Tibet has a powerful image in the West – with stickers, flyers, videos, posters, and passionate, colorfully dressed campaigners raising signs decrying its oppression. It is difficult, if not impossible, to avoid awareness of the region. Yet the actual politics of Tibet remain shrouded in mystery. Most people would know that Tibet is being oppressed by China, but not much beyond that. While Free Tibet has a stylish campaign, the substance of the conflict remains elusive. What is the Free Tibet movement about?
Though its identity as part of China or an autonomous entity has changed multiple times throughout history, Tibet’s history as a free nation ended in 1950 under Chairman Mao. Tibetan officials say they were forced to sign a treaty which handed control to China in exchange for maintaining control over their own political system, control which is said to be largely a sham. Conditions under the party led to rebellion in 1959, in which Tibetans claimed thousands died (though China denies this). In March of that year, the Dalai Lama, Tibet’s holy leader and center of their culture, fled the country and set up camp in nearby India. He has been living in exile since. China’s Cultural Revolution saw the destruction of hundreds of monasteries and shrines, and a huge influx of Han Chinese migrating for work is warping the culture of the region.
Since then, Tibetans have had their rights increasingly restricted by China. Citizens have little to no access to news; religious freedom is restricted and detention is commonplace. Human Rights Watch published a special focus report on the treatment of Tibetans by China, calling for international awareness regarding what they referred to as deteriorating conditions, and Tibet caught new attention when monks began self-immolating in protest. Nearly 100 Tibetans had carried out this most desperate form of protest, to call attention to their plight. They demand the return of the Dalai Lama and increased religious and cultural freedom.
The Tibetan demands are not, by any means, unreasonable. And thanks to a large, well organized campaign, and a number of celebrity endorsements (ranging from Richard Gere to Paris Hilton to Russell Brand), Tibet has taken root in Western consciousness. The movement has been described as ‘fashionable’ – indeed, it has become part of modern popular culture. With mentions in shows such as the Simpsons and in music, the presence of the Free Tibet movement is impressive in both scale and endurance, and human rights groups have been taking full advantage of the momentum to support the cause.
Actual independence for Tibet i s highly unlikely; the Dalai Lama himself, speaking from exile, no longer calls for an independent Tibet. Rather, he has spoken of Tibet’s need for economic support from China and how China could benefit from Tibet’s culture and spirituality, existing in a symbiotic relationship with significantly more freedom for Tibetans. China has seemed largely indifferent to the Dalai Lama’s propositions and dismissed claims of human rights violations as Western propaganda. Yet international rights groups believe that continually raising awareness will lead other governments to pressure Beijing towards addressing the grievances aired by Tibet, and secure basic rights for its citizens.
– Farahnaz Mohammed