DHARAMSHALA, India, 30 March 2014
Younghusband’s expedition to Lhasa in 1904, the Jesuit priest’s mission to the forbidden land, the Western traveller’s obsession with Shangri-La, or Hollywood movies generalised enchantment of “God King” His Holiness Dalai Lama: The word “Tibet” brings up a gamut of wild stereotypes. Historically Tibet remained aloof from the world. Since Tibet was not known to the world, westerners past and present lack any sense of reality: they are enchanted by Tibet and also sceptical about it. Western representations of Tibet as early as the 17th century were a delusion of the oriental priest-patron relationship and the exoticism of Lamaism. The fantasy of the West these grimy religious Tibetans, a primitive people who lived a peaceful existence in ignorance of Western concepts of modernity.
Dibyesh Anand, in Tibet: A Victim of Geo-politics, writes: “when the Tibetans went in exile they found that ‘Tibet’ already existed in the Western imagination, and given their limited options, they conformed to that image in order to gain support.” But this has only further encouraged Western romanticising about Tibet. Tibet scholars like Lopez describe the Tibetan Diaspora as “prisoners of Shangri-La”, to which Tibetan scholar Tsering Shakya rebuts “if the Tibetan issue is to be taken seriously, Tibet must be liberated from both the Western imagination and the myth of Shangri-la.”
Even now, our Diaspora at more than 50 years old has not outgrown its representation in the Western imagination. The image of Tibet in mainstream media, particularly in the West, is totally based on what these modern “Tibet experts” have written. Tibetans are still seen as the grimy, backward, religious prisoners of Shangri-la, and they haven’t been able to shake this image in the West. More importantly, the Central Asia unique priest-patron relationship of Tibet with its neighbouring countries is a working arrangement existing even now in the form of western patronage to the Tibetan Diaspora.
Tibetan nationalism is an assortment of the different façades it glorifies: “Buddhism”, “unique culture”, “human rights”, “global warming and third pole”, “geo-politics”, “save Tibet”, “China”, etc and thereby gets the attention of the Buddhist community, law makers, scholars, journalists, scientific researchers, seekers, and travellers alike. The pluralism of the political Diaspora has precipitated a cauldron of populism, conformist, and non-conformist views about the Tibet question.
The Diaspora is becoming more prone to the insidious effects of such “trans-nationality” of Tibet nationalism. When Tibetans reach exile they need foreign supporters to keep the cause alive. Now a lot of nations are involved in the Tibet movement, which has its own demerits. One reason would be the growing active Tibetan political voices in the virtual world. One can’t fail to notice the pro-independence proponents such as Jamyang Norbu, whose blog is adorned with scurrilous innuendos, for his personal dissenting views about the Tibet question. And almost half of the comments are by Western Tibet enthusiasts. Almost ironically, they also release vitriol for the Central Tibetan Administration “elites” for their alleged debauchery, Machiavellianism, … the list goes on. It seems these commentators are able to envisage the best for Tibet’s posterity.
But Tibetans’ growing dependence on the West’s tutelage of its political ambitions is a pernicious threat, if the Tibetans don’t ever think for themselves. And now, in the interconnected world through the Internet, this situation persists even more strongly.
Only a few Tibetan scholars in Diaspora subscribe to divergent positions as to why Tibet is not being taken seriously, which apparently has to do with diluting the cause, banking on the other issues pertinent to the development of a nationalism such as human rights, religious freedom, cultural degeneration; primarily based upon religion, language, and cultural commonalities, rather than the historical practicalities of Tibet sovereignty and its independence status. Parochialism in the context of the Tibetan Diaspora is widely contested, with issues ranging from cultural assimilation within the host country to migration to Western countries, from pro-independence to Middle-way approach.
But they fail to notice: the Tibetan Diaspora no longer belongs to Tibetans. It now belongs to the pompous activist who comes on the stage, whose only weapon is the gimmickry of signing up petitions on the Internet, calling up embassies, and uploading pictures of their members’ activities in social networking sites. The Tibetan Diaspora is no longer a mass movement; it is a rise of bourgeoisie, sharing the limelight. The world in its efforts at saving Tibetans from evil, still carries on with the clichéd Tibetan “Shangri-la” image. They are certainly most honest in their intentions. However, when they find the dichotomy between what they expected and the realities of Tibetan life, sometimes the malignancy coming from them is hard to miss.
In times when the Tibet card is played by the world, not knowing how it would affect them — If they support Tibet they will lose major trading partner China. So when the Western world is embroiled in its own affairs it plays possum about it, but finds the worth of the Tibetan cause when it has a chance to use it to gain a bit of soft power for itself. In times when the hypocrisy of media is partisan, when it is always the People’s Republic of China rebuttal to any Tibet issue that finds a corner in the daily news, but not an analysis of facts and issues. Statements are never published which might “hurt” China. Some sort of censorship is always there, even in a free nation.
Considering the little effort or attention with which the West or the rest has dealt with the Tibet issue, it is not honourable to believe the West or the world as the most integral part of the Tibet solution. The United Nations at best has manifested itself as a parody of justice, with an amicable understanding that Tibet will never find a solution — thereby acting in connivance with China’s repression in Tibet.
It is imperative for the Tibetans in exile and their supporters to get it right: Tibet is more than a subject of international relations for scholars; it’s not a religion of happiness for “dharma” followers. It is not a legacy of the distorted Western concept of imperialism. Tibet, for Tibetans, is their own identity.
Tibet’s biggest enemy is not Communism, but the Tibet Diaspora’s pandemonium of representations. The People’s Republic of China biggest nemesis is not the Tibetan Diaspora but its own policies of repression, which history has always corroborated — to be reciprocated by a revolution by its own people.
To quote Hegel: “The history of the world is none other than the progress of the consciousness of freedom.” And the consciousness of this world will be re-instilled, and Tibet will be free from this debacle of salvation.
About the author
Londen Phuntsok is a poet, and author of the book The Gossamer of Love, a collection of verses.