Analysis: World Tibet Day - An honour of Tibetan resistance

Analysis: World Tibet Day - An honour of Tibetan resistance

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New Delhi: Since 1998, Tibetans worldwide celebrate World Tibet Day annually on July 6, marking the birth anniversary of the 14th Dalai Lama, their revered spiritual and political leader. 

Initiated by Pulitzer nominee Richard Rosenkranz and the Dalai Lama’s younger brother, Tendzin Choegyal, the day not only honours the distinctiveness and values of Tibetan culture but also aims to draw global attention to the persecution, repression, and cultural erasure suffered by Tibetans under Chinese occupation.

In the decade following China's 1951 annexation of the Tibetan plateau, which it termed a ‘peaceful liberation from feudal serfdom,’ mass uprisings erupted across the Himalayan territory.

These were met with brutal suppression by the occupying forces, culminating in the Dalai Lama's flight to India in 1959, followed by over 80,000 Tibetans.

Over the past seven decades, Tibetans have resisted their forced incorporation into China through protests, social unrest, and cultural preservation in the face of ‘Sinicization.’

According to the Tibetan government-in-exile, there have been over 150 cases of self-immolation by Tibetans since 2009.

The Dalai Lama holds an unparalleled status among Tibetans. The Dalai Lamas command the highest spiritual seat for Tibetan Buddhists, believed to be manifestations of the Bodhisattva of Compassion.

The 14th Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso, belongs to the Gelug sect, the largest and politically predominant within Tibetan Buddhism. However, it is not just his spiritual significance that makes him an incomparable figure for Tibetans worldwide.

Since fleeing to India, he has become the most relentless, potent, and legitimate symbol of Tibetan resistance, earning international renown. He has also stood as a global pillar of peace, human rights, and universal responsibility, rooted in Buddhist philosophy, and was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989.

Given the Dalai Lama’s legitimate clamouring for Tibetan rights and his international appeal, it is no wonder that the PRC has long sought to undermine his standing through official diktats and targeted propaganda campaigns.

Although he seeks meaningful autonomy within China, the CPC paints him as a violent separatist and a threat to Chinese nationhood.

As early as 1996, China formally prohibited the display and possession of the Dalai Lama’s images in Tibet, construing it as solidarity with Tibetan secessionism. In fact, the PRC, which under Mao Zedong was avowedly averse to religion, now seeks to control the Dalai Lama’s succession process.

The Dalai Lama will turn 89 this year, sparking discussions of his spiritual inheritance, despite his assurance that he will live beyond 100 years according to his visions.

Traditionally, the reincarnation of the Dalai Lama is determined by search parties within Tibet and sometimes outside, based on signs and visions interpreted by top Lamas. However, since the current Dalai Lama and many Tibetans were expelled from their homeland, he has suggested that he might reincarnate outside of Tibet or name his living successor before he passes away, a method known as ‘emanation’.

The PRC, for its part, has repeatedly asserted its right to decide on the Dalai Lama’s reincarnation through the ‘golden urn’ process and has convened a committee of government-selected Tibetan monks and CPC officials to oversee it.

This has spurred concerns of a potential split within Tibetan Buddhism, as it is likely that two Dalai Lamas may be named after the current one passes: one endorsed by the exiled Tibetan community, and the other propped up by the CPC.

The precedent for this can be seen in the 1995 incident when the Dalai Lama named six-year-old Gedhun Choekyi Nyima as the reincarnated Panchen Lama, the second-highest spiritual seat in Tibetan Buddhism. Soon after, the boy was arrested, never to be seen again, while the CPC chose his replacement, whose legitimacy remains highly contested.

In addition, China has persistently engaged in spreading malicious misinformation to undermine the Dalai Lama's international esteem. From the beginning, the PRC has promoted the narrative that Tibet, before its annexation, was ruled by a slave-owning theocracy, and the Dalai Lama was a slave owner himself.

However, most scholars contest this characterisation of pre-occupation Tibetan society. Recently, China has also exploited existing fault lines within Tibetan Buddhism, co-opting a sect that worships the deity Dorje Shugden, a practice discouraged by the Dalai Lama.

A 2015 report revealed that China has been financing and coordinating protests by this faction across North America, Europe, and Australia. These members show up wherever the Dalai Lama appears, chanting slogans calling him a ‘false Dalai Lama.’ However, in public, they deny any association with the CPC and claim they are agitating for religious freedom.

The Dalai Lama has been the target of a more recent Chinese disinformation effort. Earlier this year, a video of him hugging an 8-year-old boy and saying, "Suck my tongue," surfaced on social media. Pro-CPC accounts spread this video widely and linked to it, accusing him of being a paedophile. The campaign did provoke a great deal of anger toward the religious leader on the internet.

Later reports, however, indicated that the boy and his mother saw the Dalai Lama's conduct as a priceless blessing and that it was based on the Tibetan cultural practice of feeding toddlers by the mouth.

Beyond targeting the head of the Tibetan movement, China has implemented policies to reshape Tibetan society, severing the next generation from their language, culture, ways of life, and aspirations for autonomy. These efforts accelerated after the widespread Tibetan protests in 2008 before the Beijing Olympics.

The Chinese government has forcefully relocated thousands of Tibetans, uprooting their villages, and separated around 1 million Tibetan children from their families, coercing them into mandatory residential schools designed to assimilate them into Han culture.

China's determination to erase Tibetan identity is evident. Since last year, the CPC has mandated that Tibet be referred to as ‘Xizang Autonomous Region’ in all official communications.

Confronting the existential threat of what many call 'cultural genocide,' a day like World Tibet Day takes on radically subversive dimensions.

The Dalai Lama, turning 89, remains the focal point for thousands of Tibetans hoping for political autonomy and cultural preservation, even as the Chinese government seeks to suffocate and manipulate an entire people into oblivion.

On World Tibet Day, Tibetans and all who value freedom, dignity, and peace will rise to celebrate nearly three-quarters of a century of struggle against occupation and oppression.

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