Lhakar: proud to be Tibetan

Tibet has once again become the centre of international attention after a wave of self-immolations. Beyond these tragic acts, Tibetans are looking for new forms of protest against Chinese rule, such as Lhakar, a weekly celebration of Tibetan traditions.

Tibetans in exile in Kathmandu pray for free Tibet. Demotix/Matthieu Alexandre. All rights reserved.Tibetans in exile in Kathmandu pray for free Tibet. Demotix/Matthieu Alexandre. All rights reserved.

Tibet has returned to international headlines in recent months in the most tragic of ways. Since 2009, 92 Tibetans have set themselves on fire in protest at repressive Chinese policies. Each has called for the return of the Dalai Lama to Tibet and freedom for their homeland. At least 76 of these individuals are known to have died. The majority of these cases have taken place in Tibetan areas of Sichuan province where Chinese authorities have been restricting religious freedom by forcing monks to participate in ‘patriotic education sessions’ and to renounce the Dalai Lama. To date China’s response to these courageous acts has been to crack down further on the Tibetan populations in areas where these self-immolations have been happening, and to offer financial rewards to informants on possible future self-immolations.

Whilst these tragic forms of protest have, for the time being, caught a degree of international attention, they are far from being the only form of resistance emerging within Tibet in recent years. An increasingly important, yet subtle and undramatic form of resistance, is a non-violent grassroots cultural movement which is known as ‘Lhakar’.

Tracing the emerging Lhakar movement

A growing number of Tibetans are, every Wednesday, reclaiming and embracing their Tibetan identity and making a political statement by wearing traditional clothes, speaking Tibetan eating in Tibetan restaurants, reciting Tibetan prayers and buying from Tibetan-owned businesses. Though in many ways these activities and practices are nothing new – Tibetans have long taken pride in their language and culture – the labeling of such activities as ‘Lhakar’ and the now global spread of this movement is both novel and significant.

Translating as ‘White Wednesday’ in reference to the Dalai Lama’s soul day, Lhakar can be traced to a series of incidents around the awarding of the Congressional Gold Award to the Dalai Lama in 2007. Communications were received in the Tibetan exiled ‘capital’, Dharamsala, northern India, from a group of individuals from Amdo (Eastern Tibet, now part of Qinghai province) detailing a series of simple cultural practices which were to be observed on Wednesdays. A formal ‘Lhakar Pledge’ was posted on a Tibetan blog in June 2010 which set out the following ways that Tibetans can assert their identity each week: (This blogpost has since been taken down by the Chinese authorities, but not before screen shots were taken and the pledge translated and replicated on exile blogs such as this one.)

I am Tibetan, from today I will speak pure Tibetan in my family.

 

I am Tibetan, from today I will speak pure Tibetan whenever I meet a Tibetan.

 

I am Tibetan, from today I will remind myself every day that I am a Tibetan till I die.

 

I am Tibetan, from today I will wear only Tibetan traditional dress, chuba, every Wednesday.

 

I am Tibetan, from today I will speak only Tibetan every Wednesday.

 

I am Tibetan, from today I will learn Tibetan language.

 

I am Tibetan, from today I will stop eating meat and only eat a vegetarian diet and gain more merit every Wednesday.

 

I am Tibetan, from today I will only use Tibetan and speak Tibetan when I call or send a message to Tibetans.

A range of motivations for the emergence of the Lhakar movement have been articulated, including economic marginalisation of Tibetans within Tibet, political repression, and the active erosion of Tibetan cultural and religious practices. Central to the latter is the issue of Tibetan language which is increasingly being replaced by Chinese as the medium of instruction in schools across the Tibetan plateau.

General consensus amongst Tibet watchers and scholars is that resistance to Chinese rule in Tibet took the form of armed resistance from the mid-1950s to the mid-1970s, and was then dominated by non-violent, clergy-led protest from the late 1980s to the present. The latter has, until 2008, predominantly taken the form of street protests. However, since the Chinese authorities increased their military presence in Tibet to deter such protests after the widespread uprising in spring 2008, Tibetans have adapted their forms of resistance. The small, weekly actions and cultural practices of Lhakar are a key alternative form of protest. However, what remains the same is that these are driven by individual Tibetans in Tibet rather than pronouncements from spiritual and political leaders.

Given its focus on individual, everyday actions, it is almost impossible to assess the scale of Lhakar and to attribute ownership to a particular group or individual. However when scores, if not hundreds of individuals are doing these actions, their cumulative effect can be compelling. There have been reports of Tibetans in towns in Nangchen county, eastern Tibet, boycotting Chinese vegetable vendors, monks in Sershul Monastery, Sichuan province seeking to protect their mother tongue by fining everyone a Yuan for every Chinese word they use and some Tibetan restaurants in Zorge, Sichuan province, only taken orders for food ordered in Tibetan language. The fact that it is hard for the Chinese authorities to criminalise, arrest or prevent an individual for speaking a particular language, wearing an item of clothing or eating certain food, epitomises both the ingenuity and simplicity of Lhakar.

Solidarity building between Tibet and exile

At the core of Lhakar is a powerful expression of pride in being Tibetan: in Tibetan identity, language, culture and religion. Importantly it is pride in a united Tibetan identity, one not cross-cut by regional and sectarian divisions as has so often been the case in the past. This assertion of Tibetanness is clearly articulated as Tibetans marking themselves out as distinct from a Chinese cultural and national identity and includes a renaissance in Tibetan music, art and literature. And this unity has, in recent months, extended to the Tibetan community in exile.

Over the years in exile a series of classic diaspora concerns around the loss of cultural identity have been expressed by the exiled Tibetan leadership. This is especially the case regarding younger generations who have moved from the sheltered ‘mini Tibets’ of Tibetan settlements in India to work in Indian cities or emigrate to the west. However, what we are starting to see is the Lhakar movement acting as a catalyst for a renaissance of expressions of Tibetan identity across the diaspora and forging dynamic transnational links between and across those in exile and the homeland.

With stories of Lhakar activities trickling out of Tibet and being circulated online, members of the diaspora have recently been echoing these practices in their own communities. These include holding candle-lit vigils on Wednesday evenings, wearing Tibetan dress to school, speaking to friends and family in Tibetan and cooking Tibetan food. Lhakar has also been publically promoted by the exile Tibetan Prime Minister, Lobsang Sangay.

The spread of Lhakar

It is logical to expect internet technology to play a key role in the spread of Lhakar from inside Tibet to the exiled community, and in many ways it does. The Lhakar pledge and a video called ‘I am Tibetan’ circulated on micro-blogging sites and the movement has spawned a website and blog where young Tibetans across the diaspora record their Lhakar activities. However more ‘traditional’ media have also been central to Lhakar, and key to this have been Tibetan radio stations. Voice of Tibet radio and Tibetan services of Radio Free Asia and Voice of America each report on Lhakar stories from inside Tibet, cover Lhakar activities in exile and broadcast discussions on the future of the movement.

Pop songs and music videos produced in Tibet have also been a key medium for the spread of Lhakar with lyrics by singers such as Choephel and Kelsang Tezin stressing the importance of speaking pure Tibetan language and learning about Tibetan history and culture. As such, Lhakar is not only evolving into a truly transnational movement, but the gulf between Tibetans in Tibet and those in exile is being bridged in important ways. Each is taking inspiration from the Lhakar activities of the other and, in the process, the movement grows and is strengthened.

However relations between the diaspora and homeland populations is still not as straightforward as this picture might portray. As Lhakar has been increasingly discussed, promoted and emulated in exile, questions arises as to how it should be labelled and, crucially, who has the agency and legitimate authority to frame the movement in different ways. Is Lhakar a new social movement or a case of grassroots civil disobedience? Is it primarily a cultural movement or a form of political protest?

This in turn raises the question of what role the diaspora should play regarding Lhakar – a question that remains very much up for debate. Should it be to follow, to emulate and to echo what Tibetans inside Tibet are doing? Should it be to promote and publicise Lhakar? Or should it take it one stage further and politicise Lhakar and make it the basis of campaigns for the freedom struggle? Or will politicising or popularising the growing Lhakar movement inside Tibet provoke a backlash from the Chinese government? However these issues pan out, Lhakar is a dynamic, innovative and distinctly Tibetan movement. It offers an opportunity for hope and optimism in a situation which continues to be dominated by repression and tragedy. 

About the authors

Tenzin Tsering is a research officer at the Tibetan Centre for Human Rights and Democracy, Dharamsala, India.

Fiona McConnell is a political geographer and Research Fellow at Trinity College, University of Cambridge.

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