Can Hope Maintain Peace?

This essay was written while conducting a documentary project on the Tibetan Exile community in India, funded by grants from UNC. I was studying photojournalism as well as Peace, War and Defense at the time and this essay reflects many of the questions I based my projects upon- and am still seeking answers to. While the topic is specific to the Tibetan population and their struggles over the past 60 years, the overall themes of pacifism, modern war-fare, modernity and cultural preservation apply to many of the issues we currently face as a society. A point, which in light of recent world events, I think we should all revisit and truly ponder as a collective.

A Tibetan monk takes a minute to watch the action on the streets of McLeod Ganj. Image by me, 2006.

Is it possible for the Tibetan people to initiate and maintain the last peaceful struggle to achieve autonomy?  And if such a goal is unattainable through non-violence, then is peace throughout the rest of the world merely an unattainable objective?  Is mankind, as a whole, unable to accept the spiritual implications and requirements of non-violence?

Can man simply not accept that peace is achievable through diplomacy and that profiting off of the deaths of others is not a viable solution to the evolution of mankind?  Or does war and peace truly boil down to the pursuit of commodities and natural resources coupled with the profiting from military mobilization?  Is war hidden behind the shroud of freedom and democracy for everyone whilst the true motivation for invasion is the commandeering of monetary gain and positions of power?

Historically, states have not bothered to hide the fact that they were invading to commandeer the resources of another.  Imperialism.  Today, states invade the sovereignty of another in order to retain the natural commodities desired by the aggressor and the intention is hidden beneath liberation and protection from dictatorships and autocratic regimes.  This is acceptable to the general public. One can easily digest the notion of spreading the desirable conditions of human existence- opportunity, freedom, and the pursuit of further inalienable rights- but the travesty lies in the easy acceptance of veiled truths. Such truths are, at times, hidden by various avenues of media; a deceit that kills innocents and destroys the cultural strands woven over centuries of time.

Children at the Tibetan Children's Village take a break for snacks. These children are orphans, some with families left behind in China. The Tibetan Exile government provides a familial and educational environment from these children as they are separated, sometimes permanently, from their families left behind in China. Photo by me, 2006.

Are we unable see the tragedy that our own consumption and desires for material wealth bring to other societies?
Or is that consumption merely the end product, or means of modernization and can that consumption help build poorer nations into a status of development that becomes self-sustaining?  If that is the case, then are we as a society ready to embrace and accept the means of modernization and development by the spreading of consumption of cheap material goods?  And when this type of “sustenance” reaches a capacity breaking point (for truly, there is only so much physical space in this earth for cheap Chinese goods) and when the resources needed for such production come at the cost of human lives and cultural heritages- as in the case of the Chinese using Tibetan natural resources to create cheap material exports- will society accept that violence and war will be used to attain the power and control over such resources for this eventual material outcome?

A young Tibetan teaches western tourists how to cook traditional Tibetan meals in McLeod Ganj, India. Image by me, 2006

Do alternatives exist to this type of modernization and if so, what are they?  How do we spread a sustainability option not reliant upon such cycles of production and consumption?  And how do we call the international community to embrace and implement such alternative means of sustainability in the world economy, particularly when the governments pursuing the a fore mentioned opportunities of obtaining natural resources sit on the very councils of the international body that determines the justifications and conditions under which conflict and war may be waged?

A Tibetan monk spins his prayer wheel during an interview at a Tibetan Refugee Reception Center. Tibetans who flee China on foot eventually make their way to this final reception center before they assimilate into the local community.

When does non-violence become as detrimental to a society as violence?  Is the slow deterioration of a population who’ve existed for thousands of years an acceptable by-product of pacifism or would the direct and indirect harm to non-combatants in a violent conflict situation be an acceptable outcome of a people’s struggle to regain freedom?  If so, what constitutes the boundaries of acceptable collateral damage—and can cultural identity and heritage be considered under the definition of collateral damage, or does that merely apply to human lives and the ability to pursue the basic rights of life, such as breathing, shelter and eating?

Is cultural identity quantified in the definitions that justify violent action and the situations for which war may be pursued?  Or is it merely a secondary element to the harming of non-combatants?  Yet, what if that cultural identity is the element which defines the non-combatant, that keeps the population of civilians alive, or is that merely overstating the relevance of cultural identity to a population of people, particularly in the era of modernization and globalization?

Is it better to whither slowly or expedite the demise in attempting to save what might no longer exists?

The comments are open on this one- let the debate begin!

His Holiness, the Dalai Lama. I had a press pass to photograph this event and mangaged to create not a single decent image. Epic photo failure!

A Tibetan protest on the streets of McLeod Ganj, India.

Images of Tibetan prisoners in China. We interviewed several recent refugees from China and their stories of brutallity were heart-breaking and gruesome.

More images from the protest.

This image hangs as a reminder of the sacrifice and means of protest of individual Tibetans in the office of the Reception Center.


  1. says

    Jarring questions, and lovely prose/pictures. Tibet is such a wonderful case-study in personal responsibility in the global sphere.

    I think story tellers like you, Crystal, are agents of peace. Fidelity to your craft–words and pictures–opens people up to modes of thought that cause them (without guilt) to reconsider better ways of living. The less I am “consumption driven,” the happier I am. I know the world is too. The tone of the photos and words is so lovely–not accusatory, just patient and rigorously prodding. Our lives were crafted in societies that were/are subtly imperial. We owe much to aggressive governments and the sweat of others. I hate this, but I’ve read enough to know it.

    The violent knee-jerk reaction against regimes has less lasting affect than quiet patient hope expressed in the daily work and value-living of the people you’ve pictured here. You know I’m an ardent believer in storytelling as an agent of renewal, hope and peace. This is my way to “rage, rage against the dying of the light.”

    Wonderful work–I hope this kind of work gets the attention it deserves.

    • says

      Mark- such an eloquent response!

      I love that you use storytelling to express your rage against the ills of our world. Civil disobedience at its finest! And I agree completely, the less I consume the more balanced I am and the happier I become. But I don’t know if the mainstream will ever see this as a positive attribute. In fact, I don’t believe the mainstream will truly curtail the drive to consume until the option is removed- violently and abruptly- from their daily habits.

      In fact, while I’d love to say to you that yes, this type of work gets the attention I feel it needs, I sadly don’t believe it does. I don’t believe that a majority of people want to hear this type of message. For many can not sit with another’s despair or tragic reality and process it properly. We are no longer given the tools- or we no longer seek the tools- to process the actual reality of our world. So we (and I mean we in the collective “Westerners” not we as the empowered artists bringing revolution through our work :) close our eyes at the plight of another, for we know in some way or another- either through our consumption or our inability to bear witness- we are helping to promote another’s demise. Our society is structured to destroy the weak and consume at the cost of those without a voice. That’s capitalism in its current manifestation. I don’t know if this work plays a role in the larger picture, but this work- our work- plays a role in the smaller microcosm that we’ve created. And hopefully, from that microcosm, those who are willing and able to engage with the difficult task of restructuring a more just and fair society will arise. And then the collective can move forward towards a world that reflects the humanity we believe in.

      In theory.

      Thanks for your fabulous words and your amazing work! Hope our paths cross soon! Travel safe!