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Conflict and Autonomy

by Michael Vatikiotis, Himal, May, 2008

Above all, the striking contrasts between the peaceful resolution of a vicious armed conflict in Nepal, the imposition of democracy in Bhutan, and the scenes of violent protest across the Tibetan areas of China tells us one thing in particular: there is no substitute for dialogue and consultation when it comes to resolving conflict.

Who would have thought the roof of the world could be such a turbulent place? From the foothills of the Himalaya, to the mountain passes of Bhutan, and up on the high Tibetan plateau, people have recently been voting for change – either with their feet or at the ballot box. This burst of political action has taken the international community by surprise, though it should not have done so. There is indeed a salutary lesson here for anyone paying attention: societies everywhere, no matter how isolated or ‘traditional’ they might be, will act to assert their rights to security and freedom.

What makes the recent events in Nepal, Bhutan and Tibet so instructive are the varied approaches to change that have been utilised, and the starkly contrasting responses by the respective states and the international community. The fact that these situations can be found simultaneously unfolding in similarly traditional communities should teach us about the dangers of using notions of relativism and context to judge human actions.

In the first place, we should be wary of notions that culture and religion are critical variables in politics. Tibetan Buddhist monks, who roamed angrily through the streets of Lhasa in mid-March, share the same fervently observed religion with the people of Bhutan, who just two weeks later voted in one of the most placid transitions to democracy that the world has seen. The variable here is obviously not conservative Buddhism, but rather the wisdom of those who hold power.

Let recent events in the Himalaya also be a lesson to those who regard religious fervour as an inevitable path to violence. In Buddhist Bhutan and mostly Hindu Nepal, longstanding traditions of monarchy associated with these faiths are being, for the most part, peacefully supplanted by representative models of government. International observers must shed romantic Orientalist notions of ‘Shangri-La’, and recognise once and for all that democratic change is not constrained so easily by religious tradition and dogma.

Above all, the striking contrasts between the peaceful resolution of a vicious armed conflict in Nepal, the imposition of democracy in Bhutan, and the scenes of violent protest across the Tibetan areas of China tells us one thing in particular: there is no substitute for dialogue and consultation when it comes to resolving conflict.

Deploying dialogue
Nepal was for many years considered a sleepy Hindu kingdom, and the armed conflict of the past decade, provoked by the failure of multiparty democracy to enfranchise the rural poor during the 1990s, was largely ignored around the world. After almost a decade of fighting, which left around 14,000 dead, it was hard to imagine dialogue with the hard-line Maoist movement that was leading the insurgency. But with the help of mass protests demanding peace, the conservative Hindu monarchy capitulated. Instead of violent change, the people of Nepal opted for elections and constitutional reform. Peace is not a forgone conclusion in Nepal, of course, as neither the Maoist insurgency nor the Nepal Army has been defeated; the recent campaigning before the Constituent Assembly elections was marred in places by violence. But at least forces that once fought with automatic weapons are now arguing over constitutional arrangements for power-sharing.

China’s problems with Tibet have their roots in the clumsy way in which the integration of the Tibetan people and their unique culture and religion has been handled by administrators sent from Beijing. Although unrest has been brewing for some time, support from a well-organised Tibetan nationalist movement overseas, coupled with the ability of angry people in remote areas to communicate over the Internet and mobile telephone, helped to spark the most serious challenge to Beijing’s authority in two decades.

In the past, China has wisely deployed dialogue to keep the Tibetan challenge at bay. Since 2002, there have been several rounds of talks between representatives of the Dalai Lama and the government in Beijing. Given the scale of the unrest and the sensitivity of the 2008 Tibetan uprising, coming just months ahead of the Olympic Games in Beijing, perhaps it is predictable that Beijing’s initial response to the recent unrest has been one of repressive outrage. Few governments in the world, of course, initially react to internal revolt with overtures of dialogue. But as events in Nepal suggest, there simply is no straightforward way to push popular aspirations back into the bottle.

The unrest in Tibet comes at a time when China is being challenged to assume a more responsible stake in global affairs. Chinese officials have recently acknowledged, albeit privately, that Beijing’s traditional refusal to become involved in the affairs of other countries will have to adapt to increasing calls for greater participation in international peacemaking efforts in places such as Sudan and Burma, where China has economic leverage. It would be a pity if this encouraging trend is stymied by reaction to unrest on the Tibetan plateau.

Rather, China should take comfort from the fact that many states around the world have faced challenges to their sovereignty at home and later learned from those experiences, eventually becoming useful agents of international peace. One need only think of the way that Sweden, Switzerland, Italy and Germany have created templates for local autonomy, or the lessons learned by the United Kingdom in the devolution of power to Scotland and a successful resolution of the Northern Ireland conflict. Indonesia, Nigeria and India are all countries that have learned that the path to integrating minorities is paved with legislation that grants local rights and forms of autonomous government, even if this is a painful surrender of central control.

There is certainly no shame in defending sovereignty, but the world expects dialogue rather than confrontation to be the preferred route to settling internal conflict. Equally, it would be a shame if the Dalai Lama, who has regularly professed his desire for a non-violent solution in Tibet, fails to follow-up on the overtures to dialogue from Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao.

Aceh example
By far the best approach to fostering real dialogue between Beijing and Dharamsala would be for the two sides to engage in direct talks, dispensing with the intermediaries. Perhaps a friendly third country in the neighbourhood could discreetly arrange such a meeting. In the current context, after all, it is important to remove this dispute from the glare of international publicity, which has conflated Tibetan grievances with Western impulses to ‘spoil’ the Olympic Games based on the misplaced view that China’s undemocratic political system does not merit the honour of hosting the games. After all, although respect for human rights is a universal standard by which to judge a state’s behaviour, there is no ‘gold standard’ for political systems.

There is nothing much for China to fear from dialogue with the Dalai Lama. Recent experience elsewhere in Asia would suggest that mediation and negotiation, however tricky, tends to favour the cohesion of existing states by developing new and more modern forms of autonomy, which address longstanding grievances and aspirations. The slippery slope that Indonesia feared as it broached talks with the Aceh rebels has, just a few years later, turned into a glide path towards successful conflict resolution. It now stands out as an example for others.

Therefore, at this sensitive juncture, the question for China is how much time will be wasted before sense prevails and the talking begins.

Michael Vatikiotis is the Singapore-based Regional Representative of the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue and former editor of the Far Eastern Economic Review.


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