News and Views on Tibet

Chen moves to improve relations with Tibet

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By Jagdish Singh

President Chen Shui-bian has taken innovative steps to improve and expand relations with Tibet. Such realism may prod Beijing to reformulate its own policies toward the Himalayan region. So argues Jagdish Singh, assistant editor and special correspondent of the National Herald in New Delhi. The views expressed are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of the newspaper.

Those who have observed Chen Shui-bian since he became president of the Republic of China agree that he is not given to mere rhetoric. Chen believes in practicing exactly what he preaches. Taiwan has traveled a long way from authoritarianism to democracy. Chen is committed to the principle of “democracy, parity and peace.” In his New Year’s address Jan. 1, Chen said that since the events of Sept. 11, the global strategic landscape had undergone considerable change, and a new world order had begun to take shape. Terrorism is but a symptom of a greater disease, whose real cure is democracy. Taiwan must continue to cooperate with international allies and friends to work toward the realization of global democratization, he said.

The recent decision by the Chen government to create a Taiwan-Tibet cultural exchange foundation to complement the Cabinet-level Mongolian and Tibetan Affairs Commission manifests the president’s conviction that charity begins at home. Chen believes that any talk would be meaningless if his government did not bring its Tibet policy in tune with contemporary trends toward democratization.

Although former President Chiang Kai-shek retreated from China in 1949, relocating his government to Taiwan, the ROC government considered itself as the real representative of all of China–Tibet and Mongolia included. A democratic Tibet had no place in his calculations. Visits by officials of the Tibetan government-in-exile or even the Dalai Lama had to go through the Mongolian and Tibetan Affairs Commission.

No longer. Taiwan has struggled hard to achieve its own democracy. Fully understanding the long and difficult process, Chen is resolute to honor the will and aspirations of Tibetans. Taiwan and Mongolia have already established mutual representative offices. Now, with the establishment of the Taiwan-Tibet Exchange Foundation Jan. 20, a non-official channel of communications, supported by the ROC government and Tibetan government-in-exile, has come into being.

The establishment of the foundation and the sensitivity shown by Taipei toward Tibet’s pride and democratic aspirations will go a long way in promoting better understanding between Taiwanese and Tibetans. Harmonious relations generated by the process may even lead to creation of some mechanism by which the two could see virtue in living together in the future.

The communist leadership in China should emulate Chen’s experiment and make similar gestures toward Tibetans. This would promote confidence between Tibetans and Chinese.

It is sad to learn that little has changed in Tibet since the late Panchen Lama authored his 70,000-character petition in 1962, highlighting political arrests, starvation, famine and suppression of the Tibetan language, culture and religion. Chinese policies have been marked by serious human rights abuses–whether political, social, economic or cultural.

A large number of Tibetans were killed during the Mao Tse-tung’s Great Leap Forward in the late 1950s. Furthermore, many monasteries were destroyed during the subsequent Cultural Revolution during the 1960s.

Under its current “strike hard” campaign and programs to politically “educate” Tibet’s 46,000 monks and nuns, Beijing is practicing ethnic cleansing by organizing an influx of Han Chinese into the region. This has led to the flight of religious leaders like the Karmapa Lama and Agya Rinpoche, Abbot of the Kumbum Monastery and once a high-ranking Chinese official to India.

In 1969, the 18-member United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination voiced concern over the lack of legal protection for minority groups in China. In 1996, the 135-member Inter Parliamentary Union, founded in 1899, met in Beijing where the group passed a text highlighting forced sterilization and abortions, violations of human rights and lack of rule of law in Tibet.

There is no justification for Tibet’s predicament. Notwithstanding reservations in certain quarters, the Dalai Lama, the undisputed leader of the community, stands for a political solution within the framework of the constitution of China. His Strasbourg proposal in 1988 contains a middle-way approach, which seeks self-rule for Tibet and not complete independence.

His is the approach of pragmatic pacifism–genuine self-rule under Chinese sovereignty. According to the proposal, the central government in Beijing would have jurisdiction over core areas such as diplomacy, defense, communications and finance, while the local administration would handle health, education, environment and culture.

The central government has, however, never taken the proposition seriously. As a result, formal contact between Dharamsala and Beijing came to an end in August 1993. The few informal channels established afterward did not work.

Since then, former U.S. President Bill Clinton reportedly pleaded for democracy within China, including free and fair elections in Tibet and commended the Dalai Lama as “an honest man” in his talks with his Chinese counterpart Jiang Zemin in June 1998. Meanwhile, Beijing has issued several white papers on the subject.

The communist leadership has indicated that it is willing to open dialogue with Dharamsala, provided the Tibetan leader ceases activities of “splittism” and recognizes the People’s Republic of China as the sole legitimate government of China and that Taiwan is a province of China. Beijing has repeated its demands in talks with British Prime Minister Tony Blair and French President Jacques Chirac.

Obviously, the main reason behind this stalemate has been the lack of trust between Beijing and Dharamsala. Some time back China’s official news agency, Xinhua, accused the Tibetan leader of having “masterminded a series of separatist activities, including a ‘peaceful march’ in a foreign country and explosions and assassinations in Tibet.” A high-ranking official of the Tibetan Autonomous Region reportedly told a Thai media delegation in September 2000 that, “the Dalai Lama, under the pretext of religion, engages in activities aimed at splitting the country. His cheating and hypocrisy goes against the doctrine of Buddhism.” It is hard to go by such an assessment. The Dalai Lama has long made his acceptance of Chinese sovereignty over Tibet clear. Since the late Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru gave asylum to Tibetans in India, there has been no evidence to show that the Dalai Lama has ever encouraged splittism and violence anywhere in the world.

In his conversation with this correspondent in 1997, the Dalai Lama declared that, “There would be no violence as long as I lead the struggle. I am willing to start negotiations anytime, anywhere and without any preconditions. All we ask for is self-rule in order to practice Shunyavad.” The Dalai Lama added that once self-rule was achieved, he would not carry any temporal responsibilities. He also argued that a myopic view of nationalism would not do. Despite some unhealthy signs, the world was becoming more globalized and therefore living together with China would be good, even for Tibetans.

No wonder, the Dalai Lama is believed wherever he goes–whether in Sweden, South Africa, Finland, Norway, United Kingdom, United States, New Zealand, Australia, Germany and France. More and more people, including pro-democracy and human rights groups in China, have come to express their support for his “pragmatic pacifism” and urged their governments to take initiatives to open dialogue between Beijing and Dharamsala.

The communist leadership would do well to trust him and talk, preferably in some neutral country like Austria or Switzerland. Distrust leads nowhere. Beijing should keep in mind that the Dalai Lama is getting old. After him there may be no one of his caliber to keep the Tibetan movement peaceful and conciliatory.

It is no secret that most Tibetan nongovernmental organizations are pro-independence. Recently, a prominent member of the Tibetan Parliament-in-exile told this correspondent that some of his colleagues have expressed support for a violent approach on the pattern of the recent struggle in East Timor. If, however, the middle approach is still intact, the member of parliament said, “It is because the Dalai Lama is alive.” It is difficult to understand why China insists that the Dalai Lama declare Tibet an inalienable part of China. This debate is immaterial. What is material is that the Dalai Lama and his government-in-exile have repeatedly said, “Tibet can be a part of China.” In his memorandum to then Chinese supremo Deng Xiaoping in 1992, the Dalai Lama emphasized that, “If Tibetans obtain basic rights, they are not incapable of seeing the possible advantages of living with the Chinese.” Significantly, the mood now is upbeat among officials of the government-in-exile.

In August, the Dalai Lama’s older brother, Gyalo Dhondup, visited Tibet. A spokesman for the Dalai Lama was quoted as describing the Dhondup visit as “helpful.” Subsequently, a four-member Tibetan delegation led by Lodi Gyaltsen Gyari, Kalsang Gyaltsen, Bhuchung Tsering and Sonam Dagpo visited Beijing, Chengdu, Shanghai and Lhasa–the Tibetan capital as well as Nyingtri and Shigatse.

The delegation was able to offer prayers in Jokhang and Potala and visit Norbu Lingka, Gaden, Tashi Lhunpo and Palkhor Choeten in Gyangtse. In Beijing, the Tibetan delegation met Wang Zhaoguo, vice chair of the Communist Chinese Party Central Committee and head of the Central United Front Work Department, and Li Dezhu, minister for Nationalities Affairs and deputy head of the United Front Work Department.

On their return from China, the delegation said they had a frank, yet cordial, exchange of views with their Chinese counterparts. The Chinese leaders listened to them with keen interest, showing greater flexibility than in 1993 when formal contacts ended abruptly. The mood is so good that Samdhong Rinpoche, prime minister of the Tibetan government-in-exile has even urged all NGOs associated with the Tibetan cause to abstain from waging protests and demonstrations against the Chinese government until July 2003.

Sources in Dharamsala have said Beijing is serious about reviving its contacts with Dharamsala and may take steps to solve the Tibetan problem. China wants the 2008 Beijing Olympics to succeed. It wants its Tibet-related development projects to get international approval.

There is much international pressure on China to improve its human rights record. Time is also running out for the European Parliament’s resolution, which warns China to talk to the Dalai Lama to solve the Tibetan problem by June 2003. Otherwise, it will urge its member governments to recognize the government-in-exile. Many are hoping the optimists are not wrong.

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