By Roland Watson
September 28, 2008

This article is associated with a photography exhibit, by Kirran Shah. The photos depict a Tibetan demonstration in northern India in 1998, the day after Thupten Ngodup, a Tibetan exile, died from burns from self-immolation.

That the photos are ten years old raises the question of their relevancy. Tibetans were dying then, but they are also dying now. Who cares about old news?

The photos are relevant, and powerful. They are a reminder that China’s conquest of Tibet is still underway. It is of course also still completely unacceptable.

The photos raise the question of why the conquest continues: why the pressure to bring it to an end has never been created.

In one way, this question is beyond the scope of a short article. Books have been written about China’s invasion of Tibet. But in another way, the answer is simple. The activist community that cares about Tibet has not been able to generate the requisite pressure.

To get a behemoth like China to relent requires great pressure indeed. The dictators are old school. With them the argument that it would be better to have a Free Tibet, and close and cordial relations between the neighbors, has no currency.

China is a leading military power, and an armed confrontation with it, on behalf of Tibet, would require something approaching a world war. Perhaps more reasonably, Tibet could secure its freedom by initiating a local revolution, to make the cost to China too great to bear. This has never been tried, due to the policy of non-violence set by the Dalai Lama. It further would require sponsorship for the Tibetans by a foreign power, including funds, arms and training, which itself is a highly unlikely prospect.

The only other way the Tibetans can be freed is if an international movement is organized to force China to bear the necessary level of cost. An opportunity to impose such cost, or at least a good portion of it, through the venue of the Olympics, has just passed. The cost was not imposed, and the opportunity was missed.

Activists dedicated to freedom for Tibet tried their best, but it wasn’t enough. The basic reason for this is that there weren’t enough activists. Had a larger movement existed, George Bush and Nicolas Sarkozy would not have attended the Games, and numerous athletes would have made podium protests. The Olympics would have hurt the dictators Hu Jintao and Jiang Zemin, rather than helped them.

If you were to take 1,000,000 people at random and ask them about Tibet, you would probably get the following range of response.

- 900,000 wouldn’t even know where it was, or would believe that it was and always had been part of China.

- 90,000 would understand that China controls Tibet and that its control is disputed.

- 9,990 would know that China violently annexed Tibet fifty years ago, killing tens of thousands of people, including monks and nuns, and destroying monasteries; and that since that time it has conducted a reign of terror and also encouraged the migration of millions of Chinese in an attempt to exterminate the Tibetan identity.

- 8 or 9 would care enough to visit Free Tibet websites and perhaps make a donation or buy a t-shirt.

- 1 or 2 would join such a group, and participate in demonstrations and other actions on behalf of a Free Tibet.

While these numbers are rough estimates – the last few increased slightly during the torch relay protests, but now what? – the basic picture is clear. There are nowhere near enough activists working to create pressure on China. The world won’t go to war with China; the International Community isn’t going to arm the Tibetans; and we haven’t been able to generate enough pressure with activism. For the last, we just had the best opportunity in decades, and we failed.

A similar case is the situation in Burma, although the military junta there is weak, relative to China, and also hated by the Burmese public. (The junta’s tyranny is a form of internal conquest.) It should be much easier to achieve success in Burma than Tibet. Still, an opportunity for a humanitarian intervention, to make aid drops to the victims of Cyclone Nargis, just passed. One of the reasons why there wasn’t an intervention – the risk of an attack by the regime on aid helicopters – could actually have been used, had such an attack occurred, as a pretext to send in special forces teams to decapitate the regime, which action would have been vigorously applauded by the Burmese people. But, no one did anything, either to help relieve the suffering, or to take advantage of such a prospective opportunity. There was just a lot of bluster about a “responsibility to protect,” which responsibility clearly is not taken seriously.

The Burmese pro-democracy movement, unlike Tibet, includes groups of armed freedom fighters, but there is also no willingness to give them support, even though such support would create a much stronger, and unified, resistance. With material support, these groups could launch major offensives against Burma Army positions, and greatly increase the pressure on the top generals to flee.

Finally, the activist community for Burma, like Tibet, is small, and poorly organized and funded.

Why aren’t there more activists? Tibet and Burma are two of the worst problems in the world. The global population is over six billion. Why won’t more people get involved?

To answer this, it is necessary to distinguish between internal and external activists. You are the former if a cause is your cause; e.g., you are from Tibet or Burma. You are an external activist if you are from somewhere else but have become so concerned about the situation that you feel compelled to act.

In a sense, the first are not even activists. If you have a serious problem in your life you have basically given up if you don’t do something to try to make it better. Working to improve your life is an obligation, not something extra. Internal action, though, clearly is activism if one works to organize others, particularly if this involves risk. The many Burmese pro-democracy leaders who have confronted the regime and tried to rally the Burmese people, and been imprisoned and tortured as a result, are indubitably activists.

When I say that there are not enough activists, this isn’t a rhetorical statement. The activist community has specific demographics. To recruit more people, these demographics need to be addressed.

As just suggested, activism means something extra: doing something in addition to your ordinary life. For people inside a cause, this is often a great challenge. The repression that accompanies many causes means that it is a full time job just to survive. People devote all their effort to dealing with the problems in their daily lives, and to trying to get a little breathing room. They have neither the time nor the energy to do more.

For example, the case has just been made, by Gemma Dursley in an article about collective action (on the Democratic Voice of Burma website), that internal activism in a place such as Burma is irrational, because of the risk involved. While there is merit in this position, I would counter that it is equally irrational to suffer year after year and never do anything to try to win your freedom.

The problems in Burma and Tibet are practical. To organize grassroots movements requires strong, unifying leadership, and money. If you don’t have the second, the individuals who are willing to take the risk to lead end up fighting with each other for the scarce funds that are available. It is disingenuous to suggest that such leaders are unprincipled, and that the people shouldn’t do anything. Rather, everyone who is able should focus on the real problem, the shortage of funds, and try to raise as much money as possible.

There are two general sources, institutional and individual donors, and grassroots movements for change can succeed when either is available. The African National Congress was able to conduct a successful uprising against apartheid in South Africa, because it had material support from the Soviet Union, an example of institutional sponsorship. (The reasons for the USSR’s involvement, for the purposes of this discussion, are irrelevant.) The ongoing but already at least partially successful uprising in Thailand (against PM Thaksin and endemic government corruption) is due to the initial funding provided by the uprising’s leaders, and subsequently by the thousands of people who joined the demonstrations as well as their supporters throughout the country.

So, we need not only more activists, but more money as well. Of course, the two are directly linked.

For external activists, we can begin with the people who have successfully left their causes behind, for instance, the many people who have departed Burma. (I view this group as external, because they are no longer subject to the repression or other tribulation of the cause.) People struggling to survive as migrant workers in places such as Thailand are a special case, but everyone else, everyone who has resettled rather than just migrated, should feel an obligation to help out. A reasonable financial request would be 10% of personal income, and of course as many people as possible should devote their time as well, i.e., be activists.

The problem is: many people don’t help at all, with either money or time. For Burma, many exiles seem to think that now that they have escaped, they don’t have to think about home any more, just to building a new life. While it is true that they have this right, other people who are exiled and who do donate money and time should encourage them to have at least a minimal level of involvement. This alone would boost the number of people who turn out for demonstrations. For people who live in places where there are few fellow Burmese, so demonstrations are impractical, the alternative is obvious: raise money.

The picture is even more complicated with external activists who have never had a personal link to the cause. It even raises the question, what is an activist? For instance, are you an activist if you are on the staff of a large NGO and which has substantial funding? This is your job, but activism means doing something beyond your daily responsibilities. What the people who work at groups such as Human Rights Watch do is great, but one hopes that as individuals they also take part in other causes, e.g., environmental, by supporting and protesting with the likes of Greenpeace, Sea Shepherd, etc. Similarly, NED, NDI and IRI are not even activist groups. They are bankers that fund such groups. Do their staff members do anything else beyond the responsibilities of their specific jobs?

On the other hand, if you are from a small group and devote a lot of time to raising money just so you and your associates can pursue the group’s initiatives, even if you are paid (the pay is typically very low), you are certainly an activist. Small groups come and go – it is difficult to raise budgets year after year – but even if the groups dissolve the staff usually find a way to stay active.

The other characteristics of external activists, not exiles from a cause but outsiders who simply give a dam, are also quite interesting. Most activists are young, below forty if not thirty, and also single and well educated (this further means upper income). A large source is university students. They are often idealistic, and it is sad to see this worn away as they work post-graduation to adapt to a social system that is anything but. A lot of people give up and focus only on their own circumstances.

Interestingly, it appears that more women than men are activists, which is a great testament to the former. Many if not most groups, though, are run by men, which is a reflection of our paternalistic society. This is yet another cause that has not been successfully resolved.

The lack of external activists is purposeful and systemic. We confront society, but the power centers that control society do not want to change. They have orchestrated our demonization, by the “objective” media. Activists are also regularly harassed by the police, and attacked. Activism, even in so-called democratic countries, generally involves risk.

The only way to change this bias, to increase the number of activists including from other demographic groups (and also to reduce the risk), is to confront its source: to change society’s underlying values and conventions. The best way to do this, to get the general public to view activism as normal and acceptable, would be to teach it in school. High school students, and younger, do not only need an education in democracy; they require a civics education that teaches activism and which motivates them to get involved. One such initiative is described in the School Campaign link of Activism 101.

Such a development is not as unlikely as it might seem. Many teachers are progressive, and educate their students to work to correct social and environmental wrongs.

This article, unlike many that I have written, doesn’t end with an upbeat note, like: Burma can be free, now! Frankly, Burma could be free, tomorrow, if all the people in the country would rise up and attack the SPDC, USDA and Swan Arr Shin. The junta and its cronies would be overwhelmed. This isn’t going to happen. Tibetan, Burmese, and other activists just had a defeat, at the Olympics, when we couldn’t get our political leaders (who are almost uniformly immoral) or the world to care. The Saffron Revolution in Burma last year failed, because only tens of thousands of Burmese people marched, not millions, and because the world, meaning the United Nations and the United States, wouldn’t help.

We are in the trenches of long, hard fights, for Tibet, for Burma, for nature, and for many other causes. We need to raise money, one dollar or euro at a time, and recruit new activists, real activists, who will actually do something, one person at a time.

Lastly, we need to recognize that the people who are responsible for these problems are our enemies, and we need to hit them where it hurts. Don’t do something just to follow a form: because other people do it. Figure out what will have an impact, and then do that.