By Gelek Badheytsang
I was visiting Phayul the other day and I noticed a link on the corner that proclaimed “Say No to Losar 2009”. Click the link and it takes you to a registration page with profile pictures of – Tenzin Tsundue, Lhadon Tethong etc., — the various leaders within the independence movement who have supposedly signed on to this appeal. I’ve had talks about this issue a number of times with friends and family. At first I tended to think that “Saying no to Losar” was a good idea, a way to release pent up anger in the lead-up to the 50-year anniversary of the first popular uprisings in Tibet. But the more that I’ve talked about this and thought about it, the clearer it has become: Losar must not be affected because of the significance of 2009.
The reasoning behind the growing call for saying “NO to LOSAR” (which, by the way, makes our new year sound as if it’s just some Canadian mining corporate in Tibet) is this: on the 50th anniversary of the uprising of March 10, 1959, Tibetans all around the world will mute their Losar celebrations, and hold prayers and vigils instead, in a sign of solidarity and in memory of those who have perished inside Tibet.
“No to Losar 2009” is being propagated as a show of respect. As a way of saying to the Tibetans in Tibet and the world beyond that we are capable of missing a few days of festivities, and that we have more pressing and urgent matters to deal with. There is an underlying subtext in the directives being issued by the Tibetan groups in India, and elsewhere, which equates celebrations to callousness.
A reminder that, lest we get too carried away, our brothers and sisters are still bearing the brunt of one of the most oppressive regimes on earth.
All of this is true. It’s true that we are about to begin yet another year reeling from the lies of the Chinese government. It’s true that the Chinese government is increasing its pressure on the Tibet freedom movement. It’s true that there are no signs of reprieve, and yet we’re constantly being told that we have to bide our time and hope that things speed up.
So we’re pissed off, and rightfully so. We’re angry about what has happened so far. We’ve bared ourselves on waves of hopelessness, disbelief, anticipation, and anger. And so, on the most festive period on our calendar, the “No to Losar 2009” advocates tell us to sacrifice our joy for the sake of those who suffer.
Or at least that’s what the Tibetan groups seem to be saying in their press releases. (If I’ve missed or misunderstood any part, I’m more than glad to be corrected.) How can we celebrate in the face of half a century of oppression? It’s a direct appeal to the heart and our conscience.
But what about our heads? Does this make sense tactically, strategically?
One of the most striking parallels throughout history, among the various regimes that have imperiled and attempted to eradicate a group of people, is their ways of trying to bind those in chains into a suffering so deep and pervasive that it sucks the life out of them. Oppressors try to rob the basic humanity of those who are being oppressed. If they succeed in making us inhuman, the crimes of genocide become sterilized and clinical.
So the thinking was in Nazi Germany, in history’s various imperialist and colonialist empires, and in the Chinese regime as well.
So how do we resist genocide? How do we resist the denial of our humanity? One way is to be happy. To be happy is to be human. Happiness is a force that buckles the steely reins of dictators and seeps effortlessly through the shackles and cloaks of oppression. It is a light that dims but never withers, a song that gathers spirits and resonates through the roof for the whole world to hear. It is a burst of colours, of the so many things that make us who we are.
All of which is a roundabout way of saying that celebrating Losar every year, happily and profusely, is a victory for a small nation of people numbering less than 2 % of China’s total population.
It is an even greater victory for the smaller minority that lives abroad, in far flung diasporas. It is a sign of defiance and of unity; a blazing symbol and a blaring horn that shouts, “We have our own traditions, we have our own identity and we celebrate our own new year.”
“We do not belong to you.”
The Chinese government may have taken a lot from us, and they continue to, but they can’t take our identity from us. Before all this talk of boycotting Losar, let us not forget that it belongs to us. It is a piece as unique and integral to us as our language, religion and mountains. A part of us that we can hold up against any other country in the world, to let them marvel at our ingenuity; that a civilization spread across a vast plateau high up the Himalayas can devise an intricate calendar all their own. There aren’t a lot of UN countries that can boast that.
But we can. Because Losar is ours.
And sure, some might say, “So what? It’s just a bunch of old rituals and an excuse for a lot of people to throw their money around and act silly.” It is true. But there are some among us who believe in the significance of Losar, of what it means to us, what it means to our parents, and what it says to the Chinese leaders.
Why are we creating this argument around something – celebrating Losar – that means a lot to some Tibetans, and not a lot to some people? It would be fine if the many impassioned activists among us resolved to not celebrate Losar because we didn’t feel right about it. But why dictate your absolutist convictions on the wider community that is already straining from the pressures of maintaining the language and culture in a rapidly homogenizing environment for their children?
The discussions in itself isn’t a bad thing – it’s an example of engaged minds butting heads – but when the debate boils down to accusing those that disagree of being “unpatriotic”, “uncaring” or “unsupportive”, that’s when you have to reconsider sending out mass appeals that have implications beyond just a call for political awareness.
Imagine if those at the helm of all of this issued a joint statement calling everyone to observe a moment of silence in memory of the so many that had perished and continue to suffer. Wouldn’t it be so much more engaging, inclusive and constructive to create programs and actions during Losar celebrations that use the energy of the people that have gathered, to have our various leaders speak out and raise the awareness and fervour of the crowd? Wouldn’t it be wiser and more prudent to use Losar as a high launching point for our campaigns in 2009? What better way to start the New Year off on a powerful note rather than with depressing notes about our state of exile?
Why begin the new year with a whimper?
And yet, because Tibetans inside Tibet have begun this movement, we are told of stories of this bizarre turnaround where Chinese authorities are now doling out cash and trying to force Tibetans to be joyous and happy. How much more absurd can this get?
Have we lost sight of the diversity of our community? Are we to believe that we should feel guilty and ashamed about celebrating something that is a significant part of who we are? Saying “NO to Losar” in 2009 makes as much sense as boycotting tsampa and butter tea because some Chinese company started manufacturing them.
Is there not a better, more articulate way of mobilizing the Tibetans other than telling us “it’s just a few days, get over it”?
Here’s an idea: let us have a day of Losar (either the first day or the third Sangsol day) as a remembrance day by holding a day of fast which not only symbolizes the shared suffering of Tibetans inside and out of Tibet, but also pays respect to those who have perished. We can use Losar as an example to educate people about the distinct features of Tibetan Losar; why Tibetans have a new year based on its own Tibetan Calendar for centuries and why we never consult the Chinese one. This would increase awareness, garner support and raise funds for further actions to serve the Tibetan cause.
Promoting our movement in a positive way will always succeed over issuing fragmented dictates that amplify the insularity of political groups, and subsequently disenchants the wider population that wants less and less to have anything to do with “politics”. The monopolistic and didactic approach defeats the purpose of what the Tibetan groups intended to accomplish with this campaign.
One of the more inspired actions during the brouhaha of the Beijing Olympics last year was when we created our own Tibet games. Did we hang our heads and turn the TV off during the 2008 games? No. We organized street rallies. We enlisted our own athletes and had them apply for visas to China so that they could participate in the Olympics and represent Tibet.
We didn’t even call for a mass boycott of the games, even though we had all the rights and reasons to. So we’re willing to be considerate towards foreign athletes but not to our own traditions?
If our goal is to help our brothers and sisters inside Tibet, then we have to think more strategically before making bold proclamations of what does or doesn’t help the cause. What helps our struggle is to make our presence felt wherever we live. What helps is sending articles to the general public about our upcoming Losar. What helps is inviting local dignitaries and media personalities to our New Year’s celebrations and to let them know that the Tibetans are holding special campaigns around the 50th anniversary of the Chinese occupation. What helps is finding creative ways to celebrate Losar meaningfully in the context of our history, issues and people.
What doesn’t help is alienating a large portion of the community and creating friction over the matter of whether we should or shouldn’t be having fun.
What doesn’t help is singling out a part of your identity and carelessly flicking it off in some misguided attempt to alleviate the suffering of those inside Tibet.
What doesn’t help is having knee-jerk reactions and thinking that they are an answer to our bigger problems.
What doesn’t help is trying to simplify your arguments by comparing the two different realities of Tibetans who live inside and out of Tibet.
What doesn’t help is calling people out to sacrifice something that ultimately turns out to be purposeless. So that, at the end of it all, not only do we have nothing to show for (except for resentment), but we also took away the chance for others to enjoy and have a good time in spite, and because, of the hard times.
And that last point is important. It is especially in times like these, when our outlook is bleakest, that we search and fight for the reasons that make us engaged, energized and alive.
Aren’t the joys of celebrating our identity something worth fighting for?
I certainly think it ranks up there somewhere between our right to self determination and our desire to have an independent Tibet.
We know that there is a lot of grief and anger over the recent crackdowns in Tibet. We know every time we wake up in Canada, and elsewhere, that we are spared from the grim reality of what our brothers and sisters face in Tibet. We know all of that and we must always resolve to change the situation for the better. But we ought to know how to do it in a way that promotes and strengthens our community, rather than polarizing it.
We must also know that Losar is the biggest event in our calendar. We know that Tibetan families everywhere prepare months in advance for this. We know about it from our own childhood: when we wouldn’t be able to sleep on the eve of Losar because of the sheer anticipation of eating khap sey, getting a year’s worth of pocket money, and slipping into new sets of clothes. We know of our visits to the temples, of offering our respects to our ancestors. We know of the so many merchants and shopkeepers who rely on Losar to start their year profitably. And so on, and so forth.
It is all of that.
And it has been that way for centuries. It’s a set of weeks that starts with a series of dances for getting rid of bad karma from the previous year. And it ends with prayers for peace and prosperity for all beings in the coming year. It is a humbling and beautiful way of harmonizing our resolve for peace, our need of festivities, and our commitment to our culture, traditions and language flourishing so that we can hold our heads up high in the face of an empire as oppressive as China.
Sometimes, like they say, you gotta make best of what you got.
And the best way, I believe, for us to help the Tibetans in Tibet and ourselves, is to show China and the rest of the world that we are a nation of free and united people, proud and alive – as emphatically as possible.
Therefore, in response to the call to say “No to Losar”, I offer a humble “No thanks” and a hearty “Tashi Delek.”