News and Views on Tibet

The twisting saga of Tibet-Taiwan relations

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By Tsering Namgyal

DHARAMSALA, India – Perhaps one of the most interesting celebrations to follow the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to the Dalai Lama in 1989 was held in Taipei.

It was organized by a group the name of which I do not recall, but it was made up exclusively of old nationalists who firmly believed that Tibetans were just one Chinese minority. During the tea party, the Taiwanese speakers called the Tibetan leader “the first person in 5,000 years Chinese history” to have won the honored award – much to the consternation of the Tibetans present. For me, that modest Taipei gathering at once epitomized and encapsulated the dilemma of Sino-Tibetan ties.

Understanding the history of Taiwan’s relations with Tibet is difficult without knowing the background of the relations between Tibet and the Republic of China (ROC) before it lost its civil war against the communists. After its defeat on the mainland, the Nationalist government led by Chiang Kai-shek retreated to the island of Taiwan.

With the Nationalist government came hundreds of thousands of officials, scholars, professionals, and doctors in perhaps one of the biggest one-time mass resettlements of elites in history. They did not come empty-handed, either. Chiang and his army entourage brought along shiploads of gold and other Chinese treasures, including the National Palace Museum, which has since been reinstated and rebuilt in the outskirts of Taipei.

The museum now houses the biggest collection of Chinese antiques in the world, including an eye-popping repertoire of rare and priceless Tibetan artifacts. Just as the Tibetan exiles rebuilt their cultural trappings, notably monasteries, in India, the Nationalist government too went on a frenzy of reconstruction, aimed at re-creating their own lost China on the island of Taiwan. It is not for nothing that Taiwan is often known by the Taiwanese themselves as the bao dao or “the Treasure Island”.

Beaten by the Communists on the vast and diverse mainland China, the Nationalists ruled the island with a vengeance. To calm internal dissent, they were – for good reason – particularly merciless in their crackdown on the educated Taiwanese. As one would expect, the government spent billions on the military aimed at defending a potential invasion from the Communists. To create a formidable army, the government, given Taiwan’s small population, had no choice but to set up a two-year mandatory military service for all males.

But Chiang and his ruling Kuomintang (KMT) never felt at home on Taiwan. It was too small for the outsized ego of the Generalissimo and his followers. In an eerie resemblance to the Tibetan condition, Chiang and his mainland counterparts saw returning to China as their ultimate goal. For Chiang and his KMT government – once the ruler of the whole of China – Taiwan was just a case study in exile, a model to be replicated on the mainland, when it eventually fulfills its dream of reclaiming its lost empire.

Members representing all of China’s provinces, including Tibet and Mongolia, sat in Taiwan’s National Assembly and Legislative Yuan. On the international stage, the Nationalist government, the Republic of China (ROC), not the People’s Republic, represented the whole of China. Those were indeed glorious days for the ROC – until Taiwan lost its seat in the United Nations in 1969. That was followed by the United States under the administration of Jimmy Carter switching its diplomatic ties to Beijing in 1979, a move that dealt the Nationalist government the biggest blow since its defeat on the mainland.

The persistent threat of Chinese invasion was a blessing in disguise for Taiwan’s development. It whipped a sense of paranoia both among the rulers and the ruled, releasing a collective national energy that sowed the seeds of one of the greatest economic growth stories ever witnessed in history. Fresh in the memory of the Nationalist government officials was the experience of a fatal economic mismanagement on the mainland. “It’s the economy, stupid,” seems to be the moral that remained entrenched in the minds of the leaders since.

Not surprisingly, the totalitarian government on Taiwan led by Chiang Kai-shek developed an unusually pliant ear for the experts and advisors, especially economists. The result was a benign environment of low interest rates, low inflation and steady exchange rates – a policy mix that may be every economists’ dream. “The Taiwan Miracle”, as it was dubbed by Nobel laureate Simon Kuznets, may sound like run-of-the-mill government propaganda. But the pace of the economic growth, the rapid creation of the wealth, the transition of the economy and the resultant lifting of the living standards were nothing short of magical. As a result, in a matter of only four decades, Taiwan metamorphosed from an island of rice farmers, much poorer than the Philippines, into Asia’s Silicon Valley. The moniker was well deserved: for the island has become the eighth-largest exporting economy in the world, with the third-largest foreign-exchange reserves, and the manufacturer of nearly half of the world’s personal-computer (PC)-related products. A High-Tech Island, indeed.

While Taiwan developed by leaps and bounds, Tibetan exiles languished in exile on the Indian subcontinent. Both were victims of the grand Maoist design, but following diametrically different paths. Circumstances kept Tibetan exiles and the Taiwanese apart. While Tibetans sought independence, Taipei, which claimed to be China’s sole legitimate government, considered Tibet an inalienable part of the country.

Taiwan’s KMT government, however, did have intermittent ties with select Tibetans, mainly through the Mongolian and Tibetan Affairs Commission (MTAC), the office responsible for overseeing affairs of Tibet and Mongolia. But the exile government, for obvious reasons, blacklisted these personalities in exile – who have been receiving clandestine monetary support from Taiwan. Tibetans visiting Taiwan are declared personae non gratae by the Tibetan government in exile.

There were some Tibetans in Taiwan too. Perhaps one of the first Tibetans to have come to Taipei was Chama Samphel, who came to Taiwan from India. He arrived in Taipei on September 18, 1959. The KMT government gave him a red-carpet welcome and decided to confer him the position of lieutenant general in the ROC Army. The KMT government raised a total of NT$550,000 in the name of the “Support Committee for the Liberation of the International Minorities”. The proceeds went to the purchase of two buildings in Tienmu, in suburban Taipei, to be used as the headquarters of the “Taiwan Branch of the Tibetan Resistance Movement” and residence of the exiled general.

Historical documents show that the Taiwan government also established a training center in Tamsui – a beach town about 20 kilometers from Taipei – for Tibetan fighters, nearly 30 of whom had been flown into Taiwan from India. It was around that time that the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) also flew Tibetan fighters into the United States and Saipan Islands for training. Research done by Peggy Chen, who did her Master of Arts thesis on the Tibetans in Taiwan, shows that there are still about 10 of them living in Taipei. Some have returned to India and many others have returned to Tibet.

The KMT government also received two Tibetan Rinpoches, Mingyur Rinpoche of the Sakya Sect, and Gelek Rinpoche of the Gelugpa Sect, who still teach and stay in Taiwan. The number of Tibetans, particularly Buddhist monks, in Taiwan increased in later years. The increasing democratization of Taiwan and the irreversible trend toward nativization of the domestic politics – and its own independence – rendered its claim of Tibet and Mongolia as its own provinces increasingly fictitious. As a result, even the KMT itself underwent radical reforms.

The election of the native Lee Teng-hui, trained in Japan and the US as an agricultural economist, as the Taiwanese president delivered the final nail in the coffin of Nationalist megalomania. Lee had not even been to mainland China and hence the understandable difficulty for him to accept the notion that he was the leader of the whole of China, let alone Tibet and Mongolia. Lee speaks better Japanese than Mandarin.

Over the years, Lee, a devout Christian, established himself as something more than a political leader. He wore his intellect lightly and often spoke in the rustic Taiwanese dialect, despite his distinguished track record both in academe and the administration. While he commingled comfortably with the business leaders and tycoons who served as the backbone of the KMT’s rule, he was equally comfortable drinking tea with Taiwanese farmers and discussing agribusiness. Not unobtrusive for a leader of his stature, he often voiced for “spiritual reforms” on the island. On several occasions, he publicly expressed his admiration for the Tibetan leader the Dalai Lama. As it happened, Lee invited the Dalai Lama to Taiwan as early as 1993. Lee Teng-hui is not an exception. Taiwanese have always held the Tibetan leader in high regard.

The thorny MTAC issue
In 1997, Taiwan under Lee Teng-hui opened a new chapter in its relations with the Tibetan government. The ROC government approved the invitation by the Chinese Buddhist Association of the ROC of the Dalai Lama to Taiwan. The Tibetan leader visited Taiwan in March 1997, stepping across the erstwhile controversial line and legitimizing – once and for all – any Tibetan contacts with the Republic of China government on Taiwan. The visit was a tremendous success. Local media were pregnant with expectation. Even before the Dalai Lama’s actual arrival, the Tibetan leader already beamed at the readers from the front pages of the Taiwanese newspapers.

After his arrival, the Tibetan leader hit it off instantly with the Taiwanese public. Hundreds of people, including Tibetan monks and nuns, lined up to greet him and his entourage. Almost all the major television stations carried his schedule live, from his arrival at the airport in the southern port city of Kaoshiung to his religious talks to the thousands of public, many of whom, on one occasion, sat imperviously in the rain to listen to him. A uniquely Taiwanese moment, which the Dalai Lama was to recall later – on none other than CNN’s Larry King Live – as having left a deep impression on him. In Taipei, Lee Teng-hui met the Dalai Lama as scheduled at the presidential palace. The presidential aides, watching the Dalai Lama’s tremendous success with the Taiwanese public, made eleventh-hour changes to the protocol, upgrading the venue of the meeting from the previously planned Taipei Guest House to the presidential palace. The Dalai Lama, the Tibetan leader, and Lee Teng-hui, the Taiwanese president, walked hand-in-hand. Both glowing in animated smiles, the photos of that particular juncture looked as if they have been somehow deliberately doctored to infuriate the officials in Beijing.

During his visit, the Dalai Lama was characteristically conciliatory. He repeatedly intoned that “the past is past”, suggesting that a thaw might be possible. The visit represented a breakthrough in the relations between Taipei and the Tibetan government-in-exile. The Dalai Lama has long also abandoned his demand of independence for the Himalayan region, opting instead for “genuine autonomy and self-rule” as stipulated in the five-point peace plan he presented to the European Parliament in 1988.

In March 1995, the Dalai Lama reiterated his position when he said that in the past he had “deliberately restrained” himself from emphasizing the historical and legal status of Tibet. “Theoretically speaking,” he said, “it is not impossible that the 6 million Tibetans could benefit from joining the 1 billion Chinese of their own free will, if a relationship based on equality, mutual benefit and mutual respect could be established.”

Indeed, it had been the consistent position of the Dalai Lama and of the Tibetan government-in-exile since 1979, when direct contacts were established with the Chinese leadership in Beijing as the first concrete step toward realizing this objective. That year, the Chinese government invited Gyalo Thondup – the Mandarin-speaking elder brother of the Dalai Lama and also a member of his entourage in Taiwan – for talks. Deng Xiaoping, who completed his consolidation of power in Beijing that year, told Gyalo Thondup that the new Chinese leadership was willing to discuss all the issues relating to Tibet except the question of independence. The exiled Tibetan leadership, in response, sent a number of fact-finding delegations to Tibet through Beijing. The delegations then made specific suggestions to Beijing for improving conditions in Tibet.

Several offers of assistance, such as sending volunteer teachers from among the Tibetans in exile, were made as the Tibetan leadership believed they would not only help improve conditions in Tibet but also be important confidence-building measures that would help develop a meaningful dialogue with Beijing. On March 23, 1981, the Dalai Lama wrote to Deng expressing his pleasure at politburo member “Hu Yaobang’s efforts to make every possible attempt to right the wrongs by frankly admitting to the past mistakes after his visit to Lhasa”.

China should have been pleased by the Dalai Lama’s suggestion that “we must improve the relationship between China and Tibet as well as between Tibetans in Tibet and outside Tibet”. But despite the apparent pragmatism of the spiritual leader’s “Middle Way” approach, the Chinese were unwilling to discuss anything substantial with the Dalai Lama.

Bewildered by the string of new developments, many Tibetans, however, were disappointed with the Dalai Lama’s trip to Taiwan. They were not to be blamed because they did not quite comprehend the unprecedented events unfolding in Taiwan. Taiwan had changed and hence it was for the Dalai Lama too to respond pragmatically to the Taiwanese evolution. Some activist groups saw the Dalai Lama’s trip as too conciliatory toward a regime that had a history of creating dissension among the Tibetan community. Such differences of opinion are understandable in a democracy. The Tibetan leader has attempted to run his government-in-exile as a democracy, complete with a cabinet and a legislature comprising representatives from all of Tibet’s different regions and religious sects.

In 1994, for instance, some members of the MTAC signed a joint declaration with Chushi Gangdruk, a Tibetan guerrilla organization that had fought the communists. The declaration said Taiwan would declare, after the reunification of China, Tibet an autonomous region and recognize the Dalai Lama as its leader.

The resultant furor within the Tibetan community can partly be attributed to the importance and influence of Chushi Gangdruk as an organization. It is, by no means, a maverick group of misfits.

Chushi Gangdruk, which means “Four Rivers and Six Ranges”, of Eastern Tibet, or the Kham region, was initially founded in 1958 by a Khampa leader, the great Andruk Gonpo Tashi of Lithang. When the communist Chinese government ordered its People’s Liberation Army (PLA) to march into Tibet in 1949, the people of Tibet’s eastern region were the first to experience the threat of the Chinese invasion. Strong and sturdily built, they were natural fighters. They could not tolerate the brutal Chinese atrocities and rose up in arms against them. They fought pitched battles under the command and banner of local chieftains. Their battle against the Chinese helped facilitate the Dalai Lama’s escape from the Chinese in 1959.

To be fair, the contents of declaration did not call for a major change in the policy of the Tibetan government in exile. But the fact that the MTAC, as an official Taiwanese body, had the temerity to engage in such negotiations – and that too concerning the position of the Dalai Lama and the sovereignty of Tibet – with the organizations within the Tibetan exile did unsettle Tibetan sentiments.

The signing of the agreement led to a major division within the guerrilla organization Chushi Gangdruk. A new Chushi Gangdruk, which was formed by the members loyal to the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan exile government, was formed in Dharamsala later that year. On October 15, the Chushi Gangdruk meeting in Dharamsala sent a letter to Lee Teng-hui condemning Taiwan government’s nefarious activities in Tibetan community.

“We are keenly aware that the so-called Mongolian and Tibetan Affairs Commission of your government has been engaged in covert activities in [the] Tibetan community since our exile in 1959. It has been creating sectarian discord, regional disunity, tension amongst the Tibetan community of three provinces of Tibet. More than that, it has been inciting misunderstanding and mistrust between Tibetan government under the leadership of His Holiness the Dalai Lama and sections of Tibetan community with the sole aim of weakening the Tibetan struggle for independence from the People’s Republic of China. The Tibetan government have withstood all these devious schemes and sinister plots.”

The letter went on: “We thought that your government understood the uselessness of spending every year millions of dollars of the taxpayers of your country on such criminal activities, which only helped fill the coffers of a few people in the MTAC and a handful of disgruntled Tibetans. We took encouragement from your own invitation last year to His Holiness the Dalai Lama to visit Taiwan and your positive statement on Tibet. There were also signs of improvement in relations between governments of your country and ours. But your government showed its true color this year when some people of your country, mainly from the MTAC, and a few disgruntled members of our association entered into a so-called agreement on the basic issue relating to Tibetan sovereignty. We condemn this so-called agreement and declare it null and void. We assure that we will [leave] no stone unturned to foil any or every design that you may still harbor against the Tibetans. We are sworn to do this and our loyalty to His Holiness the Dalai Lama and our government is unshakable.”

Meanwhile, Dharamsala formed a committee to investigate the activities of the MTAC. The committee consists of four current and two former members of the Assembly of Tibetan People’s Deputies.
The reports about the signing of that declaration, especially as reported in the Taiwanese media, did not help MTAC’s controversial image in Taiwan. Taiwanese have long questioned the role of MTAC. The Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), Taiwan’s largest opposition party and a supporter of independence for the island, had for a quite a few years advocated the abolition of the MTAC and vowed to do away with it should the party come to power.

On that first visit, the Dalai Lama met with key DPP leaders and told them that the MTAC had “spoiled your [Taiwan’s] reputation among the Tibetans”. Coming out of the meeting, the DPP leaders made no secret of their admiration for the Tibetan leader. Asked by journalists how she felt about the Dalai Lama, DPP’s diva parliamentarian Sisy Chen responded that even she might consider taking up monastic vows if all the Tibetan monks were so “cool”.

Understandably, the DPP and Tibetan exile government had long shared mutual sympathies. Kelsang Gyaltsen, the Dalai Lama’s personal assistant, reckoned that the DPP was interested in resolving the Tibetan issue, particularly the issue of the MTAC. “This is quite a long and complicated problem – even the previous KMT government knows that the Tibetans are quite troubled by the MTAC,” he said. “But it is quite difficult to solve the problem overnight. The DPP government also fully understands the situation and is very interested in resolving the predicament.”

In a show of support for Tibetan independence, for example, the DPP ordered its offices all over the world to hoist the Tibetan national flag throughout the Dalai Lama’s stay in Taiwan. Much to the dismay of those on Taiwan who favored reunification with the mainland, a large Tibetan flag flew over Taipei city headquarters during the Tibetan leader’s visit. For mayor Chen Shui-bian, Tibetan flags turned out to be propitious, for he was soon to become the next president of the ROC.

Neither Tibetans nor Taiwanese had previously thought that there would be such a level of chemistry between the two sides. Many believed the DPP’s support for the Tibetan cause may simply be a pretext for presenting its own case for Taiwan’s independence.

The Tibetan issue had gained much more international sympathy than Taiwanese independence movement. The Dalai Lama’s visit to Taiwan brought the issue of Tibetan autonomy to the fore in Taiwan, and highlighted both areas’ aspirations on a global stage. Both faced a common adversary, China, and a common predicament – international isolation. His first visit to Taiwan served as a major turning point between the two sides. In a matter of few months after the trip, the His Holiness the Dalai Lama Religious and Cultural Foundation was established in Taipei. The Dalai Lama’s office served as sign of normalizing ties between the two sides, thus bringing into question the role of MTAC. The exile government was no great fan of the MTAC, especially the way with which it collaborated with the political groups within the exile government.

The matter of independence
The Dalai Lama’s relations with Taiwan, however, have not been smooth, as the Tibetan leader tried to balance his concerns for Taiwan with his negotiations with Beijing (for the welfare of the Tibetans in Tibet). His second trip to Taiwan was canceled after indications that a possible thaw might be in the offing with Beijing.

“Although I have another invitation to visit Taiwan, I have postponed it indefinitely, as I give lot of importance to developing an understanding with Beijing,” he told Time magazine in July 1998. In the interview, the Dalai Lama also said Taiwan should improve ties with China without sacrificing its democracy and autonomy. “Both for its economy and defense, Taiwan needs to have very close links with mainland China. But what is important is that they should protect their liberty and democracy,” he said.

The new development with Beijing was triggered partly after US president Bill Clinton’s visit to Beijing. Chinese president Jiang Zemin told Clinton that the door for negotiations with the Dalai Lama was open as long as he recognized Tibet as an inalienable part of China. To the chagrin of many Tibetan sympathizers, not to speak of the Tibetan exile government, Jiang added a new condition, which was to recognize Taiwan as a part of China, officially linking Taiwan with the Tibetan dilemma. By doing so, Beijing, also for the first time ever, linked China’s two major remaining flashpoints together as if, as one Taipei commentator aptly put it, it wanted to kill two birds with one stone.

But the situation changed further with the election of the DPP’s Chen Shui-bian as the president of Taiwan. Chen reportedly invited the Tibetan spiritual leader to attend his inaugural celebrations on May 20, 2000 – a move that many Tibet sympathizers saw as well deserved. The Tibetan government-in-exile was unabashedly pleased at the outcome of Taiwan’s presidential election. Chen’s triumph, the de facto prime minister of the Tibetan exile government, Sonam Tobgyal, told the Liberty Times, has dealt a “blow” to the Beijing regime. The Tibetan government, he said, would be willing to send representatives to attend the inaugural celebrations.

Many saw Chen’s victory a cause for celebration not only for the Taiwanese, but for all the other victims of Chinese repression. It also dealt a blow to the growing Chinese hegemony, especially within the Asia-Pacific region, where China’s growing influence have been a constant source of concern. Highly impressed by Taiwan, especially given the large and growing population of the Buddhists on the island, the Dalai Lama paid another visit in April 2001, further enraging the Chinese. Chen met with the Dalai Lama twice during his stay in Taiwan and discussed the areas of cooperation between the two sides. In rhetorical brilliance that has not flagged since the first trip, China once again called the visit the “summit of the splittists”.

China’s provocation did not diminish the DPP’s sympathy for the Tibetans. As a result, a much larger organization, aimed at promoting ties between the two sides, Tibet-Taiwan Exchange Foundation, was established this February, in what many observers saw as the DPP government’s intention to officially recognize Tibet as an independent state. In his speech at the inaugural ceremony, which was attended by representatives from the Tibetan exile government, Chen said that the Republic of China on Taiwan will no longer regarded the Tibetans as “people from the mainland China”. Chen’s speech, however euphemistically, recognized Tibet as an independent state.

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