One reason I sympathize with Tibetans trying to figure out what it means to be Tibetan within a larger national and global community is that I have to do figure out how to do the same thing.
I’ve observed that Westerners admire Tibet because they see it as a “garden of eden.” A pure land unspoiled by modernity. The trouble is that if you don’t become modern, you become extinct, and part of the largely successful struggle that the Chinese nation has undergone is the struggle to be modern and avoid national extinction. To survive, you must have power. This means economic power and military power. You will get nowhere by throwing rocks at tanks, you must be able to build your own tanks. The question then becomes once you have power then how do you use it without either destroying yourself or becoming a monster. Very, very difficult.
There is a fundamental contradiction in Tibetan independence that I don’t think Westerners aren’t quite aware of. To become an independent nation-state, you must have an army, you must have schools that teach young people to salute the flag, you must have a power structure, you must be prepared to deal with demonstrators with a mix of carrots and sticks, you must write history books that justify the existence of the nation. You must in the end teach people to die and to kill for the motherland.
You must in short do hundreds of things that Westerners *don’t* want Tibetans to do.
It’s interesting to compare Tibet with Mongolia. Mongolia was able to achieve independence, but it had to completely destroy its Lamaist institutions to do so, and have a Marxist-Leninist revolution and basically become a Soviet satellite. Mongolia had to create a one party state and undertake some ethnic cleansing to achieve national independence. Tibet could have easily gone down that route.
In the 1920’s there was a major debate within Tibet about what to do, and the decision was made to keep the Lamas and not modernize, and this meant that when the PLA entered Tibet in 1951, they couldn’t shoot back. If Tibet had made different decisions in 1920, then then could have fought back in 1951, but having a huge army to fight would make Tibet today probably look something like Burma. The army that shoots the invaders would then shoot the Lamas.
This by the way is why the Dalai Lama is against Tibetan independence. An independent Tibet becomes “just another third-world country” with flags, schools, propaganda, soldiers, bureaucrats, history books, and riot police. The brutal reality of the world is that nation-states must be prepared to fight, to die, and if necessary to kill.
The Dalai Lama realizes that to have even the slightly chance of independence, Tibet must destroy its soul. I think he is probably more scared of his own supporters than he is of the Chinese army. The PLA can suppress the monasteries for centuries, but the Buddhist ideals will survive, since you can’t shoot an idea with bullets. The PLA is not the real danger to the Dalai Lama’s ideals, the real danger is subversion from within. People use the works of Muhammad to justify suicide bombing, and it is not hard to go down that slope and have the ideas of the Dalai Lama perverted into justifying something similar, and mixing the message of non-violence with the idea of the state which is all about violence, makes this easier.
He realises this but I don’t think most of his supporters do.