News and Views on Tibet

Opinion: Genuine autonomy or Independence?

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By John Billington

The Tibet Museum is an impressive addition to the CTA’s headquarters at Gangchen Kyishong. Nga popa yin ང་བོད་པ་ཡིན། (I am a Tibetan) or  Ngan-tso popa yin ང་ཚོ་བོད་པ་ཡིན། (we are Tibetan) greets the visitor, with the addition: Di ngan-tso-i lo-gyu re འདི་ང་ཚོ་ཡི་ལོ་རྒྱུས་རེད། (this is our story). Although familiar with the unjust sufferings inflicted on Tibet for more than sixty years I am still moved to tears by the story.

In His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s  first formal “10th March Statement” in 1961 he makes a clear message: “I appeal to our sponsors and to the [UN] Assembly to get the Chinese to vacate their aggression and to help restore the independence of Tibet…”  And he appeals to the Tibetan people inside Tibet “to keep up their spirit and resolve to regain their independence”.  As we all know, since 1987 the message has been modified to an acceptance of “genuine autonomy” within China’s defensive protection – something vaguely akin to the Patron-Priest (Cho-Yon) relationship of Tibet with the Mongol and Manchu dynasties in the distant past.  This change in Tibet’s aimed-for status is hugely important and is now generally known as “MWA” (Middle Way Approach). In my recent visit to Dharamsala I struggled to understand exactly what this MWA means since I would very much like to support His Holiness whom I love and revere just as if I were Tibetan myself.   Sadly, I remain unconvinced. 

I was honoured on 3rd December 2022 to have a private audience with His Holiness.  We are men of almost identical age and have seen some improvements, but also much suffering and many wars in our long life-times.  It grieves me not to be able to agree with His Holiness’s changed policy and I hope someone will come forward and explain to me why “genuine autonomy” is to be preferred to independence, since I have not been able to understand the logic or reasoning behind the change.  But meanwhile I must accept the Buddha’s advice: “Test every proposition for yourself and do not agree with it just because the Buddha spoke it.”

His Holiness the Dalai Lama grants a private audience to John Billington at the former’s residence in Dharamshala on December 3, 2022. (Photo/OHHDL)

The school which I attended in England 70 years ago had the motto: “Mediocria firma” (Latin for The middle way is best) so I am very familiar with the concept of the middle way.  It was the family motto of Lord Francis Bacon, a scientist and philosopher, contemporary with William Shakespeare, who promoted the method of scientific induction – that is the respect for any questioning of a held thesis. The held thesis in this case is the MWA.   I question it.

The Middle Way approach works if the opposing parties are decent and reasonable people who are willing to compromise.  His Holiness, in my view, is a Mahatma – a Great Soul – whose mind is elevated and who thinks on a timeless plane.  His role-model to some extent has been Mahatma Gandhi.  Gandhi’s struggle was with the British – an essentially decent and kind people with a strong sense of fair play.   When British rule was no longer valued, Britain and India parted company but remained friends.   But China is not Britain.   China’s rule in Tibet has been oppressively cruel, destructive and exploitatory.  Over seventy years they have shown no hint of mercy or compromise.   It is written into the Chinese DNA that they, as a people, are superior to all other nations.  Their Emperors were the Sons of Heaven, their lands knew no boundaries.  Their immediate neighbours (including Tibet) were the Inner Barbarians and the far-flung world outside were the Outer Barbarians.  The leaders of the CCP inherit these characteristics of supposed superiority.  The Chinese people are our brothers and sisters and like His Holiness I wish them well, but they have never throughout history treated Tibetans as equals.

During my recent visit I strove to understand how Tibetans can believe that all this will suddenly change if the CCP falls.  I spoke with senior members of the CTA but emerged none the wiser.  There was vague talk that if genuine autonomy does not work ” we can change our policy” but that is wishful thinking. The younger people I spoke with parotted the words of His Holiness, that “human beings are essentially gentle” creatures, because we have neither the talons of eagles nor the teeth and claws of tigers.   This, in my view, is flawed logic and does not stand up to questioning.  Tibetan myth has it that we are descended from a monkey ancestor and the myth is astute in that it anticipates Charles Darwin’s Theory of Evolution and Natural Selection in the 19th century.  So, are monkeys gentle creatures?   Well, like all species, they can be, but they can also (and do) fight wars.  They can hurl coconuts at one another.  Mankind has evolved from monkeys and has the capacity for both gentleness and ferocity.   Man – more than any other creature – has developed weapons of terrifying violence.   Stones became bows and arrows, then swords and guns, and then tanks and aeroplanes to drop bombs.  And then we invented nuclear weapons and un-manned drones to fight for us.  Can the human species be described as “essentially gentle”?  Does such a definition tally with Chinese behaviour in Tibet?  If not, how can Tibetans ever trust  China to honour any agreement?  I put this to my young friends and they were silent.  I reminded them of our proverb: The price of freedom is eternal vigilance  and of Edmund Burke’s famous dictum: For evil to prosper it is only necessary that good men do nothing.   In other words, if we are passive we invite attack since evil always takes the initiative and preys upon weakness.  No-one could answer me on this.  This worries me.

The best account I know of the religious promptings in human beings is The Varieties of Religious Experience  by William James.   William James was an American Psychologist and well versed in Buddhism, and his series of lectures was published in Edinburgh in 1902.  Five of James’s lectures deal with Saintliness and The Value of Saintliness. I will quote briefly:

     “Aggressive members of society are always tending to become bullies, robbers and swindlers…

    Appeals to magnanimity, sympathy or justice are folly when we are dealing with human crocodiles and boa-constrictors.

We must not  give up hope of a change of heart in the bullies (he argues):

    “We have no right to speak of human crocodiles and boa-constrictors as incurable beings…” 

But we need to be wary of them:

    “Momentarily considered the saint may waste his tenderness and be the dupe and victim of his charitable fever, but the general function of his charity in social evolution is vital and essential.  If things are ever to move upward, some one must be ready to take the first step and assume the risk of it.”

James’s words exactly describe His Holiness’s position.    In any Utopian vision of the world, the saint must accept that he will be taken advantage of.   But most of us do not live in Utopia, and the boa-constrictors and crocodiles lie in wait for the unsuspecting innocent.  They cannot be trusted.

At some point the communist regime in China will fall.  But we do not know what will succeed it. In the seventy years during which the Chinese have occupied Tibet there is no sign that Tibetan suffering has melted hearts of stone.

Throughout history Tibet has served as a buffer state between Asia’s two greatest powers – India and China.  His Holiness’s vision of Tibet as a Zone of Peace would continue to keep space between these two super-powers, while serving also as a bridge to bring them together.  Such a role is wholly in keeping with Tibet’s essentially peaceful Buddhist culture.   As a country of huge area but small population Tibet could not defend its borders alone.  Treaties and alliances with neighbouring countries will be essential.   A Central Asian Treaty Organization (CATO) consisting of Tibet, India, China, Russia, Nepal, Bhutan. East Turkestan, Southern Mongolia and Myanmar, supplemented perhaps with support from Japan, U.S.A. and Australia who have valid interest in the peace of this area, would be necessary to guarantee the integrity of Tibet’s borders.  My main point is that the defence of Tibet’s integrity cannot be left to China alone.

I spoke three phrases in Tibetan in my audience with His Holiness. “Nga yeh nang-pa yin” ང་ཡང་ནང་པ་ཡིན་ (I too am a Buddhist) and “Nga popa nang-shin yin” ང་བོད་པ་ནང་བཞིན་ཡིན་ (I am just like a Tibetan). My last words were spoken more in sorrow than in hope: “Lha  gya-lo…lha gya-lo” ལྷ་རྒྱལ་ལོ། ལྷ་རྒྱལ་ལོ།


(Views expressed are his own)

The author is the former Chairman of the Tibet Society UK and Former Goodwill  Ambassador of the Tibet Foundation.


5 Responses

  1. I remember reading John Billington’s articles/letters in the Tibetan Review many moons ago. The UK Tibet Society has steadfastly held onto independence for Tibet ever since it was formed! There are many other Tibet support groups who have done the same but around 2002, the incumbent at the time did a u-turn in the long held and legitimate goal of independence and instead pandered to the Chinese communist regime! It must have been well meaning but it did immense damage to the cause of Tibet. The present state of affairs about the Tibetan struggle can be traced to this unforgivable blunder that has sucked the oxygen out of the Tibet movement and send it tumbling down like a avalanche in free fall!
    The MWA has done nothing to further the goal of the Tibet Freedom Movement and has in fact done irreparable damage. It has destroyed the strong nationalist fervour among young impressionable Tibetans who were ready to sacrifice their lives and instead destroyed their hopes, their ambition and most of all their patriotism. Instead of seeing the Chinese communist enemy as our sworn enemy, it was dented by a foolhardy sense of perverted compassion towards the enemy. The suffering the Tibetan people are subjected to and the hatred the Tibetans harboured towards the Chinese communist enemy was forgotten and was instead replaced by a warped idealism of being beholden to the enemy in order to win their favour! This is obviously as futile as the proverbial Tibetan saying, hoping against hope to get a piece of bone from the mouth of the wolf. (སྤྱང་ཀི་ཁ་ནས་རུས་པ་) Its been some four decades with this delusional hallucinogen and Tibetans are still in the thick of this stupor!
    Meanwhile, within the Tibetan diaspora, it has polarised the community as never before and this has crippled the unity of the Tibetans to no end. The CCP’s agenda is to create discord among the Tibetan diaspora to weaken it has succeeded in good measure. After the denunciations of all independence advocates, the TYC and its affiliates including supporters became the target of malicious attacks and demonisations with the usual smear campaign of pivoting them against the Dalai Lama! All prominent individual Rangzen advocates and even Indian supporters like Vijay Kranti became targets of slurs and personal denigrations. The TYC was infiltrated by the supporters of MWA through the blessing of the bigwigs of the CTA and greatly reduced its profile and standing among the Tibetan exile community. The New York chapter of the RTYC was the first to crack under the pressure of the proxies of the Dharamsala bigwigs under the late Thinley Kalsang and his henchman. It was followed by Bylakuppe, Kollegal, Hunsur and Ladakh Sonam Ling. Nobody would have dared to utter a whisper of dissent were it not for the henchmen of the then Dharmsala incumbent to pressure those groups. I have myself been involved in TYC activism and no one ever dreamt of going rogue against the CENTREX! There is not the slightest doubt that there was pressure applied by the incumbent of the time through his proxies. Today the TYC has become a rump of its itself and most damaging of all is, it has lost its standing in the eyes of the community! What the CCP could only dream of was handed to them on a platter by the anti-Rangzen and appeasers of communist China. As if this was not enough, the Tibetan Women’s Association gave up its independence goal through fear of the coercion of the powers be and since then, it has been wrecked by division and dissension. Today, the most prominent Rangzen advocate is the STUDENTS FOR A FREE TIBET! Hitherto, all Tibetan NGOs worked together when ever there was demonstrations or meetings. After the denunciations of the Rangzen advocates by Dharamsala, the Tibetan organisations such as TYC, TWA, SFT and TIbetan Democracy party parted ways and stopped working together! This is another generous yet unexpected present to the Chinese communist party on its hundredth year of existence. Today, the two women’s group in New York is a legacy of the insane and unpatriotic policies espoused by the incumbent leader in Dharamsala between 2002-2010 and his henchmen in New York. Most unfortunately, the incumbent may be different but the policy remains the same today! It’s a tragedy of monumental proportion that after four decades of in action and non-performance, it is having a negative impact on Tibetans by losing hope for good! First, they told the unsuspecting Tibetans that only MWA has any “hope” of coming to some amicable solution to the Sino-Tibet conflict. Now, after four decades of zero result and no hope of any light on the horizon, many are losing hope that even the much touted MWA is nothing but another illusion crafted by the leaders in Dharamsala! It has utterly demoralised the Tibetans in exile and with it the Tibetans within the country. It’s been devastating, to say the least. Now, TYC stands divided, the TWA stands divided, the Tibetan diaspora itself stands divided between those who advocate Rangzen and those who are for MWA!!! It is said that a “house divided in itself cannot stand”! Obviously, it doesn’t portent well for the Tibetans!
    Religious bigotry has played a big role in the present predicament of the exile policy conundrum. Most Tibetans are taught to follow rather than learn to think critically about any given subject. Tibetans are unable or unwilling to think independently and instead follow the lead like the proverbial “pied piper of Hamelin”! This is clearly demonstrated in John Billington’s article when he says, “The younger people I spoke with parroted the words of HH The Dalai Lama. that “human beings are essentially gentle” creatures because we have neither the talons of eagles nor the teeth or claws of tigers. Most Tibetans are of the same kind. They don’t have an opinion for themselves. The intellect to have one’s own free thinking is neither developed nor encouraged. That’s why, since they have no capacity to think for themselves, they know ONLY ONE THING, the one they are told. They therefore follow it blindly with sheer fanaticism and has no scope for understanding of others point of view, tolerance for divergent view and accomodation of others view point. Only theirs is the sole “legitimate and incontrovertible” truth!!! This has naturally robbed the Tibetans of civil discussion, frank exchange of ideas and open discussion about Rangzen. Rangzen has become a dirty word today, thanks to the infiltration of CCP influencers abated by our own anti-Rangzen leaders.
    What most of the MWA people doesn’t seem to know is, how the Sino-British Agreement on Hong Kong has been ripped apart and cast in the dust bin by Communist China despite promising universal suffrage, freedom of speech, rule of and freedom of assembly! If an international agreement signed by no less a person than British PM Margret Thatcher and Chinese leader Deng Xioping has been relegated to the dust bin of history what hope is there for the Tibetans, who have neither the leverage nor the backing of big powers? If Hong Kong’s autonomy has been snuffed out without respect to the Sino-British agreement, how on earth, can Tibetans hope to achieve the purported goal of MWA from the same people who consigned Sino-British Joint Declaration of autonomy to the dustbin of ignominy? It’s already been rejected by the CCP and even if, for the sake of argument, if they make such pledges, how can it be guaranteed that what they did to Hong Kong will not be repeated?
    Therefore, we must not give a free pass to communist China for illegally occupying our country and instead fight for total independence. Tibet was never part of China and we will never be part of the Chinese empire. We are culturally, linguistically, physically, geographically and genealogically intrinsically different from the Chinese and China. No Tibetan worth his salt regard China as our country. We were a great empire ourselves and the remnants of testimony are still standing to this day at the foot of the Potala in Lhasa in the form of a stone pillar! We must be ready to shed blood if need be to regain our independence for the happiness of our future generations and as a gesture of gratitude to our ancestors. No matter what, we must fight for our rightful independence. This will unite us against our avowed enemy and rid ourselves of the discord and squabbling that has plagued our community for these many years.

  2. It’s somewhat the aspect of the devil one knows. Tibet supplies water for a third of humanity from the Indus Valley to the Mekong, Yangtze and Yellow river deltas. When any commodity becomes of limited supply, all sorts of horns emerge from people who are otherwise somewhat rationale.
    With any minority community, it is always a challenge to remain autonomous in some form when a bigger neighbor starts pressuring. It helps to be able to carve out a niche like what Switzerland did. Also in common with Switzerland, Tibet is landlocked. Something also faced by other Himalayan communities, so interdependence with neighbors is even more of importance.
    It is difficult to have meaningful dialogue with anyone who remains inflexible irrespective of ideology. But given Tibet’s geopolitical position, it is likely that the Chinese have made significant investments in particular infrastructure like what has been done in places like Diego Garcia to walk away so easily.

  3. Even the sheep and goats in my village
    understand the easy peasy fact that taking
    refuge in a wolf’s den to avoid rains and
    hailstorms is a suicidal act.

  4. John is an intelligent man and clearly a dedicated supporter of Tibet. However the MWA is not a choice made from a position of compete freedom. It is at best a compromise because total independence, which is the other alternative, would be almost impossible, considering the might of the Chinese. Therefore while it is fraught with the kind of risks that John points out, i.e.that you can’t trust the Chinese, it is by necessity the only way. Moreover, it is a demonstrable fact that gentleness, honesty and integrity, when shown, can engender the same in the other. This is what I think the Tibetans mean when they say that human beings are essentially gentle. It is not that they are always gentle, but that the capacity for understanding and compassion is always there. And we have to hope that it is present somewhere in the Chinese.

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