When we demand “Free Tibet” on the streets today, what do we mean?
The Tibetan movement in the diaspora has largely relied on a white, Western audience for its support and guidance. We have pandered to the white, liberal gaze so much as to the extent of worshiping prominent white individuals within the movement. One such evidence of this is the film “Richard Gere is My Hero.” When we use the power of an oppressor that has historically colonized, massacred and subjugated the Third World (a unifying identification of indigenous, South American, African, Middle Eastern and Asian peoples) to demand freedom, what kind of freedom do we seek?
This is a freedom that exchanges control of our bodies and our narratives from one oppressor to another. This is the kind of freedom that China claims it won for the serfs who were enslaved by a feudal Tibetan society. China claims to have freed the serfs, but it does not acknowledge its role as a colonizer that then “produced tens of thousands of refugees; manmade famines that killed tens of thousands more; attempts to wipe out local culture, religion, and language; and rule by thousands of Chinese officials, the vast majority of whom never spoke Tibetan; and decades of violent repression.” China has an apparent record of displacing Tibetan nomads and forcibly settling them into ghettos, with numbers sitting at 300,000 Tibetan herders resettled by 2013 in just Qinghai province alone in the eastern part of the Tibetan plateau. Even with such evidence, China continues to advocate for itself as an entity that freed the Tibetan people.
When freedom is used as a means to continue oppression, then we must ask what constitutes a free people?
- Our history has always been a people’s struggle. When we look to the 1959 uprising, we recognize that it was the Tibetan people who rose up. They rose up to demand independence. And while the Dalai Lama has buoyed the Tibetan movement to the international limelight, the quick rise of awareness for the Tibetan struggle has been lacking in direction from the masses of Tibetan peoples in Tibet. Our discussions in the diaspora are stuck in a back and forth between independence and umaylum (the Middle Way) when freedom encompasses so much more. Our movement has appealed to the world not because they sympathize with the Tibetan people’s oppression but because our oppression has been packaged in such a way that white people can criticize #BlackLivesMatter while supporting #Free Tibet.
- Our demands for Tibet should always center the voices of Tibetans in Tibet. While resources are restricted on the actions taken and criticisms voiced by Tibetans in Tibet, we must actively seek to uplift the Tibetan movement within Tibet because these are the people who directly face colonial oppression. Within the Tibetan diaspora, we often look down on Tibetans in Tibet as if they are not capable enough to guide the movement. But we see Tibetans in Tibet doing astounding work in the fields of conservation, education, art, and here in these fields is the movement that we should be looking to.
- We need to talk about liberation. We in the diaspora have equated freedom to be a matter of governmental independence or umaylum. Freedom as a word and a concept in our movement has become so constricted in this definition that it would take a lot to free freedom itself. Liberation is a movement that is varied and intersectional and recognizes that people are oppressed through multiple factors. Tibetan conservationists organize local communities to reconnect spiritually with their surroundings and conserve grasslands and animals, and teach folks to live in traditionally sustainable ways. These are ways of fighting against capitalist incentives that destroy traditional lands and livelihoods through mining, over-development and ties to material wealth. Education proponents such as Machik who opened up Chungba primary school provide opportunities for young Tibetans to be thinkers and changemakers. Their programs also prioritize the education of women, therefore recognizing that gender inequality stands as a key issue in the fight against oppression. Freedoms from capitalism, from colonialism, from the patriarchy, must all be fought for simultaneously.
- We must build solidarity with other oppressed peoples of the world. Oppression does not work in isolation. There are many similarities in the systems, institutions and forces that oppress the people of the Third World. China as a settler-colonial state suppresses indigenous Tibetans much as the settler-colonial states of the U.S. and Israel have forced Native Americans and Palestinians into small tracts of land where their displacement has led to the ghettoization of communities that “suffer from huge social problems like family breakdown and the loss of traditional skills.” The fight for water is a struggle that links the struggles of #BlackLivesMatter, #FreePalestine, #NoDAPL and the movement in Tibet. In Flint, Michigan in the U.S. and in a lot of predominantly black neighborhoods in the U.S., the water in homes is tainted with lead and other toxins. In the West Bank where water supply is controlled by Israeli authorities, Palestinians have gone months without running water. In North Dakota in the U.S., Native Americans have fought against the Dakota Access Pipeline that poses a risk in contaminating the sacred waters of Lake Oahe and the Missouri River. And in Tibet, Chinese authorities are building dams “on most of the major rivers that flow out of Tibet — including in Burma, Nepal, and Pakistan. Some two million people depend on these rivers for drinking water, irrigation, fishing, and other essentials of life. The dams threaten to severely disrupt the ecology of a huge part of Asia, potentially affecting the livelihoods of hundreds of millions of people.” And these four communities have also risen to protect their water from contamination and from furthur capitalist exploitation. One of the ways that we can provide critical support to the people in Tibet is in building solidarity with oppressed peoples elsewhere. We build solidarity to say that we are in this fight to liberate black folks, other indigenous folks, those who are oppressed under systems of imperialism, colonialism, racism, and sexism because we recognize that we as Tibetans will not be free until all of us are free.
- Our demands for the Tibetan movement should fight against the oppression that Tibetans in the diaspora face as well. Tibetans who immigrate to predominantly white countries take on the histories of other Asians in these countries because of a perceived monolith of an “East Asian” identity. This association leads many Tibetans to face the discrimination and stereotypes placed on East Asians. Tibetans also face anti-immigrant harassment and fears of deportation for lack of documentation. Taking the example of Tibetan Americans, while we take on the historical struggle of oppression that Asian Americans have faced, we also inherit a legacy of Asian American struggles for freedom. And we add on to the history of this movement as one that recognizes our presence and one that advocates for the liberation of our people under occupation in Tibet. Along with the oppression that we face, there is also the oppression that we contribute to. Asian American communities are largely anti-black and so are Tibetan American families and communities. We must fight for the liberation of black folks as we fight for ours. We have to tackle the Islamophobia in our communities and fight against the attacks on Muslims. In each of our diaspora communities, we function as the oppressed and the oppressor. Just as within our Tibetan communities, while cis men face anti-Asian discrimination, they also perpetuate misogyny and block opportunities for women. While cis Tibetan women face the pressures of gender roles, they also make Tibetan spaces unsafe for trans folks.
- We must resist the model-minoritization of our resistance. Our non-violent resistance must not be used as an example to put down the resistance of other movements. This is also where solidarity with #BlackLivesMatter, #NoDAPL and #FreePalestine is key in pushing back against white liberals who may use us an example of how a resistance movement should be run. White society has boxed Asian Americans into this skewed group of a “model minority” where we have apparently transcended race and have out-whited the whites in terms of success. This argument is traditionally used to argue that if we could “overcome” racism then black folks, Native Americans and Latinx folks should be able to do so as well. The “model minority” grouping does not account for immigration patterns, the continual poverty and low graduation rates in specific ethnic groups, nor the ongoing hate crimes and discrimination against Asians. We cannot let our movement be used to bring other freedom movements down.
We have a responsibility to keep our movement directed by our own narratives without the influence of white donors and the platforms that they provide. We have to be critical and engage in conversation amongst ourselves that continuously question the nature of our movement and how we organize and move forward. In this last appeal, we want to reach out to Tibetan folks all across the diaspora and use our platform to connect you to other Tibetan folks so that you can build connections, understandings and criticisms through conversation. Please email us or message us on Facebook wherever you are and let us know if you want to be connected. We also want to organize meetups for radical Tibetan folks who want to meet others and engage in conversation and action. Please let us know if this sounds like something you’d be interested in as well. So far, we can definitely do something in NYC so let us know if you’re down for that.