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Thoughts on Violence

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As the 50th anniversary of the 1959 Tibetan uprising against the Chinese invasion of Tibet approaches it is time to raise again the concerns of the world about the situation of Tibetan people. The BBC recently reported that the Chinese government has closed the Tibetan Autonomous Region to foreigners for the next month, most likely in anticipation of unrest in the Tibetan areas.  A year ago at this time I was beginning an internship at the Tibetan Center for Human Rights and Democracy in the Tibetan refugee town of Dharamsala, India and I saw first hand the plight of the Tibetans in exile, and their response to the repression in Tibet. The following written as was a personal reflection on the movement I witnessed, and a call for justice for the people of Tibet.

Thoughts on Violence, March 2008

The number of people marching around upper Dharamsala has decreased only slightly since the largest gathering of thousands Friday night, March 15th.  But at any point during the day it is possible to run into a crowd of over a hundred Tibetans, along with a few westerners, shouting chants as they wave flags and signs down the streets of McLeod Ganj. In the evenings this procession swells and hundreds make their way to the Temple to pray for their families and friends in Tibet. Since their invasion in 1950, the Chinese have occupied Tibet, engaging in a repressive rule of human rights violations and cultural genocide. On March 10th 1959, Tibetans rose up against their Chinese occupiers and subsequently, the Tibetan spiritual and political leader the Dalai Lama was forced to flee into India, followed by over 80,000 Tibetans. Each year on March 10th Tibetans around the world commemorate their failed uprising, and this year was no different. As the Chinese prepared to host the 2008 Olympics, Tibetans in Tibet and around the world staged huge protests beginning on March 10th, 2008.
I have been in upper Dharamsala for six weeks, since the middle of February, volunteering for the Tibetan Center for Human Rights and Democracy (TCHRD). Dharamsala is in the foothills of the Himalayas, looking down over the vast plains of India.  It has become home to 21,000 Tibetan refugees, the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan government in exile. TCHRD is one of the growing number of non-governmental organizations attempting to help address the fate of those still oppressed just north of India, in Tibet, "the roof of the world."  In five small rooms set atop the Tibetan Department of Information and International Relations, the 12 staff members of TCHRD have been working exhausting hours fueled by a mixture of excitement, hope, urgency and horror since the protests began two and a half weeks ago. With the Internet and power often down in Dharamsala, many Tibetans have been unable to use their computers to find out the latest news from home.  TCHRD  has been printing and distributing updates, posters and pictures, which are trickling out of Tibet and into the office in order to update the people of Dharamsala, and to inform the media and the world online.

A couple of days ago, for the first time, I saw two different groups marching. The first was a continuation of the previous days-- half monastic and half lay people-nonetheless, Tibetans of all ages. "Stop genocide," "In Tibet!" and "Long live," “Dalai Lama!" The second group was of approximately 30 young men between the ages of 15 and 25. They were elaborately painted with Tibetan flags, and some wore fake shackles and were covered with fake wounds and blood, looking as though they had been tortured. It was protest art, theater and costume design, but while the blood and chains were fake, the emotions they wore were very real. They carried pictures of the clashes inside Tibet, pictures of the dead bodies of Tibetans beaten by PRC forces, and signs proclaiming that they were willing to die for freedom in Tibet. Their shouts were louder and more frantic than some of the more meditative candle lit marches.

Later that day I sat thinking about the Dalai Lama condemning the Chinese flag burnings outside his Temple, and how well he balanced his criticism and outrage at the Chinese with his calls for nonviolence and dialogue. I began hearing the marchers loudly circling back through town to the main square, and I went out to stand on the balcony overlooking the demonstration. In front of me were a few young westerners with Tibetan flags chanting along with the protesters. One girl began trying to get the crowd's attention. When she had a large part of the crowd's attention, she began to recite the compassion mantra "Om Mani Padme Hum" in an apparent effort to calm the flavor and mood of the gathering. Some people did begin to chant with her for a fraction of a minute, while many just stared. But soon their attention waned and their shouts for justice and freedom returned full force, as they turned their gaze elsewhere.

The girl turned to her friend and rolled her eyes as they walked back into the restaurant and commented that the crowd just didn't understand that their anger and rancorous marches were simply not the way to get their message across. They should "sound more nonviolent and Buddhist; that would be so much more effective." She looked almost condescendingly back at the group in the square.

Watching them sit down inside I wondered why I didn't share her thoughts. I, too, believe deeply in nonviolence, nonviolent conflict resolution and resistance.  I do think that dialogue is a hundred times more effective than shouts and threats. I do not know if I could ever support armed resistance in any form. None-the-less, something in this girl’s actions and comments, though well intentioned, struck me as perhaps naive.

Tibetans have been involved in nearly half a century of nonviolent resistance, secretly maintaining their culture, language and religion.  Distributing pamphlets in the middle of the night, periodic hunger strikes, letters and pleas to the United Nations are not a new phenomenon. The Dalai Lama has been attempting dialogue with the Chinese since the first day they radioed their intention to march into Tibet almost 50 years ago. Resolutions have been passed, promises have been made, and marches have taken place. Decades of nonviolent resistance have been waged against repeated Chinese acts of cultural genocide and gross human rights violations.

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So putting aside for a moment the ideas of 'right and wrong,' 'effective and ineffective,' 'moral and immoral,' it is important for each of us to ask ourselves:

If it was my little sister who was forced to walk for two months over the Himalayas because she could not get even a middle school education; if it was my father who was imprisoned for a year for possession of a postcard of his spiritual leader the Dalai Lama; if it was my uncle and the monks at his monastery who were forced to stare at the sun for an entire day because they would not participate in a patriotic “reeducation” session; if it was my aunt who was forced to be sterilized; if it was my house which was constantly under surveillance because one night twenty years ago my grandfather had sprayed "Free Tibet" on a government building wall.  

If it was my life I would be angry too and perhaps, just perhaps, there would still be a little part of me that would want to pick up a stone or light a match.  Just perhaps.

Nonviolence does not mean non-anger. Although many people try to come to nonviolence from a place of reason, calm and even love, there may still be a place for anger. It is also important to see the adamant, loud and aggressive chants in Dharamsala, as not mere violence, but as an expression of the intense, passionate emotions of the demonstrators. Even in Lhasa and Amdo, there is only a small fraction of the population who are engaging in violent acts (and some of these acts, we are learning, have very likely been instigated and staged by the military and police of the People’s Republic of China). 
Hundreds of school children chanting Free Tibet is hardly violent. The young adults marching around Dharamsala were also nonviolent. But their language implied the possibility of something less peaceful. Many might look at their reaction, their willingness to lay their lives down for their country, as an uneducated and gut reaction.  I would argue that perhaps it should be looked at as the reaction of a population that feels this is their last resort. These are people whose rights have been taken away.  They have no place to channel their anger, no avenues in which to throw the understandable emotions and feelings of young men denied a homeland. Their friends and relatives have endured continuous repression, hardship and injustice. Perhaps it is not just the senseless reaction of people who have suffered senseless acts, but speaks of a deeper problem. 

Maybe if the young westerners had given them not only a chant, but the avenue and tools through which they could air their grievances and attain some sort of justice, she could have effectively captured and redirected the energy of the crowd. In the meantime, maybe we can see these marches and demonstrations and anger as a call for what should be inalienable human rights and justice.  

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Caroline Kornfield has interned with organizations including CodePink, the ACLU of Northern California, the Burmese Women's Union and the Tibetan Center for Human Rights and Democracy. Caroline is also a writer and editor for UC Berkeley's (more...)

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