News and Views on Tibet

Interview with Envoy Kelsang Gyaltsen

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The decision by the Swiss government not to meet the Dalai Lama gives the wrong signal, says Kelsang Gyaltsen, the Dalai Lama’s Swiss-based European envoy.

The 74-year-old Tibetan spiritual leader and Nobel Peace Prize laureate is visiting Switzerland for the 22nd time this week to hold talks and lectures on Buddhism and world peace.

The Swiss government has caused controversy by deciding against an official meeting with the Dalai Lama. Critics say this reflects pressure from China. What is your reaction to the fact that there will be no official meeting with a Swiss cabinet minister?

K.G.: His holiness doesn’t wish to cause any inconvenience to any host government. It is alright if certain governments don’t meet him. But as a Swiss-Tibetan I am disappointed with this decision by the Swiss government. This is not helpful; it doesn’t send the right signal to the Chinese leadership that they need to rethink their policy regarding Tibet and minorities in China. It is my strong conviction that members of the international community must make clear to the Chinese government that it must resolve the Tibetan issue through dialogue and negotiation and not pressure and bullying. As a Swiss-Tibetan I also believe that this decision is not in Switzerland’s interest. Switzerland has a reputation as a country committed to humanitarian values and traditions and to the ideals of freedom and democracy. By not meeting with the Dalai Lama the decision of the federal council [government] is in some way damaging the credibility of these values for which Switzerland stands in the eyes of the international community. What are the prospects for a rapprochement between the Tibetans in exile abroad, led by Dalai Lama, and the Chinese government?

K.G.: The position of the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan government remains unchanged. We are not seeking separation or independence for Tibet. We are striving for genuine autonomy for Tibetan people within the People’s Republic of China. The Chinese government knows that we stand ready to continue the dialogue process as soon as there is a clear signal from Beijing that the Chinese government is serious to discuss the real issue facing the Tibetans inside Tibet. At the moment we are waiting for a positive signal from Beijing. What are you hearing about the current atmosphere in Tibet?

K.G.: The situation inside Tibet is still very grim. The prevailing atmosphere is one of intimidation and fear. Most areas are still restricted, so no foreign tourists or outsiders can enter. We hear about arrests and heavy sentences handed down to Tibetans on a daily basis. There still seems to be tight security and a military presence in many areas. And according to recent information, the Chinese have installed cameras to monitor people’s movements, even in remote places. The restrictions of movement are very severe; in some cities you need to get permission even if you want to move from part to another. The Dalai Lama’s succession is a sensitive issue as he ages. How concerned are you about the future when he is no longer around?

K.G.: Of course the absence of the Dalai Lama will be a great setback for the Tibetan people, there is no doubt about that. But his holiness and the Tibetan government in exile are preparing for that time by making vigorous efforts to democratise our institutions and society. The future doesn’t depend on only one person and the responsibility of Tibetans’ freedom is shouldered by every individual Tibetan. Since 2001 we have elected a political leadership. All Tibetans in exile vote for the prime minister of the Tibetan government in exile. So we already have very sound democratic institutions and democratic structures. We believe the Dalai Lama will live for many years. He is in excellent health so we have solid grounds to believe that his lifespan will be longer than that of the Chinese Communist Party. You were given refuge in Switzerland in 1963 at the age of 11, together with other Tibetan orphans, and you have lived here for over 40 years. What is your relationship to Switzerland and to Tibet?

K.G.: I am a Swiss-Tibetan. I am very grateful to Switzerland for giving me a second home. I think the values and humanitarian tradition of Switzerland and history of freedom and democracy are very important values that have influenced my world outlook and my own values. At the same time, even though I grew up in Switzerland, I grew up among Tibetans and had a Tibetan monk teacher who taught me Buddhism and Tibetan language and history so I think Buddhist concepts and values are an essential part of my being. I believe there is a strong psychological and emotional bond between the Swiss and the Tibetans. Both people have a strong sense of identity as mountain people. Both countries are small, sandwiched by big neighbours and as a result are very proud of their distinct identities. I feel very much at home and at ease in Switzerland. My children were born here and go to school here. Switzerland has become my second home in the true sense of the word.

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