As former additional secretary for the Central Tibetan Authority in the Department of Information and International Relations, Tenpa C. Samkhar has been fully involved in Tibet’s decades-long nonviolent struggle against the Chinese. With the Dalai Lama aging, China remaining unflinching in their hardline repression of the Tibetan people and increasing numbers of Tibetans self-immolating, there’s a growing sense of desperation. Five years ago Samkhar co-founded the Active Nonviolence Education Centre (ANEC), an international advocacy organization based in Dharamsala, India, committed to teaching the practicalities behind nonviolent living and struggle.
What do you consider active nonviolence to be?
First I would like to define nonviolence. Nonviolence is action that is devoid of violence. It could be action without physical, verbal, psychological or thought violence. A lot of people tend to misinterpret nonviolence as being in reference only to physical violence. People also misinterpret nonviolence as simply showing patience and remaining passive and devoid of action. That is totally wrong, which is why we use the adjective “active.” We should be nonviolent in nature but take peaceful action—either physical, mental or verbal—where necessary in resolving any kind of conflict, whether between two individuals or at the international level.
What are the most effective means of active nonviolence?
Nonviolence can be defined in basically two categories: principled nonviolence, which refers to nonviolence based on religious, spiritual or traditional belief, like nonviolence according to Buddhist, Christian or Hindu belief. The second category is pragmatic nonviolence—the practical, modern strategies of nonviolence, which is more or less the same as active nonviolence.
The American author of From Dictatorship to Democracy, Gene Sharp, shows 198 different strategies of active nonviolence for resolving problems at different levels. Two of the most successful nonviolent actions are the Indian independence movement led by Mahatma Gandhi in which he led a very powerful nonviolent movement that introduced non-cooperation across a range of areas—political, social and economic—with the British. These methods turned out to be really powerful and effective, which finally made the British forget their idea of clinging on to power in India and to go back to their country. A second is the American civil rights movement led by Martin Luther King. King was a follower of Gandhi who believed very much in the Gandhian philosophy of nonviolence.
People regularly point to those two examples as being successful cases, but in those cases they were dealing with democracies. In the case of China and Tibet, how effective is nonviolence?
Unfortunately the current regime is absolutely hardline, inhuman and repressive, so nonviolent actions are not really working in the way we hope for and expect. Take the self-immolations, now up to 120 Tibetans inside Chinese-occupied have taken the last resort, the final nonviolent sacrifice. Going to the extent of dying for a cause. This is a drastic step as the Dalai Lama often says. The Central Tibetan Authority (CTA) also appealed for an end to self immolations in Tibet. But despite 120 self-immolations taking place in Tibet and despite all the very strong public outcries internationally, the regime in Beijing is still holding on steadfastly to their arrogant and inhuman policies inside Tibet. As a matter of fact, let alone changing their policies for the better they were blaming His Holiness and the CTA that the self-immolations are being instigated from Dharamsala [Tibetan government-in-exile], which is totally not the case. Dharamsala has been appealing to the Tibetan people to never, ever resort to such drastic moves.
When referring to self-immolations you said it is the last resort of nonviolent action. So you consider it to be a nonviolent act? Because a lot of people don’t.
That’s a very debatable question. When His Holiness the Dalai Lama was interviewed by the Indian TV station NDT, they asked whether he thought self-immolations were violent or nonviolent. His Holiness’ direct response was it depends entirely on your motivation. If you’re responding out of anger and hatred against the Chinese then His Holiness said perhaps this is not nonviolence. But if your motivation is such that you are dying for a very pure cause, that your death may save the lives of thousands and thousands of people, then His Holiness said this is nonviolent.
During the Indian independence movement Gandhi said that the nonviolent activist should always be prepared for the final sacrifice, giving up your life for a cause that you firmly believe is absolutely noble and ideal. And Gandhi himself declared a fast until death on many occasions.
A lot of people feel that using nonviolent means is great and then if it doesn’t work then some people turn to violence as a last resort. Do you think that if there is no other option violence can be turned to as a last resort or do you think there is always a nonviolent means to resolve issues?
Our political leader Lobsang Sangay said our brothers and sisters in Tibet who resorted to self-immolations could easily have burned Chinese cars, attacked Chinese police, destroyed Chinese shops and restaurants, but they never resorted to these violent actions. They simply threw kerosene oil on their bodies and then sacrificed their lives with the belief that attacking the Chinese is violence.
They were doing violence to themselves, but at the time of death their firm belief was that they were sacrificing themselves for a noble cause and they also expected drastic changes from the Chinese leadership to come to a real negotiating dialogue with the Dalai Lama and to give more freedom for the people in Tibet. At the time of self-immolation their cries were ‘Freedom for Tibet, we want His Holiness to come back to Tibet.’
ANEC had issued two press releases advising Tibetans to conduct a non-cooperation movement on a national scale. What difference does it make if you are one or two Tibetan families or even one or two towns to burn Chinese goods. I don’t think that’s a powerful action. But if you economically boycott on a global or national level it is. Non-cooperation will paralyze China’s economic, political and social system.
I’ll give you one example. Set one very important date on the Tibetan calendar for an action—July 6th is the birthday of the Dalai Lama. On that day all Tibetans inside Tibet who work in different professions are suffering from a very serious stomach ache. The teachers cannot go to teach. The factory workers cannot go to the factory. The bank people cannot go to banks. That will paralyze the system at least to some extent. It’s what Gandhi did in India. Another action instead of self-immolating is for one hundred thousand Tibetans who are willing to die for the cause to lay flat on the highways.
Some people would wonder what the backlash would be?
That we could never see. We have to forget the backlash. When we take an action we need discipline, planning and unity—the three very important components for any nonviolent action. As far as nonviolent action inside Tibet is concerned if we are too timid and cautious then no action can be taken.
Tibet’s population is largely rural as is India’s. As the world becomes more urbanized and people become more dependent on supply chains and less self-sufficient, how effective is non-cooperation in countries that are more urbanized?
One of the most important components of the traditional Buddhist philosophy of nonviolence is interdependence. His Holiness stresses that this is an interdependent world. Each and every individual depends on another, one nation depends on another for its existence. So from that point of view non-cooperation in the long run may not be an advisable thing. But for the time being, when China is controlling Tibet with such repressive and hardline methods, that is the most effective method to resort to.
Do you believe that if you don’t speak out it means you are complicit and are actually part of the problem?
I disagree. There are people who very firmly believe in the right thing but are not vocal. Just because somebody doesn’t speak up you can’t accuse that person of believing in the wrong thing. Of course, speaking out is definitely much better, but you cannot say that someone who does not speak up believes in the wrong way just because they keep quiet. I think that is wrong. That is injustice.
One of ANEC’s aims is to introduce active nonviolence methods for resolving problems, disagreements and predicaments at all levels of society. What are some of these methods that people can apply in their daily life?
Peaceful dialogue. Nonviolent communication. We have to be very cautious with the words we use because a lot of the problems in our day-to-day life between individuals, groups or countries are caused by using the wrong kind of words and talking without thinking.
We often emphasize nonviolent living, nonviolent conduct. The most important thing is to transform your mind. Behave very gently, friendly, soft-spoken. Never irritate anyone unnecessarily. Never use the wrong words and always have a tolerant attitude. Even if somebody irritates you don’t backlash with the wrong kind of words but be tolerant, understanding and show patience. That way you are really transforming yourself. And if you do it once, twice, thrice then you really get transformed.
Before you make society nonviolent you have to make yourself nonviolent. Before you tell others to be nonviolent you have to transform yourself to be nonviolent.
Read more on this topic in CHANGE THE CONVERSATION: Using nonviolent action to pry open the doors of dialogue>>