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Tibet has sent a defiant message to ruthless Beijing

November 10, 2012 23:02 IST

Self-immolations, which were initially started by Tibetan monks, are now being resorted to by young Tibetan youth, says B Raman

"We shall not give up our struggle for preserving our ethnic, religious and cultural identity. We shall not give up our reverence for His Holiness the Dalai Lama. We will not lose hopes of his returning to our homeland one day and guiding us again. We are Tibetans and we shall prevail."

That is the message of defiance that Tibetans living in the Tibet Autonomous Region, Qinghai, Gansu, Sichuan and Yunnan have been sending loud and clear to Hu Jintao, the outgoing general secretary of the Communist Party of China and his successor Xi Jinping, who will be taking over next week at the end of the 18th Congress of the CPC that is being held at Beijing from November 8.

The Tibetan people have their reasons to be bitter against Hu. He made his name as a party functionary in the TAR where he was posted. His ruthless suppression of the Tibetans caught the eyes of Deng Xiao-ping, who had him brought to Beijing and groomed to be the general secretary of the CPC one day.

Hu Jintao was appointed party secretary of the TAR on December 9, 1988, in replacement of the comparatively liberal-minded Wu Jinghua, who was a protégé of Hu Yaobang.  The next day, there was a huge demonstration in Lhasa. People's Armed Police Units opened fire on the demonstrators and killed many of them.

Hu arrived in Lhasa in mid-January of 1989 and took over as the party secretary.  On January 23, 1989, Hu went to Shigatse, the seat of the Panchen Lama, to make a courtesy call on him. Hu reportedly told the Panchen Lama that he "considered himself a member of the Tibetan people" and "would share a common fate with the Tibetan people and work wholeheartedly for their benefit."

In his reply, the Panchen Lama reportedly criticised in strong language the Chinese rule of Tibet. A few days after the meeting, the Panchen Lama died under mysterious circumstances in his Shigatse monastery. The cause of his death was not established.

In March 1989, there were huge demonstrations against the Chinese rule in Lhasa, which lasted for three days. Over 40 Tibetans were allegedly killed when People's Armed Police Units repeatedly fired on the demonstrators. On March 7, 1989, Hu imposed martial law in Lhasa and had a large number of Tibetans arrested.

In a broadcast over Radio Lhasa on April 20, 1989, Hu referred to the March demonstrations as a "major event" and compared their significance with the March 1959 Tibetan uprising and the 1962 Indo-China war.

In the summer of 1989, when martial law was imposed in Beijing in the wake of violence at the Tiananmen Square, it had already been in effect in Lhasa for weeks. Hu Jintao reportedly sent a telegram from Tibet to Prime Minister Li Peng and Deng to express his support for the crackdown in Beijing.

In October 1990, after a visit by Jiang Zemin, who had replaced Zhao Ziyang as the CPC general secretary, to Lhasa, Hu was transferred to Beijing to work under Jiang. Till 1992, he continued to be designated as the party secretary in the TAR, but he was working from Beijing. In October 1992, Hu handed over the post to Chen Kuiyuan.

Tibetan hopes -- that despite his ruthless record in Lhasa, Hu, as the No 2 to Jiang and subsequently as the CPC general secretary from 2002, would follow a reconciliatory policy towards the Tibetans -- were belied. He pushed forward the policy of Han colonisation of Tibet and stepped up the economic development of TAR, hoping that rapid economic development would reduce the alienation of the Tibetans.

This did not happen. On the contrary, the CPC's arrest of the successor to the Panchen Lama designated by the Dalai Lama in accordance with the Buddhist traditions and the imposition of a Panchen Lama selected by the CPC aggravated the alienation.

The situation became worse following the refusal of the CPC under Hu's leadership to negotiate with the Dalai Lama on the grant of greater autonomy to the Tibetan people and the unification of all Tibetan areas spread across the TAR, Qinghai, Gansu, Sichuan and Yunnan.

The CPC under Hu repeatedly made it clear that any talks with the Dalai Lama will be only on his future and not on the future of Tibet. It also repeatedly rejected the demand for the re-unification of all Tibetan areas.

This added to the alienation of the Tibetan people and a movement for the independence of Tibet started under the Tibetan Youth Congress. There was a fresh outbreak of violence in the TAR and other Tibetan areas in March 2008, before the Beijing Olympics, to draw the attention of the international community to the continued suppression of Tibetans. The uprising was ruthlessly put down by Chinese security forces.

The crushing of the uprising led to reconsideration of the strategy by Tibetan youth and monks -- who embarked on a peaceful protest movement based on the satyagraha movement of Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela. This was a two-pronged movement based on self-immolations by monks and others in protest against the Chinese rule and peaceful gatherings to preach the message 

Be Tibetan, Speak Tibetan, Eat Tibetan and Live Tibetan was their motto.

The self-immolation movement that started in Kirti monastery of the Sichuan province in March last year was initially concentrated in the Sichuan province. It has since been spreading to Qinghai, Gansu and the TAR. Only the Tibetan areas of Yunnan have remained unaffected so far. The Tibetans project the self-immolations as voluntary and spontaneous due to resentment over Chinese rule, but the Chinese authorities suspect that the self-immolations are being orchestrated with the blessings of Dalai Lama by a hitherto unidentified organisation. They have announced a reward for anyone who will help in identifying the organisation.

As the CPC Congress drew nearer, the self-immolations picked up momentum to draw the attention of the international media -- who have gathered in Beijing for the CPC Congress -- to the plight of the Tibetans.

Since November 7, there have been six more self-immolation attempts, with at least two of them turning fatal. The self-immolations, which were initially started by the Tibetan monks, are now being resorted to by young Tibetan youth. The simultaneous Tibetan identity movement based on the concept of Gandhiji's satyagraha has also been spreading.

The Chinese were able to suppress the violent uprising of March 2008 within a few days but they have not been able to suppress the self-immolation and satyagraha movements for over 18 months. The talks between the representatives of the Dalai Lama and the CPC are in a state of suspension.

The Tibetans are hoping that Xi Jinping, who comes from a liberal-minded family and who had not served in Tibetan areas during his career, might adopt a more conciliatory policy towards them.

Xi, who takes over as the CPC general secretary next week, will be taking over as the  State President only next March.

There are expectations that even after handing over as the State President, Hu will try to continue as the chairman of the Central Military Commission of the party for some more months, thereby retaining control of the PLA and other Chinese security forces.

Even if Xi wants to follow a more nuanced policy towards the Tibetans, he may not be able to do so as Hu retains control of the PLA through his chairmanship of the party CMC.

B Raman