Agam's Gecko
Saturday, March 29, 2008
Robert Barnett
Dr. Robert Barnett is director of the Modern Tibetan Studies Program at Columbia University.

ou may have seen this fellow, Robbie Barnett, discussing the Tibet crisis on any number of news outlets over the past few weeks. If you have, you're lucky, and will certainly be better informed on the fundamental issues and complex background of Tibet than you would be otherwise.

If you haven't heard him yet, stop reading this right now and go to view a short video clip at the scholarly, Tibetological blog Tibeto-logic (but come back when you've finished!). What he has to say is extremely important and helpful to understanding what's happening up on the roof of the world. The blog author Dan doesn't like to be quoted (he's an excellent writer and I don't blame him), but perhaps I can coax you over there with a very short one. "It is a video that tells you the story behind all those other videos."

Dr. Barnett has been talking to a lot of people recently, and he seems very plugged in to events in Tibet through his contacts. In an interview with RFA, he explained that what is now taking place in is completely different than anything that has taken place over the past 40 years. He distinguishes the events in so many of the rural areas (taking over of government buildings temporarily, removing the Chinese flag and raising the Tibetan one) -- which have a major significance both for political analysts and CCP leaders -- and the other types of incidents which he classifies into three kinds.
There’s the monk-led, Burma-type things, which are actually quite focused and manageable and negotiable; they have specific demands and are rather peaceful. Then there’s the ethnic-hatred riots, which is its own phenomenon in that one case in Lhasa. And then there’s the university-type, candlelight vigils, which are very peaceful.
But the symbolic takeovers across many parts of Amdo and Kham (within present day Qinghai, Gansu, Sichuan provinces) suggest that the Party's base in these areas, the peasantry, has been lost as a "loyal subject." He says there are some 20 - 30 cases of this category (the interview was last Thursday).

He also has a very informative interview posted yesterday in Foreign Policy (web only). He outlines the distinctions between exile politics and internal politics, which he says is more complex and sophisticated.
These protests are really about two things: A huge sector of the rural population has said, "Tibet was independent in the past. We reassert that belief. That doesn’t mean we demand that it be independent again, but we are reinserting that into the discussion." And, "The Dalai Lama represents our interests." I suppose a possible third thing is, "We are certainly not happy with Chinese President Hu Jintao." This is a huge political statement that nobody anticipated.
Think about that. The ramping up of Tibetan exile activities in the months before the Olympics, have been expected for months. Everyone knew that was coming, and the anniversary of National Uprising Day on March 10th was a logical (and openly planned) time to kick it off.

The five largest exile organisations (Youth Congress, Womens' Association, ex-prisoners' association, National Democratic Party and SFT) formed the umbrella group Tibetan People's Uprising Movement, and loudly proclaimed their upcoming activities months ago. The most anyone could expect from the people inside Tibet would be some small symbolic displays of nationalism on the Barkhor Square, which would be pounced upon within seconds by security officials before any photos are taken. This has happened on many previous March 10th's in Lhasa.

But that isn't how it went this time, and the need Tibetans felt, to do something spread quickly to the far reaches of the plateau. Barnett:
It’s not a groundswell; it’s a tidal wave. It’s the biggest thing to happen in Tibetan history for 40 years. In Lhasa, you get a protest as we [normally] recognize one. But that’s not really significant for China except in a PR way. They deal with those things with security operations; they crack down and put people away. This has nothing to do with the significance of what’s happening. The most significant of the 50 protests are the rural peasants taking over the countryside.
China has created a "symbolic form of politics," says Barnett, and the symbolism of the rural protests has already made its point.
We [in the West] think that people do politics by saying, "I'm going to stage this protest in order to get X." But nobody gets X in China. It just doesn’t work like that. You’re dealing with one of the biggest power systems in the world.
Snow Lions have been raised across a vast swath of the Tibetan Plateau, and those symbolic acts have completely changed the political equation.

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