We don’t know after whom Loten Namling models himself. Traditional Tibet was peopled by characters who struck out on their own to earn merit or a living. Itinerant monks, yogis, travelling minstrels, hermits, lama manis, bridge-builders and story-tellers whose roles as saints, entertainers or educators had a niche in old Tibet’s cultural and spiritual landscape. It seems that aspects of these characters re-surface in the role Namling plays in Tibetan Warrior. His rugged, sculpted face, his flowing mane and gray beard resemble those of Drubtop Thangthong Gyalpo, Tibet’s bridge-builder and the founding father of Achi Lhamo, the Tibetan opera. Namling’s attire, topped by a protective amulet hung around his neck and the way he comports himself in the documentary film give the impression that in his person old Tibet is trying to sing into existence and memory its contemporary tragedy.
The way Namling sees it, Tibetans in Tibet are setting alight their bodies in a desperate attempt to seek freedom and the return of His Holiness the Dalai Lama to his homeland. To Namling, the tragedy is that the world is doing nothing about the human bonfire blazing on its roof. Since 2009, 142 Tibetans in Tibet have set themselves on fire. Namling calls this “the slow dying of Tibet.” Namling says he doesn’t have the courage to set himself on fire but he wants to do something to ensure that the embers of these fiery sacrifices are kept alive. “I want to pour oil on my body and set myself on fire. But I don’t have this immense altruistic courage.” Instead to awaken the conscience of the world, he shouts and makes a coffin, which symbolizes the fiery deaths in Tibet and drags it from one end of Switzerland to the other, from his home in Bern to Geneva, the capital, to beg and plead Tibet’s case.
He and his coffin make the journey on foot in 53 days, or sometimes on kyangchag, the full body-length prostration. He survives the grueling journey on a sturdy diet of tsampa, Tibet’s staple food, or dining out in restaurants when they are not closed or Chinese-owned. On the way, he collects musicians, reporters, passers-by and simply the curious with whom he makes Tibet’s case. He makes daily reports of the progress of his walk on his Facebook. Namling concludes this journey with a concert for Tibet organized by Franz Treichler of the Young Gods. Namling feels music is his best weapon against the Chinese occupation of his country. In answer to his own question of “What can I do for Tibet?” he says, “The best thing I had was I can sing.”
And he sings, un-scripted before, of all people, the Swiss economics minister, Johann Schneider-Ammannn, who had been approved by the Swiss parliament to sign a free trade agreement with China. Namling confronts him by asking “Why are you shaking hands with the murderers of the Tibetan people?” The minister says, “We take very, very seriously the Tibet issue. The issue is well known in Switzerland.” And before his aide drags him away, the minister says that one day he would love to hear Namling sing. As if on cue, Namling breaks into a Tibetan song. Thankful that the confrontation wasn’t that tense, and smiling, the minister makes his escape to make his case for trade between China and his country on TV before the Swiss electorate.
This diplomatic brush-off of the issue is Tibet’s daily fare. Long gone are the days when President George Bush Sr. announced a “new world order” and scholars spoke about the “end of history” and the triumph of liberal democracy over the communist states that were toppling like a house of cards. Today “the new world order” has been replaced by a new world disorder and China, because of its economic clout and diplomatic caution, seems to be the main beneficiary. Trade with China trumps freedom and human rights. That’s why the flames of freedom burning in Tibet and re-kindled in exile by the likes of Namling are profitably ignored by a world hungering after the slowing but still huge and consequential China market.
Tibetan Warrior opens with Namling saying good-bye to his son and daughter before his walk across Switzerland. It ends with Namling paying his children a visit at their mother’s place at the end of his trek. Perhaps, the point of Tibetan Warrior is that Tibetan children, like Namling’s, will take the baton from their parents to carry forward the struggle. The documentary film, un-rehearsed, un-scripted, could serve as a source of strength along the way and as a testimony to the world of one people’s lonely but brave struggle to exist and be counted.
Thubten Samphel is the director of the Tibet Policy Institute. Views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the Tibet Policy Institute.