Lonelier, in exile
The Economist (Jan 31st 2013, 13:00)
By A.R. | DELHI
LOBSANG SANGAY, the elected political leader of Tibet’s exiled administration, is an optimist. On January 30th he addressed some 4,000 Tibetans, including MPs, who had gathered in a sports hall in Delhi as a part of four days’ of protest, prayers and debate. Mr Sangay dared to predict that the Dalai Lama, the Tibetans’ spiritual leader, would yet return to his homeland—once his countrymen had won greater freedom.
His assertion is threefold. First, he believes that “the human spirit will rise up” and overcome the repression and assimilation imposed by the Chinese authorities in Tibet. In that context he claims to understand, and even sympathise with, the 99 young Tibetans who have set themselves on fire in recent years. Many of them have died, and on January 31st China convicted a monk and his nephew of “intentional homicide” for having “incited and coerced eight people to self-immolate”.
Mr Sangay is also saying that, though the political change for which many Tibetans have long yearned may seem impossible today, given a mountain of latent anger and a spark, it can erupt unexpectedly fast. The Arab Spring or the fall of the Berlin Wall might be inspiration. Who is to say that Tibet won’t be next?
Last, most interesting, Mr Sangay is arguing that Tibetans could prove to be a “catalyst of moderation” for the rest of China. He estimates that there are 300m to 500m Chinese Buddhists (more than there are members of the Communist Party), many of whom yearn for greater cultural freedom in their country and could, under the right circumstances, sympathise with the Tibetan people and their spiritual leader. Ordinary Chinese, he believes, would also be attracted to the tolerance and openness of the Tibetan leaders.
They might like, too, the model of competitive and fair elections that Tibetans in exile (particularly the 100,000 or so in India) now use to pick their political leaders. Thanks to better communication—social-networking, the use of mobile phones inside China, greater travel abroad by Chinese civilians—a better understanding of Tibet and its politics might yet spread.
Mr Sangay’s appeal, and the march by Tibetans in Delhi on January 31st, is designed to counter a broader sense that the Tibetans’ political cause is flagging. Indian heavyweights are not shy of supporting the Tibetans in exile. At the gathering in Delhi, L.K. Advani, a former deputy prime minister and a senior figure in the main opposition, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), gave a brief but rousing speech. He praised the Dalai Lama as “saintly”, lauding Tibetans’ for their appreciation of India and wishing them success. Congress, India’s ruling party, also sent along more junior political figures to cheer the marching Tibetans from the dais.
Yet India is beginning to look like an exception. Tibet’s exiled political leaders talk of the massive influx of Han Chinese to the towns and cities of the Tibetan Autonomous Region and other Tibetan areas of China; battling repressive security forces; schools that refuse to teach in the Tibetan language; and the arbitrary arrest and disappearances of monks and nuns. Nepal seems to be growing less hospitable to its exiled Tibetans by the year. And yet another battle exists: stirring interest farther abroad is growing harder by the year, in the face of China’s ever greater international and economic heft.
Speakers in Delhi grumbled that some democracies—such as South Africa—are quick to block visits by the Dalai Lama to avoid giving offence to China. For all the talk by Western leaders of promoting human rights, few would now dream of lecturing China in how to settle the dispute in Tibet. (Similarly, it is increasingly rare for any outsider to tell India how to resolve the long-running dispute in Kashmir.) At the same time, outsiders are preoccupied by the prospect of maritime disputes with China in the East China Sea, over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands, or in the South China Sea. With so many pressing international problems, why should any outsider stir up difficulties over Tibet now?