China – 3: Lessons from Tibet

China has a problem in Tibet. What can South Asians learn from it?

A lot, if we want and can keep our prejudices out of the way.

Reflect on the following:

There is no enemy country intervening in Tibet. There are no militants infiltrating from across international borders into Tibet. There are no Muslims in Tibet. There are no rogue leaders in Tibet. China has poured immense amount of development money into Tibet.

And yet, there is a problem in Tibet. Why? Is it because Tibetans are ignorant, ungrateful and unaware of what is good for them?

Or is it because very few countries in the world have figured out how to co-exist with ethnic, linguistic and religious minorities? Tibet is proof of this assertion because there are virtually no confounding factors involved.

China has a similar problem with the Uighur population but the religion of the people and the alleged links to global Islamic terrorism create barriers to understanding. Tibet should remove any doubts that the sensitivity and sympathy that is needed to accommodate minorities does not come easily or naturally to human beings.

The developed countries are by no means free of this malady. One needs only consider the history of the Roma people who have suffered indignities, discrimination, and violence across Europe. (South Asians need to be aware of the Roma because of their migration from the Indian subcontinent over a thousand years ago.)

It is thus no surprise that there has been virtually endless conflict across the world over the issue of minority rights. It may be politically convenient to find excuses and rationalizations for the actions of one’s own government but in the end they are little more than excuses and rationalizations. The real reason remains the inability to find a way to live on equal terms with minorities and to resist the temptation of using them as scapegoats in times of stress.

In the abstract, it should not be hard to understand that groups considering themselves distinct, for whatever reason, wish their identities to be acknowledged and to be respected. They find it humiliating that others can think of aspects of their culture as tradable commodities that can be bartered away for promises of material development. They resent the condescension that goes with attempts to buy their loyalty with political concessions. They are hostile to attitudes that assess their existence and importance only in terms of larger strategic interests.

It is insensitivity to this acknowledgement of identity and its acceptance on equal terms that generates grievances and disaffection in groups just as it would in individuals who are treated as inferiors or as lesser beings. And such disaffections and grievances, when they are ignored, generate the conditions that encourage manipulation by adventuresome elements inside or outside sovereign countries.

South Asians need to think soberly about the lessons from Tibet. Human beings are not a means to an end no matter how strategic, important, or obvious the end might seem. We have to strive for a non-hierarchical society in which no individual is inherently better or more privileged than another. Every human being must have equal protection and the freedom to pursue his or her beliefs and lawful interests without fear of coercion. Only then will be able to advance towards a world without discrimination.

A slide show on the Uighurs can be seen here. The commentary is superficial but some sense of issues can be gleaned.


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