One news story brought into focus through a Q & A session with an expert at the Center for Ethics
Today's Focus is with Dr. Arri Eisen who talks about his work with Tibetans and the political and social challenges they face.
Following a military conflict in 1951, Tibet was incorporated into The People’s Republic of China and became the Tibet Autonomous Region. His Holiness the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan people’s forerunner and spiritual leader, and thousands of other Tibetans have escaped Tibet since 1951. It is estimated that there are about 130,000 Tibetan refugees living all over the world. The facts about the original military conflict are contested. Many Tibetans and Tibet advocates believe the land was unfairly taken and continues to be occupied.
Pressure has been mounting on the Chinese government to address social inequalities and the rights of minority groups. In the past few years, activists in the Free Tibet movement have staged global protests annually. Of late, there have been growing numbers of protestors who self-immolate. These stories were covered in a recent Ethics in the News post.
Below is an excerpt from a conversation with Dr. Arri Eisen, a Professor of Pedagogy in Biology and the Institute for Liberal Arts, co-founder of the Emory-Tibet Science Initiative, and an affiliated faculty member of the Center for Ethics. This summer will be his fifth trip to Dharamsala with the Emory-Tibet Science Initiative. He has done extensive lecturing, writing, and science curriculum building with Tibetans in India and the U.S.
What have been your impressions of Tibetan sentiments in relation to the ‘Free Tibet’ movement?
I haven’t been formally involved in anything related to the ‘Free Tibet’ movement. One thing I didn’t appreciate until I had direct involvement with Tibetan refugees is that they are a people without a country. Their situation is sad and I can see a deep sadness that hangs over many Tibetans all the time. It’s not hatred, especially with the monks, which seems unusual to me. There isn’t a hateful sentiment towards China, just a sadness of being away from their families. This sadness isn’t worn on the sleeves of the handful of Tibetans I’ve met. After I got to know them, it took a while before they would share their experiences and feelings. If a generalization can be made, Tibetans seem like engaged, good people who aren’t angry at the world.
Have there been any significant changes recently in the movement for Tibetan freedom?
There is a huge force of Tibetans online communicating with each other. They seem to be trying to address the ‘lostness’ in their situations. The Internet has provided a way for them to keep track of each other and to keep Tibetans in Tibet informed. Tibetans in Tibet generally haven’t had access to a lot of information.
Now, because of the Internet and youtube, more people can become informed. It’s unfortunate that no country has stepped in to do anything significant about it, but it’s difficult because it’s China. It’s complicated.
How can we best understand the relationship between China and Tibet?
There are a number of subtleties in the relationship. Most of the Chinese people, if they’re informed, aren’t happy about political and social inequalities. Many of them support the Dalai Lama and support Buddhism, as China was historically a Buddhist country.
On the other hand, China claims they’re modernizing Tibet. To a certain extent they did contribute a lot as far as infrastructure. Before the Chinese take-over Tibet wasn’t the ‘shangri-la’ that many people think it was. There have been improvements. Once I became interested in these issues and talked to individuals, I realized there’s a lot more to it and nothing is black and white.
What is significant about this recent spate of protests?
Since the protests in March of 2008 there have been annual protests around the world. In the last two or three months approximately thirty Tibetans have self-immolated, including monastics and even lay people. Who knows why people do these things. It’s not an angry or violent protest; it’s a singular type of protest. It’s more of a ‘Tibetan’ protest because they aren’t trying to harm anyone else.
Tibetans don’t have many options in terms of what they can do. Their culture is getting destroyed, Tibetans in Tibet can’t easily escape anymore, and they’re stuck. This is their way of trying to draw attention to the cause.
How does the Dalai Lama fit in to all of this?
China is nervous because the inequalities in their system are revealing weaknesses. They are using the Dalai Lama as a battering ram. If he were to return it might be the last straw that sparks nationwide revolt. There’s a sense that if he went back, it could bring down the whole system. The fear is there, and because of that fear, they’re trying to demonize the Dalai Lama.
The Dalai Lama is the closest thing to a saint I have ever had the honor of meeting. In some ways, he can afford to do and say certain things because he doesn’t have any formal political power. Because of his wisdom and charisma the Free Tibet movement has gotten a lot of international attention. Dharamsala and the Tibetan community in exile is a little tiny village that is like a gnat in China’s eye that could blind them.
What can be done?
The U.S. government is at a stand still when it comes to China. We have too many interests in China and the Chinese know it. There are current economic gains at stake and potential gains that haven’t been tapped into. They own most of our debt from the Iraq war.
At Emory there’s a student club, and there are numerous Free Tibet activists around the world. Not to be cynical, but I don’t see any significant changes being made outside of the Chinese government itself. It seems that at some point their system is not going to work. Change must come from within.