News and Views on Tibet

Phayul in conversation with Dr Dibyesh Anand

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Phayul spoke with Dr Dibyesh Anand, a keen Tibet observer and author of `Tibet: A Victim of Geopolitics` and numerous research papers on Tibet.

Dr Dibyesh Anand is Associate Professor of International Relations at London`s Westminster University.

Phayul: Having closely observed the Tibetan struggle and the exile set up for a long time, what are your thoughts on the Tibetan democratic system?

Dr Dibyesh Anand: I think it is a very interesting experiment.

It is an experiment because you are trying to build a stateless democracy using only a couple of percentage of total Tibetan population, while claiming to represent the entire Tibet. But that is inevitable because you live in exile.

The interesting part of the democratisation is the stateless aspect of it. So far, it is a very interesting one because of the new face of the Dalai Lama as a retired political leader, who gave the real political authority to the next Prime Minister. It is interesting because in one sense it can prepare the exile Tibetans for the future where they will not have a figure of the Dalai Lama to unify them but the democratic process to unify them. So in that sense, it is a positive thing. The risk in democratisation is that it can also lead to divisions as you have seen in the case of India. Democracy can be unifying but can also be divisive.

Now, for Tibetan democracy in exile to not be divisive, it is important for them to generally agree upon what they are working towards. Is it only to survive in exile? That they can, but is it also about what they want to do for the future of Tibet. What we know is, while there is a consensus around Middle Way in general, now, in the post Dalai Lama period, in case the negotiations do not start and the 14th Dalai Lama does not go back to Tibet, we are facing a real situation where a policy that was promoted for the last 30 to 40 years would fail to achieve what it wants. You would then end up in a situation where democracy would not be able to convince the Tibetan people that Middle Way is still a better way. Given that if Dalai Lama could not succeed in getting the deal out of China, what will the democratic leadership do? That will be the challenge.

Another problem that I can see in terms of democratisation is creating possibly a distance from Tibetans in Tibet. Tibetans in Tibet are asking for many things – independence, freedom, religious freedom but much of their movement is around religion and religious life. Contrary to what many may argue, they are not fighting for democracy per se, they are fighting for freedom and they are fighting for religious freedom. What they don’t have which you have, number one, is democracy but still that is not the most important factor, number two, are the religious leaders living here.

So, with democratisation, of course what would happen is, religious leaders including the next Dalai Lama, Karmapa, Sakya Rinpoche, all of them would be relatively not important in terms of politics.

Now, can we see a situation where let’s say, in 10 or 20 years time, Tibetans in Tibet are willing to give their lives up for the Prime Minister or democracy? I don’t see that.

They can give up lives for a picture of the Dalai Lama, or even a picture of Karmapa and Sakya Rinpoche, if that becomes important. It is difficult to imagine them giving their life for a system that they have never experienced.

So, my anxiety is that democracy is a good system for the exiles but democratisation cannot be the unifying national symbol the way a religious leader can be. So, somehow if democratisation in exile balances itself while keeping religious leader or leaders as the unifying national symbols, that will work. But, if they sideline the religious leaders in certain ways, then I am not sure if it is going to work because Tibetans in Tibet may want something else.

Do you think Tibetans will be eventually able to use this democracy vis-à-vis China and inside Tibet?

Dr Dibyesh Anand: Democracy does allow representation and representativeness. There is no doubt. Now, the main role of democracy is to keep the exiles together. The main purpose is not to transform and bring transformation inside Tibet. I don’t see that as a major factor in mobilising Tibetans inside Tibet. We have seen Tibetans use the Dalai Lama’s picture to mobilise most of the time or they have used Chinese government policies to criticise China. So far they have not used democratic system in exile to mobilise themselves. Can they do that in the future? It is possible but it can never drive people emotionally to sacrifice the way in this context the religious leaders can do or the absence of religious leaders can do.

Remember, most Tibetans who come out of Tibet, they come out for education, to meet the Dalai Lama or the religious leaders and not for the Central Tibetan Administration as such.

Now, vis-à-vis China, Chinese leaders have repeatedly stated that it will negotiate with the Dalai Lama over a personal status. Having more democracy in exile will have no impact on China because China will not accept negotiations with exile democratic leadership in the absence of the Dalai Lama.

From Chinese perspective, even if one wants to give genuine autonomy, they will only want to give it because they believe the Dalai Lama can provide stability in Tibet, that he will return and provide stability. Now, in his absence, can the democratic leadership in exile provide stability in Tibet? The Chinese would know that they cannot because they are not well known.

From the Chinese perspective, they know that democratic leadership cannot offer any stability. Why would then they negotiate? Dalai Lama can, may be the next Dalai Lama can, the Karmapa can, may be other religious leaders together can provide stability. But even they cannot do it fully, to be honest, because source of instability in Tibet is not just the absence the Dalai Lama or the Karmapa – the source of instability is the Chinese rule. In the absence of religious leaders, I don’t think democratic leadership can offer stability. But democracy is good, it’s meant for exile that we have to be clear of.

Phayul: So, in the event of the exile Tibetan democratic leadership failing to negotiate with China, do you see religious leaders in exile having a better chance of dealing with China in the future if need arises, of course though backchannels?

Dr Dibyesh Anand: Yes. Remember in late 1980s and early 1990s, there were lots of backchannel relationships between the exiles including the Dalai Lama and religious lamas and the government in China. The fact that Chinese government and the Dalai Lama could together identify the Karmapa tells you that there were backchannels then. That doesn’t exist much now.

So, there could be a scenario where, say senior Rinpoches and senior Lamas in Tibet, with the approval of Chinese government, may make deals with the Dalai Lama and other exile leaders. But it’s more likely that they would see Lamas as having more influence and therefore offer some stability. Also, getting Lamas back would look good for the Chinese. Meanwhile, getting exile leadership back will in fact for them be akin to bringing new elite from exile and thus more instability. So, getting Lamas back is good for stability, it’s good for image and also in the end, religious leaders are in a better position to negotiate. But of course, that negotiation cannot be the kind of negotiation that the Dalai Lama can offer, which is big one, for entire Tibet. That, no religious leaders can do.

So, I think in the absence of the 14th Dalai Lama, one should be shocked if there is any serious negotiation of the kind that takes place now.

Phayul: How much do you think His Holiness the Dalai Lama, after devolving all his political authority to the elected Tibetan leadership, influences Tibetan political system and its decisions?

Dr Dibyesh Anand: Not directly. Because when you look at it, he avoids making comments that are political, even on the self-immolations, which I don’t think is political. He has been very conscious. He knows, he is aware of his own authority but he does say things from time to time that can affect how politics works.

It’s not him interfering, it’s not him using his influence. Rather, it is how the democratic leadership uses him for their purpose and the best example of that was the Second Special General Meeting (September 25-28) when a resolution was passed criticising a minuscule section of Tibetan population for hurting the sentiments of the Dalai Lama.

A sacred figure does not need ordinary mortals like us or the political leadership to protect him.

The Dalai Lama is Chenresig. He is all knowing. He does not require the leadership here to somehow protect him because he is sacred.

In one sense, by denouncing few Tibetans who caused hurt to the Dalai Lama, the signal that the political leadership is giving to the wider Tibetan population is that, “Look these are against the Dalai Lama – certain people and certain organisations.” That’s not a healthy development for democracy. But remember that is not the Dalai Lama doing it.

He may have said that some people have caused him hurt and an organisation has caused hurt but that’s for him to say as a private citizen of democracy, he is not a political leader. So, I don’t think he is interfering at all, he is not influencing in anyway directly. But his influence could come in how the exile leadership may or may not use his name to push their policy

Overall he does influence the main agenda which is, ‘what could be the possible future for Tibet.’ I think for genuine democratic debate, he has given space. The Dalai Lama has created space for genuine democracy and he has created space for genuine debate. Now, whether the exiles can take the opportunity, fulfil his wishes of genuine democracy, and even question what kind of strategy you want for the future or not is for the people to decide.

Phayul: What do you think are the major challenges that Tibetan political leadership in exile are facing today?

Dr Dibyesh Anand: The biggest challenge of course is they are many challenges. The one challenge that they are facing is to keep their exile community united. The challenges come from the fact what is going to be the political goal of Tibet. That’s one of the main debates but there are other tensions also. How to maintain settlements in India, how to deal with increasing migration from India and Nepal to the West, and what impact will have it on Tibet movement as such. All those issue matters. The main challenge is how to maintain unity here and how to maintain a viable presence in India. In Nepal, we know that there are lots of tensions and viable presence is not there anymore.

So, second challenge is basically how to relate to India. The most important challenge in front of the leadership is how to generate public and parliamentary and government support for Tibetans in India. I think the leadership is making some attempt to address that. But it needs to be more serious about it because India matters more than US, UK, France or Switzerland. So, this is the most important country because once you have a number of exile shifting away from India, then the connection with the Tibet goes away.

I know we live in a globalised world where through internet boundaries don’t matter. But boundaries do matter when Tibetans run away from Tibet, they don’t live in a boundary less country, they have to cross the actual boundary, the boundary with Nepal and with India. So that matters.

The other challenge they face of course is to how to keep the interest in Tibet alive in the world given that much of that interest is related to the Dalai Lama. So, they have to find a way in which they keep the interest alive and even generate it again because the level of interest in the West for instance in the 1990 is not there today. Even for the Dalai Lama, that interest is not there.

If you look at the profile of Tibet supporters, at least I know in England and US also, apart from some exceptions of some young people, the supporters are largely middle-class, white, older people. And that’s the limitation. That doesn’t mean one should shift away from that support base but there is the need to generate interest amongst young people and amongst ethnic minorities in the west. And that is a challenge. Again that has to be taken seriously here.

Vis-à-vis China, to be honest, there is not much that the leadership can do. Tibetans in exile have been mostly responding to events inside except in late 1980s when the Dalai Lama went with the internationalisation strategy which basically entailed taking the cause abroad, spreading it around. That was the only time when exiles were actually pro-active rather than re-active. But promises of negotiations and slacking interest around Tibet in the West meant that international strategy works up to a point and then stops.

They can’t do anything to prompt Chinese to start negotiations. But If the Chinese start negotiations, the point is what new can exiles offer. It will partly depend on what Chinese leadership can offer.

But then the final challenge is how to maintain connections with Tibetans in Tibet and how to keep speaking in their name. It’s important to remember that Middle Way or Rangzen is a debate in exile; it’s not a debate inside Tibet. There is no healthy debate in Tibet because that is not possible. The only views we know from Tibet are what people do through protest. So, therefore we have to pay close attention to why protest are taking place and how we can best read the protest. We should avoid using our ideology here and impose it upon the protests.

Even the self-immolations. We should not use our ideas here of Rangzen vs Middle Way and impose it upon them.

The message of the self-immolations in my view, what we are getting from at least some Tibetans, is that they see the Chinese rule as a colonial rule which does not give dignity to Tibetans.

I think the question is not development. I know we can challenge China over development but to be honest, yes, there are discriminations, there are problems but there has been rapid transformation in Tibet. You cannot deny that. So, does it mean that if Chinese government provides good road, good medical facilities and equal treatment to Tibetans, everything will be fine? I don’t think so. Because political dignity goes beyond development and bread and butter issues.

So as long as the Tibetans feel that their dignity is not being respected, the main form of which is the absence of the religious leaders in Tibet, the problem will remain.

The point is, does the exile leadership, in what sense, takes that into account. Are they representing Tibetan views fairly or not, that’s the challenge?

Phayul: How do you think India will react to a post-Dalai Lama era and what kind of consequences could there be for the exile Tibetans in India?

Dr Dibyesh Anand: We have to remember that India gave refuge to the Dalai Lama and his followers in 1959. In the absence of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, the status, the position of Tibetans become more vulnerable because His Holiness is not here and his followers are here.

The Indian government respects him and the world respects him. Now, vis-à-vis Tibetans, broadly speaking, there could be three kinds of “use” in India.

One is, as they say, Tibetans are a strategic asset vis-à-vis the Chinese. That kind of view in one sense tries to argue that we should use Tibetans, if not against Chinese but to remind China that we have an asset here. Of course, many Tibetans may like to be used, because they may want more freedom in Tibet but the risk with that is, if you are used, you can also be thrown out.

So, “use” can have its own limitations and I don’t think that’s a healthy attitude. Let’s say, Tibetans should not be satisfied or be secured that because they may be a strategic asset to India, Indians are going to keep them here the way they have been keeping them so far while the Dalai Lama is around.

The second kind of view is seeing Tibetans as a liability and be blamed for the problems with the Chinese. You can imagine that in the post Dalai Lama scenario. Such a view can try to argue that, “Look, we have given enough support for Tibetans for last 40-50 years, not anymore. Anyway, if the Dalai Lama is not involved why should we take the headache?” That kind of thing. They see the Tibetans as a liability and they might be tempted to do what Nepal has been doing, which is to push Tibetans out.

And if US or Canada may be willing to take Tibetans in, then you can see almost the end or the dissolution of Tibetan presence in India. That is a possibility.

But there is a third view in India which is the healthiest one and which recognises both aspects of it.

That view recognises Tibetans as important, they recognise Tibetans have made valuable contributions to the culture, economy, religion, and security of India.

Now, I think that’s where Tibetans have to work in India. They have to ensure that Indians know more about what Tibetans contribute, not only the Special Frontier Force and security, of course that is very important, but also culturally and religiously. For instance, how Bodhgaya got a renaissance because of the presence of Tibetan Buddhists and, most importantly, how Tibetans are vital for the loyalty of Indian Buddhist living throughout the Himalayan region. All of that is very important.

I think that position is still uncertain, so we need to pay more attention in making Indians realise more about that. But as a general trend, if we don’t take the initiative, we can’t wait India to do it because India has its own thousand problems and it can hardly govern itself.

Tibet is a minor issue and presence of Tibetans matters not much to India. But the important thing is to somehow shift Tibet as a concern away from few security experts and few government officials to the wider public. Because, wider public and parliamentarians, if they know about the Tibetan contribution, they would not allow Indian government to use Tibet as a card that they can use sometimes positively and sometimes negatively.

One of ways Tibetans can do that, of course apart from raising awareness, is to think more about the Indian citizenship aspect.

It is evident that Tibetans are fulfilling all the duties of a citizen without getting any rights of citizenship. Where do you see that non citizens protecting Indians in Siachin, in Kargil war fighting against Pakistan?

So, Tibetans are fulfilling the duties, paying taxes where there are, making contributions to the economy, providing security to India but they have no rights. Of course, treatment of Tibetans in India so far has been generally positive and far better than how India treats other refugees. There is no doubt. But that depends on the generosity of the government and we cannot rely on the generosity of the government all the time.

It is important that we generate interest and we remind the public, media and the politicians of what Tibetan are contributing and remember politicians are about vote and this is why citizenship can help.

Remember, most Tibetans who have Registration Certificate (RC) here are in one sense Tibetan-Indian or Indian-Tibetan in any case. So, citizenship is more about getting rights to do what you are already doing. It does not imply going against Tibet or giving up on Tibet. It is about working for both – your country of origin and your country of living.

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