Tibet Isn't Free Yet; That Doesn't Mean the Dalai Lama Has Failed

06/25/2015 03:38 pm ET | Updated Jun 25, 2016

In recent years, I've noticed an increasing trend of articles and commentaries examining the Dalai Lama's life and legacy that conclude Tibetans, and he as their leader, have failed in their cause to restore freedom to Tibet. Having worked for this movement for 18 years, I can understand having doubts about what the future holds. But really? Failed? It's a done deal?

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Some voiced similar sentiments in the 1960s and 1970s, when most people had never heard of Tibet, and certainly no countries were bothering to advocate for Tibetan political prisoners or other rights. China had been "lost" by the west and Tibetans were unfortunate casualties.

But the gloom-and-doom analysis proved to be misguided then, as the mere handful of Tibetan refugees who had resettled globally built awareness and inspired activism. Huge protests in Lhasa in the late 1980s, as well as the Dalai Lama's Nobel Peace Prize, Hollywood and the Tibetan Freedom Concerts, drove Tibet into international public consciousness. Likewise, this frame of analysis is misguided now.

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Perhaps I'm just too invested to acknowledge that the cause is lost. But I don't think so.

First of all, it's human nature that where there's injustice, there's struggle. People don't just give up trying to make their lives better because the odds are against them; the daily effort to resist indignities and oppose oppression continues regardless of what the endgame might be. Tibetans demonstrate this constantly, showing their opposition to China's occupation by wearing traditional clothes, patronizing Tibetan-owned shops, holding onto their language and fighting for its use in schools, deploying art, music and poetry to express themselves and rally each other, using blockades and other direct action to protect lands, and even making the extreme choice to light themselves on fire in defiance of Chinese rule.

In fact, while state oppression has increased in recent years, resistance in Tibet has grown and deepened. A decade ago, opposition to Chinese rule seemed to manifest mainly through small, unplanned protests, which though symbolically powerful, are easily countered by China. Today, resistance is constant, sophisticated, and waged on many fronts.

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And while our collective memory is short, it shouldn't be too much of a stretch to remember that many -- perhaps most -- conflicts about rights, territory and self-governance have taken decades or centuries to resolve. Think slavery and civil rights in the U.S.A., Irish independence, the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa, Indian independence and decolonization the world over.

The conditions affecting rights and freedom for Tibet are daunting, to say the least. China has steadily gained economic clout and countries increasingly react in fear when it flexes its economic muscle. Tibetans number roughly six million, Chinese 1.3 billion. Tibet's high, mountainous plateau has kept it isolated and made it easier for China to severely limit both physical and virtual interaction between Tibetans and the outside world. And Tibet's mineral and water resources and strategic location in the heart of Asia make it an economic and geopolitical prize.

Looking at these factors, it shouldn't be a big surprise that the Tibetan struggle hasn't yet been won.

But not having yet won a struggle is very different from having lost it. Bill Moyer, an American theorist and activist, developed a strategic model for explaining the progress of social movements and used case studies to illustrate eight distinct phases. He emphasized that after substantial gains, such as building a mass movement, achieving popular support and defining an issue as a problem on society's agenda, movements often find themselves mired in a sense of despair and powerlessness based on a misperception of their progress. The Tibetan freedom movement has made significant strides toward its goals: establishing the legitimacy of Tibetans' claims to freedom, building a mass base of popular global support, overpowering China's propaganda factory in the media, and making Tibet a constant challenge to China's reputation on the global stage. There is much more to be done, clearly, but the critical foundation has already been built.

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In fact, amidst all the tragedy, suffering and daily hardship that Tibetans face, there is much to celebrate. Far from having failed, the Dalai Lama should be recognized as one of the global leaders of the 20th and 21st century who has made an indelible, positive impact on the world.

The Dalai Lama brought the issue of Tibet to the world and inspired tens if not hundreds of thousands of people to support the cause. He bridged the various religious, regional and other divides within the Tibetan community to unify Tibetans behind a strategic approach to the struggle that included making it visible internationally -- despite China's constant objections and best efforts -- and emphasizing the moral power of using nonviolence.

Tibetan Buddhism emphasizes nonviolence, but the current Dalai Lama raised it to the level of global politics. It permeates the thinking of Tibetans, particularly the new generation raised in exile, and will influence Tibetan political leadership far into the future. Although some young Tibetans legitimately ask why they should remain nonviolent when the world seems to pay attention only to violence, and wonder if armed insurrection could bring a quicker end to the human rights violations and suffering they or their families face daily in Tibet, the overwhelming number are committed to the path of nonviolence now and in the future, for moral reasons or because they believe it is the most certain route to victory (a belief supported by recent research showing that nonviolent struggles succeed more often than violent ones).

The Dalai Lama's legacy of nonviolence reaches far beyond the Tibetan community. He has been a moral beacon for decades and his nonviolent message has transcended the constant refrain of violent conflict and escalating responses that comes from our media and our politicians, giving people something we both need and crave: a vision of a peaceful and compassionate world. If even a few more global leaders emphasized the value of nonviolent struggle, our world could look very different.

Sadly, we are quick to overlook the impact of leaders such as the Dalai Lama and largely nonviolent movements like that of the Tibetans. Suggestions that either the Dalai Lama or the broader Tibetan struggle has failed ignore the importance of alternatives to violent conflict and also neglect to consider what real failure could look like: the death of Tibetan culture and religion, hopelessness, infighting, mob violence and self-defeating attacks on the overwhelmingly armed Chinese occupiers.

Commentators, activists, elected officials and the many others who support the Dalai Lama's nonviolent path, rather than reinforcing a frame of failure, should acknowledge what gains have been made and think strategically about what can be done next. At age 80, the question is not whether the Dalai Lama has failed but if the world has failed this towering leader who has given so much to humanity. Let's make sure the answer is no.