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Special Weapons and Tactics police patrol outside the Jokhang monastery in Lhasa. Photo: Reuters

Time for West to admit its campaign to 'free Tibet' has failed

James Rinaldi and Kunsang Dolma say political arguments don't help


It's time to admit defeat; we in the West don't know a thing about how to "free" Tibet. For the past 25 years, we thought we were on the right path, but recent events in Tibet - most notably, the sight of desperate Tibetans setting fire to themselves - point to an elevated level of desperation that show us how misdirected our efforts may have been.

The people of Tibet have endured years of physical and cultural hardships at the hands of a Chinese Communist Party bent on Tibet's assimilation into their vision of a "Greater China".

Westerners sympathised with the Tibetan struggle and adopted the issue in earnest in the late 1980s. Since then, we've donated millions of dollars to Tibetan causes, built Tibetan schools and clinics and taken needy Tibetans into our countries and homes. Yet, we must ask: what went wrong?

Part of it is our fault. Instead of being faster on the ground, where an actual impact is realised, we have chosen to throw large sums of money at creating processes and initiatives that seldom address a problem directly or adequately.

Politically, real solutions to critical issues like self-determination, cultural genocide, and the return of the Dalai Lama to Tibet, seem to take a back seat to lobbying the US Congress for one more decree that goes nowhere, or one more finger-pointing accusation of China that will never result in any positive outcomes for Tibetans.

The only concept we are able to identify as coming close to an actionable Tibetan policy can be summed-up in the oft-repeated, dismissive mantra: "China and the Dalai Lama need to talk."

As conditions inside Tibet worsen, precious few individuals in either the Tibetan advocacy or governing community are taking the time to ask the hard questions about our role in this deteriorating situation and whether we should adjust our approach.

We are out of ideas on Tibet and not actively pursuing any new directions; yet, for those still willing to act, pragmatic solutions exist that can move the issue forward.

First, stop officially condemning China on Tibet. It creates both a climate for retaliation against Tibetans in Tibet and Nepal and allows China to derive a sense of ideological equivalency through their rebuttals. If there must be governmental involvement in the Tibetan issue, concentrate on the things that can realistically be done. For example, offer human rights-based incentives and tax credits for industries and individuals who support Tibet or work in countries that are friendly to the Tibetan cause.

Next, Tibet support groups lack a clear message. The activist creativity that started these groups has long since departed. Instead, they should help Tibetan culture move itself into the world as a positive force. Tibetans could be a singular, leading presence in a movement that seeks to empower all persecuted groups.

Finally, it's time for the West to get out of the way. We blew it. The only country that can effectively advocate for Tibet is India. Having given safe harbour to Tibetans since the time of Nehru, India sees Gandhian parallels in the Tibetan choice of non-violence and frequently offers feisty and vocal support to its Tibetan community.

The Western "international" campaign to free Tibet must give up relying on governmental action to save Tibet. It must give back the stewardship of the movement to the Tibetans themselves, and give way to a more focused, ground-based, regional effort with India as a supporting foundation.

Only then will the "Free Tibet" movement be able to reset itself away from being just another political argument with the Chinese, and back towards the ideas and programmes that reflect what all of us wanted to do 25 years ago: help Tibetans.

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: West must admit campaign to 'free Tibet' has failed