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Dalai Lama : War and Peace in Tibet

The origin of the myth of Tibetans as the most peaceful people on earth

mardi 14 mai 2013

As a first part in a series on Barry Sautman ’Vegetarian between meals’ we discover the creation of a myth : ’Tibetan people are the most peaceful and non-violent people on earth’. Are they that much different from other people ?

This is part of a series of posts based on the excellent “Vegetarian between meals” : The Dalai Lama, War, and Violence by Barry Sautman (Positions 18:1 doi 10.1215/10679847-2009-025, Duke University), an excellent work that deconstructs the meanwhile common misconception that has us see the Dalai Lama as a man of peace.

Thanks to years and years of single minded media reporting, by now whenever we think of Tibet, it’s people and the Dalai Lama, we think of them as exceptionally peace loving, and certainly non-violent even under duress.

But where do we get this idea ?

Sautman learns that this particular image of a peaceful people has been propagated as early as the end of the 19th century by the British Empire. The Brits thought to use this image as a nation of gentle folk under threat of the aggressive Chinese and Russians to further their own interests in the region. This idea was promulgated by the popular media of the time, such as James Hilton’s novel Lost Horizon (1933) and its film adaptation.

Sounds familiar ? Seven years in Tibet, anyone ? The list of more recent books and films that constitute the canon of praise for the spiritually advanced and gentle nature of all Tibetans is too long to include here. But the result is there to see : ever since the change of tactics by the western powers (more on that in a later post) in the 80’s have Tibetans more and more been accorded the unquestionable and indisputable status of ‘peaceful and gentle people’.

But what is true of this universally proclaimed wisdom ?

Not much, so learns a reading of Sautman. He lists a whole series of battles, uprisings, civil wars and clashes, starting with the Uprising at Batang in the 19th century and up to a 1947 civil war in which thousands of monks fought with artillery and guns. In 1950, so writes Sautman (based on the robert ford’s report of 1994) the Tibetan army had twelve thousand troops for a region of 1.2 million people. This exceptional 1% of population under arms is double that of the United States in 2004 ! And what to say of the armed resistance and uprisings during the 1950’s and 60’s ? That doesn’t read like the history of ’the most peaceful people on earth’, but rather looks similar to the history of mankind in general. Unfortunately.

The violent nature of the most recent Lhasa Riots of 2008 brings home the point of this post : the Tibetans are a people like any other. Gentle at some times, violent at others. And our general acceptance of the myth that somehow Tibetans are inherently different from all other people in their peaceful nature is what it is : a myth, created to serve a purpose.

For more on that purpose, stay tuned for the next part in this series !


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