By Tshering Chonzom,
A 'Special Meeting' of incumbent and ex-Kalons (ministers), the current and former members of the Tibetan Parliament-in-Exile (TPIE), government officials, representatives of the Tibetan NGOs, Tibetan intellectuals and experts, and Tibetan youth is to take place from 17-22 November 2008 in Dharamsala, India. The meeting, being convened in the backdrop of the protests in Tibet earlier this year, presents a critical opportunity to make sense of the various debates surrounding the Sino-Tibetan problem.
First, the exact mandate or agenda of the meeting is as yet unclear. Suffice that the 'serious situation inside Tibet' has been the major cause. On 9 October, Kelsang Gyaltsen, one of the envoys of the Dalai Lama, stated that the meeting is being called owing to the "lack of any signs of progress in the dialogue process" and the worsening state of affairs within Tibet following the protests. Therefore, a direct correlation between the protests, the dialogue process and the rationale for a meeting is evident. Furthermore, Karma Chophel, Speaker of the TPIE, in a somewhat alarming tone, on 14 September stated that, "If in the eighth round of talks we see a ray of hope, then there will be a ninth round of talks, otherwise not." Additionally, Lodi Gyari, Special Envoy of the Dalai Lama speaking at the Harvard Kennedy School on 8 October stated, "In the absence of serious and sincere commitment on [the Chinese] part, the continuation of the present dialogue process would serve no purpose." All these statements suggest that the November meeting might result in an outcome whereby the Tibetans might for the first time walk away from dialogue as a means to resolve the Sino-Tibetan impasse and hence, renounce the middle way policy/approach (MWA) that was enumerated in 1988.
A statement by Prof. Samdhong Rinpoche, Kalon Tripa (Prime Minister-in-exile) on 19 September however suggests that the upcoming meeting is not aimed at reconsidering the MWA though it is confirmed that he would be briefing the attendees about the talks held so far. In his words, "We are committed to our MWA and we will continue our efforts for a genuine autonomy within China's framework, and that will not change." Rather, he states that "the impending meeting surely will be a good platform of discussion for various opinions and views within the Tibetan community… to discuss the recent unrest in Tibet, and not aimed at garnering international support or to confront China".
Therefore, the exact mandate of the event is not clear; it represents an important milestone in the Tibetan Diaspora's political development. Most importantly, the Dalai Lama would not be taking part in this meeting so as to allow free and frank discussion on all contentious issues within the Tibetan community in exile. This aspect is important and warrants attention owing to the fact that the MWA has faced a fair share of opposition from its domestic constituency, many of whom aspire for rangzen (independence) as the only acceptable goal and are hence, highly critical of the MWA.
However, their voices have somehow been mere whispers owing to their belief in the Dalai Lama.
For instance, owing to the lack of Chinese reciprocity to the MWA, the Dalai Lama proposed in 1996 that the Tibetan people should decide on the best possible way for approaching the Tibet issue through a 'referendum,' which was however rejected by 64 per cent of the Tibetan population. Again in March 2004, the exiled parliament adopted a resolution which called for a review of the MWA after a year in the absence of substantive negotiations; which too was withdrawn. Given the gravity of the context of the meeting, the fractured Tibetan movement, and the exile leadership's recent statements in public forays, it is important to work towards leveraging the November meeting for the benefit of all stakeholders.
To begin with, participants and representatives to the meeting - an assortment of Tibetan people of all ranks, education levels, professions and ages - need to very closely probe their respective current position. Is it wise to reject the MWA at this juncture - midway? Or, is it time to take on the alternative option of rangzen? Positively, how achievable is this alternative in comparison to the MWA? Would it not be better to reinforce the MWA with some revision?
It also needs to be stated that the Chinese leadership now has a great opportunity to resolve the Sino-Tibetan problem with the means and resources currently at its disposal: the Dalai Lama is still very much around after his recent successful surgery; a majority of the Tibetan people revere him and his decision-making ability; the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has the wherewithal to extract a speedy agreement and hence, prevent any external intervention or appropriation of its domestic problems that would hinder China's emergence as an important international player. It would also in doing so preempt the alienation of its minority Tibetan population and the augmentation of inter-ethnic/nationality conflict in China. Finally, the MWA is credible in its mandate in demanding unification of ethnic Tibetan areas under China on the basis of its Constitution which stipulates that a minority population, such as the Tibetans, have the right to be incorporated under one single administration owing to the fact that they belong to one ethnic group.
The write is a Programme Coordinator at the Heinrich Boll Foundation, New Delhi.