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Tibet: Between surrender and struggle
By Julian Gearing

Tibet's future is in the spotlight following the Chinese government's publication of an uncompromising policy paper that rejects the Dalai Lama's vision of greater autonomy for the territory and gives the exiled spiritual leader little or no room to maneuver. For the 68-year-old Tibetan leader, time is running out if he wants to solve the Tibet Question during his lifetime.

The release of the paper, "Regional Ethnic Autonomy in Tibet", raises a serious question of what options are left for the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan exile community as they struggle to find an acceptable way to return home to what China calls the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR). Though the paper may be "mere rhetoric", as one Tibet watcher described it, it comes at a time when the Tibetan leader is jetting around the world publicizing the need for a Tibet autonomy deal while, simultaneously, Tibetan demonstrators from New Delhi to New York are waving "Free Tibet" banners. Exiled Tibetans are torn between what many see as the "sell-out" being proposed by the Dalai Lama and their dream of independence for Tibet.

All this is not lost on China's communist hierarchy that is playing tough with both pro-independence President Chen Shui-bian on the island of Taiwan, and the exiled Tibetan leader from the Roof of the World. Having won back the territories of Hong Kong and Macau, Beijing is anxious to crush the last challenges to what it sees as its territorial integrity.

The 30-page paper on Tibet issued by the Office of the State Council of the People's Republic of China calls on the Dalai Lama to "look reality in the face" and accept the existing autonomy that the Tibetan Autonomous Region enjoys. It recalls the "four glorious decades of regional ethnic autonomy in Tibet" since the Dalai Lama fled in the wake of the Lhasa Uprising against Chinese troops in 1959, decades during which "a feudal serfdom under theocracy, one even darker and more backward than medieval Europe" was turned into a "modern socialist people's democracy".

The paper was issued last Sunday, May 23, the 53rd anniversary of the signing of the controversial "17-point agreement" on autonomy in Beijing that exiled Tibetans claim was coerced from the Tibetan negotiators by the Chinese communist government and sealed with forged Lhasa government chops in 1951. The paper outlines the process of granting of autonomy from this agreement, through the important milestones of the 1956 preparatory committee in which the Dalai Lama was involved and the 1965 founding of Tibetan Autonomous Region and the various work plans for the region.

Claiming Tibet has been part of China for more than 700 years, it says Tibet has "broken away from imperialism" and that the Tibetan people enjoy full political rights of autonomy and full decision-making power in economic and social development. It highlights what it says were the "leaps and bounds" made in moving from a closed, manorial economy to a modern market economy.

But the paper's real message is its call for the Dalai Lama to reject not only independence - clearly unacceptable for Beijing - but also abandon any special deal on Tibet that the Tibetan leader was proposing along the lines of the "one country, two systems" principle that China says it applies to Hong Kong and Macau, with the ability to run its own internal affairs. Such a system only fits territory formerly held by "Imperialists", namely the British and Portuguese, the report says, adding, "This argument is totally untenable."

For many Tibetans, the Dalai Lama's own rejection of independence for Tibet and his adoption of the "Middle Way" of autonomy in the 1980s was a sad climb-down from his earlier position. Exiled Tibetans claim Tibet was an independent country until it was forcibly taken over by communist China, citing its de facto independence from 1911 to 1951, when there were no Chinese in the territory. They also say there were only limited diplomatic relations between, in effect, sovereign states - China and Tibet - over the centuries. They claim Tibet does not just cover what is today called the Tibetan Autonomous Region, but also includes the ethnic Tibetan parts of neighboring Sichuan and Qinghai, what they refer to as "Greater Tibet". China says that Tibet for centuries has been an inalienable part of China.

Now, however, even the Dalai Lama's downsized vision of Tibet is under threat. Beijing appears to have drawn a line in the sand. Whether it is mere rhetoric, a negotiating stance, or a firm tightening of its grip, is unclear. Thierry Dodin, director of the Tibet Information Network in London, says the paper may have been released at this time because the next round of dialogue between representatives of the Tibetan exile government and Beijing is due soon, following two earlier visits by Tibetan envoys to China in 2002 and 2003. Yet this dialogue so far appears to be only talk about talks, not serious negotiation.

Beijing's policy document appears to be part of a growing propaganda offensive against the Dalai Lama, the man they call a "separatist" and a "devil". Notable were the comments made by the man who could be termed the "Tibetan face" of Chinese Tibet autonomy, Raidi, who uses one name only. In an interview with the official Xinhua news agency published on May 24, the Tibetan vice chairman of the standing committee of the 10th National People's Congress said, "Only if Tibetans adhere to the leadership of the Chinese communist party, the socialist road with Chinese characteristics and China's regional ethnic autonomy system, can their fundamental interests be realized, maintained and developed."

Raidi, who has long played an important role in the local communist government of the Tibetan region, said the paper comprehensively and objectively showcased the ethnic autonomy system in Tibet and "renounced the fallacy released by the separatist clique", referring to the image of Tibet - plagued by human rights abuses and lack of political and religious freedoms - portrayed by the Dalai lama and his exile government.

Raidi's comments contrast starkly with those of the Tibetan Center for Human Rights and Democracy in Dharamsala, northern India, where the headquarters of the Tibetan "government in exile" is based. This human rights group makes clear that the paper's description of the last four decades in Tibet as "glorious" is "total whitewash". They call the human rights situation of the Tibetan people grim and "a well-known fact". The report ignores the destruction, torture and killing during the 1966-76 Chinese Cultural Revolution that affected all of China and does not describe what are, in effect, police state conditions in Tibet today, the center says.

The Tibetan exile government has alleged that the Chinese authorities have carried out "genocide" since they took over Tibet in 1951, claiming a death toll of 1.2 million Tibetans and citing attempts to stifle or eradicate the culture and religion. Both sides are poles apart, it seems, with reality somewhere in the middle.

Now the Chinese authorities appear to be saying the Tibetan region currently enjoys the very conditions the Dalai Lama has been calling for and that there is not much more to discuss. Since the 1980s, exiled Tibetans have been free to return home as private citizens on Chinese passports. Beijing appears to be saying the door is open to the Dalai Lama if he drops all conditions and accepts Tibet is an inalienable part of China, though there is no indication they are willing to allow him to reside in Tibet.

The Dalai Lama's options appear limited, according to Tibet watchers. Barry Sautman, professor of political science at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, says the Chinese government would probably accept as a solution to the Tibet problem a coalition government in the Tibetan Autonomous Region. The basic structure of governance would remain intact, Sautman said, but would include some of what he called "non-separatist" Tibetan officials nominated to fill positions of power in non-security-related parts of the regional government. They would thereby likely agree to a loosening of controls over religious institutions, to a greater promotion of the Tibetan language, and to absorbing something of the exile version of traditional Tibetan culture, he said.

Sautman, a well-known expert on Tibet, said a further Tibetanization of the cadre force, backed by programs to sharply raise the educational level among Tibetans, might also be undertaken as part of a settlement. While largely dismissing the idea of "liberal democracy" in Tibet, which the Dalai Lama had been suggesting, he said certain rights-endowing ties between the Tibetan Autonomous Region and the eastern Tibetan autonomous prefectures and counties, where many Tibetans live, might be accepted, but not the creation of a "Greater Tibet".

The Chinese government's release of the policy paper, he said, is likely to be a reaction "as much to the prominence of the international discourse of solving ethnic conflicts through ethnic autonomy as it is to the Dalai Lama's proposal for a 'Hong Kong-style' autonomy, which has been around since the 1990s". Over the last decade, academics have debated whether degrees of autonomy are a suitable way to address the aspirations of restive and threatened ethnic minorities around the world.

Beijing appears to be both standing its ground and offering an olive branch to the exiled Tibetans by opening the door to dialogue, held ajar for the last couple of years. That there is any talk at all is a break from the virtual silence over the last two decades. Tom Grunfeld, a Tibet scholar and author at the Empire State College in New York, sees it two ways. In a recent interview he said the Chinese government's willingness to engage in dialogue may be aimed at getting the "pesky Western leaders to stop whining about the Tibetans, and to look good for the Olympics" to be held in 2008. Or, he said, it could be that "the particular Chinese leaders who were on the verge of working out a deal with the Dalai Lama in the 1980s were pushed out of power but remained in the background. They did not approve of the hard-line policies of the 1990s and it is possible they have re-emerged." The Chinese authorities have clamped down hard on any separatist aspirations in the wake of pro-independence demonstrations in Lhasa in the late 1980s.

Solving the Tibet problem may have as much to do with the divide in the Chinese leadership between those who take a liberal view and the hard-liners, Grunfeld said. "There is a strong Chinese leadership contingent that believes the solution to the problems in Tibet is to wait for the Dalai Lama to die. There are others who believe that would be a disaster and want a deal."

Time is running out. The Dalai Lama is old, and the prayers for his health grow ever more earnest by the year. While Tibetans, as Buddhists, believe in reincarnation and the certainty that their spiritual leader will be reborn and found again, there is a realization that the man who led them into exile more than 40 years ago possesses what they claim to be extra special qualities that his "successor" might not be able to replicate.

This "simple monk," as he calls himself, whose wisdom, laugh and less-than-perfect English have won over many people around the world, has proved an effective spokesman for the Tibetan cause. The 1989 Nobel Peace Prize laureate tours the world and attracts Hollywood movie stars and a sympathetic hearing, so much so that China is dismayed by the friendly reception he receives. Yet few governments appear willing to seriously back his cause, as they are more concerned about trade and business with China than championing autonomy or independence for Tibet.

Yet some exiled Tibetans are angry with the stance of the Dalai Lama and their exile government, though they seldom speak out against their leader. "Free Tibet" stickers and national flags can still be seen in the windows of Tibetan shops and offices in Dharamsala, despite the Dalai Lama's call for autonomy. Kalsang Phuntsok, president of the Tibetan Youth Congress, has voiced concern about young Tibetans who wish to take a more violent stand. While he said the youth congress was "100 percent in support of the Dalai Lama", and understands why he is pushing for autonomy, he said young people want independence.

One of the many independence activist is Dolma Kyap, 26, who escaped over the mountains from Tibet in 1997, upset, he said, at the lack of education and job opportunities and the marginalization of Tibetans in their own land. "I want independence, personally, but it is fine to push for autonomy," he said recently in Dharamsala.

Others are even more forthright in private or on the Internet. Many exiled Tibetans have grown up with tales of the heroic fight of Tibetan guerrillas in Tibet during the 1960s and 1970s, and some also look to the successful independence struggle for East Timor and other "freedom struggles" for inspiration. Such views echo around most Tibetan refugee settlements in India and Nepal.

But China's grip on Tibet is tight. As Dodin of the Tibet Information Network says, although Tibetans find autonomy hard to swallow, they are growing more used to the idea, despite their demonstrations for independence.

Tibetans in exile appear to be growing increasingly desperate for a resolution. Recently, when the subject of the choice of next Tibetan exile prime minister came up on a Tibetan Internet chat line, it was abuzz with the need for action. One provocative Tibetan Internet user put forward the name of former youth congress leader Lhasang Tsering as the next exile premier, to take over from the respected pacifist lama, Samdhong Rinpoche. This sparked strong remarks of rejection and support. Few take the maverick former guerrilla fighter Tsering, now in his 60s, seriously. He is largely ostracized by the exile government and runs a bookshop in Dharamsala, often speaking out to those willing to listen against his government's policy of appeasement.

Yet his views often strike a chord with Tibetans angry with how their cause has been sold out. In a recent interview Tsering warned: "The Chinese are playing for time, wooing the Dalai Lama into their fold. They have bought his silence on the question of freedom." As if echoing what many in the exile Tibetan community think but don't say, Tsering claimed: "The Chinese want Tibet, they don't want smelly Tibetans."

Blunt talk like this might be heard more in the Tibetan exile community in the coming months and years. With the Dalai Lama having rejected his people's aspirations for independence and striving for a deal on autonomy, the spotlight is now on his next moves. With the limited options now available, what matters for many exiled Tibetans is to find an honorable and practical way to return to a homeland where their rights, culture and religion are respected. Free Tibet, though, will remain a dream.

Julian Gearing has covered conflicts and religion in Asia for more than 20 years.

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May 29, 2004

Tale of two rival Tibetan lamas
(Apr 22, '04)

Rooftop of the World: A three-part series by Julian Gearing

Part 3: Tibetan Buddhism the Western way (Dec 25, '03)

Part 2: The tale of two Karmapas (Dec 24, '03)

Part 1: Tibet and the Olympic factor (Dec 23, '04)


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