In this 24/7 news cycle where thousands of stories and images pummel our senses, little sticks and stays with us. Today’s headlines become yesterday’s news. The pages on a site enjoy a moment of fleeting attention and then get banished to the archives in the far recess of cyberspace. Papers and magazines end up in the recycling bin. However, every once in a while a news story comes along that commands a longer shelf life in our memory. I was blown away by one such story from the Korean economic crisis of 1997, and a question arose for me then as it does now. What would Tibetans have done?
In 1997 the economic contagion spread from Thailand to South Korea and other South-East Asian countries. The Korean Stock Exchange plummeted and the country’s foreign reserves were almost drained. The government was forced to seek an emergency loan from the IMF. Amidst such hardship, the world witnessed an incredible public campaign where Koreans began donating their gold. The campaign was a huge success. Ten tons of gold were collected in the first two days of the campaign alone as ordinary Koreans queued up for hours at collection centers and parted with their wedding rings and other personal items. The gold collected was melted into ingots and sold in the international markets. Though the amount raised wasn’t significant given the country’s dire economic situation, the spirit of sacrifice and unity displayed by the Korean people left an indelible imprint with images of Koreans queuing up forever etched in my memory.
No, there is no impending gold collection drive within the Tibetan community, at least not yet. However – the revival of the Tibetan freedom struggle sparked by the massive and historic protests of 2008 in Tibet coupled with shifting perception of China by the international community – presents Tibetans with an opening where a doubling down on our efforts and sacrifices could pay off tangible dividends.
For too long Tibetans have been shouldering the weighty responsibility of bearing witness and having to affirm China’s belligerence and hegemonic aspirations. Tibetans know the nature of Chinese power all too well as we have lived as neighbors, but few in the international community would listen to what Tibetans were saying as most were either lured by the vast Chinese market or bought into the image of China as an aggrieved power gently rising and rightfully taking its place in the international community. China’s rapid rise, the flexing of its hard and soft powers accompanied by an increasing dose of hubris, has created growing unease amongst China’s neighbors and the international community. Where Tibetans were once seen as either pesky irritants or an exotic fascination for some in the West, one now senses a deeper level of interest and a new willingness to listen to the Tibetan experience. Embedded in the Tibetan experience is the DNA of a new kind of superpower that is rapacious, doesn’t play by any rules and ruthlessly pursues its interests.
Tibetans in Tibet have sensed that opening and have been leading the way. We may never know the full extent of the historic 2008 uprisings across the Tibetan plateau, but through their actions Tibetans inside Tibet breathed new life into the Tibetan struggle. The Chinese government reportedly spent more on internal security ($86 billion) than on defense in 2010. Maintaining “stability” in Tibetan areas probably accounted for a significant portion of that outlay. Instead of being cowed by fear, Tibetans have instead upped the ante considerably with a spate of brave and tragic self-immolations. Though torching oneself and literally becoming the flame to shed light on the repressive policies of the Chinese government should be strongly discouraged, what must be emulated by Tibetans everywhere is the spirit of sacrifice and give back.
That spirit is evident in the rank-and-file of the Central Tibetan Administration (CTA). It starts from the top where we have a leader who left behind family and a comfortable life in the United States to serve as the Sikyong. Working for the CTA is still viewed as prestigious and desirable amongst new college graduates in the shichaks. There are active civil servants who have completed thirty years of service. I have talked to staff that live far from their office and walk for over an hour each way to work daily. At another time, I visited the home of a senior staff living in conditions that can be described as hazardous and would constitute grounds for litigation against the building management in western countries. Dharamsala must be one of the wettest places on the planet during the monsoons. The staffer lives in a house where the roof leaks and mold has taken up residence in every nook and corner of the apartment. Those living outside government provided housing are at the mercy of insatiable landlords who either ask for large upfront deposits or spike the rent without warning. Notwithstanding the difficult working conditions, many second and third generation Tibetans have chosen to serve in the CTA and build on the sacrifices and legacies of the elders. CTA is the custodial institution keeping intact the Tibetan spirit and all that Tibetans have been able to build in exile until the institution is dissolved as freedom is restored in Tibet and we return home. All Tibetans, regardless of our political persuasions, have a stake in CTA’s well being.
The time has come for the Tibetan diaspora community to come together in ways we haven’t since our elders fled to India, established the CTA and build the schools and refugee settlements in the early sixties. In the months to come, Tibetans everywhere will have abundant opportunities to connect, serve and give back to CTA and various other institutions. The Tibet Policy Institute, Tibet Corps, Be a Friend of Tibet (Blue Book) Campaign, an Education Initiative that encourages more Tibetans to acquire advanced degrees and become highly skilled professionals, and the Green Book are some of the programs whose success depends on fervent Tibetan participation.
Tibetan resiliency and spirit – forged on the banks of the Yarlung Tsangpo at the start of the Tibetan civilization and further strengthened with the advent of Buddhism into Tibet in 7th Century AD – is formidable. Just ask the Chinese! Over five decades of subjugation and force have only deepened Tibetan people’s resolve to keep fighting for their rights and freedom.
Examples of Tibetan can do spirit, creativity, application and resourcefulness abound all around us. A forty-three-year-old Harvard scholar propels himself to the post of Sikyong at his first run for the office; a second Tibetan receives the Rhodes Scholarship; and a Tibetan artist decides to transport twenty tons of soil from Tibet to Dharamsala for an art installation. A conference of Tibetan professionals in North American brings together over 150 highly impressive professionals from a wide spectrum of specializations. A recent interaction with a group of Tibetan students at the youth hostel in Delhi was uplifting as many were bullish about their future and wanted to pursue all sorts of interesting careers. In another setting, I got to meet some Tibetan farmers in Mundgod. These were folks living by the sweat of their brow. Their only request was for more water for their parched fields and if that was forthcoming they seemed confident of eking out a sustainable life. What can one say of the sweater sellers – the mother of all Tibetan enterprise and a trade that puts bread on the table of over half of all homes in the shichaks. A visit to the Tibetan traders near Red Fort, Delhi was like being transported into an oasis. The 300 stores and their association were well organized. The association had rented a less than appealing parking spot from the Delhi Municipality and transformed it into an inviting retail space. Most of the sweater sellers seemed upbeat even though the unusually warm Delhi winter brought business to a crawl during weekdays as the stores bulged with winter-related items. Then there is the perseverance and resourcefulness of Tibetans bent on moving overseas to the west. Many make it and find themselves trading a passage through the alleys of Majnu ka Tilla for a stroll down Queen Street West, Toronto.
Let us all ask ourselves how can we give back to our community and CTA so that we can hasten the arrival of the new dawn for our movement and people. That Tibetan spirit, creativity, application and resourcefulness now needs to be harnessed for common good. Your CTA needs you! Those of us living in relative freedom in diaspora must do more. How can we not when those inside Tibet are risking everything including their lives? Let us envision a future where the Tibetan people will be connected across borders, real and imagined, to each other and to Tibetan institutions and government structures, poised and prepared to lead and sustain our people and movement for generations.
The writer works in the Kashag, Central Tibetan Administration.
(The views expressed here are that of the author and shall not be regarded as views and policies of Central Tibetan Administration.)