By Tenzin Kelden and Migmar Dolma
We have read the article by Kasur Lodi Gyari with great interest. Since his article is an appeal to the younger generation, we, as two young Tibetans, not only feel encouraged but see it as our duty to actively take part in this discussion. We thank Lodi Gyari for publicly sharing his point of view with us and highlighting the importance of active involvement in this political discourse.
From the beginning we would like to make clear that we respect and acknowledge the work that has been done and the efforts that have been made by the previous generations to lay the basis for our community in exile to evolve. We, as former board members of the Tibetan Youth Association in Europe (TYAE), which was founded in March 1970 in Switzerland, are very aware of the hardships faced by the founders and our elder generation. When we spend evenings with them talking about Tibet, we always feel inspired and have a sense of deep respect and gratitude.
At the same time, we appreciate the confidence placed in us, as the younger generation, regarding our thoughts and ideas for Tibet. We always felt that there is a genuine mutual respect and appreciation regardless of any kind of differences.
Last but not least we would like to stress that we, like Lodi Gyari, are deeply grateful for the guidance and leadership of His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama. It is very clear to us that His Holiness’ tireless efforts have brought great achievements for the Tibetan Movement and our community in exile.
With that in mind, we would like to comment on four subjects raised in the article “Status and position of the Tibetan Youth Congress when it was initially established, and some issues pertaining to the just cause of Tibetan struggle” by Kasur Lodi Gyari in October, 2014.
Youth Organisations, an independent platform
“To sustain the organisation having long institutional records without disintegration, it is important to remain firm by not subscribing to hearsay or becoming the tools of others (p. 5)”.
The youth have always been a great force of change in a society. Therefore, we think, that the Tibetan Youth Congress (TYC) offers an extremely important platform to act independently as the voice of the youth in exile. TYC, being a non-governmental organisation, has not only the right but is obliged to remain independent from established institutions. If we understand this paragraph by Lodi Gyari correctly, it contradicts the above mentioned duty of an NGO.
On the one hand, we often hear Tibetans saying that the youth play a key role regarding the future of Tibet and that we are the ones who need to carry on the Tibetan struggle. On the other hand, we feel that active political participation of Tibetan youth is only wanted as long as it doesn’t challenge the status quo.
We often hear words like “preservation” or “continuation”. Of course, we preserve what has been given to us. But that does not mean that we cannot bring in new ideas, new forms of cultural or ideological expressions that are reflections of present circumstances. In this process, there needs to be an exchange between generations at eye level and without patronisation. This kind of exchange can only be beneficial for every society.
The following statement by Kelsang Gyaltsen, written for the 40-year anniversary of the TYAE, makes our point clear. He says: “The youth constitute in many societies the force for renewal. In order to be able to unfold this force, it needs to take the liberty to represent positions that differ from the majority opinion. In other words: The youth can provoke and must criticise. The youth must encourage people to re-think the established conditions and practices. This is especially relevant to the Tibetan youth. As sad as the 50 years in exile might make us, we can be proud when we look at the Tibetan youth. The modern education joined with their rootedness in Buddhist ideas as well as their idealism are our capital for the freedom struggle of our people.” Kelsang Gyaltsen, EU Special Representative of His Holiness the Dalai Lama and former President of the TYAE from 1978-1980 (translated from the original German).
The Usage of Unity
In the following paragraph, we want to talk about unity. It is a word that has been said and used very often in the past few years. Lodi Gyari mentions unity several times in his statement as well. We ask ourselves: what does unity mean? Or is there even a definite meaning of this word at all?
Different opinions can and should occur on any topic. Having had the opportunity to enjoy education in the West, we grew up learning to form our own opinions. Whether it was reading a book or scientific papers - we were always challenged by our teachers and professors to analyse and then comment on what we had in front of us. Active individual participation was always required by our teachers.
True unity of people is when there is room for acceptance of difference for different opinions and an open discussion.
Without doubt, unity is important in these hard times of national struggle. But it cannot be misused to silence others or make them feel that they are endangering Tibetan unity if they do otherwise. We both have had the experience that we would sit in an audience and hear the word unity on the stage: We all should be united. We felt that there was an anti-democratic tone to the usage of this word. We would ask ourselves: Are we not united? Or is it just a rhetorical strategy to make sure everyone is following the official policy? We were never quite sure.
There are many reasons as to why Tibetans today feel a special sense of unity. One main reason is the visionary leadership of His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama and his successful efforts to bring the Tibet issue to an international level. Every time we are in His Holiness' presence we feel the sadness of being in exile but also our unwavering resistance against Chinese oppression. He is the symbol of Tibet.
Like every other nation, we Tibetans are also united because of our own language, our own culture and history. The traumatic experience of the Chinese occupation has unified Tibetans like never before. The protests of 1959, 1987/88/89 and 2008 have been momentums of national consciousness in our recent history. These uprisings and the courage of our own people have inspired not only generations of Tibetans in Tibet and in exile but also kept the struggle alive in each and every one of us. These aspects have not been mentioned in Lodi Gyari’s article.
Middle Way Policy, Geopolitical Realities and The Pursuit of Rangzen
From p.6 on, Lodi Gyari talks about the Middle Way Policy and the circumstances in which this policy has been created. As the leader of the Tibetan people His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama was called upon to assume full political power at the age of 15 and carried this responsibility until 2011. We are fully aware that His Holiness proposed the Middle Way Policy out of great responsibility and urge to resolve the Tibet issue.
When discussing the Middle Way Policy, it is also important to take the historic context of China’s reform-oriented politics under Deng Xiaoping into account.
We - as ordinary Tibetans - have a right and a responsibility to form our own opinion on the Middle Way Policy and the future of Tibet. Therefore, we want to express our thoughts on this issue.
From the Chinese we often hear that there is no Tibetan issue as such and it is quite clear that they consider the Tibet problem to be resolved after the passing away of His Holiness. We all know that this is not the case. The Tibetan issue is a nation’s struggle for freedom and it will continue until the day Tibet is free from China’s occupation. This is a critical time and we think that all Tibetans need to reflect on the current situation and build their own political opinions. Everyone needs to care about Tibet’s future and participate in the political debate and activities. It cannot be that only one person is responsible for a nation’s struggle. It needs to be carried by the people themselves.
He continues stating that: “Internationally, many governments, parliaments and politically influential personalities around the world have not only supported but also personally involved themselves for the success of this policy recognizing the pragmatic aspect of this approach.”
It might be correct that this policy has gained support on an international level. But we feel obliged to be honest to ourselves and look at the actual support we have gained and what clear results have been achieved. Except for symbolic gestures, there is no real support for Tibet when it comes to Western governments. Dr. Tsering Topgyal stated on 22 November 2013 during a conference held in London: “ There is a perception that the West has been a great champion of the Tibetan cause. [...] I n a formal sense, throughout the life of the Tibet cause [or] Tibet issue, the Western governments have been more pro-China than pro-Tibetan.[...]”
We think that our political aim should not depend on the symbolic support of Western countries which has to date not resulted in any improvement of the situation inside Tibet. We must struggle for something that we believe in and stand behind as a nation. International support changes according to political circumstances. And when our time comes, the international community will support Tibet’s independence.
Looking at Tibet we see the following: Chinese policies have become more tight-fisted, more restrictive and oppressive. The self-immolations are a clear sign of that development. At the same time we observe that governments look after their own interests, which seems logical. Switzerland for example, had signed a free trade agreement with China which became effective this year in July. The economic benefits are clear and they also undermine the violated human rights made by Beijing. The day this trade agreement was signed, was a sad day, especially looking at the history of Tibetans in Switzerland. Today governments strictly separate human rights from economic questions in their foreign policy which makes it impossible to pressure China to follow international law. We might get little favours here and there from Western governments whenever it serves their national interests but they will never be the ones actively pushing for autonomy or independence for Tibet. It is only we Tibetans who can fight this battle.
Lodi Gyari mentions Chinese support as an argument for the Middle Way Policy: “At the same time, increasing number of Chinese people, particularly the intellectuals and younger generations who know the actual situation of Tibet, express their support and sympathy for the Tibetan cause.” (p. 7)
Increasing support by Chinese intellectuals for Tibet does not mean that we should only follow one policy. Why should we Tibetans adapt our core demands to Chinese people’s support? This is a paradox situation because history has shown us that a national movement is in its core about the empowerment of a nation to stand up for itself. It is not about another nation’s perception of what Tibet ought to be or not. The focus should lie on the demands of the majority of Tibetan people inside Tibet. Just few days ago six monks in Driru in the town of Wathang were detained. They took down the Chinese flag which was put on their monastery and burnt it (Phayul, 2014). This is a very clear act of defiance against China’s presence in Tibet.
Even if one day the majority of Chinese people - from which we are very far away now - would support the Middle Way Policy, it would have no impact on the Chinese government since their legitimacy and decision-making is not based on the Chinese people’s consent.
Looking at some of the few brave Chinese intellectuals and at younger generations we see that they want and need basic democratic rights. Why else did they stand up and protest in 1989 in Beijing? The recent developments in Hong Kong clearly show the dictatorial nature of the regime of the Chinese Communist Party. A “free” Hong Kong is being more and more controlled. This is not being accepted by the Hong Kong people who fear if “Hong Kong is the next Tibet?” (Epoch Times 2014). It shows us that the Chinese Communist Party is a controlling organ that will never allow democratic rights. Hong Kong is an autonomous political entity and if we look at the present situation it shows a clear picture of how restrictively autonomy is implemented by China.
Taking all this into consideration, at present we do not believe that any solution can be achieved for us Tibetans through the Middle Way Policy. Dialogue with a dictatorial regime that does not want mutual benefit is clearly impossible and wishful thinking on our part. The CCP has ruled over China and Tibet not through compromises but through repression and use of force. We would also like to make clear that we don’t believe that the CCP will give us independence - that would be ignorant. Independence is not something that will be given to us by someone. It is something that we have to actively fight for until there is a political transition in China.
We hope that our thoughts show that we are not “irresponsibly criticising” (p. 9). We make up our own mind and opinions looking at different aspects. If there are people who are irresponsibly criticising as Lodi Gyari mentions, then, this is of course a false approach. But every voice that differs from the Middle Way Policy cannot be described as an irresponsible criticism - this also, is a misuse of democratic rights. We should stop blaming each at a personal level if we talk about different policies - this is no basis for an fruitful discussion. Having an open discussion is what we need.
We do believe in Rangzen not because we are guided by pure emotions and dreams and create a “beautiful and blissful image” (p. 8) of our history but because we have seen in the past and present that nations can gain independence. Rangzen is our right as Tibetans and looking at the unwavering resistance of Tibetans inside Tibet, it is very clear that this struggle will lead to a victory. It is only a matter of geopolitical change and therefore time. If all Tibetans give up the demand for independence, we will end up losing our determination to resist China.
Lodi Gyari tries to prove that we do not have the historic basis to claim independence for the greater Tibet (U-Tsang, Kham, Amdo). We do not agree here. Throughout history, all states have gone through political changes in which their geographical territory has changed but this does not mean that there is no right to claim independence for greater Tibet. The many border disputes around the world prove that there is never an absolute geographical border for a state. In 2008, Tibetans rose up all over the three provinces of Tibet and called for independence. One of our friends once said: “If we would draw a line around Tibet and look at where the independence protests have happened, it gives us a very clear picture of what a free and independent Tibet would look like geographically.” We claim independence because of the Tibetan people’s right to self-determination. An independent country is based on consent and on the willingness to live together as a community in an independent political entity. Why else were the Scottish people granted the referendum and voted in the past month on whether they want to remain in the United Kingdom or not?
No Democracy for Tibet?
“These days some people opine that to achieve genuine democratic system is our ultimate goal. I do not believe this point of view is valid” (page 4). Here we do not quite understand what Lodi Gyari is saying and we ask him to be more specific. What is then your ultimate goal? Lodi Gyari writes that people sacrificed their lives not for a democratic system but for “the preservation and protection of unique Tibetan identity and characteristics, which are at the verge of extinction”. With what political system does he want to ensure the preservation of our identity? With an authoritarian one-party system?
As Tibetans, living in free countries, enjoying all kinds of freedoms, saying that Tibetans in Tibet do not need democratic rights is unjust and out of place.
As mentioned before he continues saying that all the sacrifices that have been made by Tibetans inside were not because of their struggle for democratic rights: “It is clear that these sacrifices were not made to struggle for their democratic rights but rather for the preservation and protection of unique Tibetan identity and characteristics, which are at the verge of extinction.”
Here we absolutely disagree with the above quoted statement. Democracy is not just a form of government. It is an ideology that is based on human dignity. Meaning, to live a self-determined life where individual rights are guaranteed.
In 2008 three young Tibetan writers from Amdo, including Tashi Rabten (also known as: Theurang), were imprisoned by the Chinese government. They were young intellectuals involved in the publication of the literary magazine ཤར་དུང་རི་ (Eastern Snow Mountain) which was banned for their articles about the 2008 Uprisings. The following is the principal declaration of ཤར་དུང་རི་ published in 2007: “I possess nothing but an independent nature and an independent mind. Therefore, I’m not going to be in awe of those who call themselves ‘great scholars,’ nor can I to bow in reverence to big lamas and Tulkus. I am striving for a value – the value of liberty and equality. I am striving for courage – the courage to think critically and discover.” (translated from the original Tibetan). These are clearly democratic values they are describing. They are, for us, not only patriotic and brave Tibetans but they represent the new generation inside Tibet who are leading the freedom struggle today intellectually and on the ground.
In general, it seems that in Lodi Gyari’s view of the world there are two types of people: Middle Way vs. Rangzen advocates. We do not share this kind of dual worldview because it provides a breeding ground for simplistic discourse where people are reduced to their support for Rangzen or Middle Way. Individual people should not be stigmatised because of their political stance.
Although we have made some critical points, we have also benefited from Lodi Gyari’s historical excursus. We might not agree with the conclusions that he draws from them but they are still important as part of our history. Living in the present we look at our future, a future that is as yet untold.
The vision of an independent Tibet gives us hope. We have a country and we are a strong nation. There are six million Tibetans in the world. As long as we exist, we will stay true to our identity and fight for our land.
Resistance is continuing. It may ache at some times, but it shall never be broken.
In times where Tibetans are scattered around the world and our country is occupied by China, it gives room to re-consider who we want to be as a nation and what our values are.
For us, the question of independence is not merely political but a moral one. Finally, there is one fundamental question left to be answered for us as a nation: Can our moral principles be upheld if we remain within the People’s Republic of China?
[All views expressed here are solely of the authors)
Tenzin Kelden, Former President and Board Member of the Tibetan Youth Association in Europe, Masters in Media and Communications and Film Studies, University of Zurich
Migmar Dolma, Former Board Member of the Tibetan Youth Association in Europe, Member of Tibetan National Congress, Student in International Relations, University of Geneva