Free Tibet is Dead
One hundred and twenty one and counting: The number of Tibetans that have, by their own hand, chosen to die in self-ignited flames. Regardless of their motivations, this demonstrates an unimaginable level of desperation.
Those of us who support Tibetan causes are devastated by this horrific phenomenon—devastated and confused. After 25 years of effort, we were beginning to believe that the end of Tibetan suffering was achievable. We had donated millions of dollars to "Free Tibet" and successfully raised awareness of the Tibetan struggle through multiple media platforms. We witnessed Beasty Boys concerts; Martin Scorsese's "Kundun;" Brad Pitt in "Seven Years in Tibet;" the Dalai Lama receiving the Nobel Peace Prize; Richard Gere's advocating face and the creation of countless Tibetan support groups and events. We had put the issue on the map and, arguably, during the early part of the last decade, no human rights cause was more visible and received more funding than the Western-based Tibetan movement.
Yet, here we are, shaking our heads in disbelief as one Tibetan after another self-immolates. Tibetans today seem more desperate than ever and Chinese repression of Tibetan culture seems to be increasing. Even the Barkhor—the sacred heart of Tibet's capital city, Lhasa—is being flattened into a parking lot as we speak. Ultimately, these events force us into the realization that, after all of our efforts, we are powerless to affect real change in Tibet, and have failed to curtail the type of desperation among Tibetans that leads them to a fiery demise. The "Free Tibet" movement is dead. How did we get it so wrong?
Tibetan advocacy may have been in the wrong hands to begin with.
In 1987, we in the West took Tibet under our wing and were determined to resolve their concerns our way and according to our perceptions. Funds were raised, organizations formed and we proceeded to approach the issue from all angles at once. We repeatedly threw money at Tibetans, whether they needed it or not; traded ideological barbs with China; enacted toothless and non-binding resolutions; threatened small countries like Nepal for not doing enough, and basically treated Tibetans like pets in need of constant attention. We offered scholarships and training for the lucky few who made it out of Tibet and proposed resettlement visas for those who wanted out. For two decades, this patchwork of random programs and legislation provided small victories at best; and the perpetuation of Tibetan dependency on the West, at worst.
Great energy has been spent in keeping our pro-Tibet institutions afloat, yet we've failed to build adequate mechanisms that give the Tibetans themselves a reason for optimism. We never took the time to develop the specific expertise needed to reduce Tibetan suffering from the ground-up. Our fundraising and organizational skills have matured, but our direct assistance efforts are still stuck in first gear. Advocacy groups today still feel the need to "raise awareness" of the Tibetan issue as though it were new to everyone. After 25 years, this "raising awareness" mantra now sounds like a code for: "we don't know what to do next."
Is it any wonder that many Tibetans are now losing hope? They've waited decades for the West to do something substantive on their behalf and all they've received in return was increased Chinese repression. They've watched their concerns repeatedly take a back-seat to our various economic priorities while they remain in limbo with no sense of self-determination and no country of their own. While we dither, talk tough and buy furniture for our new Tibet offices, Tibetans look at us as hypocrites: they now know we'll never jeopardize our access to China's great "economic potential" for their sake.
Perhaps our version of "Free Tibet" is better off dead. The Western movement has been stuck in an unproductive malaise for years and the only time it comes to life is when Tibetans themselves bring the issue back into focus—now, unfortunately, through incremental mass suicide.
Our bloated, disjointed international effort needs to give way to a more focused regional strategy that assists Tibetans where they are most vulnerable. A smaller, better organized campaign that addresses the specific ground-based, day to day, realities of the Tibetan struggle is needed now.
India is best positioned to lead such a new strategy. She has sheltered Tibetans since the time of Nehru and the India-based Tibetan Government in Exile has seldom failed to show its gratitude in this regard. India deeply ponders this relationship and knows that the Tibetans under their roof allow them to negotiate with an increasingly terse China from a position of strength. Plus, they know that a Tibet-sympathetic West that aches for a solution (or for someone to take Tibet off its hands) could easily show innumerable forms of preference to an Asian nation that assumes the lead on Tibetan issues.
It's time for the West to get out of the way. In light of current events, can Tibet afford to give us another 25 years to get it right? One hundred and twenty one dead Tibetans have given their definitive answer to that question—and perhaps their indictment.