Non-violence vs violence: The case of Tibet and Palestine
By Dhundup Gyalpo
While I watched images of “The Arab world’s only true democracy”–as Palestinians would call themselves–tottering on the edge of a civil war, and while the shadow of Yasser Arafat haunts the Palestinian people, as they grapple with the need for a leader who could articulate their collective aspirations with some degree of international “acceptance”, I was reminded of our own predicament, if the issue of Tibet is not resolved during the lifetime of His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama.
“There will not be a single Tibetan leader who can keep the Tibetans together and make them agree to the kind of solution that His Holiness has proposed. It would be impossible,” Special Envoy Lodi Gyari was quoted as saying in an interview before the 5th round of Sino-Tibetan talks.
He further added, “Today the Chinese have the opportunity to deal with one single individual. In the absence of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, they will have to deal with hundreds of solutions, with hundreds of individuals, none of them able to deliver a solution.”
Could Tibet then be the next Palestine?
As one tries to compare and contrast the Palestinian and Tibetan struggles, the most glaring contradictions between the two may be the (present) modes of their struggle–while the former is fraught with extreme violence, the latter has a surfeit of extreme non-violence. However, are these differences circumstantial, as such temporary; or visceral, as such permanent?
I recall a BBC radio phone-in programme, following the screening of the documentary We Are No Monks, in which one commentator dismissed the notion that the Tibetan struggle could ever turn violent (even if the Sino-Tibetan problem continued to fester indefinitely.) He gave two reasons: violence is against the Tibetan religion and culture, and secondly, extremism or terrorism is successful only in a democratic country, not under a ruthless authoritarian regime. I was quite appreciative of both these reasons, as they did not exaggerate the altruistic portion of the Tibetan psyche. This, however, does not take away my total rejection of those comments as mere speculations.
First of all, non-violence is no more against the Tibetan culture than it is to any other civilization of the world. (I reckon even the devils would love their peace.) Likewise, all cultures are equally capable of not only tolerating or condoning violence, but also engaging in or patronizing it, at particular times of mitigating circumstances–say at times of war, when the national or collective well-being is in jeopardy.
In those circumstances, violence assumes, at least for its handlers, the hallowed form of a “crusade”, “jehad”, “dharma yudh”, or in our case, Tensung (protection of dharma). That is why people say, “one country’s terrorist is another country’s freedom fighter”. [This, however, does not mean that I am glorifying violence. Far from it, I believe that if the peaceful Tibetan struggle turns violent, it would be a catastrophic tragedy for not only Tibetans and Chinese, but also for the whole world, as Tibet would then have become an epitome of the failure of non-violence as a means of freedom struggle.]
I agree with the second comment, but only in part. The main reason why extremism, or terrorism, is said to be effective (only) in democracy may be due to its institutions like the constitution, rule of law, free press, free elections, independent judiciary, active civil society, etc., which prevent or check the state from suppressing, denying or curtailing the rights and freedoms afforded to all its citizenry–while the authorities of a totalitarian state would have a virtual carte blanche to act with full impunity.
This notion is also not without exceptions. In this age of global terrorism, most democratic countries facing problems of extremism have introduced new laws that equip the state for circumventing or overriding legal and even constitutional restrictions, in the name of “national security”. In fact, the arguments and justifications put up by the democratic countries for suppressing the fundamental rights and freedoms of their subjects are now effectively replicated by the totalitarian regimes. Besides, if one were to listen to Mr. George W. Bush, then the war on global terrorism is increasingly being underlined as a clash between democracy and authoritarianism, that terrorism is a result of lack of democracy–albeit I find it hard to believe that democracy reduces terrorism.
Coming back to the non-violent nature of the Tibetan struggle, I recall a feisty debate with a friend, who viewed that the Tibetan struggle is non-violent because it cannot afford to be violent. I begged to differ lock, stock and barrel. I told her that non-violence is not an act of desperation–it is not like the Indian satirical verse, Majboori ka nam Gandhi (literally, the second name of desperation is Gandhi).
Furthermore, His Holiness also often reiterates that non-violence is a conscious choice, based on the belief that violence ultimately begets only more violence, and despite the temptation of readily employable non-violent methods.
I further told my friend that today you do not need an army or sophisticated weaponry to fight a war–certainly not in the aftermath of 9/11, when even a handful of people, armed with pocket knifes, could wreak havoc upon even the mighty super power. But to no avail, she refused even an agreement to disagree on this issue. I eventually end up asking her how big an army would she need to unscrew one bolt of a railway track? Disgusted by the idea, almost incredulous, she indignantly blurted out, “But that would kill so many people.”
“Now you are talking!”
(The above article is for the Jan-Feb 2007 issue of Tibetan Bulletin, online at www.tibet.net/tibbul/en/. The views in this article are those of the writer, not necessarily those of the Central Tibetan Administration.)