Fighting back against oppression means a leader puts him or herself at risk. It also means that families of these leaders suffer as “examples” to discourage other leaders.
According to the Human Rights Watch, China is cracking down on the families of protesters in Tibet. The most shocking protest has been self-immolation, with protesters setting themselves on fire in public places.
TIme Magazine named these desperate protests “the top underreported story of 2011.” The article noted: “Self-immolation is an old and horrifying form of protest that Americans first saw on television during the Vietnam War, and which touched off Tunisia’s democratic uprising and the wider ‘Arab Spring’ earlier this year. Its emergence among Buddhist monks in Tibet illustrates what Beech called a “new, nihilistic desperation [that] has descended on the Tibetan plateau.” Read more.
According to Human Rights Watch, “a total of 89 Tibetans have self-immolated since February 2009, almost all of whom shouted slogans or left statements calling for the return of the Dalai Lama to Tibet, Tibetan freedom, relaxation of religious and cultural policy, and related issues. In 2012, 76 Tibetans self-immolated, including 27 in November. Of the 89, 74 died, 7 reportedly survived, and the condition of 6 is unknown.
“Self-immolation is an act of complete desperation to bring attention to the plight of Tibetans,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Instead of stepping up repression and driving people to believe there is no hope of change, Beijing needs to take steps to respond to Tibetans’ grievances.”
China has responded by punishing the communities and families of protestors, even denying any public funding to townships, villages and households connected in any way to the protests.
Here is an excerpt from a general order mandating five responses to self-immolation, reprinted in the HRW report:
“One: Each area, department and office must take swift measures to cancel benefits received by the households of self-immolators under public benefit policies, such as minimum income support, disaster relief aid and so on. No retrospective allocation is permitted. All projects running on state funds in self-immolators’ villages must be stopped. All previously made arrangements must be reviewed and cancelled.
Two: Each area and related departments must swiftly and clearly establish whether there were instances of greeting and making contributions to family members of self-immolators among the masses in their locality. If there were instances of greeting, donation and paying of respect, the county and township Party committees must send special personnel to swiftly put a stop to it, educate them and clearly explain why this is mistaken and has serious consequences. Public security agencies must swiftly take measures against those who do not listen to this advice and strictly smash them.
Three: Laypeople and monks who greet and make donations must be given corrective training and criticism [skyon brjod slob gso], and the households of those who organized it and acted as public representatives, and of monks who went to greet family members, must have benefits granted under public benefit policies, such as minimum income support, disaster relief aid and so on cancelled.
Four: Laypeople and monks who organized to greet family members and forced others to participate must be swiftly investigated, and once solid evidence of their activities is gathered, they must face legal proceedings at an early date, and be smashed quickly and heavily, according to law.
Five: Officials who are found to have disregarded Party and government discipline and state laws to greet and make donations to the families of self-immolators must be swiftly dismissed from government service and handed over to the judicial departments to be strictly dealt with according to law.”
The Chinese response demonstrates the power of this desperate sacrifice. It is a leadership of last-resort, designed to bring international attention to the crisis in Tibet and put pressure on the Chinese government.
How can the democratic world respond? With a values-based foreign policy, and followers who become ala (watchful) about the ways our choices support or challenge oppressive regimes.
Sarah Margon, writing for CNN World, notes that Obama and the US could step up now with a values-based foreign policy to enforce international human rights laws. “Second terms are when presidents start to think about their legacy. And with a first term that earned President Barack Obama strong national security bona fides, he has the opportunity to pursue a robust foreign policy that more closely aligns U.S. values and interests. Going forward, a foreign policy that integrates human rights every step of the way would not only be visionary and inspirational – it would also be pragmatic and realistic.”
It would also demonstrate a core aspect of Aloha Leadership, from a President who has had first-hand experience with Hawaiian’s culture of aloha. The heart of aloha is supporting of the health of everyone in a community, because everyone matters. Obama has already supported this heart with his health care innovation, among other policy shifts.
But the challenge is greater on a global level. Because we are increasingly interconnected on this planet, despite national boundaries, it is time to consider this island Earth one community. That means paying attention to values and having the courage to stand up to abusive regimes.
The terms in the Hawaiian language for this are lokahi and ho’oponopono. Lokahi (unity and harmony) can only be achieved through ho’oponopono (setting things right through reconciliation). Ho’oponopono is usually practiced within families or small villages, with specific rituals and practices to open up healing.
The concept, though, can be applied to the larger world. With the desperation we see in Tibet and other oppressive regimes, we can see that there is a great wound that needs healing leadership. This leadership can’t just come from one country — it must be a coalition, led by powerful heads of state like Obama, to promote unity and offer support to the Dalai Lama’s people.
In addition, ordinary people can act with aloha. First, educate ourselves (ala). Learn about what’s happening in Tibet. (Free Tibet, Tibet Online). Speak up — to political representatives, to the UN, to international leaders. Use your ha (breath) to speak truth (oi’a’io) to power. What we say matters — one small voice becomes a great voice when combined with others. Join a boycott or gather with others in a vigil to bring pressure onto politicians and economies. By acknowledging our place in the ohana (interconnected family) of the world, we challenge the authoritarian strategy of dividing us from each other through fear, ignorance and greed.
We don’t need to use the words for Hawaiian values to embrace Aloha Leadership. Although they help me reframe my story as a leader and a follower, they are at heart fundamental human values, honoring interdependence, community, respect and sustainability. Whatever names we use, these are the values we must call for as we support the reluctant and desperate leaders who have the courage to die in order to be heard.