This year marks 60 years of Chinese occupation of Tibet. For Tibetan people, it means sixty years of national humiliation in the form of oppression, dispossession, displacement, discrimination and separation. It is this denial of the right to determine our national destiny and having to submit to a foreign power whose goal is to destroy our consciousness as a nation.
On this rather sad occasion, it is important to have sober reflection on the future of our national movement for freedom and dignity. How we are going to carry on the freedom struggle? As revolution is not a dinner party, so is not freedom struggle. It is essentially a power struggle where a defeated nation fights for its survival – the power to decide one’s own destiny for its own interests.
Ideally we need both physical and ideological powers. Since we don’t have any tangible material powers like military or money to influence events that directly or indirectly affecting us, we still have the capability to develop our ideological power. In the long term ideological power will be more impactful than the physical one because the former has the power to make everyone – the old and young to be warriors of freedom. This is not the case with physical power. For instance, having a gun necessarily does not make you a fighter whereas as the ideological resoluteness to resist the imperialist power makes you an everyday freedom fighter. The physical fight is another form of battle but the most complex fight is in the realm of ideology. The ideological power to dominate and indoctrinate versus the ideological power to resist the domination. What is that power?
Nationalism: An Ideological Power
This power, of course does not come from the barrel of Mao’s gun, but from the unshakeable belief of a people that their destiny should not be doomed in the hand of the oppressor. This is patriotic nationalism. It is the most powerful political ideology and we need to cultivate that power. The power of nationalism has not been given its due recognition in our national movement and it is high time that we do it. What is nationalism and what a Tibetan nationalism should be?
Nationalism is the devotion to the nation that its interests should be the primary pursuit of a country or its people. Therefore, Tibetan nationalism is the commitment of our people to engage fully with the national cause with ultimate goal of restoring freedom in our land and dignity for our people. Our nationalism is not about jingoism and xenophobia; it’s about the hope of an oppressed people to end their plights and pains. It is not to dominate and demean others for one’s selfish aggrandizement but to undo a historical injustice inflicted upon us. It is to stand united in faith and action.
Imperatives of Nationalism
We need to create a deep sense of national consciousness among our people; especially among the young generation in order to remain true and steadfast to the national cause. Whether we fight for independence or autonomy, it is more likely to be a long struggle and we need something to endure through those uncertain times and come again more determined than before. In a national struggle like ours, nationalism can be used as a psychological weapon not only to sustain the freedom movement but also to engender it the impetus to be resilient. Some people may hold the view that nationalism is something negative and un-Buddhist. Such view however, fails to appreciate the historical contribution of nationalism in the national liberation of many countries in Asia and Africa in the past. Behind the process of decolonization which unleashed plenty of nations out of colonial subjugation, there is the rise of nationalism. It would always be wise to learn the lessons of history and apply them.
The power of nationalism in freedom movement is best illustrated by the story of Gandhi in India and Sun Yatsen in China. When Gandhiji was thrown out of a train by some white fellows, he did not see the incident as a mere problem of law and order and try to address it in court of law. Instead, he took this as a humiliation of a nation. The problem of not having the national destiny in the custody of its people. He returned back to India and awaked his people to the national wound and eventually healed it. Sun Yatsen was a Chinese physician, like Gandhi he also realized the need to attend to the national wound of China. He treated the Sick Man of Asia and waked up a sleeping dragon. The rest is all history.
The significance of nationalism in a national liberation moment have always been a decisive factor and it would be naïve not to recognize it. It will not only boost the morale of the movement but also to hold us together as nation and protect our identity.
Identity and Resistance
As for a Tibetan either in occupied Tibet or in exile, our identity is getting more relevant because the strength of the freedom struggle so much depends on the endurance of our identity and its expression. As a nation, identity is not only about how we feel about ourselves but also how we portray ourselves to other people and their perceptions about us. The narrative of identity is a vital area and who controls it will have a major impact on the future of the people. The question is where we stand when it comes to the larger narratives of identity.
Recently my friend had dreamt that he sneaked secretly into Tibet and found himself hiding in his home too terrified to step outside. The Chinese rule of intimidation in Tibet has some effects on Tibetan psyche. My friend was born to parents who had gone through the worst of Chinese occupation in Tibet and the fears looming over their daily life seem to have internalized over the years. Besides that, a systematic propaganda and the education of indoctrination are attempts made by Beijing to make Tibetans believe that they are less than the supposedly superior Chinese. The idea of ‘less than’ is not merely a matter of quantity but also quality –that the Tibetans are backward, incompetent, lazy, dirty and of course very often ungrateful to the Chinese saviors who have ‘liberated’ them. The idea is to make Tibetans ashamed of their culture and identity and readily mimic the Chinese.
At time when our people are scattered all over the world and those in Tibet are denied the basic rights to assert their identity as a distinct nation, we need to have a more concrete and far sighted means to keep our identity and struggle alive. Here again, the promotion of patriotic nationalism is necessary step to inject a sense of pride and responsibility to tide over our present political and social crisis. It is not aimed to generate hatred and vengeance against our adversary but to give our people a sense unity and purpose. It is to ensure that despite being a colonial subject in our own land or refugees in different parts of the world, we should never reduce ourselves as ‘cheap people’ whom others can look down on and laugh at.
Nationalism has the power to engender among people a sense of place of their own from where they will not step down, it is holding on to our ground even if it is imaginary and walk the high way. It’s about holding on to our culture and remain rooted where we come from.
On this sixtieth anniversary of Tibetan National Uprising day, can we promise to land and people that we will always be Tibetan first and put Tibet above everything; narrow regionalism and dirty sectarianism. During these six decades of national humiliation, we have learnt the hard way that the fire of Chinese colonialism engulfed our land because we were divided and we can never extinguish this evil fire as long as we don’t have a strong national solidary. Therefore, nationalism is the linchpin to forge a united front to resist Chinese colonial rule and restore our freedom.