In the biggest protests since 1989, Tibetans are rising up. Lhasa is tense but quiet under virtual martial law. However, protests and riots have spread to Labrang and Machu, Repkong and Ngapa in the Tibetan province of Amdo (Gansu, Qinghai and Sichuan respectively), Lithang in Kham province (Sichuan) and Phenpo in TAR. Some protests turned violent and the death toll varies, but it is rising as the protests spread.
In one sense, it is not sudden. Even in the heavily censored blogs and other popular media from Tibet, there has been a sense that something angry was brewing. The Dalai Lama's exile, the future of the Tibetan nation and identity in the face of perceived Chinese political and cultural imperialism are lamented in various media at great risk. Tibetans have dealt with political hopelessness and cultural depression by escaping into exile, alcoholism and, in the case of the young poet-scholar, Dhondup Gyal, suicide.
Since 1989, China has implemented a hard-line set of policies towards Tibetans inside Tibet and towards the Dalai Lama. The hard-line faction within Chinese officialdom pressed for ruthless suppression of dissent and unbridled economic development, ostensibly to buy Tibetan loyalty. It is waiting for the Tibetan issue to die with the septuagenarian Dalai Lama and has sidelined the moderate faction that argued for engagement with him. These protests show that the hard-line policy has managed neither to intimidate Tibetans nor to win their loyalty.
However, Beijing's counter-productive strategy of rendering the Dalai Lama irrelevant has backfired. Beijing has weakened the one authority that can rein in and persuade Tibetans to remain within China. The Dalai Lama and the Tibetan government-in-exile have been following the Middle Way policy that advocates Tibetan autonomy through uncompromised non-violence and dialogue. Since dialogue resumed in September 2002, they asked Tibetan exiles not to protest against visiting Chinese leaders.
These unpopular appeals were also made before the 10 March anniversaries. During the Congressional Gold Medal ceremony, the Dalai Lama assured China that he would use his "authority and influence" to induce Tibetans to live as Chinese citizens. The Chinese , led by Tibet's hard-line Party Secretary, Zhang Qingli, stepped up the campaign of vilification against the Dalai Lama, describing him as a "false religious leader". After raising expectation among Tibetans, Beijing started to indicate in 2005 that it was not interested in meaningful negotiations. The Dalai Lama was vilified, his representatives not even formally recognised and his Middle Way policy, which has scaled down Tibetan demands even further from the unpopular concessions in the 1980s, was dismissed as "old wine in a new bottle".
After six rounds of dialogue, which the Tibetan officials handled with great delicacy, nothing was achieved. The Dalai Lama conceded a week ago that "on the fundamental issue, there has been no concrete result at all". This was fodder for those Tibetans who consider the Dalai Lama as their beloved leader but argue that complete independence is the only guarantee for the survival of Tibetan identity, and that action-oriented strategies should be used. It is not in the nature of the Chinese regime, they argue, to negotiate sincerely with a leader that advocates peace and a people that does not harm China's national interests. In the Olympics they have found the closest thing to a national interest that they could possibly hurt.
Unfortunately, because China does not tolerate even peaceful Tibetan dissent and Tibetans see the Government as the facilitator of Chinese colonialism, some protests in Tibet have turned violent against Han and Hui Chinese. The protests do not, however, entirely negate the Dalai Lama's approach. Just as the Burmese monks pressured the military junta to negotiate with Aung San Suu Kyi, the Tibetan protests strengthen the Dalai Lama's negotiating position. The riots can also be seen in the light of a quiet and apparently weak child, who has endured incessant beatings and humiliation and faces an uncertain future, finally fighting back against the playground bully. The tussle will go on for a long time and the outcome is uncertain. Events are unfolding even as I write.
But two things are certain. Beijing will seek to avoid concessions and will crack down ruthlessly unless the international community takes a far more robust stance. The Tibetan struggle will go on for generations unless a solution is reached with the current Dalai Lama.
The author, a Tibetan, is writing a PhD thesis on the Sino-Tibetan conflict at the London School of Economics.