By Samdup Tenzin
His Holiness the Dalai Lama's admission last week that he is losing hopes for a negotiated settlement with the People's Republic of China underlines the fact that even a learned religious practitioner's patience, no matter how profound, has its limits. Ongoing Sino-Tibetan bilateral talks have made little progress and until now they have been nothing more than a tale of unrealistic expectations on our part and dilly-dallying on behalf of our counterpart. For twenty long years since the Strasbourg Proposal of 1987, His Holiness has endeavoured with utmost sincerity to reach out to the Chinese leadership to effect a speedy and mutually beneficial resolution of the Tibet issue. However, the PRC, rather than responding in kind, has over the years launched an unmitigated smear campaign against him; one of the most vitriolic renditions of which was brandished in the aftermath of the recent crackdown in Tibet by Zhang Qingli, leader of the Communist Party of Tibet who labeled His Holiness "a wolf in monk's robes" and "a devil with a human face but the heart of a beast". There is nothing in the world which hurts a Tibetan's sentiments more than unwarranted mudslinging of this nature directed at our Gyalwa Yeshi Norbu. For me personally, these stinging and heart-wrenching slurs were mentally excruciating and physically overpowering. When I say this, I am quite certain that I speak for many amongst us who at the time had similar revelations.
His Holiness' confession of his diminishing hope comes at a time when our freedom movement desperately needs a redefinition of objectives and clarity of purpose after a sustained period of ambiguity and indecision. By saying so, I do not intend to imply that the goal of "genuine autonomy" is in anyway incoherent or undesirable under the current circumstances. In fact most of us would gleefully accept such an outcome and merrily follow His Holiness to Lhasa if China acceded to it. The Middle Way Approach as espoused by His Holiness is without a flicker of doubt an ingenious conflict resolution tactic emanating from the very core of our Buddhist tradition, one which seeks to harmonise seemingly divergent perspectives and mutually exclusive interests for the welfare of everyone involved. In this respect, our renunciation of independence in favour of "genuine autonomy" is perfectly consistent with such an approach. However, it is worth reiterating here that it always takes two to tango. Even as we make benign gestures and appeasing quirks to facilitate the talks, the Chinese government has stood its ground and consistently sought to toughen its stance on Tibet by increasing religious repression and intensifying patriotic re-education. While we pick up the debris of our shattered expectations in the aftermath of every round of talks, our adversaries smugly revel at their triumph in keeping our mouths shut and spirits fractured.
As a Tibetan, I, like many of us, am proud of our Buddhist culture which instructs us "what we cannot attain, we should learn not to yearn for" and "a desire renounced or extinguished is equivalent to a desire accomplished". But sometimes I wonder if we are stretching these metaphysical ideas of contentment too far, and most importantly to our detriment as a nation. Self-abnegation is unquestionably an unparalleled virtue and an admirable philosophy when used as a lodestar for our individual conducts in our private lives. But adhering to such a modus vivendi as a nation already devoid of even a semblance of recognition and as a people lacking the most fundamental of rights is, in my view, tantamount to digging our own graves especially considering the Chinese government's lack of enthusiasm to engage with us constructively.
By renouncing the demand for independence, we, as a nation, have made the mother of all sacrifices. For many of us it was one of the hardest decisions of our lives, which we took nevertheless with a hope that the Chinese leadership with reciprocate in good faith. Such an act of decency on the part of the PRC has been felt wanting and if the Chinese government's recent crackdown on Tibetans inside Tibet is any indication, then the prospect of any significant change in its demeanour in the foreseeable future is slender at best. Beijing is obviously playing for time and we, by relinquishing what we desire the most and falling into the trap of empty negotiations devoid of any concrete results, are making life very easy for the Chinese. The position we have put ourselves into is very similar to that of a helpless lamb waiting for the butcher to deal the fatal blow. We have literally tied our hands and are expecting the Chinese to show pity and set us free; this is not likely to happen. Given the hopelessness of the situation, one could not help but doubt the viability of the Middle Way Approach, no matter how sacrosanct and groundbreaking. In an ideal world this principle would have, no doubt, worked wonders, but perhaps the real world we live in is not ready for it yet.
Under the current circumstances, only waiting in anticipation for Beijing's yearly summons would be an exercise in futility. I believe our resources and time would be better spent devising a comprehensive new strategy that would sustain us for years and if necessary decades to come. A pragmatic first step towards such a strategy would be the acknowledgement of the fact that in the murky world of international politics, there is no room for altruism; the sooner we accept this grim reality the better it would be for us. Secondly, we should bear in mind that the realisation of freedom will require unrelenting hard work and persistent slogging. The goodwill of the international community is, of course, crucial but that will only be catalysed by our own efforts. It is, therefore, childish to expect the UN or the West to act on our behalf; the onus should lie squarely on us, the ordinary Tibetans. It is worth mentioning here that strong nations are build on the bedrocks of unflinching determination and consistent toil on the part of ordinary citizenry. Very few colonial powers of the past have willingly ceded an occupied territory without being forced by the will of the people to do so. Expecting the PRC to readily abandon Tibet is politically naive; the spectre of Beijing engaging in such an unprecedented act of compassion without being subjected to protracted and sustained pressure from us is practically unimaginable. Nation-building is impossible with a softy-softy approach which leaves little to our discretion. What is needed is a fundamental policy transformation.
It is always a sound engineering practice to dig up old foundations and to lay them anew when they are found to be too weak and unsustainable for a structure to be built on top of it. For more than two decades, we nurtured a vision of Tibet with the Middle Way Approach as its cornerstone. But that foundational base is now showing signs of decay and deterioration, and needs to be replaced, if possible, promptly by one which is comparatively stronger and impregnable. I, for one, quite cherish the good old days of the 1960s and the 1970s when the spirit of Rangzen throbbed unremittingly within every Tibetan's chest, and believe that any strategic transformation in the near future should seriously consider this policy alternative. I personally see the switch of objective from "Genuine Autonomy" to Rangzen as not only prudent but also justified in view of the current stalemate. Beijing has been reluctant to entertain any of our demands for self-rule under its constitutional framework. It has instead preferred to restrict the negotiations solely to the matter of His Holiness' return to China, that too subject to a myriad of unreasonable conditionalities to be met by him. Given the lack of consensus regarding the agenda for discussion between the two sides, reconciliation seems practically impossible. Independence may appear unrealistic, but so too does "Genuine Autonomy" under current circumstances.
The apparent implausibility of Rangzen notwithstanding, I would still pick it over "Genuine Autonomy", essentially for its unifying characteristics. As long as His Holiness the Dalai Lama is in flesh and blood, his influence on us will always be the single most important unifying factor. However, considering his advanced age and the deadlock in negotiations, we have to, at some point, contemplate surviving in a world without His Holiness' humbling presence. In a post-Dalai Lama scenario, the only thing that could prevent our nation from fragmenting along sectarian and provincial lines, and eventually disappearing into oblivion is a common purpose and a shared aspiration. In His Holiness' absence, only Rangzen could engender a nationalistic vigour strong enough to counteract regionalism and sectarianism in our community, and inspire in us the determination to maintain and preserve our distinct identity until the 15th Dalai Lama comes of age.
At present, going into the details of what an independent Tibet, if possible, will look like and whether or not it would be economically sustainable is premature and untimely. I am of the opinion that economics should never be a barrier in choosing our destiny. We are a group of tough mountain people capable of enduring any conceivable hardship. Luxury for our ancestors has never meant more than an adequate supply of Chura, Marr dang Yaksha and a bowl (or two) of Chang. I believe our prosperity as a nation is better gauged in terms of the Gross National Happiness (GNH) rather than any abstract economic benchmark. Besides, if East Timor and Kosovo with their virtually non-existent economic infrastructures can survive as independent states, then there is no reason to believe that we can not.
Having said that, the mere declaration of Rangzen as our common goal will not suffice. If we are to survive as a people, we have to strive to make our democratic experiment in exile a success. To this end, strengthening our existing democratic institutions by zealously participating in the elections and other democratic processes is extremely pivotal. Looking up to His Holiness to make political decisions on our behalf on every conceivable occasion while we shy away from our responsibilities is surely not the way forward. It is high time for us to realise the gravity of our situation and abandon the much cliched Gyalwa Rinpoche Khenno attitude. Undoubtedly, our culture and religion are integral to our survival but when it comes to political decision-making we have to learn to leave faith at our doors. Political judgements are best made using rational analysis and weighing in pros and cons rather than by extrapolating cultural and metaphysical ideas. I acknowledge that such a transformation in our outlook will not materialise overnight and could take years given that democracy as a conception is totally alien to our culture. But democratic ideals are essentially empowering and by embracing these liberal notions we will only be enriching our already rich Buddhist culture.
If we keep alive the spirit of Rangzen within us, we can use every window of opportunity, no matter however small, that comes our way to our advantage. We might have to wait for 20, 50 or even 100 years for such an opportunity to knock at our doors but I believe it is better than watching China bludgeon our culture to a slow painful death while we pray for a divine intervention. As I see it, Rangzen is not only the ultimate end we all desire but also a pragmatic means to that end.
The author is a student at University of Edinburgh, studying LLM in International Law
Views expressed above are solely of the author, and does not reflect views of phayul.