Tibetan Uprising Day commemorates the uprising against Chinese occupation of Tibet that occurred in 1959. It has gained additional significance since then as the anniversary of mass protests against the Chinese government in Tibet in 2008. In Dharamsala, India, Tibetan Uprising Day is a mass outpouring of nationalist sentiment that expresses both the idealistic Tibetan desire for independence – made so popular in the United States by the proliferation of “Free Tibet” bumper stickers and t-shirts – and the more moderate and realistic demand for autonomy in Tibet, with Tibetans ruling over local affairs while still remaining a part of the People’s Republic of China. This autonomy, an autonomy which is promised to “autonomous regions” like Tibet in the Chinese constitution, has yet to materialize, and Tibetan emotions are high. These emotions reach their zenith on March 10th every year when exiled Tibetans, Tibetans who have slipped over the border for the occasion and supporters of the Tibetan cause converge on the Tibetan government-in-exile and the Tibetan Buddhist community in Dharamsala, India. Few Westerners ever witness this mass outpouring of emotion, but this year 18 Peddie students led by faculty members Cathy Watkins and Brad Nicholson were there to witness a historic transition.
The site of the ceremony in front of the Dalai Lama's temple
(cameras were not allowed for security reasons)
Earlier this year, the Dalai Lama – who had been both the political and spiritual head of the Tibetan community – relinquished his political role and handed his authority over to newly-elected representatives. These secular leaders form a representative government, the Central Tibetan Administration (CTA), which has taken over the political administration of the Tibetan exile community and now serve as the locus for negotiations with the Chinese government over the future of Tibet. While this transition was announced to the world in August, it did not become real for the Tibetan people until a more symbolic handover of power took place, a transition that Peddie students were lucky enough to witness. On March 10th, for the first time in 53 years, the Tibetan Uprising Day ceremony was not centered around the Dalai Lama, as it had been every year since 1959, but rather it focused on the Kalon Tripa, the elected prime minister of the Tibetan government-in-exile; the Dalai Lama was there, sitting in an honored position and clearly adored by the crowd, but he was an invited guest; for the first time in 53 years, he did not speak.
Local graffiti expressing the emotion of the Tibetan community
The two speeches, instead, were given by the head of the Tibetan parliament and the Kalon Tripa himself, a well-spoken, Harvard-educated Tibetan exile whose family is still living in Massachusetts. These speeches discussed the plight of the Tibetan people inside and outside of Tibet, including a laundry list of oppressive Chinese policies, acts of suppression and even atrocities allegedly committed against the Tibetan people; they acknowledged the deep emotions present by reiterating the Tibetan desire for independence; then they went on to propose a more moderate form of autonomy – a proposal that they call the Middle Way Policy – which they claim is owed to them as an “autonomous region” under the Chinese constitution. These speeches, given in both Tibetan and English, were clearly a plea to the world community, and the ultimate audience was clear: the speech was addressed to “the people of the world,” sometimes more specifically to “the West,” and the United Nations Security Council was directly addressed, as were specific world leaders whose support was seen to be essential. Barack Obama’s name was invoked more than once. Xi Jinping, China’s next leader, was the ultimate foil for theses speeches and in some ways the locus of Tibet’s hopes for the future; they are desperately hoping that he turns out to be a moderate who can look beyond “saving face” and understand the win-win value of a negotiated settlement to this ongoing conflict.
The mountains of Dharamsala (view from our hotel)
This was a momentous occasion in the history of Tibet, and Peddie students were lucky to be there. It was, of course, a thrill to have the Dalai Lama pass within a few feet of our group, to be able to see the smile on his face as he greeted the wildly enthusiastic Tibetan students we were sitting with, but the real weightiness of the moment came from his relative lack of involvement in the proceedings. This separation of church and state in a community that has for so long been a theocracy is both a vital step towards Tibetan autonomy and a shrewd move by the Dalai Lama to head off any potential disruptions created by his death, and it was a privilege to be there for the symbolic handoff of power. To witness history in the making like this is a rare treat that none of us will ever forget.