Molecules of Freedom: The Scope for Small Acts of Resistance in Tibet

Tenzin Dorjee, September 26, 2014

In 2009, I was attending a training on ‘strategic nonviolence’ at Tufts University. There were about 50 activists in attendance from the unfree world. During the workshops led by former revolutionaries and scholars of nonviolent resistance, one Egyptian activist kept insisting that none of the strategies and tactics in question would work in Egypt, “because Mubarak’s regime is too tyrannical.” Egyptians were so oppressed, he argued, that there was no space for even the smallest acts of resistance. “Nothing is possible. Egypt is the most oppressive totalitarian state in the world,” he
declared. During a tea break I walked over him and introduced myself. Upon learning that I was Tibetan, he immediately shook my hand and apologetically updated his statement, “Oh, Tibet! You know what? Tibet is right up there with Egypt – they are the two most oppressed places.”

Within a year of that conversation, Egyptians had toppled the Mubarak regime by using the same set of nonviolent tactics that our friend at the training had too quickly dismissed. It is easy for oppressed people everywhere to feel that there is no one else more oppressed. In the case of Tibet, this feeling is even more acute because it is backed by statistics.

Freedom House, a human rights watchdog that measures freedom and repression in every country in the world, has consistently accorded Tibet the tragic distinction of being rated as one of the most oppressed places. The report uses a scorecard to measure political rights and civil liberties, giving 7 for “worst” and 1 for “best.” Every year for the last couple of decades, Tibet has placed right next to North Korea, scoring the worst possible 7 for political rights as well as civil liberties.

Because of Tibet’s status as a human rights black hole, many assume that any kind of resistance is impossible in Tibet. Some go to the extent of arguing that nonviolent resistance, in spite of its recent successes in authoritarian states like Serbia and Tunisia, is futile in totalitarian countries like Tibet and North Korea. The reasoning goes that there is absolutely no room for organizing in totalitarian countries, that there is zero space for any kind of mobilization.

However, the truth is, there is no such thing as a zero-space environment. Even in the most totalitarian societies, even under the most tyrannical regimes, there are certain indestructible molecules of freedom that are beyond the regime’s domain of control. Creative practitioners of nonviolent resistance have made use of these irreducible freedoms to build power, turning mundane routines of existence into meaningful acts of resistance.

Well, what are these irreducible molecules of freedom?

The act of eating, for instance, constitutes a choice so basic that it is difficult for the state to violate it on a regular basis. What you eat is no one’s business; even a totalitarian state does not have the resources to interfere in what you choose to eat for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. It is extremely difficult for the Chinese government to jail a Tibetan for eating tsampa, while it can more easily jail the same person for extolling the virtues of tsampa. In that sense, there is a difference between expressing the importance of eating tsampa and simply eating it. That difference is the thin orbit where the molecules of freedom can be said to revolve.

Take the language one speaks at home. The state can impose a dominant language upon students at school, but it cannot do the same at home; the former is an institution shaped by policies while the latter is an organic, non-institutional unit that often exists outside the realm of state control. In spite of various social and economic factors that may influence the choice of language at home, it is ultimately up to the parents to determine what language they use with their children. This individual choice, when exercised in complete mindfulness, can be a powerful instrument of promoting collective freedom while lowering the individual cost of resistance.

In any political environment, it is less risky to carry out acts of omission (refusing to join state institutions, refusing to fly the Chinese flag, avoiding Chinese businesses) than acts of commission (joining a rally, writing a petition to the government, holding a strike). This probably explains why in places like Tibet, the scope for noncooperation tactics, most of which are omissive rather than commissive, is far greater than that for protest and intervention. Along these lines, one will often find more space for constructive actions (actions that build up alternatives to the existing system of oppression, such as holding underground classes, running clinics, establishing parallel governments, etc.) than agitative ones (actions that seek to disrupt or confront an existing system, such as protest demonstrations, strikes, etc.). For one, totalitarian regimes find agitative actions more threatening as well as easier to identify and suppress. Secondly, constructive actions often tend to be dispersed rather than concentrated, thus refusing to lend themselves logistically to immediate crackdown.

Gandhi’s booklet “Constructive Programmes,” which I bought recently in India at the suggestion of my friend Tenzin Tsundue, is a highly valuable guide for determining what kinds of constructive actions might be possible in Tibet (you can find the booklet at Bookworm in Dharamsala). In India, during periods that were deemed unsuitable for mass civil disobedience movements, Gandhi suggested dozens of constructive initiatives that could be carried out in the villages and towns in a decentralized fashion. Some of the programs that Gandhi outlined – removal of untouchability, or ending communal violence – give us a glimpse of the towering obstacles that the Indians faced internally while struggling to end a foreign rule. By comparison, our own internal problems – regionalism, or sectarianism – pale in comparison.

More importantly, there are many examples in the booklet – such as khadi, promotion of village industries, languages and adult education – that we can apply to our own situation. In fact, in many Tibetan villages, wearing traditional clothing has caught on as a fashion, as has eating tsampa and studying Tibetan. In some villages, mothers as old as 80 years of age are apparently going to class and learning the Tibetan alphabet! It seems that Tibetans are taking the concept of adult education to a delightful extreme. Gandhi would approve.

These are but a handful of examples that show that even under the worst of tyranny, Tibetans are finding space for resistance in the small but elastic molecules of freedom. By treating their homes and dining tables as battlefields of resistance, Tibetans are wielding their limited personal choices and daily routines as a wedge to pry open more social, political and economic space.
In “Voices from Tibet,” a gem of a book from the fearless poet Woeser, she talks about the possibility and potential of pursuing a strategy of seeking village self-rule in Tibet. I conclude this piece with her own words, which may be nothing less than prophetic:
“In my view, village self-rule is Tibet’s way out. Through the participation of each ordinary villager, the villages could govern themselves. The masses become active participants, no longer passive observers of the endless and fruitless negotiations, or chips in the high-stake political games between Beijing and Dharamsala.”