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Rajiv Malhotra Headshot

Tibetan Uprising Day Reminds Us

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More than a half century ago, on March 10th, 1959, Tibetans revolted against the Chinese military occupation of Tibet that began in 1951. The revolt ended badly for the Tibetans who suffered from a brutal Chinese crackdown. This caused the Dalai Lama, with the help of the CIA, to flee with his supporters to India. On March 31, 1959, after a grueling 15-day journey across the Himalayas on foot, the Dalai Lama escaped from the Chinese and crossed over to India along with 80,000 Tibetans. Ever since then, March 10th has been commemorated as Tibetan Uprising Day with worldwide protest marches to mobilize support for the Tibetan cause.

Even as desperate self-immolations among Tibetans still living in Tibet have increased in the past few years, there seem to be no signs whatsoever of China relenting on its cultural genocide there. At a time when movements like the Arab Spring get mainstream media attention, it is unfortunate that the struggle of the Tibetans seems to be slipping from public consciousness.

Unlike the hot spots of the Middle East, Tibet lacks a natural resource like oil that powerful nations would fight over. The peaceful nature of the Tibetan struggle, unlike agitations in the Islamic world, has certainly generated goodwill for the Tibetans. But since they do not pose a security threat to the rest of the world as exporters of terror or nukes, it seems safe to simply look the other way. China's growing clout and persistence has gradually worn down the uprising, and Tibetans' support base among Western leaders is muted. Tragically, today's youth in the West seem generally less passionate to get involved than the youth of the 60s.

One wonders what lies in store for this movement. With the Dalai Lama aging, the Chinese know that time is on their side and are willing to wait it out. Without a new Tibetan leader of comparable charisma, they hope to accentuate internal clashes among rival Tibetan groups, offer carrots to some ambitious leaders, and use classic divide-and-conquer tactics to finish off the movement. Meanwhile, in Tibet, the land and sacred geography are being rapidly turned into secular tourist attractions under the ultimate control of the communists, and repopulated by the ethnic Han Chinese. Tibetan culture is becoming transformed by China, and "digested" into Mandarin identity.

While this should be a concern for the entire world, India and the U.S. should worry the most. India's mightiest rivers (Brahmaputra, Ganga and Indus) all originate in Tibet, and China has started an ambitious project of rapidly building at least 20 hydroelectric dams in Tibet, each with the potential to divert water away from India and into China. Quenching China's thirst will come at the expense of India where droughts will result in many areas. I had predicted this scenario many years ago before it was fashionable to consider it, but only recently has this suddenly become a hot topic.

Tibet is also the military base for China's nuclear arsenal aimed at India, giving China the ability to reach India within minutes from launch. Tibet is the route through which the China-Pakistan links are transporting military and other goods through modern highways, railroads and pipelines. This enables China to gain access to the Indian Ocean ports that are located in Pakistan, and Pakistan gets instant assistance from China in any conflict with India. Indeed, if Tibet could be neutral, autonomous and demilitarized, the India/Pakistan security situation would have the potential to be more easily resolved as a bilateral rather than trilateral one.
For the United States, China is its main rival and competitor in all spheres, a fact known and understood to both. While China has never hid its intentions, the U.S. has lacked a determined plan to address this. Tibet is China's path for the critical trade routes of the Indian Ocean, the Central Asian oil and gas reserves, and the rich ASEAN countries to the south.

As an example of its myopic foreign policy, the U.S. isolated Myanmar for many years on the grounds of human rights violations, which hurt mostly the poor people of Myanmar rather than the military junta. This played right into the hands of the Chinese. Had the improvement of human rights been the honest motive, the U.S. would have adopted similar measures against China where the human rights violations have been on a far larger scale. Myanmar was simply an easy target to get rid of American guilt and to show muscle. Thus China got a decade of monopoly in Myanmar which it used to solidify long term strategic control over Myanmar's resources and privileged access routes to the Indian Ocean. Tibet is again strategically located to make this possible.

The Tibetans themselves can also do much more than they have. For one thing, they must urgently initiate the rise of a new face on the world stage under the mentoring of the Dalai Lama. The Karmapa is one such young, charismatic leader with a deep grounding in Indo-Tibetan Buddhism and sharp intellect. Unfortunately, he remains largely confined in India. According to some sources, the Indian government is unsure if he a Chinese plant -- like a Manchurian Candidate. This matter needs to get urgently resolved rather than after the Dalai Lama is gone from the scene. It is best to let the next generation of leadership become active internationally, and be tested in all respects while the Dalai Lama is able to mentor and watch over the transition.

We should not count on a change of heart among the next generation of Chinese. For China has done a good job in its education system to indoctrinate its youth to view Tibet as an integral part of China, and to demonize the independence movement as a conspiracy by hostile foreign powers with the top Tibetan leaders as co-conspirators.

The odds against Tibet are indeed heavy on such a loaded chessboard. But many other struggles also seemed hopeless in the past. I wish the Tibetan movement finds new champions among the youth of all countries.