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Monday, January 3, 2011

Language, Identity & Revolution in Tibet

Jamyang Norbu

Posted: November 12, 2010 12:15 PM

The task of getting news out of Tibet these day has taken on the frustrating ambiance of cold-war research methodology. We haven't exactly gone back to the days of Sovietologists and China watchers poring over precious photographs of Mayday line-ups for scraps of usable information, but we're heading there.
Lhasa, the Tibetan capital, doesn't have a single representative of the international media posted there, not even a stringer. There is no one from the United Nations (or its many related agencies), The Red Cross, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Reporters Without Borders. You name it, not one representative from any of those variety of agencies usually jostling for a story or territory in every other conflict or disaster zone in the world. Even beleaguered Gaza has half-a-dozen such NGOs stationed there. Tibet is a dead zone as far as such access is concerned.
Information technology has eased the situation somewhat, but because of poverty, remoteness and the iron-grip of the world's most sophisticated and extensive system of information control and censorship, Tibetans can only send news to the outside world by using such (not easily available) technology in clandestine and rough-and-ready ways, one familiar end-product being the blurry cellphone video.
I watched a video of the Tibetan student demonstrations posted by RFA on their website and on YouTube. The first video of the demonstration in Rebkong on October 19th was blurry and clearly shot with a cellphone, but you could make out the thousand or so protesting children in dark-blue and white track suit uniforms. There were also other children in gray tracksuits and many in street clothes. They all looked very young. I didn't expect it but they started the protest march with a ki-sha, a traditional battle cry, a very nomad thing -- "kee-he-he-hee!" Then they began to chant their slogan, again and again: "mirig danyam, kayrig rangwang" (equality of nationalities, freedom of language).
The second video from Chabcha was of better quality. Probably a camcorder with a decent optical zoom was used. The demonstration (on 20th October) appeared to be taking place along a street across a broad river or culvert. The photographer is on a parallel road, this side of the culvert. The video begins with a tight shot of the front of the demonstration -- a mass of young men advancing forward. Then it zooms back slowly and you see a long line of people massed together tightly all along the road -- stretching back for at least half a mile. One report in the New York Times mentioned only a hundred students at Chabcha, but the reporter probably hadn't seen this video where one gets the impression of more than a thousand students demonstrating. The students at the Chabcha protest also appear somewhat older than those at Rebkong. They were probably high school students. But what gave me goose bumps was the way all of the demonstrators jogged forward in massed formation like soldiers going on the attack. The demonstrators chanted their slogan over and over "mirig danyam, kayrig rangwang". But it didn't come over so much as a chanting or cheering than an angry and aggressive shout or bark. This was not your usual student protest.
Mention of blurry cell phone videos in the context of Tibetan protests first appeared in a report in 2008 by Anne Applebaum, the Pulitzer Prize winning journalist and scholar (Gulag, A History). She was one of the few Western intellectuals who observed an underlying revolutionary feature in the 2008 uprising in Tibet. Others journalists and pundits, especially China experts, chose to play down the nationalist and revolutionary aspects of the protests, and interpreted Tibetan discontent as merely stemming from economic disparity between the Chinese and Tibetans, something that Beijing would probably correct down the road, if Tibetans just cooperated.
Applebaum wrote "Watching a blurry cell phone video of tear gas rolling over the streets of Lhasa yesterday, I couldn't help but wonder when -- maybe not in this decade, this generation or even this century -- Tibet and its monks will have their revenge." For Applebaum the 2008 events in Tibet represented one manifestation of a wider reaction of "captive nations", Uighurs, Mongols, Tibetans, rising up against the tyrannical rule of an old imperial and foreign power that has long oppressed smaller countries and societies surrounding it. Applebaum concluded that if Chinese leaders "...aren't worried, they should be. After all, the past two centuries were filled with tales of strong, stable empires brought down by their subjects, undermined by their client states, overwhelmed by the national aspirations of small, subordinate countries. Why should the 21st century be any different?"
Why indeed? But can a high-school student demonstration, no matter how large or widespread, be regarded, even in a peripheral way, as a manifestation of a greater national revolution? We should remember that both Rebkong and Chabcha had the biggest outbreaks of Tibetan nationalist protests in 2008. The population there also suffered greatly in the subsequent crackdown by Chinese security forces, with many hundreds even thousands being imprisoned, beaten and tortured. Some of the demonstrators were shot outright during the protests while a few others were killed in prison. In exile we received unsettling photographs of such victims from Amdo Ngaba through cellphones.
Furthermore, language is a tremendously volatile, even explosive issue in Tibet -- for a simple reason. The Chinese authorities had, during the period of the Cultural Revolution, made an extraordinary attempt not only to replace the written Tibetan language with Chinese, but also forcefully discourage the use of the spoken language among the populace throughout the Tibetan plateau. This was over and above the destruction of many thousands of Tibetan temples, monastic centers of learning, libraries, countless works of arts and worship, and the burning of many metric tonnes of rare and incalculably precious traditional literature -- when these were not, quite deliberately, used as toilet paper by Chinese soldiers and officials.
Pema Bhum, a scholar from Rebkong, in his Tibetan Memoirs of the Cultural Revolution, provides a personal and detailed account of the destructive campaign against Tibetan language and literature. Pema describes how Tibetan cultural and literary classics, also books on Tibetan grammar (even those earlier printed officially by the PRC) were withdrawn and banned as "superstitious" and "old thought". Because Tibetan was considered a "feudal" language, older Tibetan cadres who barely spoke Chinese, were compelled to address meetings (even in remote nomadic communities) in halting and atrocious Chinese. Pema Bhum was required to act as a "translator" on few such bizarre occasions. Pema Bhum concludes,
"The Cultural Revolution lasted ten years, ten years during which Tibetan language instruction came to a hiatus in many Tibetan areas. A generation of Tibetan youth was barred from their due chance to study Tibetan language. As their 'native' tongue began to change from Tibetan to Chinese, the Cultural Revolution came to an end."

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