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Why Lhakar Matters: A Response

posted Jan 17, 2013, 10:28 AM by The Tibetan Political Review   [ updated Jan 17, 2013, 10:41 AM ]
By Rebecca Novick
January 14, 2013

The first reports of Lhakar that trickled into Dharamsala out of Ngaba in Amdo back in November 2008 caused a stir of excitement. Lhakar seemed to offer a parallel track of resistance to street protests and provide a way for all Tibetans across generations and social groups to get involved with a greatly reduced personal risk. After all the reports of arrests, detentions and disappearances, here at last was some good news. Tibetans couldn’t yet take back the streets, but they were taking back the narrative.

In his latest article in TPR, Tendor raises a number of important issues and points out some of the salient features of the Lhakar (‘White Wednesday’) movement in Tibet that are worth highlighting.

1. Lhakar is pan-Tibetan 
2. Lhakar is based on a position of ‘self-reliance’ 
3. Lhakar is a grassroots movement

Lhakar has now become an umbrella term for varied forms of Tibetan identity assertion in Tibet that reach far ‘beyond Wednesdays’. As Tendor rightly points out, Lhakar is powerful partly because it is simple. Not being bound by tight-fitting definitions, Lhakar has the agility to grow and develop in creative ways to fit the proclivities of those who observe it. For example, the vegetarian aspect of Lhakar initially emerged in Lhasa, largely among the elders, and was not a signficant aspect the earlier phase of the movement in the eastern provinces. This formless aspect of Lhakar allows it to flow under the radar and provides all Tibetans a way to unite with one another in solidarity with the values and expressions that they share. The ‘I am Tibetan’ theme of videos and literature that we’ve seen develop in Tibet in recent years is not just a catchy phrase. It radically shifts the experienced reality from, ‘I am Tibetan; marginalized and oppressed’ to ‘I am Tibetan; fully empowered and ready for anything’.

Lhakar is a creative response to repression that appears to be unequivocally Tibetan. Tendor well expresses the hidden strength of this Tibetan-ness. ‘In a zero-sum game of identity politics,” he writes, “being Tibetan became synonymous with “not being Chinese.”’ Indeed, the power of Lhakar is that it essentially ignores the Chinese presence in Tibet. This is why I feel that the term ‘non-cooperation’ is less accurate than ‘non-participation’. The non-cooperation movement in British India was effective since Indians made up the majority of the work force. In Tibet the demographics of economy do not favour a boycott or any non-cooperation movement that we have seen in other places. Non-participation on the other hand is a rather different kind of animal; one that acts as if the Chinese had never invaded. To ignore one’s antagonist is perhaps the most commanding gesture of all.

However, even ‘non-participation’ puts the focus on the sphere in which the agent is not engaging. I believe that Lhakar is even more potent than this. Lhakar is a plus sign, not a minus one. Lhakar is not a ‘non’ anything. It is itself. Unapologetic, uncompromising and unique. The power of Lhakar lies in its ‘yes’ more than in its ‘no’. Although it is most certainly ‘non-violent’ and ‘strategic’ it cannot be fitted so easily into Peace Studies resistance models. The debate over whether Lhakar is cultural or political has more meaning in exile than in Tibet. As Tendor writes that a Tibetan has already been arrested for wearing a chupa on Wednesday. If one’s culture is being threatened by a political system, then asserting that culture becomes a political act. Lhakar always was political simply because the emancipation of Tibetan identity itself has become so. But part of the brilliance of Lhakar is that it does not attach itself to those kinds of labels. In the true spirit of shunyata, Lhakar is political, it is cultural, it is both and it is neither.

As Tendor eloquently states: ‘The essence of Lhakar is not in the chupa one wears but in the intention with which one wears it. The real Lhakar is a movement of the mind…’ He continues: ‘A Lhakar practitioner does not expect freedom to come from a tweak in policy or a change of heart in Beijing, but from his or her own daily thoughts, decisions and actions...’ This is exactly why Lhakar is not merely an attempt at freedom. It is a declaration of freedom.

The ‘weaponization of culture’ is a compelling phrase, especially for those whose culture is often portrayed as hanging by a thread. An alternative image is that of a protective shield. Rather than attacking those who seek to devalue and weaken it, Lhakar focuses attention on its own merit and strength, fortifying itself from within. The term ‘weaponization of culture’ suggests that Lhakar is aimed at the overthrow of Tibet’s occupiers. It would be naïve to suggest that the reasons for Tibetans practicing Lhakar are identical, but there is another purpose—that is, to endure. Against the background of the political realities that play themselves out on the plateau, such self-reliance practices reveal that Tibetans have dug in for the long-term. Lhakar was built to last.

If an analogy is to be found outside of Tibet, I would contest that the nature of the Lhakar movement is closer to Gandhi’s swadeshi village self-reliance movement than it is to satyagraha. Although Tibetans choosing not to patronize Chinese businesses certainly has the scent of a ‘Gandhian-style economic non-cooperation,’ the same action can also be presented as one of community support. Shopping only in Tibetan-run establishments may have the same result as not shopping in Chinese–run businesses, but the distinction is no less important for being subtle. The development of self-reliance on a community level in Tibet is something that I believe we will be seeing more of in the future and Tendor is right to place Lhakar within this larger framework.

For Tibetans and supporters living in free societies, I see no valid argument against expanding Lhakar activities to include political lobbying and direct action. As a gesture of solidarity, a mode of communion, and a motivator for regular calibrated activity, Lhakar in exile is both valid and meaningful. But it is important to remember that the wheels of the movement in Tibet turn under their own, not exile, steam. A Tibetan in Amdo is hardly likely to practice Lhakar because a Tibetan in Boston has taken a Lhakar pledge, even if he or she was lucky enough to hear about it. It is not far-fetched, however, to suggest that the way in which Tibet’s Lhakar is framed in exile has implications for how Chinese authorities choose to respond to it.

In July 2011, for example, we heard of Tibetans from inside Tibet calling Dharamsala requesting a halt to the public discussion of certain large gatherings where portraits of the Dalai Lama had been enthroned. There had so far been little interference from the Chinese authorities and the callers were concerned that this would change if the events were given too much attention in exile. I know of at least one journalist who decided not to promote this story for the same reason.

In applauding movements such as Lhakar, it would not be wise to underestimate the imperilment of Tibetan culture and identity. Tibetan culture has undergone a devastating hit under China’s colonial rule and continues to be both smothered and appropriated by its usurpers. Tendor writes, ‘The day is not far when the Chinese government will view every Tibetan as an activist and every action as subversive. That's when we will know that China has lost the battle for Tibet.’ But should we be in the business of assisting the Chinese authorities in identifying such activities as subversive? If the goal of Lhakar is to create a foundation for revolution, then perhaps such politicization would be warranted. If, however, as others have asserted, the goal of Lhakar is for Tibetan identity to out-last the Chinese Communist regime, then bringing attention to its political aspects might be rather like shouting encouragement to someone quietly escaping from a prison window!

It remains for activists and others engaged in the cause of Tibetan freedom to sincerely ask ourselves how best to respond to this movement. Is it possible that sometimes doing nothing is the wisest course of action, as we saw with the gatherings in July 2011? Certainly the celebration of Lhakar in exile, whether defined as a cultural or political activity, seems to carry little risk, and is a dynamic node of communion between exile and homeland. But does the characterization of Tibet’s Lhakar as a political movement help it to gain strength in Tibet, or does it expose it in a way that makes it more vulnerable?

Whatever view one may take, the question surely is worthy of serious reflection, since lives and livelihoods are at risk. Asking such questions does not imply an overly cautious attitude towards Lhakar itself, but an acknowledgement of its potential and thus the importance of an intelligent (and dare I say ‘strategic’ response). Lhakar does matter and those raising such questions in the spirit of true inquiry (and who do not assume to have the answer at their fingertips) deserve a hearing. Tendor is making a valuable contribution to the understanding of Lhakar and its significance. I, for one, would welcome hearing other voices that may also have worthwhile perspectives to share. When it comes to how we respond to Lhakar, it seems to me that between ‘policing’ and ‘cheer-leading’ there lies more than one middle way.

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