuals are saying that China’s Tibet policy is a failure, and it hurts China’s image,” he says.

“The Communists brainwash, torture, bribe, and kill, but the Tibetan spirit hasn’t been broken. The Tibetan people’s determination is very strong, so there are many reasons to be hopeful about the future.”

Maura Moynihan, a writer and musician, has been a consultant to the Rubin Museum of Art in New York City, America's largest Himalayan and Tibetan cultural institution. She worked for many years as a refugee consultant in India and Nepal and recently completed a master's degree in political science at the New School.

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Chinese Reaction

HONG KONG--The Chinese authorities say a video released by the Tibetan exile government that appears to show the torture and beating of Tibetan protesters was a fake, as the video-sharing network YouTube--which has shown the video for the last week--said it has been blocked in China.

“We don’t know the reason for the block,” a YouTube spokesman, Scott Rubin, said in a statement to the Associated Press. “Our government relations people are trying to resolve it.”
China routinely blocks YouTube access to keep its citizens from seeing videos that cast China in unflattering light.

The official Xinhua News Agency meanwhile quoted an unnamed official as saying the video came from sources tied to the government-in-exile of the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan spiritual leader, and was pieced together from different places.

"The Dalai Lama group is used to fabricating lies to deceive the international community and the aim of this video is to hide the truth of the March 14 [2008] riot," Xinhua quoted the official as saying.

Security in Tibetan areas of China remains tight because of sensitive anniversaries this month. March 14 marked the one-year anniversary of anti-government riots in Lhasa, Tibet's regional capital, while March 17 marked 50 years since the Dalai Lama escaped into exile in India after Chinese troops crushed a Tibetan uprising.
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