March 16, 2008

Olympic Hurdles

Whoever becomes the master of a city accustomed to freedom, and does not destroy it, may expect to be destroyed himself; because, when there is a rebellion, such a city justifies itself by calling on the name of liberty and its ancient institutions, never forgotten despite the passing of time and the the benefits received from the new ruler. Whatever the conqueror’s actions or foresight, if the inhabitants are not dispersed and scattered, they will forget neither that name nor those institutions; and at the first opportunity they will at once have recourse to them, as did Pisa after having been kept in servitude for a hundred years by the Florentines.

--Niccolo Machiavelli

China is the land of the peasant revolt, numerous small scale insurgencies spread over the land of a billion people, dealt with by compulsion and compromise and done relatively efficiently for state of its size.

A half century ago, Tibetans revolted against Communist Chinese rule. The revolt was crushed, and the Dalai Lama found himself opening the wisdom eye to Hollywood stars from exile in India and lecture halls around the world.

The Chinese have made major efforts to Sinify Tibet since its conquest, encouraging a settlement policy in these occupied territories that makes Israel's efforts in the West Bank and Gaza, well, look tame.

Tibetan revolutionaries are now seeking to make one last stand in the weeks leading up to the 103rd Olympiad, which Beijing hopes will mark its emergence as a world power. The leaders behind the movement are Tibetan monks, reflecting a seeming resurgence of Buddhist assertiveness after Buddhist-monk-led protests in Myanmar.

(All that needs to happen next is monk self-immolations in the streets, and this will look much like the 1960s with burning Buddhists in Asia and books on counterinsurgency.)

Tenzin Gyatso, the Dalai Lama, is now 73 years old. Last year he received the Congressional Gold Medal--he is also a recipient of honorary Canadian citizenship and the Nobel Peace Prize (Kip thought these were the same thing). There are few moments left for the Dalai Lama to convert external moral support into actual political and resource support. The Dalai Lama has limited the demands of the movement over the years, willing to accept simply his return to Tibet and the protection of Tibetan culture, Buddhism, and autonomy while acknowledging Chinese sovereignty over the country.

With the Olympics putting China center stage, the Dalai Lama and his Tibetan supporters seek to keep the pot stirred just enough to embarrass China, to have people threaten or introduce significant possibilities of boycotts of the Olympics, and to make the possibility of acquiescence to Tibetan demands more palatable to the Chinese government. It is a very wise use of intensive media coverage of China with the upcoming Olympics.

Widespread protests have erupted through much of the Chinese province of Tibet and areas that were once part of Tibet but are now subsumed into other Chinese provinces. The Chinese government has responded by a major military crackdown and by trying to entirely cut off the province from Western media. Chinese media has highlighted violent aspects of the protests in order to garner more support within China for a crackdown on Tibetan demonstrators. Tenzin Gyatso has now called for an international investigation of "cultural genocide" in Tibet.

The troops and the monks are now in the streets. We will have to see how strong the desire for liberty is in the hearts of the average Tibetan. I give them pretty good chances of making an ongoing impact if they can keep the pressure up through the Olympics rather than pull the Burma fizzle.

Update: Charlie, here. See also, "The Restless Children of the Dalai Lama," for a discussion of inter-generational differences amongst Tibetan exiles. What role might these Tibetan Tigers have played in the current uprising?

Update II: What's next, free love?

Tibetan exiles here said they had also received news of at least two Buddhist monks who set themselves on fire as an act of protest; that claim could not be independently confirmed.