The tragedy of Tibet

On John Kelly, ‘Gordon Brown agrees to meet Dalai Lama in May’, Prospect First Drafts, March 20, 2008

Deepak Tripathi  

When a powerful nation is rattled, its leaders usually resort to brute force and intemperate language. This is what we see in the recent conduct of the Chinese authorities in Tibet. Terms of abuse like ‘the Dalai clique’ and unproven accusations that the Dalai Lama has orchestrated the recent riots in Tibet illustrate this. Few people outside China find such allegations credible.

Repression and rebellion are frequent companions. Violence cannot be condoned, but equally a repressed people can take only so much. The Dalai Lama’s sadness and frustration were all too obvious when he described the Chinese crackdown in Tibet as a ‘cultural genocide’. Restrictions on the teaching of Tibetan, freedom to practice religion and way of life over half a century are a deliberate campaign against Tibetan culture. Despite all this, Tibetans have shown extraordinary resilience over the last 50 years.

The world had abandoned Tibet years ago. What makes the tragedy even greater now is that, in the post-9/11 world, the state can do no wrong in dealing with citizens who oppose its repressive policies. The Chinese government depicts the Tibetan protestors, many of them Buddhist monks, as a small politically-motivated group of criminals. Yet China admits that the disturbances have spread to neighbouring provinces of Tibet. President George W Bush says that politics has no part to play in the Olympic Games in Beijing this summer. His words must be music to the ears of Chinese leaders.

Nonetheless, recent events are a reminder that, for all its economic success, there is a festering crisis in China. Almost twenty years ago, a systemic crisis led to upheaval in what was the Soviet Union. The character of the Chinese crisis may not be wholly economic. But the boom has created a dangerous gap between rich and poor.

Economic development gives discontented people means to communicate – mobile phones, internet cafes and, to some extent, freer word of mouth through travellers. Communication in restrictive societies leads to the very political debate which their rulers do not welcome.