There was a time when famous actors talked about Oscar awards over Tibet. Rock stars gave benefit concerts and Angela Merkel, then Chancellor, met the Dalai Lama. „Free Tibet“ was a slogan, of such power and apparently so attractive in its message that cups, T-shirts and stickers were sold. Freeing Tibet was the „good cause“ of the eighties and nineties, and also for a short time in 2008.
Today’s March 10 marks the 60th anniversary of the Tibetan uprising against their Chinese masters. At the time, monks disguised the 23-year-old Dalai Lama as soldiers for fear of being kidnapped and sent him on a dangerous flight over icy mountain slopes. Eventually he reached India, where he still lives today. It was followed by tens of thousands of followers in the weeks and years after.
In London, Berlin and American cities, a few activists will protest in front of the Chinese Embassy. At Prague City Hall the Tibetan flag blows. The Dalai Lama invites to festivities in his exile. But that was it soon. It has become quiet around Tibet, China has taken the roof of the world.
Tibetan activists and politicians will now contradict and say that the struggle is as alive as it was once. They say that for many years. But if you look around you have to admit that there have been better times.
China is now the largest economy and the main trading partner for many states, it has one of the largest armies in the world. In the Dalai Lama, Beijing sees a „wolf in a monk’s robe“. Heads of state who used to like meeting the spiritual leader may now think twice about whether it’s worth it. India, China’s neighbor and exile home of the Dalai Lama, officially calls him a „most respected and honored guest.“ But for festivities, New Delhi often lately does not send a high representative.
China acts tactically. It seals off Tibet for foreign diplomats and journalists. The tourists who are allowed to come are mostly Chinese. During the anniversary and beyond, no foreigner may enter Tibet. There are still arbitrary arrests there. The practice of Tibetan Buddhism is not prohibited, but strictly controlled.
Beijing has its own interpretation
The Panchen Lama, Tibet’s second highest religious leader, disappeared as a six-year-old child; he has not reappeared until today, 24 years later. Still every year still young monks are lit in protest; but one learns little of it. There are hardly any pictures from Tibet and if they are, then they are enchanting: massive mountains with white peaks, Buddhist monasteries and around them the modern age. There are now tunnels in Lhasa, multi-lane roads and a fast train to Shanghai. According to Beijing, Chinese soldiers have freed Tibetans from millennia of feudal rule and isolation.
In the meantime, a generation of Tibetans who only know the country through stories tells the story of exile. Every diaspora goes through a process of change, that is inevitable. But 60 years is a long time. Many want to look ahead, not back. Nowhere is this more apparent than in India, where the vast majority, an estimated 150,000 exiles, live.
Their status here is difficult, they are not officially refugees, but they are not citizens, de facto stateless. Since India offers to offer them citizenship, many young Tibetans face a difficult choice: do they want to gain the right to land and the security to stay? Or would that, as many older people fear, be the betrayal of the matter?
And perhaps one has to say in the meantime: The Tibetan strategy is not ideal to keep in conversation. The Dalai Lama condemns the suppression on the ground, but is ready to compromise in the next breath. Praise harmony and compassion and praise China for its economic power. The political leadership has long demanded no more independence, but only autonomy.
That is why Tibet is sometimes called the „panda of world politics“: popular, but not very effective. This is cynical, but there is something to it: If you do not constantly produce news with your situation, always smile and hold your other cheek, you can count on sympathy. But not with the same attention.