Nurturing a Trouble spot?  

By Tsering Topgyal

In his statement on the 40th Anniversary of the Tibetan National Uprising on March 10, 1999, the Dalai Lama told his compatriots, "The international awareness of the issue of Tibet has reached an unprecedented height since last year. Concerns and active support for Tibet are not confined to human rights organizations, governments and parliaments. Universities, schools, religious and social groups, artistic and business communities as well as people from many other walks of life have also come to understand the problem of Tibet and are now expressing their solidarity with our cause." He pretty much repeated this sanguine message in the talk that he gave at the Smithsonian Folk-life festival this summer. Tibetans’ faith in international support as the facilitator of a solution to the Sino-Tibetan dispute is due to many reasons. For most Tibetans, there is no debating the Dalai Lama’s words. It is an expression of their unquestioned faith in his authority over spiritual and secular matters. Secondly, even educated Tibetans lack proper appreciation of the politics of international support. Closely allied to this is their rudimentary political philosophy that is strongly influenced by Buddhist principles. Consequently, they have an idealist perception of international politics, wherein moral outrage of the world’s people and their governments over human rights violations and denial of democracy will prevail over the most authoritarian of regimes. Perhaps, the existence of a high profile, star-studded campaign for Tibet best explains the Tibetans’ dalliance with international support- a romance, the writer observes, is taken to a fault. Powerful enough to influence World Bank policies, there is no denying its existence and the Tibetans who literally crave for international support are quick to recognize it.

Yet, for a Tibetan who has spent years making sense of international politics, observing the Sino-Tibetan impasse and Western interaction with it, it is not difficult to discern that the international community has failed Tibet. This analysis, in no way, discounts the enormous support of individuals and organizations across the globe to the Tibetans and their political aspirations. They will agree with my core argument that governments and inter-governmental organizations who have the primary charge of protecting peoples like the Tibetans, owing to their signature of various international instruments, and values and principles that are enshrined in their charters, constitutions and laws have miserably failed Tibet. Their failure is exacerbated by deliberate policies of coddling Peking. Through the years, the United Nations and its myriad offshoots have consistently excluded any semblance of a Tibetan voice from its corridors. Lobsang Sangay (Boston Globe, "UN’s Shoddy Treatment of Tibet," July 2, 2000) and Thupten Samdup (The Globe and Mail, "The UN Must Recognize the Dalai Lama," July 26, 2000) comprehensively recounts each incidence of UN’s kowtowing to China. The UN justified the latest compromise of its own integrity thus: "China would object vehemently to his presence here because they consider Tibet their territory and the Dalai Lama challenges that." If the exclusion of the Dalai Lama, which has been described by Bishop Desmond Tutu as "totally bizarre and quite unbelievable" is justified by reasons and fears only anticipated, it vindicates critics who call the UN, the United Nations of Five. What recourse do oppressed people like the Tibetans and less equal states have?

The World Bank as well, is too eager to appease China at the expense of disadvantaged people like the Tibetans and Mongolians. In interviews conducted by the Independent Inspection Panel for the World Bank’s Qinghai Project, some Bank officials confided that "in China things are done differently." They observed the same attitude in the Bank Management’s response, which said, "The level and quality of preparation and analysis for this project were very much in line with Bank practice and applying social and environmental policies to projects in China in the context of its political and social systems." So much for a World Bank! It has to acquiesce to the wishes of a totalitarian regime that has incessantly trampled upon the democratic values and rights of is own subjects. What hope do Tibetans have in the face of such a cozy relationship between them?

Be that as it may be, an important question regarding the Sino-Tibetan dispute is what implications these shortsighted and misguided policies have on the future of the Tibetan struggle and peace in Central Asia. What is often overlooked by governments and IGOs mandated to maintain and restore international peace and stability is that the Tibetans’ faith in the international community and the Dalai Lama’s leadership have, so far, kept the lids on a violent upheaval. Once Tibetans begin to see through the politics of international support, which is already in process, even the Dalai Lama’s authority may not contain their pent-up anger. Melvyn Goldstein, for instance has written in Foreign Affairs: "The exiled Dalai Lama finds himself standing on the sidelines unable to impede or reverse changes in his country that he deplores, and the frustration engendered by this impotence has seriously heightened the danger of violence." A Conference Report by the United States Institute of Peace concludes, "On the other hand, if no such shift (a positive shift in Chinese attitudes towards Tibetans and their culture) takes place and no consideration is given to greater Tibetan autonomy, Tibetan antipathy seems certain to increase, and with it the likelihood of severe ethnic violence." These are neither scholarly speculations nor empty threats. Tibetans have a proven record of martial valor dating back to several centuries. It was only the Dalai Lama’s personal exhortations that ended the Tibetan armed resistance against China’s occupation. Compared to the spontaneous, ill-focused, and ill-planned, yet valiant campaign of the Fifties, Sixties and the Seventies, a future violent operation will only be better organized, better strategized and focused, conducted by people educated in the finer points of international politics and military affairs. There has been a steady stream of Tibetans deviating from the official stand of non-violence and it only promises to increase as frustration over the betrayal by the international community piles up over Chinese insults. Even Tenzin Choegyal has expressed frustration with the Middle Way path of his brother, the Dalai Lama. The potential for a Tibetan-style Intifada has grave tidings for a Central Asia already in the grip of terrorist fears, what with China with her share of a restive Muslim population. As recent as August 9, 2000, the State Department reportedly warned Central Asia of terrorism. The world, much less China, scarcely needs a Tibetan terrorist outfit. The sad reality is that they are nurturing just such a hotbed.

Ironically, the UN record for peace keeping and responding to violent conflicts has never been free of criticism. Glossing over its unwieldy bureaucracy, structural inequality, mismanagement and poor judgment, the UN’s stock defense against such criticism is lack of resources and manpower. The UN surely knows the limits of its capability. Common sense, then, dictates that the UN should respond to a potential crisis before it festers into a stage that requires military and humanitarian intervention. The UN and its sister organizations are doing just the opposite-aiding the escalation of Tibetan militancy. Perhaps, it is counting on the precedence of "exemption" from intervention when a great power is involved, to save its neck. That will be a catastrophe comparable to Rwanda for which the UN had to publicly apologize. Now you don’t want to demean yourself that much! Cutting edge scholarship on humanitarian operations makes much of a new paradigm of international intervention in response to post-Cold War conflicts and emergencies: Humanitarian operations are comprehensive responses to humanitarian crises and complex emergencies. They are processes over time and, various instruments are employed simultaneously- in the words of a US State Department official, "parallel use of instruments." UN humanitarian and developmental agencies, in coordination with Bretton-Wood institutions like the World Bank and International Monetary Fund and NGOs should respond with developmental projects and poverty alleviation programs in the Pre-conflict and Post-conflict stages. It is not enough to conduct isolated humanitarian and military operations as soon as violence flares up and then, make hasty exits. Humanitarian and military responses should be coordinated and continue well into the Post-conflict stage.

However, the UN’s neglect of Tibet is completely out of step with this new development. Instead of addressing the Tibet issue at its Pre-violence stage, the UN and other IGOS are nurturing it toward the Conflict stage. The misguided Qinghai Project, for instance was bound to destabilize, far from harmonizing, the already fragile ethnic relations. The repeated appeasement of China is only escalating Tibetan militancy. The late Edward Azar of the University of Maryland’s Center for International Development and Conflict Management listed four causes of ’protracted social conflicts’ (PSC): communal content, human needs, governance and the role of the state, and international linkages. International linkages refer to non-domestic influences on PSCs and ways in which the behavior of states in internal conflicts is affected by its relationship with other states in the international system. Once conflict is triggered in a multi-communal society, weak, rigid and sectarian states will seek to contain it, in part by cutting off external support for domestic conflict actors, in part by seeking external support for itself. The net-result is further magnification and internationalization of the conflict. This cannot be more apt in the case of the international community’s interaction with the Tibetan problem. Peking is trying its best to silence Tibetan nationalists and Chinese dissidents, while seeking support for its own policies. The UN, IGOs and governments across the world have, so far, not failed Peking’s dictatorial whims. The outcome of this romance between Peking and governments and IGOs, if carried long enough can only be war-torn Central Asia. Then, the UN will be its own castigator. So much for learning from the past!

** Tsering Topgyal is a masters student at the school of International Relations and Pacific Studies at University of California, San Diego. He is about to start the MPIA program will be specializing on China.

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