Doing Peace Wrong

His Holiness the Fourteenth Dalai Lama

Nicholas Kristof’s Sunday essay in the New York Times, “Fed-Up with Peace”, sounds a depressingly cautionary note about the future of the Tibet – China conflict. Young Tibetans are frustrated with the Fourteenth Dalai Lama’s strategy of peace and now widely favor violent resistance. “We think the Dalai Lama has been too peaceful,” Mr. Kristof quotes one young Tibetan monk as saying. “There is a big discussion now about whether we should turn to violence.”

But the problem is not the impotence of pacifism; it is the how ineffectual the Dalai Lama has been in using non-violence for political change.

Don’t get me wrong. The Dalai Lama is a profoundly great man, and the purity and simplicity of his philosophy of peace has been an important and influential source of good in the world. The question on the table, however, is not whether his teaching is flawed; it is whether he has used his commitment to peace as an effective instrument of the political change he seeks.

The Dalai Lama is often touted as an heir to the great legacy of Mahatma Gandhi; and he also is not immune to making this reference, as he did in his acceptance of the Nobel Peace Prize. Certainly, the Dalai Lama has used his tremendous natural charisma and the universal attractiveness of his philosophy of love to win a large and enthusiastic following around the world and to draw attention to the injustice and violence of the Chinese military occupation of Tibet, which he refers to as “cultural genocide.” But Tibet is no closer to political autonomy and cultural liberation than it was when the Dalai Lama and his government took flight into exile in 1959.

There are a number of important historical differences, which make the Dalai Lama’s independence effort quite a bit more challenging than Gandhi-ji’s. The most important, perhaps, is that Gandhi-ji’s adversary was a liberal, democratic society. While the British government was understandably reticent to acknowledge the injustice of its colonial rule, it was, ultimately responsive to growing public sentiment which saw the inconsistency of British constitutionalism and the way in which India was ruled. China’s autocratic government labors under no such democratic handcuffs. China is also emboldened by the historical ambiguity of the arguments in favor of one-side-or-the-other on the question of entitlement to govern Tibet. Britain’s only moral justification for continued rule of India was an outmoded Nineteenth Century paternalism, which was never much of a cover for its colonial venality to begin with.

But the Dalai Lama also holds a number of key advantages. In Gandhi-ji’s day, the cycle-time for a news story to reach England from India could be measured in days, was largely limited to print, and was mostly filtered through the editorial prism of British journalism. Today, the news is multi-media and largely instantaneous. The Dalai Lama is able to travel the world and deliver his message directly, without editorial intermediary. He enjoys considerable celebrity and immense esteem in the global media. The recent embarrassments experienced by the Chinese in parading the Olympic torch around the world demonstrate the remarkable breadth and depth of international support for the Tibetans.

Why has the Dalai Lama not been able to convert these crucial advantages into Tibetan independence? Not, as the radical young monks would have it, because of the Dalai Lama has followed Gandhian non-violence; rather, it is because the non-violence of the Dalai Lama lacks Gandhian shrewdness and opportunism.

Gandhi-ji understood that the political power of non-violence involves forcefully and relentlessly targeting the conscience – if not directly to the perpetrators of injustice, then at least to those who might influence their actions. If Gandhi-ji’s tool was the persuasive force of ethical absolutes like the human right to self-determination and the fundamental injustice of colonialism, that “Truth” (satya) was not expected to work its reforming magic simply by force of ontology. The tool of truth was to be actively deployed in the service of politics. For Gandhi-ji, the ceaseless strategic struggle was to find ever-more effective means to ensure that the truth reached its target audience in ways most likely to influence change. It is not enough for the world to merely see things as they are; the world must also be moved to act in favor of a solution. Were it not for this caveat, the Dalai Lama’s pacifism might well have been successful. He has certainly won the moral debate with the Chinese; but the Chinese are not capitulating, and the international community has thus far declined to press the issue.

Gandhi-ji understood a fundamental distinction between mere “passive resistance” and his strategy of non-violent political opposition, satyagraha. “Passive resistance,” he wrote, “has been universally acknowledged to be a weapon of the weak…. Satyagraha is a weapon of the strong.” The strength – indeed, the outright bravery – required of Gandhi-ji’s satyagrahi comes, in significant part, because of the crucial political theater created when the forces of power are seen to brutally crush well-deported people who seek only justice. Gandhi-ji did an awful lot of jail-time and more than a few well-publicized hunger strikes. His non-violent protesters regularly got the crap beaten out them, with the newsreel cameras rolling. They were well-trained for their mission of non-violence, intelligently deployed, and well-disciplined to resist retributive impulses. None of this was accidental, and they took their lumps (and worse) to great political effect. The British, eventually, had no stomach to see their military continually brutalize innocents.

The Dalai Lama, on the other hand, seems to believe that righteousness alone, by its mere existence, will ultimately prevail. He has declined to actively train his people in the practices of non-violent protest; and so, it is not altogether surprising that the recent protests in Lhasa degenerated into moderate rioting once the Chinese military crackdown started. This lack of discipline created a media talking-point for the Chinese (who have neither great faith in, nor particular adherence to the concept of truth) and somewhat diminished the Tibetan moral high-ground.

When the Dalai Lama vigorously denies Chinese claims that he instigated the March protests in Lhasa, he is perfectly credible; but it is hard to see the merit of his position. Better that he would have lead a massive non-violent seige of the Tibetan capital, preparing his followers, like Gandhi-ji did, for a courageous, well-planned, orderly, entirely peaceful civil disobedience. No doubt the Chinese would respond with heinous, oppressive violence as always; but the moral contrast would be on display to the world in powerful, provocative images.

Freedom always comes at a high price when totalitarianism or foreign occupation holds sway. But better to rip the plaster off quickly than to suffer through endless, ineffectual half-measures. Indian freedom fighters were prepared to endure beatings, arrest, jail, and martyrdom in the service of liberty. The Dalai Lama seems unprepared to ask his people to incur the cost, even though it continues to be paid anyway, with interest, year-after-year.

When the Chinese military began shooting protesters in March, the Dalai Lama was quick to urge Tibetans to back-down. He characterized his position as advocacy of peacefulness but, in reality, there was nothing essentially violent about the conduct of the Tibetan demonstrations to begin with. The truth is: the Dalai Lama has never been willing to allow Tibetans to be put in harm’s way. Gandhi-ji and Martin Luther King understood the indispensable political utility of harm’s way.

One could well argue, as the Dalai Lama himself might, that he is moved by compassion to shield his people from the full-force of Chinese brutality. On the other hand, the slow, festering suffering of the Tibetan people shows no remit. It is therefore unsurprising that the youth of Tibet are looking for another way.

Tibet should not abandon peace; it should just do peace right.


9 Responses to “Doing Peace Wrong”

  1. 1 spiritwoman 18 May 2008 at 9:05 pm

    Hi, read your analysis of His Holiness’ path of peace vis-a-vis Mahatma Gandhi’s with much interest. I think there are different ways of looking at this, and I’m glad you’ve articulated the “it’s not working with HH” position so well. I happen to think that success and results are not always measured in terms of finite happenings, that the currents of history and reality run way deeper than what we can possibly fathom at any given moment. Let’s wait and watch, things have a way of happening, tides of turning. And as HH is fond of saying, “China is also changing.”

  2. 2 smita 19 July 2008 at 5:22 pm


    On the topic of great leaders (and the occasion of his 90th birthday) what do you think of Nelson Mandela’s leadership?

    I know he was brave and endured much and achieved quite a bit (but maybe apartheid would have ended even without him?). Perhaps my expectations are too high. Still I can’t help feeling disappointed when I see how South Africa has turned out, and how little Mr. Mandela has been able to influence Mbeki (and Mugabe next door) while the grand vision crumbles into a rubble of cynicism and despair.


  3. 3 mbjesq 21 July 2008 at 11:06 am

    Nelson Mandela’s greatness is not simply that he was an inspirational leader in a freedom movement that had an urgent moral imperative; it is in large part about the way in which he acceded to power and began the healing process in a tragically torn society. But certainly, Tabo Mbeki is a blot on Mr. Mandela’s legacy, both because he has failed to reproach Mr. Mbeki for his many and disastrous failings and because Mr. Mbeki was his hand-picked successor.

    Were it not for the pure evil of Robert Mugabe in such proximity, there would certainly be far more attention paid to the abject shame of Mr. Mbeki’s leadership. There is no Mbeki policy untouched and unspoiled by his deep racism and paranoid post-colonialism. His willful, delusional revisionism is second only to that of George W. Bush, leading directly to South Africa becoming the AIDS capital of the continent and the violent crime capital of the world. He has emasculated the African Union during his presidency and certainly enabled the Mugabe disaster, today’s announcement of Mugabe-Tsvangirai talks notwithstanding.

    Speaking of Mr. Mugabe, one of the most tragic aspects of his brutal, racist authoritarianism is that he was, for more than a decade after Zimbabwe’s post-civil war independence, the model Prime Minister and President. Zimbabwe experienced few of the anticipated post-colonial, post-apartheid birthing pains, and was, by all accounts, a remarkable example of democracy, social integration, and economic strength. All that has changed, of course. Which just goes to show: if power corrupts, African power corrupts absolutely.


  4. 4 smita 22 July 2008 at 10:29 pm


    What you say is depressingly true. Do you think there is any chance that if Mr. Tsvangirai does enter some sort of power-sharing agreement with Mr. Mugabe, it might bring the country back on track? It seems more likely that Mr. Tsvangirai will become vested in the same system and, eventually, just as corrupt.


    p.s. I think Tabo Mbeki is worse than George W. Bush. He just didn’t have as many devastating weapons at hand.

  5. 5 mbjesq 1 April 2010 at 12:21 pm

    There is a new documentary, The Sun Behind the Clouds: Tibet’s Struggle for Freedom, showing the frustration of young Tibetans with the non-violent strategy of the Dalai Lama.

    Has anyone seen it?


  6. 6 10zing 27 April 2010 at 8:22 am

    Hi, I am one of the co-directors of The Sun Behind the Clouds. I read your piece with great interest and agree with your analysis of the Dalai Lama’s dilemma. Our film does, indeed, raise these very issues and I do hope you get to see it. Where do you live? We are having a limited theatrical release in the US before doing a general DVD release later in the year.

    all the best –

    Tenzing Sonam

  7. 7 mbjesq 27 April 2010 at 11:13 am


    I’m in Vancouver, BC. But why don’t you use this opportunity to announce the full extent of the theatrical release. As you can see from the “Live Traffic Feed” box in the right column, we get readers from all over the map, many of whom might be interested in seeing your film. Leave a comment with the schedule or a link to the schedule.



  8. 8 mbjesq 9 August 2011 at 3:22 pm

    On the inauguration of Harvard Law School’s Lobsang Sangay as the first secular leader, Kalon Tripa, of the Tibetan people in exile following the Dalai Lama’s resignation from all activities within the Central Tibetan Administration, it is fitting to revisit this essay and ponder the future of Tibet and the Dalai Lama’s legacy of ineffectual nonviolence.


  9. 9 mbjesq 29 September 2014 at 10:41 pm

    The Dossier

    I saw a great new film by independent Chinese filmmaker Zhu Rikun, The Dossier, a wonderfully constructed portrait of Tibetan writer and activist Tsering Woeser. The film tells the story of Woeser’s awakening to her ethnic identity and her almost accidental transformation from a thoroughly assimilated, Han-subsumed, Mandarin-speaking party cadre to a blacklisted Tibetan nationalist.

    The documentary is part talking-head-exposition, part camera-as-witness, part road-trip, and part performance. Of all these filmic devices, the latter is by far the most compelling. It consists of Woeser reading her official Chinese Government dossier to the camera, page-by-page, line-by-line, front-to-back. It is both revelatory and confessional in ways that belie the matter-of-fact, dry-as-dust recital of the bureaucratic documents. The painfully inauthentic biographical narrative contained within these authoritative and authoritarian files are fabulously authored in a nightmarish duet of Maoist false consciousness between the subject and the system.

    The Dossier is germane to this thread, of course, because one of Woeser’s chief projects is to document the epidemic of self-immolation among Tibetans protesting their abject subjugation under Chinese rule. A short essay by Woeser, translated into English and published by High Peaks Pure Earth, offers important insight into this most committed form of political protest. It illustrates the high cost of putting nonviolence back-on-track after decades of “doing peace wrong”.

    Woeser, the Karmapa Ugen Trinley Dorjee, and other leading activists and religious leaders have urged Tibetans to cease the self-immolations, which number 134 as of this date. The Dalai Lama has notably refrained from dissuading protesters from self-immolation and has led prayers for those who have perished in these incidents. Does this mark a shift in strategy? The Chinese seem to think so, and laughably equate it to “terrorism in disguise”. In any case, the trend is no less tragic and no more politically effective in the present global shit-show by virtue of his unspoken acquiescence.

    China is betting on realpolitik for the continued non-engagement of the United States and Europe with respect to the occupation of Tibet. Tibetans continue to look for conscience-troubled intervention from the international community. Sadly, self-interest seems to be required for the “world’s policemen” to rouse themselves into even diplomatic confrontation these days. Fair-mindedness and compassion are the motivations of yesteryear. If Tibet had its chance, it may well be long-gone.

    And the desperation of Tibetans grows ever more profound.

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