The unrest in Tibet and the need for a reasoned debate

In respect of the ongoing (and otherwise shocking and depressing) events in Tibet, I thought it was time for a few updates.  

One of them is the open letter/statement to Hu Jintao that has been circulated amongst Tibetanists and Tibet-related specialists since last Thursday, and which I myself have signed, despite the fact that my previously stated opinion is less than optimistic.  

Much remains to be said regarding both the ongoing developments and the manner in which public and specialist opinion is unfolding. For now, I will simply direct the reader’s gaze to the very informative insights and admirably well-argued viewpoint of Andrew Martin Fischer, a brilliant young analyst of the socio-economic context of contemporary Tibet.  

I also want to reproduce a slightly more extended version of my views regarding anthropologically-related reactions to the situation, which was recently posted as a comment within an ongoing dialogue/debate that is taking place over at the Savage Minds blog. It goes without saying that I welcome any comments or critiques on what is an otherwise complicated and highly charged issue whose longer-term consequences are no longer really predictable.

“I hate to weigh in on this by playing devil’s advocate, but I really think that those of us involved in the study of contemporary Tibet have to try – despite whatever moral outrage we may feel at ongoing injustices – to bring a little more analysis and a little less passion to the debate.

Insofar as this is meant to be a forum for reasoned anthropological debate, I hope that the following comment will be viewed in such a light, and not discarded as lightly as McGranahan has done with Patrick French’s “asinine”, but actually rather realistic and reasoned (if depressing or unpleasant) op-ed in the NYT.

So here goes, with apologies.

In both the original post and subsequent comments/replies by Carole McGranahan I detect the same passionate, but ultimately uninformative, discourse that spotlights the Chinese (and, by extension, the provincial and TAR governments in historically Tibetan areas of the PRC) as a monolithic entity engaged in a repetitive (by which read ahistorical), vicious and “cynical” cycle of suppression vs. a “Tibet” that is primordially represented by a morally virtuous Dalai Lama, rather than by the plurality of Tibetans living in Tibet.

While McGranahan seems to be very excercised by the Chinese government’s crude attempts at suppressing the political dimensions of the Tibetan struggle, she recognises that there are “all other sorts of issues” involved in the latest demonstrations. However, at no point does she actually go into detail regarding the perspectives and contexts of Tibetans in Tibet. With regard to the politically incorrect suggestion that international pro-Tibetan strategies of support may actually be causing more harm than good, she stresses that we must “give [Tibetans in Tibet] a little more credit than that, and acknowledge, perhaps, that they might just be pissed off at their situation…and with good reason.”

But again, she provides no further insight into current Tibetan sentiment, beyond the obvious, but insufficient, fact that Chinese rule has been oppressive and resented from the outset.

That Tibetans are pissed off is not at issue, of course. HOW and WHY Tibetans in Tibet – not the Dalai Lama, nor the Tibetan diaspora (who represent a valid but only partial and often distant aspect of the multifarious Tibetan realities within the PRC)- are pissed off, however, is a question that is not being properly addressed by focussing primarily on the Dalai Lama/Chinese government dichotomy.

The issue is not what degree of “ethnic” or tribal hatred is present in the current Tibetan struggle, but to recognise that there are a plurality of voices and reasons behind many of the groups and communities that have bravely expressed their fury in recent days.

While it may seem that I am splitting hairs, it actually does matter that we distinguish between those monks who originally demonstrated in Lhasa from those in other parts of the Tibetan world, as well as from the multiple groups of disaffected, primarily urban, primarily young, Tibetans who spontaneously followed up with their own shows of outrage in many different towns, communities and municipalities. As anthropologists are well aware, differences in social groups and contexts do matter, even when there are underlying threads of shared grievance. Hence, the Tibetans and circumstances of Dechen County (Yunnan), for example, are not the same as those in Gansu, or Qinghai or Lhasa, even though they may all be connected by various shared feelings of disaffection, exasperation and frustration, as well as by a profound loyalty to the figure of the DL.

Distinctions do matter, because they point to a witch’s brew of socio-economic (not primarily ethnic) circumstances that beg a far more sophisticated analysis than an outpouring of passionate, morally-charged solidarity for “the” Tibetan cause, as though such a singular thing can even be defined.

I have no easy explanations for what is currently going on, nor am I insensitive to the very real, valid and deeply-felt expressions of disempowerment and frustration of Tibetans both inside and outside of Tibet.

But I do believe that recent scholarship on Tibet offers enough information and insights on the multiple realities of Tibetan life-worlds as to allow us to construct a more reasoned, and therefore probably effective, approach to the plight of Tibet.”


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