by Nava Thakuria, World War 4 Report

Tibetan exiles in India's restive northeast have become increasingly vocal, with a series of recent public meetings and protests in Assam state, demanding liberation for their homeland just across the Sino-Indian border to the north. But Assam itself is home to a separatist movement, with the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) waging a sporadic insurgency that has brought waves of harsh repression from New Delhi over the years. While the Tibetan exile leadership remain silent on Delhi's crackdowns in Assam, the ULFA increasingly looks to China as a patron and supports Beijing's position on Tibet—with movements for autonomy across the disputed border pitted against each other.

A Citizen's Meet held in northeast India earlier this year—with representative of civil society, advocacy groups and journalists—appealed to the Tibetan youths around the globe to turn away from suicidal efforts to advance their cause. Organized by the Journalists' Forum Assam (JFA) at the Guwahati Press Club, the April meeting also urged the central government in New Delhi to pressure the Chinese administration in Beijing to hold meaningful dialogue with the Dalai Lama, the highest spiritual leader of Tibet—who is now based in Dharmashala, in India's northern state of Himachal Pradesh—to resolve the Tibetan issue. Also attended by a few Tibetan refugees who are taking shelter in northeast India, the meeting also advocated immediate release of Tibetan political prisoners inside and outside China.

The Tibetan exile government in Dharamshala confirms that over 35 Tibetans have self-immolated since March 2011 inside and outside of Tibet to protest the  Chinese occupation of their motherland that began in 1951. Most of the self-immolations have taken place around Tibetan monasteries within the People's Republic of China, but at least two have now taken place in India. The Citizens Meet in Guwahati, Assam's capital, opened with a minute's silence to pay homage to the martyrs who had sacrificed their lives for the cause of Tibet. Exile activist Tsering Dolma decried that so many young Tibetans felt they had to take the path of self-immolation to protest against the Chinese occupation of their homeland. But Dolma, general secretary of Tibetan Women's Association, vowed that their sacrifices would not go in vain. "I was born and brought up in northeast India, but I want to die in Tibet," the young activist said.

All the speakers were unanimous while calling on the Tibetan youth not to take the path of self-immolation—but resolved that the residents of northeast India are in favor of a peaceful democratic transition in Tibet. Various speakers also argued that a progressive government at Lhasa, the capital of Tibet Autonomous Region under the People's Republic of China, will be beneficial for the nearly 60 million people of adjoining northeastern India too.

Some voices came closer to advocating actual independence for Tibet. Ajay Dutta, a former Assam legislator, said: "We have full support and sympathy for the Tibetans' issues. They are our nearest people. Today or tomorrow China must leave from Tibet."

The meeting ended with a strong stance against the outlawed United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA), which had recently urged the people of Assam "not to involve in any kind of anti-China activities." The hardline ULFA statement issued on March 31 also insisted that Assam has "not have any conflict with China over the centuries" and "should build bridges with China" for its own prosperity.

Many at the Guwahati Citizens' Meet even expressed suspicion that the anti-dialogue faction of ULFA, led by Paresh Baruah, is supported by the Chinese regime. Paresh Baruah is reportedly taking shelter in the Burma-China border areas, where from he seems to control the anti-talk faction of the guerilla movement. The ULFA had previously been harbored by Bhutan and Bangladesh, but these governments over the past 15 years have ejected the militants, under pressure from New Delhi. The region of Burma bordering China's Yunnan province has apparently emerged as a safe haven not only for the ULFA but for militant outfits from the northeast Indian states of Nagaland, Manipur and Tripura as well.

The March ULFA statement actually mentioned the Indo-China war of 1962, which was fought in part over the state of Arunachal Pradesh, which borders Assam on the north. The statement noted that the Chinese army reached the border of Assam in that conflict, but did not occupy an inch of Assam's land. "So there is no logic for any anti-China movement in Assam," the statement asserted.

The ULFA statement may have come in response to the fact that March witnessed the first public protests by Tibetan refuges in Assam, with meetings and marches held in Guwahati. Attending a public meeting in Guwahati on March 26, the home minister of the Tibetan government in exile, Gyari Dolma, appealed to the people of northeast India for help and cooperation, arguing that "Tibet is closer to northeast India than China." 

Dolma also pointed out that Chinese President Hu Jintao is a hydrology expert and the architect of plans to construct a number of dams on Brahmaputra River inside Tibet. These dams are seen as the first step towards a Chinese government plan to divert water from the mighty river to support agricultural development in arid northern China—a scheme that invites severe negative impacts on the ecology of northeast India and Bangladesh, she asserted.

Earlier, hundreds of Tibetans observed 53rd Tibetan National Uprising Day in Guwahati on March 10, commemorating Tibetans' first massive rebellion against the Chinese occupation in 1959. Clad in traditional dress and holding Tibetan national flags along with the Indian tricolor, nearly 300 Tibetan exiles moved through the streets of Guwahati, and also held a candlelight procession at the heart of the city in the evening.

The ULFA statement accused the Tibetans of a double standard, criticizing the Dalai Lama for "not being sensitive to the suffering of Assamese under the Indian rule... We are not aware of any voice raised by the Dalai Lama or any Tibetan refugee taking shelter in India against New Delhi's oppressive action in Assam, especially in the period of the Assam movement (1979 to 1985), when 855 students were shot dead by the government forces... [T]he exiled Tibetan establishment has not expressed its concern on the atrocities and human rights violations going on in Assam in the last three decades of armed movement."

The ULFA may have a point that Tibetans living on Indian territory at the sufferance of the Indian government are reluctant to criticize New Delhi's repression in Assam. But the same duplicity appears to apply to the ULFA itself—its new closeness with China apparently precluding any solidarity with the Tibetans.


Photo from the Tibet Post, March 13, 2012

From our Daily Report:

Tibet: first self-immolations in Lhasa
World War 4 Report, May 30, 2012

Arunachal Pradesh: pawn in the new Great Game
World War 4 Report, Oct. 17, 2009

Bangladesh Rifles mutiny militarizes India border
World War 4 Report, Feb. 28, 2009

See also:

by T Navajyoti, World War 4 Report
World War 4 Report, June 2012

by Nava Thakuria, World War 4 Report
World War 4 Report, November 2011

Special to WORLD WAR 4 REPORT, Aug. 5, 2012
Reprinting permissible with attribution