In a free-wheeling interview to dna’s Amrita Madhukalya on the sidelines of the Dharamshala International Film Festival, Tsundue talks about a range of issues, from an emerging trend of cultural inquiry that is taking over the Tibet movement to his admiration for Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei, and Indian PM Manmohan Singh’s recent visit to China. Edited excerpts:
How has the Free Tibet movement changed in the last few years?
Initially, the Tibetan struggle was primarily led by political activism on the streets to demonstrate our dissent. The biggest change in the last 10-15 years is that a deep sense of intellectual inquiry has crept in among the Tibetan youth. I think this is a huge leap. When a lot of people put in a lot of effort, it strengthens and sustains the community. It helps us define the freedom we are fighting for. The crux of the intellectual inquiry now is, ‘Are we demanding equal share of China’s mining in Tibet? Or China’s development in Tibet?’ Earlier, we would just deflect our protests to the Western media. Our demands and activism are changing now. A film festival like this tells our young people what the world is up to. And this, in turn, helps us in telling our own stories. A number of young people are using creative arts to exhibit their works.
Has this helped the struggle in any way?
The year 2008, when the Beijing Olympics took place, proved to be a very intense one for the Tibetan struggle, which lasted for four months. Nearly 450 Tibetans lost their lives, a larger number were imprisoned and some are missing even today. It was a strong uprising, but proved to be costly. The message, however, went across the world. Post-2008, the cultural movement, which we call the White Wednesday Movement or the Haakar Movement, empowered us by being a struggle in which everyone can participate without losing their lives. It has helped awaken Tibetans in reclaiming their identity. This idea has now spread to India, Nepal and to Tibetans in the US. Tibetans are now more aware of their language. They are inquiring deeper into the historicity of the struggle, behind which there is a deeper and complicated history. By reclaiming their identity, Tibetans are now more united.
What do you mean by a complicated history?
One has to look at how the Chinese not only occupied Manchuria, but also appropriated it and made it a part of Chinese history. They did the same with Mongolia, and now, they are doing it again with Tibet. About 400 years ago, the Mongols invaded a part of Tibet and struck a deal with the Tibetans to form a patron-priest relationship. Under this, they would give Tibetans military protection and the Tibetans would give them the Buddhist religion and Buddhist priests. China is now interpreting that as Tibetans subsuming under the Chinese and exceeding their power under the Mongolian king, which the Chinese now claim is the Yuang dynasty. The Chinese have also colonised Tibetans by saying that Tibetans have no intellectual power and are only good for manual labour. Many Tibetans have become accustomed to the idea that they are nomads, meant to spend lives among animals.
Have the Tibetans-in-exile culturally assimilated with India over the years?
I wouldn’t say that there has been assimilation, but a healthy exchange. I studied in Madras (Chennai) and then in Bombay (Mumbai). I speak many Indian languages and have travelled extensively throughout the country. I even tease my Indian friends, telling them that I am more Indian than they are. But I am also aware and conscious about my Tibetan identity and my cultural values really push me into the Tibetan freedom struggle. With India, it is less integration and more learning.
How do you view the relationship between India and China, in view of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s visit to Beijing?
India is trying to avoid all points of confrontation with China. The Congress government is under huge pressure to improve bilateral relations with China, despite the incursions and dangers of future military exercises on the border. This will continue to build pressure on India. The Chinese leadership too wants to continue to prove that they are developing better relations with other countries. Governments today also have a responsibility to make sure that they make more friends and lesser enemies. Whatever the Indian Prime Minister has to say on ties with China is for political gains and will have little effect on the people. If India and China want to develop their relationship and remove arsenic issues, they must first instill trust among their people.
Tibetans have resorted to self-immolations as a mark of protest to get the coverage due to their cause. What are your views on that?
I am deeply frustrated and angry that the international media has enough resources to report on the choice of clothes of celebrities, but is unable to and unwilling to investigate the causes of these self-immolations. It costs a Tibetan his life to ensure two columns or a picture in a newspaper. Much of the media is either state owned or corporate owned, with many having direct interests in China. This makes them naturally biased. The real reason behind these immolations is the brutal Chinese oppression of the Tibetan people, and the rejection of the Dalai Lama’s return to Tibet. Even after 121 cases of immolation so far, China continues to say that this was at the instigation of exiled Tibetans. At the ground level though, we will do anything to stop a self-immolation. When a Tibetan tried to immolate himself in Dharamshala in March this year, our activists stopped him from doing so and counselled him later.
Chinese artists Ai Weiwei, Liu Xiaobo and others have spoken for the Tibetan cause. Do Tibetans identify with them?
I have nothing but deep admiration for Weiwei and Xiaobo. They are courageous voices of freedom among the Chinese people. Xiaobo was arrested and jailed. The world gave him the Nobel Peace Prize and forgot about him. Weiwei, owing much to his ingenuous creative mind, is able to shame the government without getting into a legal tangle. I must also mention Tibetan poet Tsering Woerser in Beijing, who, along with her husband, has been doing a lot of work in showing how the Chinese government is prejudiced in carrying out development work in Tibet, by writing, blogging and also documenting these injustices in the form of photography and showing it to the rest of the world.