[This interview with Kasur Tenzin Namgyal Tethong was conducted by Tsewang Norbu for Tibet-Forum (a periodical of the Association of Tibetans in Germany]Q:
Tenzin Tethong-La, The Committee of 100 for Tibet and Tibetan Youth Association in Europe (TYAE) have jointly convened a conference on self-determination for Tibet. What motivated you to organize such a conference?A:
One of the main reasons why we organized this conference and why we have tried to highlight the right of the Tibetan people to self-determination is to try and bring some focus to the BASIC issue of Tibet. In recent years many Tibet support organizations, including exile Tibetans, seem to be focusing mainly on the process of doing things. For example, very often when people are asked "what is the policy of the Govt. of Tibet"? "What is the policy of the Tibet Support Groups"? the answer is often: "Oh, We support negotiations between the Tibetans and the Chinese Government", or "We call for dialogue between the Tibetans and Chinese". This is what people often say, and while the answers are not all incorrect, they are very incomplete.Q:
Because, it gives the impression that the whole issue is about dialogue and negotiations, that if we are just talking we are halfway there. And that is precisely where it is wrong. The issue at hand is about Tibet and the Tibetan people; the future of Ti-bet, the rights of the Tibetan people. So our main focus should be on a basic issue that needs to be resolved or attended to, not simply the process of resolving it.Q:
What chances or what better prospects do you see for the Tibetans by emphasizing the basic issue and not the process?A:
Well, I am not exactly sure how to measure chances, but, as an example, let us say we were to ask the US Government or a Congressman about their position on Tibet, the very likely sympathetic answer will be that they are calling for the Chinese to have dialogue with the Dalai Lama. This seems perfectly fine, but what is lacking in such a position is that they are not addressing any real issues concerning the Tibetan people, and there is nothing we can do to hold them to. In a sense they are avoiding the difficult issues that need to be addressed and simply focusing on a process of doing something without any real commitment. It is not that we do not need the US Administration to support dialogue, but that we need them to support the Tibet Issue on a specific principle be it about the freedom of the Tibetan people, the rights of the Tibetan people or the future of the Tibetan people. It should not be just about Tibetans and Chinese talking.Q:
For varying motives some Tibetan critics seem to disagree with the convenors and participants of this conference. They feel that this conference is going against the stated position of the Dalai Lama and some Tibetans who are not knowledgeable about politics feel quite uncomfortable with this conference.A:
I think that is true, but if I might say so, that is because they may not be fully aware of what the principle of self-determination is all about. Unfortunately, sometimes they are not even aware of what exactly His Holiness the Dalai Lama is saying and doing. For example, some may be saying that if you have a conference on self-determination it might be contradictory to what His Holiness the Dalai Lama is doing. If they were only to study and understand His Holiness' Middle Way Policy in some depth, they will see that it is definitely not a contradiction.Q:
Can you elaborate on this?A:
I will happy to do that. The essence of His Holiness' Middle Path Policy, which is spelled out in his Strasbourg speech, is that he calls on the Chinese to respect all those things which the Tibetans should be able to decide for themselves: how they live, how they think, how they elect their leaders, how they preserve their culture, and how they manage their economy. It is in substance about giving the Tibetan people the full right to determine all that which affects them.
So the Strasbourg speech in essence is about self-determination. Another point which confirms this is that towards the end of the Strasbourg speech His Holiness says that these are his sugges-tions for resolving the Tibet Issue, and that if and when the Chinese acknowledge it and when some steps are taken in this direction, it should ultimately have the support or the consent of the Tibetan people. So, again, the basic principle stated here is about respecting the Tibetan people's right to have a say in their affairs, which is asking for the Tibetan people's right to determine their own affairs, their right to self-determination. Q:
Self-Determination, as you said, is a very fundamental principle enshrined in the UN-Charter but whether the Tibetans are able to make use of it is a question of the prevailing geopolitical considerations. In the light of these political realities what prospects do you see then in stressing the rights to self-determination as a fundamental principle in international law?A:
Well, basically the Tibetans are in a very difficult situation. All the powers are with the Chinese, we don t have any power to change the situation. If we were to try and make a very strong point with the Chinese, then we would have to do something very dramatic or something very powerful, and take strong action, which ordinarily would have to be violent action. But as we all know, for ethical as well as practical reasons His Holiness and the Tibetan people have chosen to continue our struggle in a non-violent way. So, in a non-violent way, not only must we be non-violent, but to gain greater worldwide support and to find a way to make the Chinese change their thinking, we must have something more than just saying "I want this or that". Because self-determination is a principle about a people s right, a right that is acknowledged by the world community and a principle of legality already established, all we have to do when we tell the Chinese what we want, is to clearly let them know that it is also a universal "right".Q:
I think the Chinese Government is fully aware of this. The Chinese publications on Tibet are increasingly using "Tibetan population" only and not "Tibetan people" for obvious reasons.A:
I think this is very true, but mainly among those who know the real situation of the Tibetan people whether from the political or legal standpoint, which is a very small number of Chinese, possibly some scholars and a handful of party people who are closely observing the Tibet Issue. The rest of the Chinese lead-ership, Communist party functionaries and the Chinese public do not know these things. So, if we are able to present the Tibetan case within the framework of a universally established idea, we have the possibility of changing opinion and policy from within. If we call out to the Chinese purely on a claim that Tibetans want to be independent or purely on a sentiment, we may not get our message through, and we may not be able to change their thinking. Ultimately, we have to change Chinese thinking.Q:
Today is Easter Sunday. It is nearly two months after the conference in Switzerland. How did the Tibetan exile community receive this conference?A:
Despite some doubts and questions raised, I think by and large it has been well received by the Tibetan people. Many have been quite impressed with the composition of the participants, not only of those who came from different parts of the world, but of those with all kinds of backgrounds in relation to Tibet work: some who have worked with support groups for more than thirty years, others who have worked in community organizations for twenty, thirty years, and others who haven worked for the exile government all their lives. It was a very unique group of people who came together. And they came together because they thought that the theme of the conference "Self Determination and Individual Activism" was an interesting and important one.
By and large, the more people hear about the purpose of the meeting and what was discussed and what was attempted, the better it has been received.Q:
And the criticism?A:
They were essentially not criticism against the conference as such, rather a deep felt concern that if this is a new thing, it might contradict or even harm what His Holiness and the exile government are doing. But I can assure you that what this conference did and what the people discussed in no way contradicts or harms what His Holiness and the exile government are doing. In fact, it - this whole issue about the Tibetan people's right to self-determination - gives all of us an additional perspective or tool with which to carry forth the Tibetan struggle; not only saying that Middle Path way is a way to struggle for Tibet's future, but that it is also rooted in some universal principle. We need to make sure that this connection is clear and better understood. Q:
But by winning the TYAE as co-convenor for this conference on self-determination, critics say that this has diluted the lofty position of this organization which is known for their stand for independence.A:
I do not think that is correct at all. In fact, it may strengthen it. Because the TYAE is committed to restoring the independence of Tibet, independence under the present circumstance is something the Tibetans only demand. Self-determination on the other hand is a right, a principle that the modern world accepts, and it provides the legality to the claims of the TYAE. If we are able to establish firmly that the Tibetan people have the right to determine their own future, if that is firmly established, then what the Tibetan people demand, should naturally be respected. If the majority of the Tibetan people accept this idea, what it establishes is that ultimately it is up to the Tibetans and not the Chinese to determine what is best for the Tibetan people. So the whole idea of self-determination being interjected in the fight for freedom or independence only strengthens the position of the TYAE.
But of course, the fundamental problem we are all facing is that the Tibetan situation is somewhat stagnant because of Chinese policies or strategies. It is time to think about and explore other means to move our issue forward. The convenors and participants of the conference on self-determination are not saying that "Self Determination" is absolutely the only way, but that it is time to talk of different ideas, different strategies and to push the Tibetan issue forward. Of course, for some of us it is evident that Self Determination may be a very important idea, one that can unify our many voices and also find global and legal resonance.Q:
Finally, a somewhat personal question. As a former Minister for Information and International Relations and that too, as a former Head of the Cabinet, did you have problems in initiating this conference, because people may gain the impression that you are being somewhat disloyal to the Tibetan leadership in power now?A:
I did not have any problems in initiating this conference, and I understand the wrong impression some may have. You and I both know that Tibetan society is quite conservative and very cau-tious. Those of us involved in the conference, myself and others, did not just pick up the issue one day and run with it on the second day. Over the last few years, we have been trying to initiate discussion and thought about this. I have presented memos and write-ups on this which I have shared quite extensively with friends and Tibetan organizations. I have also made presentations on this to many groups in our exile community. And naturally, many individuals and key Tibetan government officials have also been informed of these thoughts and efforts. And so I have, shall we say, kept all concerned parties informed of the values of these ideas, and this conference is just another step and not an end in itself.Q:
Another step and not an end in itself. That sounds like you have further plans?A:
Well, we are still trying to make the Tibetan public more aware of the value of this idea and I think that means we have a lot of work to do in terms of educating the public. We also want the Government of Tibet to see that these efforts are not a distraction or contradiction to the Middle Path policy, but something that will enhance it. These efforts are not easy because we are all subject to our own habits and views, and each one of us is stuck in our thought patterns. I think we have to begin to become a little more open and to see all the possibilities such ideas present.
Tenzin-La, thank you very much.
About the interviewee:
Tenzin Namgyal Tethong, co-founder of Sheja Magazine (Tibetan monthly), co-founder of TYC (1970), Kalon in the Government of Tibet in Exile from May 1990 to May 1996 and from March 1993 to May 1996 Kalon Tripa, today resides in the USA and Chairman of the Committee of 100 for Tibet.
About the conference:
55 Tibetans from 17 countries took part in a two-day conference "Shaping the Future of Tibet - Self-Determination & Individual Activism", from January 23 to 25 in Einsiedeln, Switzerland. The conference adopted a resolution that emphasized the importance of the Tibetan people's right to self-determination. It was the first international conference of its kind organized by Tibetans.
Delegates came from far as New Zealand, Australia, Canada, America, India, Nepal and various part of Europe including Russia. Most of the participants are key activist in their respective countries, some working with Tibetan communities and others with key Tibet support organizations.
For further information please visit the website of the conference at: www.tibetanyouth.org/futureoftibet/