By Norbu Tsering
Our democracy is well and alive. We have reached a juncture in the development of democratic practices in governance where the person elected by the people holds the highest political authority after H.H. the Dalai Lama gracefully chose to retire from his pre-eminent position as the most beloved and revered temporal leader of the Tibetan people. Since that August day in 2011 when H.H. the Dalai Lama announced that he was bringing to an end the over 400 years old tradition of the line of Dalai Lamas being the highest political authority, the central Tibetan administration under the leadership of Sikyong Dr. Lobsang Sangay La has taken care of all the domains of administration quite efficiently and with an admirable sense of responsibility. All of us hope that his administration will only get better as he gains more experience.
The suspicions that Mr. Jamyang Norbu La harbours regarding the change of Dr. Lobsang Sangay La’s title from Kalon Tripa to Sikyong seem to me of having no basis that can be substantiated. No constitutional crisis and confusion has been seen in the functioning of the administration because of the name change. The Tibetan word ‘sikyong’ means a person who takes care of the political management of a nation’s life. The English equivalent can be president, prime minister, or any title for the highest political authority in a land. Our elected leader cannot be ‘sizin’-president because of the very different democratic set-up of our administration. Neither can he be ‘silon’-prime minister as unlike the separate head of the state we find in parliamentary democracies, our elected leader is kind of both the head of the state as well as of the government. Anyway, debates about the suitability or otherwise of a title name are academic exercises to satisfy intellectual curiosities. For us sikyong is a suitable word that rightly describes the nature, power and functions of our elected leader. This title, in no way, adds to or minimises the Sikyong’s authority as a successor to His Holiness the Dalai Lama in his role as the highest political authority.
The Sikyong with no other higher authority than his may get tempted to take undue advantage of his position. But, this is unlikely to happen. The Sikyong is, obviously, answerable to the ATPD. If ever an occasion arises requiring a motion of censure to be brought up against the Sikyong, the ATPD is there to do that. The ATPD’s role as the checks and balances on the Kashag, including the Sikyong is in place and effective. There is no ground to the fear that the Sikyong may be having unbridled ambition. In fact, our deputies in the assembly have started speaking more freely. Deputy Mr. Karma Choephel La has, actually, declared his rejection of the middle way on the floor of the assembly. This is a sign that the Sikyong’s authority may come under increasing scrutiny by the ATPD.
Mr. Jamyang Norbu La’s accusation that there is a campaign set afoot to curbing freedom of speech of the independence proponents does not hold water. From the days His Holiness the Dalai Lama was in power they have always been able, freely, to talk about their views and concerns. The Tibetan Youth Congress has exercised this freedom from a long time back to making a pitch for independence. So too are the other groups and individuals who share TYC’s stand. And in the case of Mr. Jamyang Norbu La, he has been writing about his opposition to the middle way, now, for umpteen years. No one has ever forced him to stop airing out his views. In fact, because of the free access to his writings and talks, quite a number of our youth care for what he stands for. It is very unreasonable on his part, ever, to expect our administration to invite him into the ATPD and the Kashag meetings and offer him a platform to promote his views! Democracies, normally, don’t work this way. The established practice is for the elected representatives to raise issues and urge for major policy changes. And the representatives are the voice of the people. The fear that our administration is beginning to gag press is unfounded. This is not being done and this can’t be done in democracies like India, America and other countries where Tibetans live.
Mr. Jamyang Norbu La’s relentless criticism of Pro.Samdhong Rinpoche on the point of the middle way has grown very tiring now. As the former Kalon Tripa and as an important architect of the middle way policy, he was expected to justify the adoption of this policy and point out the impracticality of the stand for independence. And, it is not that independence supporters refrain from attacking the middle way approach. All the possible harsh words have been used to vilify Pro. Samdhong Rinpoche. He has been wildly accused of kowtowing to China’s dictates in the approach to his functions as the KalonTripa. For someone who has spent almost all his life building our community in its darkest and most difficult period, such mindless name-calling must be very upsetting. I respectfully appreciate him for choosing not to take issues with his detractors. Keeping a dignified distance from such slurs is very becoming of his stature, especially his spiritual stature. Rinpoche will be remembered as a leader who stood steadfast by his administration’s policies agreed to and approved by the ATPD.
Mr. Jamyang Norbu La’s contention that both former Kalon Tripa Pro.Samdhang Rinpoche and Sikyong Dr. Lobsang Sangay La meddled with the working of RFA Tibetan section at the behest of China’s leaders is very difficult to accept. Mr. Jamyang Norbu La and others who share his views spoke many times from RFA broadcasts. Both RFA and VOA extensively covered the TYC sponsored hunger strike in New York. The TYC is still waiting for the U.N.O. to fulfilling its promise of looking into the issue of Tibet. Most likely, the wait is forever. RFA cannot invite some particular persons every day to talk on the radio. The practice is that people of different viewpoints are asked to speak on the radio when relevant events happen. Two points are worth paying attention to. First, it is hard to buy that a small administration having no clout whatsoever over any country can interfere with the functioning of an organization run by America- the citadel of free press and free speech. Second, China, upbeat with its rising international status, has no need to ask for the help of an organizational set-up it simply dismisses as non-consequential. Whatever had happened at RFA could be the result of clash of personal interests. This is most likely judging by the way the controversy has ended in a whimper.
Another serious allegation that Mr. Jamyang Norbu La levels against Pro.Samdhong Rinpoche is his supposed attempt at sowing the seed of discord among the Kham people. He says Rinpoche is doing this at the behest of Gaden Phodrang. Rinpoche is said to have asked some people pose as Khampa and make a pitch for the middle way. What Jamyang La implies is that all the Kham people oppose the middle way. Is this not a very dangerous assertion that may cause serious differences in our larger community? The effort to portray Rinpoche as a ‘scheming ‘ politician will only rebound adversely on the independence supporters. There is no truth in it. The Tibetan people are so indebted to Rinpoche that they can’t be easily swayed by such far-fetched accusations.
I do not agree with Mr. Jamyang Norbu La when he says democratisation of the Tibetan society is His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s biggest contribution. Of course, it is a very important one. But, his greatest achievement is holding Tibet together. He has created a Tibet outside Tibet. He has helped Tibet rise from where it fell. Wherever he travels, he symbolises the issue of Tibet. Owing to his scholarship, his natural grace, his spiritual aura, the power of his presence, his humanism and his indefatigable service to his people, he has earned worldwide respect which, in turn, is drawing sympathetic international attention to the sufferings of the Tibetan people because of the occupation of Tibet by China. It is another matter that this has not translated into tangible support at the governmental level of a country.
Another of his achievement greater than literally forcing democracy on us is saving Tibet from vanishing and from being forgotten by the world. His Holiness has shown to the world the tenacity of truth and faith.
I believe the middle way solution has become the official policy not because of a mere desire to please China, but because of our very weak situation. An impression is sought to be created by the independence seekers that our leaders fell for the middle way even though full independence was there for the asking. That the middle way was adopted only to please China and that there was no good for Tibet in it. Nothing can be further from truth. Our leaders are not this naive and gullible. Such an impression among the people is resulting in a lot of confusion.
What we have known is that it was fifteen years after we came into exile that the thinking began that a middle way to resolve our issue with China might be looked into. We came face-to-face with many hard facts during those years:
• No country was prepared to recognize Tibet as an independent country.
• The culture revolution had raged on in China and Tibet for eight years. Every trace of Tibetan culture was being systematically destroyed.
• Huge areas from Tibetan territories in Kham and Amdo provinces were merged with Chinese provinces.
• China was tightening its stranglehold over the so- called Tibet Autonomous Region with ever increasing military presence and the introduction of communist system of dictatorial governance.
• The hope that other countries would support us in our just struggle was proving to be misplaced.
• We didn’t have the resources and the manpower to take on China on our own.
These unfavourable circumstances still continue. They have become more serious as China keeps on growing in importance both economically and politically.
It became apparent that we needed to think urgently of a way to survive as a people and as a nation. The middle way was a proposal that China’s leaders might show inclination to discuss. Like it usually happens in negotiations between two unequal parties, the Tibetan side has to yield more ground to China. We are the underdog. We do not have the support of any kind of power behind us. We have to deal with China as best as we can. And, we know our adversary so very well: deceitful, scheming, a thug, racist and over-bearing. And, these traits of China’s leaders are backed up by formidable military and economic power. This is the reality we are up against. We have no leverage whatsoever over China.
Meetings with Chinese officials about the future of Tibet are, therefore, not likely to throw up results as quickly as we would like them to. Even though happening in fits and starts, the talks on the middle way are continuing. Establishing contact with China for discussing the middle way has not been without results. Since the time our side had informed China's leaders of our willingness to forego independence in favour of autonomy, the following noteworthy developments have come to pass:
• Visit to Tibet by fact-finding delegations from the Tibetan Administration which helped the world and particularly China’s leaders in knowing the true condition and feelings of the long-oppressed people of Tibet who, the propaganda claimed were enjoying life in the socialist paradise. The images of famished-looking Tibetans milling around the delegates venting out in tearful cries the long-suppressed grievances against the ruthless Chinese leaders stunned the world.
• Learning from the people’s almost worshipful response to the arrival of the Tibetan delegates from India, China saw the necessity of reviewing its unimaginably harsh hard line policy in Tibet. China began loosening its stranglehold over every aspect of people’s life. It started becoming possible for Tibetans from India and Tibet to visit each other.
• Some laxity began to be allowed for people to practice, a little openly, the traditional components of their culture- religious customs, literature, social customs, music and dance. A renewed sense of pride being Tibetans started permeating the whole land, especially among the youth.
• Rounds of meetings between the Tibetan envoys and the Chinese representatives resulted in the presentation of the “Memorandum of Genuine Autonomy for the Tibetan People”. China is in the know of the level of autonomy we are asking for. The changes that are happening in China in the wake of the adoption of the market economy will make China give what Tibet is asking for.
With the rise of China fuelled by its economic achievements, it has burst on the world stage with a big bang. China is going everywhere looking for more and yet more business opportunities. It is pushing itself deeper and ever deeper into the western capitalistic system of economy. The root of this system is the recognition of free spirit. And, as more and more people in China come into the fold of economic prosperity the urge for individual freedom will grow. This has to happen. As people come into more money and as the easy access to the internet expose them to the free culture of the western world, the natural inclination to having more freedom will come to the surface. This has begun to happen in China. The present Chinese leaders cannot afford to behave like the old guard Mao and others who gave free rein to their nasty despotic traits behind the iron curtain. Now, China has chosen to come into the full glare of the international community. It is even aspiring to world leadership. The wisdom of making the minority-peopled regions peaceful and happy parts of China will dawn upon the Chinese leaders sooner than later. It is futile for China to hope that the Tibet question will fade away with the use of brute force to muffle any voice of dissent. The spate of self-immolation protests being carried out by the brave Tibetans prove this. Tibet will be happy and peaceful only when it is given an autonomous status based on the Memorandum on Genuine Autonomy for the Tibetan People. In my opinion it is very important that our side should not climb down even one word from what we have asked for in the Memorandum.
China has to accept that Tibet, a country having every right to full independence, is sacrificing this right. The thrust that China's market economy gives to the desire for freedom will eventually result in China's leaders responding positively to the Tibetan offer of talks. And, as more and more Chinese people come to know of the truth about Tibet and the attempt at genocide made by successive Chinese leaders in Tibet, the support for Tibet will grow. Sooner than later, China will have to agree with the Tibetan proposal. Beijing leaders cannot forever keep their people in the dark about what has actually been happening in Tibet over the last sixty years. Once this happens, China's leaders will get exposed as compulsive liars taking advantage of the unassailable positions of totalitarian power that they have given to themselves in the name of communism which unashamedly depends on capitalism for economic prosperity. This paradox proves how ashamedly unprincipled the Chinese leadership are. All the changes point to the possibility of China becoming more accommodative of opposing viewpoints. This also includes Tibetan angle of thinking.
No one either says or believes that independence is not worth fighting for. We all want to see our country take its proud place in the world as an independent nation. By any international yardstick, Tibet had been an independent country. There were, of course, brief periods in our history when China had the upper hand in our dealings with it. So did Tibet at other times. We are truly entitled to independence. Arguments in favour of independence far outweigh those that can be given in support of the middle way. The call for independence, especially when it has been sidelined in favour of something less than it, naturally whips up sentiments. And, since we have chosen the path of democracy people have the right to free expression. But, simply claiming that independence is a better choice and that facts and events in our history prove Tibet's status as an independent country before Chinese invasion have taken us nowhere. China, too, knows this. The sad reality is that Tibet is effectively under China's repressive control and that China and the world do not care for our status in history. Just like in everyday life, self-interest determines the relations among nations. China is the rising sun on the international firmament and different countries vie with one another to jumping on China's booming-economy bandwagon. China has decreed that talking about or supporting Tibetan independence is a sin! China simply does not want to hear this. The world has acquiesced. And in the meantime, China is doing everything to make it easier for Chinese immigrants to come into Tibet. The railway from important cities in China to Lhasa is fulfilling its purpose of bringing thousands upon thousands of Chinese immigrants to Tibet.
What the pro-independence groups need to do is to present to us the ways and the means for achieving independence. Then go to the people and convince them of their feasibility and show us how they can be put to work. There is also the election process. The middle way is not something written in the stone. If a majority of our people want and if sufficient number of our deputies support them in the assembly, the middle way approach can be changed. However, our people have the wisdom to distinguish what will work from what may not work. From our experience we have found that the groups and individuals who root for independence have started no movements, no struggles, no campaigns and no diplomatic initiatives different from what we have been doing under guidance of our administration. Advocating waiting for the right conditions to come by us for the attainment of independence while we are in exile and while China is implementing its dangerous policy of overwhelming Tibet with a huge wave of Chinese settlers is not in our national interest. If ever such conditions arise (they can, who knows), an already autonomous Tibet with its distinct national characters intact will be in a better position to seize the moment. But, in the meantime, with no country showing courage to support our struggle and with China ominously bent upon changing the very demography of Tibet, our immediate concern is to think of ways to preserving Tibet for Tibetans. It is here that I see the significance of H.H. the Dalai Lama’s decision of asking the Tibetan people for their view on the middle way approach. A time may come when Tibetans outside are settled down so comfortably wherever they are and the voice of the Tibetan people inside Tibet so muffled under the weight of a huge section of Chinese settlers that Tibet might become a thing of the past.
We can’t afford to take as long a time as India did in seeing the light of independence. The Raj didn’t make any attempt to bring a sea of British people to India. Only a handful of British bureaucracy was among a huge population of Indians. Moreover, the British Raj believed in the rule of law. There was no case of the Raj intentionally harming the cultural heritage of India. The fact is that Asian studies and explorations for the archaeological remains of India’s ancient culture got a great boost and encouragement from the officials of the Raj. Indian freedom struggle leaders could address huge public meetings. There was no threat to India as a nation distinct from Britain. Even after two hundred years of British rule India emerged as an independent country with everything Indian intact. Our situation, as we rightly say, is a matter either of surviving or perishing. Tibet may cease to exist if another fifteen/ twenty years of China changing Tibet to its nefarious designs continues. This is a real fear. China is not Britain ruling India. China wants to wipe out Tibet.
The instances of countries gaining independence point to the hard fact that any movement for independence, especially in our situation forsaken by the world powers, needs either consistent diplomatic support or outright military intervention by other powers to succeed. East Timor emerged as an independent nation in 2002 as a result of steadfast backing from Portugal, the U.S.A., Australia and the United Nations and Kuwait regained its independence in 1991 after the U.S.A.-led coalition of 34 countries drove Iraq out with the use of military force. Disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1991 throwing up independent countries cannot be an example for us. This happened 84 years after the formation of the Soviet Socialist Republic. I shudder to think of what may happen to Tibet in twenty or so more years if China continues to ‘develop’ Tibet in its own way with complete disregard to our concerns and to the international opinion.
What the Tibetan people want to know from the pro-independence groups and individuals is how they are going to go about achieving the goal of independence. We will, then, have a real choice and we also have a democratic system of governance that allows it. Trying to win people’s support only by criticising the middle way approach for the sake of criticism alone does no good whatever to our cause. Our vulnerable situation calls for the utmost sense of responsibility while asserting our democratic rights. Let us disagree, but amicably and honestly.
A question: Why many of the former TYC executive members choose to serve our Administration not disagreeing with the middle way? Is it because the pro-independence stance lacks conviction and faith necessary for success?
The author is currently living in Canada. He earlier worked at the Central Institute of Buddhist Studies, Leh- Ladakh as an English Lecturer and then at TCV School, Ladakh in various teaching posts and finally as the School Principal.
The views expressed in this piece are that of the author and the publication of the piece on this website does not necessarily reflect their endorsement by the website.