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Tibet as talking point
The Statesman, India[Monday, May 19, 2008 08:08]
By Claude Arpi

A Tibetan friend mischievously told me: "The Chinese are lucky, Buddha is more compassionate than Allah". This was not meant as judgment on a particular religion, but rather to illustrate that the way Buddhists react to a situation is quite different from the adepts of other credos. This difference is particularly true when one looks at the so-called 'negotiations', between Dharamsala and Beijing.

When Lodi Gyari, the Dalai Lama's Special Envoy returned from Shenzhen after informal talks with some Chinese officials last week, he declared "It was a good first step… We had very candid discussions."

While Tibet watchers wondered what he meant with a 'first step' (Gyari has been meeting the Chinese officials for 6 years now), The People's Daily saw the things differently: "The meeting, arranged at the repeated requests made by the Dalai side for resuming talks, was held between central government officials Zhu Weiqun and Sitar and the Dalai Lama's two private representatives."

Stream of insults

The Chinese communiqué was extremely condescending: "Zhu and Sitar answered patiently the questions raised by the two representatives." It continued: "Zhu and Sitar pointed out that the riot in Lhasa on March 14 had given rise to new obstacles for resuming contacts… however, the central government still arranged this meeting with great patience and sincerity."

The Tibetans always seem to be in the position of a beggar holding out his bowl for meagre alms which are refused without fail. What is more shocking is the constant stream of insults against the 'Dalai and his clique' poured out by Beijing before, during and after the talks.

It should nevertheless be noted that for the first time, Beijing admitted that Lodi and his colleague were the Dalai Lama's private representatives. During earlier rounds of talks, the spokesperson of the Ministry of External Affairs had denied the presence of 'any special envoy' in China. To add insult to injury, he had once added that he had heard that "people with tight [sic] connections to the Dalai were visiting China to learn about Chinese policies, see friends and personally observe changes in Tibet under Chinese rule."

The unrest in Tibet and the forthcoming Olympic Games have brought small mercies!

If one goes deeper in history, whether it is a Buddhist way of being or not, one can see that the Tibetans have always been reticent to call a spade a spade. Tibet was invaded on October 7, 1950. For days, Lhasa refused to tell the world that the People's Liberation Army had marched into their country. It is only on October 26, that Xinhua News Agency issued a communiqué stating that the 'liberation' of Tibet had started. Robert Ford, the British radio operator posted in Eastern Tibet at that time wrote: "I could only think it was a matter of habit. The Lhasa government was so used to the policy of saying nothing that might offend or provoke the Chinese that it kept it on after provocation had become irrelevant. It was still trying to avert a war that had already broken out."

Nine months later, a 17-Point Agreement On Measures for the Peaceful Liberation of Tibet was signed between some Tibetan delegates and Chinese officials. The Dalai Lama explained: "The [delegates] were insulted and abused and threatened with personal violence, and with further military action against the people of Tibet, and they were not allowed to refer to me or my government for further instructions. This draft agreement was based on the assumption that Tibet was part of China. That was simply untrue, and it could not possibly have been accepted by our delegation without reference to me and my government, except under duress."

This agreement was however not denounced before April 1959, when the Dalai Lama reached Tezpur in Assam.

Apart from Tibetan shyness (or Buddhist compassion, whatever one calls it), the level of the talks is rather disturbing. In 1954-55, when the Dalai Lama first visited Beijing, he used to have regular formal and informal meetings with Mao Zedong and others senior Communist leaders. When he arrived in the Chinese capital, he was received with great pomp at the railway station by the Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai, Deng Xiaoping and other senior dignitaries.

Later in 1957, when the Tibetan leader came to India for the 2,500th anniversary of the Buddha Jayanti, he met the Chinese Premier several times and had in-depth discussions about Tibet and the welfare of his people.

At the end of the 70's and the 80's, Gyalo Thondup, the Dalai Lama's elder brother used to meet Deng Xiaoping, then China's Leader Maximo, to discuss Tibetan affairs. It is during one of these encounters in 1979 that Deng told Thondup that Beijing was ready to discuss everything except Tibet's independence.

Today even after six (and half) rounds of 'negotiations', the talks remain stuck. One of the reasons is that Lodi Gyari's interlocutors are non-entities in the party (Zhu Weiqun is a Vice-Minister which is equivalent to a Secretary-rank official) with no power of decision (but do they want to take any decision?).

There are basic unbridgeable differences between Dharamsala and Beijing. The Dalai Lama asks for a 'meaningful autonomy' for Tibet within a democratic set-up, while the leaders in China do not understand the concept of autonomy and can speak of 'intra-party democracy' only.

During the last National Congress, the 2,217 Congress delegates got some leeway to choose the 200 new Central Committee members. The delegates were allowed a higher "margin of elimination" (the Central Committee candidates nominated by the Standing Committee outnumbered the available seats by some 9%). This is democracy à la chinoise.

Ways of the party

The question is, therefore, can a democratically elected Tibetan government-in-exile accept today the ways of the Chinese Communist Party? The other hurdle in the 'negotiations' is that both parties hold a diametrically different geographical definition of Tibet. While the Dalai Lama speaks of 'historical Tibet' including all areas where ethnic Tibetans live, an article published on October 3, 2007 by China Today states, "there is no historical basis for an administrative division such as 'Greater Tibet' area... such an idea is totally absurd."

It is a fact that many Tibetans living in exile are from Tibetan areas outside the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR). The Dalai Lama himself is from Amdo Province, Gyari and Samdhong Rinpoche are from Kham, all regions outside the TAR. The Chinese have argued that the Dalai Lama is stuck to his demand because "he needs to buy these people's support". China Today said that this "claim was designed by their foreign bosses and they, as their flunkies, dare not disobey it." It concluded: "The Chinese government will not be fooled!"

Flunkies or not, there is an insurmountable abyss between the two parties, particularly after the riots of March which demonstrated that the Tibetans of 'Greater Tibet' were united in their resentment against the Chinese.

The only solution to come out of the impasse would be that Premier Wen Jiabao and the Dalai Lama meet and try to sort out some of these thorny issues. But do the Chinese leaders agree amongst themselves on the Tibet issue? It is not sure.
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