The Tibetan Nonviolent Resistance: Empowerment in an Extraordinary Situation

Senthil Ram

Profile of a political prisoner

Jigme Gyatso is a monk from Gaden Monastery in Chinese-occupied Tibet. He was born in Bhartha village in Gansu Province in 1962. Although he was his parent's only child he decided to become a monk. During the mid-1980's he briefly visited India to receive a religious initiation. Upon his return to Tibet he joined the Gaden Monastery where he became involved in pro-independence activities. He distributed independence leaflets and pasted posters on the walls around Gaden Monastery and Lhasa city. In 1988-89 Jigme became the leader of a secret youth organization called 'Association of Tibetan Freedom Movement.' He was able to distribute freedom leaflets to visitors at the monastery as he worked at the administrative section. On 17 January 1992 Jigme organized one of the major demonstrations that took place in Lhasa that year. Many of the demonstrators were arrested and detained by the Public Security Bureau (PSB) and officials of the anti-riot department. Jigme was not arrested that time, but officials of PSB suspected his involvement and kept him under close surveillance. Unable to withstand these restrictions, Jigme left the monastery.

In 1993, an arrest warrant was issued for Jigme and another member of the Association, Jamyang Tsultrim, citing them as 'wanted splittists.' As part of their desperate search for Jigme, the authorities often summoned and questioned his friends, and even tortured them brutally. On 30 March 1996 Jigme was arrested in a restaurant belonging to Jamyang Tsultrim located in front of the famous Jokhang Temple in Lhasa. Jigme was taken immediately to the anti-riot department. He was tortured during the interrogation. Later, he was moved to Gutsa Detention Centre and detained for one year until March 1997. At the Gutsa interrogation cell, Jigme faced severe interrogation sessions.

After six months in detention, he was caught sending a letter to another political prisoner. Following this incident, his hands and legs were chained. He was subjected to additional torture when his story was broadcast on 'Voice of America.' On May 1997, Jigme was formally tried. He refused any legal representation because he felt it would be futile. During the trial, Jigme accepted all the charges against him. When the trial court asked him whether he regretted his deeds, he replied, "No, my acts are peaceful and nonviolent." He also pleaded that all the charges and penalties imposed on his friends should be transferred to him. Finally he was sentenced to 15 years imprisonment on charges of 'disseminating counter-revolutionary propaganda,' incitement and having illegally formed the 'Association of Tibetan Freedom Movement.' As soon as he was transferred to Drapchi prison he was placed in solitary confinement because of his alleged involvement in the prison protests.

Monks, nuns and monasteries in action

Jigme's story is just one case of a Tibetan monk who used nonviolent action to oppose the Chinese occupation forces and protect the Tibetan culture. Today there are hundreds of political prisoners, like Jigme, suffering inhuman torture for exercising their human rights and peaceful expression of opinions. The monks and nuns, who played an important role in the religion and politics of traditional Tibet, organized and took part in most of the protests actions. Since the young, unmarried monks and nuns were the first to feel the oppression of Chinese policies against Tibetan culture and religion, monasteries became a central point in the nonviolent protests. They confronted the communist policies through various protests actions drawn from Buddhist religious practices. Protests were mostly small peaceful demonstrations--distribution or display of information material calling for the respect of human rights, protection of Tibet's unique culture and seeking freedom for Tibet. Thus, the monasteries in Chinese-occupied Tibet became a unique institutional base for the nonviolent resistance.

Almost ten years after the Chinese occupation of Tibet, the first nonviolent protests took place in 1959. Subsequently, the Dalai Lama, the religious and political leader of Tibet, and more than half a million Tibetans left the country and took refuge in India. Despite the economic reforms, subsequent decades witnessed growing discontent and suffering among ordinary Tibetans. Finally this situation led to a series of nonviolent protests starting in 1987. The Buddhist monks and nuns belonging to prominent monasteries--Drepung, Sera and Ganden--staged many pro-independence demonstrations, alarming the Chinese authorities. The first major case of civil disobedience took place in Lhasa, the capital of Tibet, on 27 September 1987 as an immediate reaction to the Chinese rejection of the Dalai Lama's Five Point Peace Plan announced in the US Congress. Since that time, there have been widespread nonviolent protests and demonstrations reported. During the period from 1987 to 1992 some 140 demonstrations took place. Numerous pamphlets and posters demanding independence were distributed. Hundreds of Tibetans were arrested. More than monks, nuns, and youth lead the movement--the lay Tibetan population and the elderly organized some of the most creative and boldest actions. Nonviolent actions were reported in urban areas around Lhasa and as well as in remote ethnic Tibetan areas. While the suffering of ordinary Tibetans triggered these protests, the increasingly violent repression by the Chinese authorities fanned nationalistic sentiment and sustained the nonviolent protests.

Classic instances of Tibetan resistance

Religion has formed the backbone of the Tibetan resistance to the Chinese policies that are designed to control and slowly destroy the Tibetan religion. Tibetans creatively converted their rituals into political protests. The 1987 protests widely used the ritual of circumambulating a holy site, called khorra. The Jokhang temple and the surrounding Barkhor area in Lhasa became protest sites where monks circumambulated during the demonstrations. Similarly, a group of lay people transformed their prayer into protests when performing mani (recital) for those killed during the 1987 demonstrations. In 1989, a large number of Tibetans at khorra, burned incense, lit butter lamps, released windhorses (prayers written on small squares of paper designed to float in the wind) and threw tsampa (roasted barley flour, Tibetans' staple food) to celebrate Dalai Lama's Nobel Peace Prize award.

When the monks in Rato monastery were asked to write a self-criticism, they refused to confess and played with the paper, making paper airplanes. Another monastery used their training in Buddhist dialectics--a form of debate--to argue the point that since Tibet was part of China it must also be possible that China is part of Tibet. In another incident, the Chinese authorities asked the monks to remove the Tibetan flag from a flagpole at the Sera monastery. The monks replied, "Since it is not ours why should we take it down?" Usually the price for non-cooperation or non-compliance is expulsion from the monastery plus arrest, beatings, and even torture--which sometimes results in death.

Posters, the most widespread form of nonviolent action, are normally put up at dawn throughout Tibetan areas. In March 1991, the poster campaigns were so prevalent in Lhasa that the Chinese authorities established special night squads to capture Tibetans writing them. The posters carried slogans like 'Tibet is free,' 'Chinese quit Tibet,' and 'Long live His Holiness the Dalai Lama' in Chinese, Tibetan, and English. In July 1992, Lobsong, a monk from Dunbhu Choekar Monastery, with eight friends and four others painted pro-independence slogans on the wall of a local bank and along the main public streets in Chideshol, Lhokha Prefecture. Street songs assumed greater importance after the Chinese invasion since they were used not only as a vehicle to express widespread defiance, but also as a source of inspiration for Tibetans involved in resistance. In 1993, fourteen nuns who were detained in Drapchi prison secretly recorded songs written and sung by them. These songs talked about their love for Tibet, support for the Dalai Lama and Buddhism, and for freedom in Tibet. It was passed outside and distributed widely among Tibetans.

Educational materials that seek to inform Tibetans about their political history and current world events are printed by hand or with wooden printing blocks. Some books, brochures and audiocassettes are also obtained from the exile community in India and distributed in Tibet. Among the most popular items are the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Dalai Lama's autobiography and his Five Point Peace Plan, all of which circulate widely in translation. One of the most important strands of political thinking to emerge in Tibet was a document, "The Meaning of the Precious Democratic Constitution of Tibet," written by monks belonging to Drepung monastery. The authors envision "a democratic government for Tibet embodying both religious and secular principles." This pamphlet was later made into woodblock copies and distributed in the villages around Lhasa. The monks were later arrested and found guilty of various 'counter-revolutionary' offenses, including one who was sentenced to 19 years in Drapchi prison.

Some protest actions are more direct: farmers in rural areas sometimes block roads to delay travel. In June 1993, farmers of Snuggling village blocked the traffic on the main road, greatly upsetting the Chinese waiting for supplies in a nearby village. In the same month, the villagers from Sungrabling, Gonkar County, Lhoka prefecture blocked the main road to prevent police from raiding the monastery after a pro-independence protest. At times, the nameplates of government buildings--symbols of Chinese authority--were replaced with pro-independence posters. A monk from Lhoka region removed Chinese posters banning independence demonstrations and replaced them with pro-independence leaflets. In another incident, the Chinese flags in the schools of Rekong, Malho prefecture, Qinghai province, Karze prefecture, Sichuan province were torn down and Tibetan flags were replaced. In 1988, students at the University of Lhasa elected a Tibetan student as 'Student of the Year,' even though he had been imprisoned for five months over suspicion of killing a police officer during a demonstration. On 10 August 1994, thirteen nuns jailed at Trisam prison refused to come out for their monthly visitation as an act of solidarity with two other nuns who were denied visitation for unintentionally splashing of water on a Chinese man. Thus, Tibetans have demonstrated their unity of purpose through a range of creative and powerful nonviolent actions, mostly drawn from their daily religious practices and culture.

Classification of Tibetan nonviolent actions

For more than a decade the Tibetan people have resisted Chinese occupation of their homeland by various nonviolent actions. While these actions added new dimensions to the Tibetan struggle, the techniques and types of nonviolent methods employed by Tibetans were not widely known. Therefore, I have attempted to document the nonviolent actions that are reported frequently in Tibetan Review (a monthly magazine published from New Delhi). In addition, I interviewed ex-political prisoners who are in exile in India and incorporated the information provided by them. Gene Sharps' classification of 198 nonviolent methods was used as a scheme for categorizing the nonviolent actions. After classifying the actions, it appears that Tibetans have repeatedly used 11 of the 38 broad categories offered by Sharp. These actions include formal statements; public communication; group representation; symbolic actions; pressure on an individual; drama, arts and music; processions; honoring the dead; public assemblies; actions by consumers; and psychological intervention. This long list of actions demonstrates that nonviolent actions are not uncommon in Tibet. The following table presents the classifications and the number of actions performed between 1985-1997.

The first comprehensive analysis of Tibetan nonviolent action was done by peace researchers Katherine Kramer and Yeshua Moser-Puangsuwan in 2000 entitled Truth is Our Only Weapon. From their study it is clear that the Tibetans conceived new types of action in addition to using some of the well-known nonviolent actions. These new types of action were based on Tibet's unique culture and tradition. Together, these actions were categorized into three groups: nonviolent protest and persuasion, nonviolent non-cooperation and constructive program. The importance of this analysis of nonviolent actions lies in identifying the acts of resistance overlooked by other observers.

Nonviolent Protest and Persuasion Methods followed by the Tibetans, 1985-1999

Year

Formal Statements

Greater Communication

Group Representations

Symbolic Acts

Pressures

Arts& Music

1985

10

4

1

8

1

2

1986

16

3


4


3

1987

12

5


5

1

6

1988

12



2


2

1989

27

12


7

3

7

1990

19

7


1

1

4

1991

18

1


10

1

8

1992

22

2


5

2

8

1993

20

5

8

6

3


1994

13

5

1

1

3

5

1995

15

7


2

1

3

1996

26

23

2

4

1

8

1997

26

3

2

7

3

7

1998

28

5

10

8

1

17

1999

13

4

1

8

7

12

Total

277

86

25

78

28

92

 

Year

Processions

Honoring the Dead

Public Assemblies

Consumer Actions

Psychological Intervention

1985

1


5



1986

2

2

5



1987

4

1

5


1

1988

1


10


1

1989

3


8



1990

1


1



1991

1


3



1992

5


6



1993

3


3

1

1

1994

4


4


1

1995

6


2



1996

17


13

3

2

1997

23


19

2


1998

17


14


4

1999

20


19


1

Total

108

3

117

6

11

Source: Documented from the Tibetan Review (New Delhi), 1985-1999, on the basis of Gene Sharp's Classification of 198 Nonviolent Methods inThe Politics of Nonviolent Action, 3 Vols. (Boston: Porter Sargent, 1973).

Protest actions include the Poster Campaigns mentioned above, plus graffiti, producing and distributing pamphlets, leaflets or books. Demonstrations--the most dramatic include disrupting sessions of the state-sponsored 'Patriotic Re-education Campaigns'--also display symbols like Tibetan national flag and the Dalai Lama's photograph (a violation of the law, indicating support for the Dalai Lama's leadership), chanting pro-independence slogans or singing political songs. Protesters also organize lengthy processions or peace marches and sometimes form human blockades to prevent the entry (or exit) of Chinese officials. Religious rituals have also become instruments of resistance, among them demonstrative funerals, Buddhist rituals (accepted and controlled by the Chinese are repeatedly followed by popular protest), and boycott of the religious festivals organized by Chinese. Finally, strikes--known as hartals-- have been organized by the Tibetan business community, and even by monks who temporarily close monasteries to express dissent.

Beyond public demonstrations of discontent, many Tibetans have taken their resistance to occupation a step further and engaged in non-cooperation with Chinese officials. At its most basic level, non-cooperation involves direct refusal to obey the oppressor's orders and non-compliance marks the act of not carrying out the given orders. Among the tactics employed are hunger strikes, silence (especially in non-cooperation with the police), removal or destruction of symbols of Chinese authority, possessing banned materials, and making public statements against government policy. Following Gandhian practice of nonviolence, the Tibetans also support a constructive program of positive action. These acts include collecting information, communicating with outsiders, organizing underground groups, petitioning for redress of grievances, and listening to banned radio broadcasts for information about the activities of the Tibetan government-in-exile and international solidarity with their struggle.

Uniqueness of Tibetan nonviolent resistance

While expressing their grievances, the Tibetans clearly made a distinction between the Chinese people and the government policies. This was particularly true of the series of peaceful protests in the 1980's that targeted the policies of Chinese government, not the Chinese people. Therefore, Tibetan resistance shares a characteristic of nonviolent struggle that differentiates between the evil and the evildoer. In addition to this central characteristic, there are three unique attributes of Tibetan nonviolent resistance: they are highly symbolic, loosely organized and frequently spontaneous actions.

Most of the nonviolent protest and persuasion methods originated from the Tibetan religion and culture are very symbolic in nature. Tibetans used these symbolic gestures either alone or in conjunction with other nonviolent actions. As a symbolic resistance to the Chinese ban on Dalai Lama's photographs, street vendors in Lhasa placed empty picture frames on their stalls alongside photographs of permitted lamas. In many homes, Tibetans placed a plain sheet of paper in a frame to symbolize the Dalai Lama. Further, monks and nuns wore badges to signify their support for the Tibetan independence and the Dalai Lama. These actions require less time to plan and perform--and planning does not attract the attention of the Chinese intelligence officials. Given the unfavorable conditions that exist in Tibet for nonviolent action, these symbolic nonviolent actions have become very powerful in arousing sympathy--almost equal in effect to direct nonviolent actions practiced under more favorable conditions in democratic systems.

Secondly, the Tibetan protests are not always well-organized protests. Considering the extensive Chinese intelligence networks and the lack of freedom of communication it has become difficult for the Tibetans to organize large-scale nonviolent actions. Most of the protests are organized by two or three people who come together on short notice and are joined by others at the time of action. Though there was not much coordination among the countless demonstrations, monasteries in the most remote places planned their own actions on hearing of protests in Lhasa. Therefore it has become very difficult for the Chinese forces to suppress such small-scale but powerful protests. Lastly, the spontaneous nature of the Tibetan protests is significantly different from nonviolent actions in other parts of the world. Barring a few-- like those in Lhasa in 1987 and 1989-- the majority of Tibetan protests were spontaneous ones that took place without large-scale provocation. Whenever the oppression became unbearable, Lhasa witnessed protests. Since opposition sentiment is widespread, the protests have become an effective vehicle for resistance among Tibetans. By contrast, the spontaneity frustrated Chinese forces because they could not anticipate the timing of the protests or prepare to restrain them.

Empowerment in an extraordinary situation

The fact that Tibetans have continued their resistance against the Chinese occupation for nearly half a century is a sign that they are empowered continually by their own nonviolent action. Now even the lay Tibetans are very aware of their human rights, including freedom of peaceful expression. For more than two decades they have used every opportunity to present evidence of gross human rights violations in Tibet to international agencies and visiting tourists. Most importantly, the protest actions have renewed the Tibetan identity and pride and created solidarity under repressive conditions. At the same time, this empowerment increased Tibetan political conscience and strengthened the resistance. The revived Tibetan nationalistic feelings and the accompanied nonviolent actions have contributed significantly to the ongoing Tibetan struggle to protect the unique Tibetan culture and promote the basic human rights. The Dalai Lama, an advocate of Gandhian and Kingian nonviolent action, is guiding this nonviolent struggle from exile in India by mobilizing international political, popular, and media support.

The nonviolent action of Tibetans, apart from communicating their opposition to Chinese government policies, expressed their grievances to the Chinese people in an appealing way. The Chinese government's violation of the right to express political opinions as guaranteed by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and brutal suppression of peaceful protests were subject to widespread condemnation, damaging their reputation internationally. More importantly, the Tibetan nonviolent resistance elicited sympathy among third parties who are not related to the conflict and mobilized their support to the Tibet cause. This resulted in a number of governmental and non-governmental initiatives supporting Tibet. Further, the International Tibet Support Group movement used the protests in Tibet as evidence of the grave situation and demanded the immediate international nonviolent intervention. In the aftermath of Tiananmen Square pro-democracy movement in China, the peaceful protests in Lhasa captured the attention of global media and created widespread awareness to the issue. Thus, the nonviolent resistance in Tibet communicated the genuine desire of the Tibetan people for independence in many ways and supported the Tibetan government-in-exile to lead the freedom struggle of seven million Tibetans by placing before the international community the issues of morality, nonviolence, truth, and justice.

References

1. Blake Kerr, Sky Burial : An Eyewitness Account of China's Brutal Crackdown in Tibet (Chicago : Noble Press,1993).
2. Dawa Norbu, Tibet: the Road Ahead (London: Harper Collins, 1994).
3. Defying the Dragon: China and Human Rights in Tibet, A report issued jointly by the Human Rights Committee of the Law Association for Asia and Pacific and the Tibet Information Network, March 1991
4. Gene Sharp, The Politics of Nonviolent Action, 3 Vols., (Boston: Porter Sargent, 1973)
5. John Ackerly, "Tibet, Gandhi and King: The Merits of Nonviolent Resistance," Tibetan Review, vol. XXIII, no. 8, August 1988, pp. 15-18.
6. Petra K Kelly, Gert Bastian and Pat Aiello, eds., The Anguish of Tibet (Berkely: Parallax, 1991).
7. Ronald D Schwartz, Circle of Protest: Political Ritual in the Tibetan Uprising (London: Hurst & Company, 1994)
8. Ronald D Schwartz, "Nationalism and Human Rights in Tibet," in Tibetan Review, vol. XXVI, no. 7, July 1991
9. Tibetan Center for Human Rights and Democracy (TCHRD) Reports, Dharamsala.
10. Tibetan Information Network (TIN) News Reports, London.
11. Tsering Shakya, The Dragon in the Land of Snows: A History of Modern Tibet Since 1947 (London: Pimlico, 1999)
12. Yeshua Moser-Puangsuwan and Katherine Kramer, Truth is Our Only Weapon: the Tibetan Nonviolent Struggle (Nonviolence International- SE Asia, 2000).