Monday, April 28, 2008

What Do Tibetans Want?

What if someone held a protest and nobody could be there to report it?  And even if they could, what if nobody heard what the protesters were saying? Or if they heard, what if they didn't understand? Or what if the things they were saying got hijacked or drowned out by other people with their own very different concerns? Could such a protest be said to have taken place at all?

In recent weeks news from Tibet has been painfully slow in getting to the outside world. I just today received this information from an English translation of Wozer's Chinese-language blog entry of April 26, 2008:
Two nuns, 32-year-old Lhaga and 30-year-old Sonam Dekyi in Draka Nunnery in Ganzi County in Kham (Ganzi Prefecture, Sichuan Province) were arrested by the police on April 23, when they distributed “Wind-horse” banners with scriptures and leaflets written with such words as ‘Long Live the Dalai Lama” and “Tibet is a independent country,” etc, while shouting slogans in the county seat of Ganzi County.
{On the same incident, there is a bit at RFA.  Thanks for the tip from Agam's Gecko. Note how the PSB officer does not verify the story when the journalists phone him. Indeed, he denies it.}
Like much of the more recent information coming out of Tibet, to my knowledge the facts about this event have not been verified. Indeed, verification of news is one of the main obstacles preventing news about Tibet from reaching the newspapers. This was so even last month, when news agencies seeking verification would often desperately search for a phone number, any old phone number, of a hotel or office in the vicinity of the protest. Even then they would often get people unwilling or "not authorized" to say anything.

With all the normal channels of communication, the ones we take so much for granted in the 21st century, closed off by the party in power (a story we heard back in 1987), it makes it all the more crucial to find out what these protests are all about. One way of doing this would be to examine what we can objectively know about what the protesters are saying. And one way we can be clear about their demands in a way that doesn't require much in the way of 2nd-hand verification is to look at what they say on their protest banners, banners like the one in the photo above held by monks marching in Rebkong in Amdo.

Of course there are obstacles, not least of all the fact that most of the protest banners have been written in Tibetan language only, even if the protest took place in Beijing. And in one case at least it's too difficult to read them in the videos & photos we have. Watching the video of the Labrang monks' protest of April 9th, I was frustrated not to be able to get a clear look at the Tibetan words, although I imagined, after freezing frames every second or two, that one cloth banner started with the words "drowa mii tobtang" ('gro-ba mi'i thob-thang), which means 'rights of human beings,' or more simply, 'human rights,' which might suggest that this was the main issue on these monks' minds. I got the clearest glimpse of this banner in this Dutch-language newscast. This shows a 2nd banner, even less legible.  But you can also see the monk saying in very fast and for myself (I'm ashamed to admit) only partially intelligible Amdo language translated into Nederlands in the sub-titling as We hebben geen vrijheid, helemaal geen vrijheid, en ook geen rechten.  We willen dat de Dalai Lama terugkomt."I imagine that may have made perfect sense to you, but I'll try a translation anyway: 'We have no freedom, no freedom at all, and no rights either. We want the Dalai Lama to return.' Clear enough? I think so.

The Rebkong protests were not well covered by the international press, first of all because it seems no tourists were present, or endangered by the events. Sad to say, but I believe this does make a difference to them when deciding what is newsworthy. And besides, as I said before, because the usual journalistic standards for verification have proven difficult to fulfill.

So first, before talking about the banner and its inscription, I'd like to copy a long account of the recent history of demonstrations in Rebkong/Rebgong, based on the same source quoted above, the blog dated April 17:

As early as two months ago, i.e. on the evening of February 11, because the military police disrupted the religious ceremony held by the local monastery in Rebgong (Ch. Tongren) County in Tsolho (Ch. Huangnan) Prefecture, Qinghai Province, it caused great resentment among the local monks and lay people. Thus, they shouted slogans demanding freedom of religious belief and wishing a long life to the Dalai Lama. Consequently, they were dispersed by the local government with tear gas, and they madly arrested over 200 monks and lay people. 

The next day, this prompted several thousand monks and lay people to stage a demonstration at the county seat, demanding the local government to release the monks and lay people who were arrested. Under the pressure, the local government had to release all those who were arrested, but three monks and one old man were severely injured from beating, and had to be sent to the emergency room so as to save their lives. 

Soon afterward, the authorities transferred special police from Xining and Zhengzhou (in the local hotel there are banners on which such words as "Welcome the special police from Zhengzhou to stay at our hotel") to Rebgong. Suppressed by the massive forces, the “Incident of February 11” that happened in Rebgong was temporarily calmed down, but we can say this was the prelude to the series of incidents that happened after March 10 in Lhasa and protests which spread to all Tibetan areas. 

On March 17, all the monks of Rongwu Monastery in Rebgong (Ch. Tongren) County made incense offering at the mountain pass to the west of Rongwu Monastery, reciting in unison prayers for the Dalai Lama. 

Later when the monks were about to go on to protest in the downtown, they were prevented from going by lay people who were crying out loud and pleading with them not to go. Some monks slashed their wrists under great indignation and resentment, and appeared to be very excited. 

At that time, the armed policemen were on high alert. In the end, the monks made several demands to the government via the reincarnated lama of the monastery Sharitsang Rinpoche: the armed policemen cannot patrol around the monastery; dismantle the security cameras installed in the monastery; Buddhist activities such as making incense offering should not be stopped unreasonably. 

The local government agreed to all the demands. However, in the afternoon, the local officials organized work teams to visit Tibetan families, forcing Tibetans to sign their name on the written pledge. They had to pledge not to go on protest etc. 

At the same time, on March 18, police with special duties from Xining were dispatched to Rebgong and the authorities continued their revenge against the protesters. 

On April 15, the authorities again arrested the old man and monks who were injured through beating in the “Incident of February 11” and kept them in custody. Thereafter, some monks and lay people who participated in the protest were arrested one after another. At the same time, they had been keeping a close watch on and controlling the dissidents in the region. This morning (April 17) some monks from Rongwu Monastery went to inquire about the conditions of monks and lay people who are imprisoned by the authorities, the local government ignored them, and did not give any answers to them. 

On their way back to the monastery, these monks were surrounded and blocked by the military police. First they arrested 20 monks on the spot. The common people pleaded with the police and attempted to prevent them from taking action; soon quite a great number of these lay people were also arrested and taken away. This incident happened around noon. 

According to a local person, at that time about 100 monks and lay people, who filled four military trucks, were arrested. Among them there was a reincarnated lama known by his Dharma name Khaso,* who is a well respected 60-year lama. He was also arrested when he was trying to mediate. Throughout the incident, none of the monks or lay people resisted, they were just expressing their wishes and appealing. 

In the afternoon, the authorities dispatched a great number of military police to rush to Rebgong from Xining. It is said that, in reality, they are infantry soldiers who changed into military police uniform and changed their plate numbers as well. Meanwhile, a great number of fully armed military police charged into Rongwu Monastery, carrying batons and machine guns. They searched all the living quarters of the monks, confiscating all the photos of the Dalai Lama and all the DVDs concerning the Dalai Lama. Many monks were arrested and taken away from the monastery. The local people said that 80% of the monks in Rongwu Monastery** were arrested, and altogether at least 200 monks and lay people were arrested. 

At present the monastery is rather empty. There are only a few old monks left in the monastery, but even they are not allowed to leave the monastery. The local people’s morale is rather low, and they are sad and indignant. Even those Tibetans who are incorporated into the Chinese system are very dissatisfied. Everyone feels insecure, and the atmosphere is rather tense."
{*For more about this respected religious teacher, 80-year-old (!!) Alak Khasutsang, along with a photograph, look here. I've already placed him in my short list of heroes (and by 'heroes' I do not mean martyrs) for his willingness to put himself in harm's way in order to negotiate peace. (And Yes, this list most definitely includes Grace Wang or rather Wang Qianyuan, a young woman who deserves to be the pride of Chinese people everywhere, and I'm confident she will be in the near future.) While you are there, take note of the protest banners at the top of the page. The one on your left is the same one depicted above, just in a different photograph of the same event. **If you would like to know about the history of Rongwo Monastery, see the book by Gruschke listed below.}
According to the source of the photo, it was taken during the demonstrations of March 17. You will notice that the faces have been 'fuzzed' to prevent recognition. This is sadly necessary since they might well be used as evidence in a country that recognizes no such thing as a legal demonstration (the only exception, in actual practice, being when it seems China's national pride has been slighted; and of course Hong Kong is also an exception for the time being ...).

Let's have a look at the wording which, as might be expected in a banner, is crisply and concisely worded. In direct letter-for-letter transcription (transliteration) according to the Wylie system, which is practically the standard system, it reads like this: 
gong sa gdan zhu /
rang dbang rtsol len /
You could roughly pronounce this in a central Tibetan dialect (of course these Amdo monks would read it with a different pronunciation) as:
kongsa dänshu /
rangwang tsöl len /
We'll analyze this word-for-word using the phonetic version. Kongsa means 'High Earth' or 'Lofty Level' [Level of Buddhist spiritual attainment, called Bhumis in Sanskrit].

I guess it's fairly well known that Tibetans rarely refer to His Holiness as "the Dalai Lama." It has become the accepted international norm, so when Tibetans speak in English, they will certainly do so as well. There are certain frequently-used ways to speak of His Holiness in Tibetan, of which Kongsa is only one. Others are Kündün (sku-mdun), "the Presence"; Kyabgön (skyab-mgon), "Lord who Protects" or "Lord who Provides Refuge"; Gyelwa Rinpoché (rgyal-ba rin-po-che), "Precious Victor" ['Victor,' Sanskrit Jina, is usually used for the Buddha'], and Yishin Norbu (yid-bzhin-nor-bu), "Wish-granting Jewel."

Dänshu, being a very polite term (what is sometimes called 'honorifics') literally means "to request to take [His] seat," and often means 'invitation' or, understood as it must be here as a verbal form, 'to invite.'  Some might have preferred to see a 'high honorific' used here, but I think that doesn't matter much (Amdowas are not famous for their use of honorifics to begin with). It isn't especially clear what the tense of the verb ought to be, although I assume it is or was meant to be imperative (or a future used as a kind of subjunctive). So I read this first line to mean "Invite the Dalai Lama!" although I suppose it could just as well be rendered, "We invite the Dalai Lama!" or "The Dalai Lama ought to be invited."

Rangwang, as you know from the latest Tibeto-logic blog, means 'independence.' In its literal syllable-by-syllable meaning, it could be awkwardly translated as 'own power' (being under one's own power rather than under that of another).

Tsöl, means to work hard for something, to strive or to seek.

Len means to take.

So I would translate the second line as "Seek [and] take independence!"

I hope you not only learned a little Tibetan today, if you haven't already, but that you would also have a little clearer idea about what at least one group of Tibetan protesters say they want, inscribed in very large and clear black letters drawn on white cloth for all to see. And if you have any clarifications to offer, I'd especially welcome the comments of Tibetans.  Amdowas all the more so.

Read more, see more, hear more, feel more, think more, predict more:

Cao Changching, Independence: The Tibetan People's Right, Chinese Studies in History, vol. 30, no. 3 (Spring 1997), pp. 8-28.

Cao Changching & James D. Seymour, eds., Tibet through Dissident Chinese Eyes: Essays on Self-Determination, M.E. Sharpe (London 1998).

Dru C. Gladney, Internal Colonialism and the Uyghur Nationality: Chinese Nationalism and Its Subaltern Subjects.  Available here.  Note especially the quote from a 1995 interview with Liu Binyan, a former Xinhua journalist who became a dissident and moved to the U.S.  He said,
Nationalism and Han chauvinism are now the only effective instruments in the ideological arsenal of the CCP.  Any disruption in the relationship with foreign countries or among ethnic minorities can be used to stir 'patriotic' sentiments of the people to support the communist authorities.  
We can certainly read the truth of these words in the newspapers today.

Andreas Gruschke, The Cultural Monuments of Tibet's Outer Provinces: Amdo, Volume 1, the Qinghai Part of Amdo, White Lotus (Bangkok 2001), pp. 51-54, on Rongwo/Rongwu (Rong-bo) Monastery's history, with remarkable color photographs on pp. 139-142.

Thomas Heberer, Old Tibet a Hell on Earth? The Myth of Tibet and Tibetans in Chinese Art and Propaganda, contained in: Thierry Dodin & Heinz Räther, eds., Imagining Tibet: Perceptions, Projections, and Fantasies, Wisdom (Boston 2001), pp. 111-150.  An earlier German-language version is available with the title Das alte Tibet war eine Hölle auf Erden. Mythos Tibet in der chinesischen Kunst und Propaganda, contained in Thierry Dodin & Heinz Räther, eds., Mythos Tibet, DuMont (Cologne 1997), pp. 114-149.  In recent days the author, a well known Sinologist, has written against demonizing China; see this for example, which contains these words:
"In the eyes of Europe and North America, Tibet has long been something very special and mystical. Tibet is considered an exotic entity, which is idealized. A book published a few years ago described this phenomenon as the so-called 'myth of Tibet'," said Heberer.
Interesting to notice that he refers to the same book, Mythos Tibet, that contains his article about how Chinese idealize and exoticize Tibetans.  (It is entirely possible that his statement is misrepresented.  This is old news, but the PRC news-release agency always only makes use of the bits it knows to be politically acceptable.)

Jamyang Norbu, From Tibet the Cry is for Rangzen, contained in: Edward Lazar, ed., Tibet: The Issue Is Independence, Parallax Press (Berkeley 1994), pp. 75-78.  This has been republished recently in the author's new book, Shadow Tibet.

Elliot Sperling, The Rhetoric of Dissent: Tibetan Pamphleteers, contained in: Robert Barnett & Shirin Akiner, Resistance and Reform in Tibet, Hurst (London 1994), pp. 267-284.

Wu Naitao, Independence of Tibet: Untenable and Futile, Beijing Review, vol. 27, no. 25 (June 18, 1984), pp. 20-21.

If you would like a fast review of the events in Tibet during the Ides of March and events leading up to them, I think one of the more reasonable and factual (certainly more intelligible) accounts is this one.

A collection of some of the most disturbing and dramatic photographs from the Tibet protests between March 14th and March 17th may be found at the webpage of Citizen Journalism Report. But be warned that the first pictures are extremely difficult for beings who are at all human to look upon without extreme pain.  Very honestly, I recommend preparing your mind as far as possible before tapping on this link.  Be aware you will be seeing some bullet-ridden corpses (Tibetan corpses that the PRC press denies ever existed).  And you may rest assured that sufferings of Chinese shop owners in Lhasa are also well represented here. And if you look carefully, you will locate a very fine AP photo of the Rongwu monks' defiant act of incense burning on March 16th. At the same time, you should be aware that a few of the photos are mislabeled, including the one with the following label:
In this image made from video and provided by APTN, a protestor speaks with authorities, Friday, March 14, 2008, in Lhasa, Tibet. Police fired tear gas to disperse Buddhist monks and others staging a second day of protests Saturday in western China in sympathy with anti-Chinese demonstrations in Lhasa, local residents said. (AP Photo/APTN)
This and the photo that follows it were both taken in Nepal (in Kathmandu most probably), not in Lhasa.  (For more examples, see; they got this part right, the fact that news agencies got confused about what took place where.  I'd give the link, but everybody in the universe has had a look at it already.)

I feel I benefitted from listening to this hour-long audio program at Tibet Connection with its very interesting comments by Dr. John Powers of Australian National University, among others.

For more on what is going on inside Tibet, have a look at the latest news in Agam's Gecko.

I'd also like to recommend Donald S. Lopez Jr., How to Think about Tibet, published on March 31, 2008, and available online at the OpenDemocracy website.  Dr. Lopez, professor of Buddhist and Tibetan Studies at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, makes connections between Tibet and Latvia that certainly never occurred to me.  While you're there, have a look at the piece by Gabriel Lafitte, published on March 18, 2008: Tibet: Revolt with Memories.

The incense burning of March 16, 2008 (or was it March 17?) on a hill above Rongwu Monastery (AP Photo/Cara Anna).  Another photo here.

Update of April 28 on conditions at Rongwu Monastery (from Wuzer's new blog):
It is reported that since April 21 the work team consisting of over 50 cadres carried out the “Patriotic Education Campaign” in Rongwu Monastery in Rebkong County (Ch. Tongren) in Amdo. The monks were required to criticize the Dalai Lama, and those who disobeyed were struck with batons. At present, Rongwu Monastery is controlled by a thousand military police, and monks are not allowed to enter or leave the monastery. There are about 400 or 500 monks left in the monastery, among whom over 160 were injured and over 300 are still in custody.


  1. The political apsiration of Tibetans inside Tibet, as witnessed by the banner such as the one featured in your blog, is for Bod-Rangzen (Tibet Independence).

    Tibetans gave their lives for that cause during March and April, although if one reads the supposedly informed views of Robert Barnett, we could be forgiven for incorectly concluding that it was a minority of exiled Tibetan 'hotheads' who demanded Tibetan independence.

    I wonder how the aforementioned lecturer of Modern Tibetan Studies would interpret the message on that banner (alhough I understand he is not at all fluent in written or spoken Tibetan)? Given his previous comments it would be no surprise if Mr.Barnett concluded it read something alng the lines of:

    'We only seek improved economic benefits and an increase in our religious freedoms'.

    Apart from the troubling distortions of supposedly expert commentators, it would appear the world, including the cat, is aware of what the vast majority of Tibetans desire, independence for Tibet. Now all we need to do is ensure that the TGIE reflects and honours the common will of its own people.

    Bod Ranzen Tsangma Yin!

  2. One minor correction - rangwang means "freedom", or more literally "self-power", not specifically independence. The word for independence or national sovereignty is rangtsän (usually spelled rangzen) and is more difficult to give a literal breakdown for.

    Don't get me wrong - it's plenty obvious that there's an overwhelming demand for independence, which can be heard well in this video from Labrang:
    But it would help to be meticulous on accurate translation and interpretation when the issue at hand is bogus academics' misrepresentation of Tibetans' demands.

  3. Hmm, I read back to your previous article and I suppose my comment about rangzen vs rangwang is a little bit redundant in light of it. Next time I should read better before posting. I still think it's a little bit misleading though - rangwang is a very broad term, and if one translates it as "independence" it's likely in a philosophical sense of non-dependency and self-sufficiency rather than a specific state of being for a nation. Nonetheless I found the citations in your previous article very interesting and I'd look forward to more of that kind of writing.

    All of this is a great reminder to readers that thoughts and aspirations from one language and culture don't necessarily come in direct correspondence with those in another and that one really has to examine the meaning of people's words in their own language and from their own perspective rather than just blindly throwing around translations.

  4. Dear Rich,

    I agree with you that rangwang is the broader term. It means something like "I'll do things myself for myself" or "We'll do things ourselves for ourselves" or just "We'll handle our own business." I think rangtsen has more of a sense of "We'll rule ourselves ourselves."

    But I'd also say that the former, being the broader term, includes the latter within its range of meaning. In the end it's rather a subtle point. One would have to take into account the contexts of usage, of course (and even local understandings, perhaps). I'd invite comments from anyone who has any way to clarify this. I do think it's an important point.

    When used in a political context, as is obviously the context when a demonstration is going on, I don't think there is any reason to award these two words separate meanings, do you?

    Personally, I'd shy away from the 'freedom' translation, since anyways I'd save it for Tibetan expressions that have to do with 'disentanglement' ('grol-ba) or 'free-ranging' (rgya-yan), being free from bondage, etc. But I don't want to go far into that now.

    I'm glad we're having this discussion. I'm glad we're free to have it.


  5. Somebody over at SHADOW TIBET, comment no. 44, gave a video link to a speech given in Tokyo on May 6, 2008, by the CTA Parliament Chairman of the Tibetan Exile Government KARMA CHOEPHEL TAGLUNGTSANG in which he lists the four main demands of the Tibetan protestors inside Tibet. You can see the video yourself, in both English and Japanese and a very little bit of Tibetan HERE.

    Here are the four points that they demand:

    1. Full independence.
    2. His Holiness the Dalai Lama to come back to Tibet and be their leader.
    3. Tibet belongs to the Tibetan people.
    4. Chinese brothers and sisters please go out of Tibet.

    While fully aware that the Tibetans inside Tibet are not in a mood to compromise, the Dalai Lama has offered a compromise solution, and at the same time offered to use His considerable influence so that it will find acceptance.

    A good basis for agreement?

  6. I would just like to add that the character before the word gongsa, that looks like number '7' is only used when writing gobgsa chok in reference to His Holiness. If there ever was doubt that it meant His Holiness.

    a tibetan who just discovered your blog and applaud you for the meticulousness.

  7. Dear Anonymous,

    No, actually, you just pointed out that I wasn't all that meticulous after all now was I? It is very difficult to see in this particular photo of the banner, though you can see it in other photos. I think the [Tibetan form) number '7' is always placed before HH name. I know in Nepal they used to do a similar thing with the king's name in order to multiply the "shree" (a hard Sanskrit word to translate, but something like 'glory'). Do you think there might be a connection?

    I hope you will help me out and take a close look at the other blog pages and let me know about other things I most probably overlooked. And thank you so much for writing.

    (I know you meant gongsa chok (gong-sa mchog) instead of gobgsa chok... I just mention it for the sake of others who might find it a reason to get confused.)


  8. I totally disagree with the lead article while interpreting those slogans. Rangwang -does not necessarily stand for independance in the current context -it should be understood to have more freedom meaning more autonomy. The two words Tso -len should not be presented as if they have two different meanings. It is indeed a phrase meaning struggel or action.

  9. Dear Anon,

    Thank you so much for writing! I think your phrase "totally disagree" may be slightly overstated. But do you see their expression as advocating a civil rights style 'freedom struggle' for equal rights as citizens of the PRC? Or for religious freedoms? Or am I not reading your use of the terms 'freedom' and 'autonomy' correctly? And rtsol-len is certainly a phrase containing two words that have two different meanings, is it not? Or do I perhaps misunderstand you here, too? So, with the risk of putting words in your mouth, are you reading rang-dbang rtsol-len as '[personal or civil] freedom/autonomy struggle' or 'struggle for [personal or civil] freedom/autonomy'? I'm eager to hear a little more clarification on these points.



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