By Prof. Elliot Sperling (Indiana University)
On the morning of the 15th, English-language reports of another self-immolation in Rnga-ba appeared, with one news dispatch on Phayul stating that the monk, Nor-bu dgra-’dul, had died calling for “complete independence” (http://www.phayul.com/news/article.aspx?id=30172).
This raises a question which has unfortunately been well-muddled by the fine folks at ICT and many others in Dharamsala for many, many years. Early on ICT, in support of the Dalai Lama’s policies and under the direction (one has to suppose) of its director, Lodi Gyari, adopted the—how might one put this politely?—less-than-forthright policy of translating calls from inside Tibet for rang-btsan as calls for “freedom” (rang-dbang).
As Tibet-watchers know, the terms are not synonyms: when the Dalai Lama says he is against independence he is not, after all, saying he is against freedom. So quite often calls for independence in Tibet surfaced as calls for freedom in the Western media. Clearly some sort of lazy inertia has arisen around this, with some journalists simply putting Dharamsala policies and rhetoric in the mouths of Tibetan protestors.
When it comes to those Tibetans who have willingly and tragically given up their lives for Tibet in acts of self-immolation, their loss of voice in this way is particularly devastating. Thus, it’s quite understandable that Christophe would be so profoundly frustrated by The Independent’s assertion that these Tibetans are immolating themselves for “autonomy.” (http://www.jamyangnorbu.com/blog/2011/10/14/embers-of-independence-rangzen-mero/#comments)
For this reason it is particularly important that we know as much as we can of what the Tibetans who are sacrificing themselves are saying in Tibetan. What does it mean to read in English that Nor-bu dgra-’dul called out for “complete independence?”
The term “complete independence” was generally wielded in Dharamsala throughout the 1990s to mitigate the real significance of the stance that the Tibetan-Government-in-Exile (before it joined the Dodo in blissful extinction) was taking. The tactic was to insist to the general population that the TGIE was simply not for full independence rather than honestly asserting that the TGIE rejected Tibetan independence and accepted that Tibetans are just a minority nationality of China. By ostensibly not being for “full independence” the broad exile population could lull itself with the sense that the TGIE was still supportive of Tibetan independence of some sort, just not independence of the “full” sort. Misleading? Yes, but then again, that was the point, wasn’t it?
So we come to Nor-bu dgra-’dul’s last words as described in English: a call for “complete independence.” Now, one needs to bear in mind that the term “complete independence” (what Dharamsala opposed and opposes) has been used as a rhetorical tool to mark extremists. This, even though demonstrations in Dharamsala and elsewhere in the Tibetan world were in part characterized for decades by the broad mass of participants proclaiming “Bod rang-btsan gtsang-ma yin!” This phrase is essentially an assertion of Tibet’s legitimate identity as a country replete with all the attributes of independence. It differs somewhat from exclaiming “Bod rang-btsan gtsang-ma dgos,” which asserts that Tibet needs to be cleanly or fully independent.
One might argue over why such assertions have been demonized in Dharamsala (though the reasons seem quite obvious). But for our purposes the fact that this language has become controversial requires that we ask, specifically, what Nor-bu dgra-’dul cried out before he died.
Well, if the Tibetan website Khabdha and the site for Bod-kyi dus-bab can be relied on, it was not something that contained the term rang-btsan gtsang-ma, in spite of the Phayul report claiming he called for “complete independence.” According to the reports on Khabdha and Bod-kyi dus-bab (http://www.khabdha.org/?p=22651 and http://www.tibettimes.net/news.php?showfooter=1&id=4976) he went to his death avoiding or—more likely—unaware of the way exile authorities had taken a phrase that most Tibetans used to utter unabashedly and imbued it with the sinister tones of extremism and indeed violence.
No, Nor-bu dgra-’dul’s last appeal was simple and direct: “Bod kha-ba-can la rang-dbang rang-btsan dgos!” “Tibet, Land of Snows, must be free and independent!”