DHARAMSALA, India - United States secret diplomatic documents disclosed by
WikiLeaks have shown that the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan spiritual leader in
exile, wants to shift the focus of the Free Tibet movement from Tibet's
political future onto climate change in the Himalayan region.
Frustrated by the stagnation of five decades of political wrestling with
Beijing over Tibet's future, analysts say, the Dalai Lama now hopes that
pressing Beijing over climate change in Tibet will attract more attention and
support inside and outside of China.
Near the end of 2010, WikiLeaks released a series of
Washington's diplomatic secrets related to the Dalai Lama, Tibet and India. The
most controversial revealed that the Dalai Lama told Timothy Roemer, the US
ambassador to India, that the political agenda should be sidelined in favor of
"The political agenda should be sidelined for five to 10 years and the
international community should shift its focus to climate change on the Tibetan
plateau. Melting glaciers, deforestation and increasingly polluted water from
mining projects were problems that 'cannot wait', but the Tibetans could wait
five to 10 years for a political solution," the leaked memo quoted the
75-year-old Nobel peace laureate as telling ambassador Roemer during a 2009
meeting between the two, according to the cable obtained by WikiLeaks and
released by British newspaper the Guardian.
The Dalai Lama also hoped for Washington's support for his new approach. "The
Dalai Lama requested the United States consider engaging China on environmental
issues in Tibet," the leaked US memo said, and Roemer speculated that "the
Dalai Lama's message may signal a broader shift in strategy to reframe the
Tibet issue as an environmental concern".
Interestingly, this tactical change was revealed at a time when many in the
exiled Tibetan community are becoming impatient with their god-king's "middle
way" approach and are eagerly awaiting the election of a new exiled leadership
in March 2011. The Dalai Lama himself has pledged to give up his political role
after the election.
The Dalai Lama's new tactic has become a hot subject among Tibetans in exile.
Many hope this will attract more attention and bring more support not only from
their compatriots inside Tibet, but also from foreign countries and
environmental organizations. Many exiled Tibetans here also think it is a very
wise move by the Dalai Lama. For, while he is unlikely to see a political
settlement on the Tibet issue in his lifetime, he could keep the world's focus
on Tibet by highlighting the climate issue.
The Tibetan region, the world's largest and highest plateau, is well known
among environmental activists as the Earth's "third pole". It contains the
biggest ice fields outside the Arctic or Antarctic, and its glacial melt has
direct consequences even outside of the region. No other area in the world has
a water repository of such size as in Tibet, where it serves as a lifeline for
much of the continent and millions of people in countries downstream.
In its efforts to integrate the Tibetan region under its full control, the
Chinese government has fully utilized the Himalayan plateau for its industrial
potential. Extensive mineral exploitation, hydropower projects and the mining
of uranium - of which Tibet contains the world's largest known reserves - have
been going on unchecked, leaving the region irreparably marred.
The Dalai Lama blasted "China's energy policies, alleging that dam construction
in Kham and Amdo has displaced thousands of Tibetans and left temples and
monasteries underwater. He recommended that Beijing compensate Tibetans for
disrupting their nomadic lifestyle with vocational training, such as weaving,"
noted the leaked memo.
The West has already shown its deep concern. Western scientists and development
specialists have been watching the environmental situation in the Tibet region
and reacting with alarm. At the United Nations Climate Change Conference 2009
in Copenhagen, a joint Tibetan and Western multi-disciplinary team called the
International Network of Parliamentarians on Tibet brought the environmental
crisis in Tibet and the fate of Tibet's nomads to the attention of negotiators,
the media and the general public. In an open letter to the conference it said:
write to urge that the UN Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen give serious
attention to the "Third Pole", as Tibet is known for being the largest
repository of glacially stored water outside of the Arctic and Antarctic. We
believe that multinational policies to mitigate the causes of and adapt to the
effects of climate change must consider the challenges of climate change in
Tibet, and include the direct participation of Tibetan stakeholders,
particularly nomads. This is now a global issue and of huge importance.
The UN special rapporteur on the right to food, Olivier de Schutter, recently
asked the Chinese government to reassess its policies, which are displacing
people in Tibet and Inner Mongolia. In response to the UN report, the
Environment and Development Desk of the exiled Central Tibetan Administration
at Dharamsala, India, said the UN report showed that Chinese government
policies for Tibetan nomads were unsuccessful.
Particularly telling are data obtained by Chinese researchers. The scientists
found that the total surface area of glaciers has decreased 17% in the last 30
years; many have even disappeared. But of even greater importance than area is
ice volume. These measurement efforts – a challenging task at 5,000 meters or
higher – show that "the impact of climate change on some Himalayan glaciers is
much worse than previously thought", advises Tian Lide, a glaciologist
associated with the Third Pole Environment Program.
On the other hand, Beijing takes no advice on Tibet from outside voices and
claims to be urbanizing the large nomadic population. Chinese authorities
recently said that Tibet maintained steady economic growth in 2010, with the
annual gross domestic product (GDP) estimated at 50.6 billion yuan (US$ 7.7
billion). The figures go up year after year, which makes Tibet the fastest
growing among China's provinces, autonomous regions and municipalities.
And it is not that Chinese authorities do not recognize that climate change is
happening in Tibet. Beijing has already issued its "White Paper" on ecological
improvement and environmental protection in Tibet. Zhang Yongze, director
general of the region's environmental protection bureau, said the scale of
environmental problems facing Tibet called for a concerted response, and he
singled out climate change as a key worry.
Analysts believe that the Dalai Lama's new focus on climate concerns will
affect Tibet's political stature as well, and could be a game-changer in the
Samphel Thupten, the spokesman for the Tibetan government in exile, said about
the WikiLeaks memos: "Now the international pressure on Beijing will increase,
and the international community will convince Chinese leaders that it is in
China's own interest to develop a plan which would enrich the Chinese people
and ensure sustainability, but does not damage China's environment."
Interestingly, radical young Tibetan exiles who push for full independence of
Tibet and protest every move by Beijing have mixed reactions on the climate
tactic. They support the Dalai Lama's climate call, but do not want to wait for
five to 10 years on the political front.
Among the most radical groups in exile is the Tibetan Youth Congress (TYC). Its
joint secretary, Tenzin Norsang, told Asia Times Online that with the
environmental issue "we can raise our political issue as well". He explained
that although the group and many Tibetan exiles had different stances on
political issues, on the environment "we are together".
"Our concern is its political value. Climate change in Tibet affects all of
Asia. Then of course, the global climate campaigners will join us to pressure
China. Climate is a way to keep the issue of Tibet at a global level and gain
us more supporters," he said. He also said support would come from many
Westerners who are not as concerned with the political future of Tibet as with
environmental problems in the region.
But many some Tibetans in exile are less optimistic. "It is already too late
for the Tibetan people and those richly forested mountains inside Tibet, which
have become bald like a monk's head. But now that these environmental impacts
are creating problems not only to the six million Tibetans living on the
Tibetan plateau but also to the other millions of people living on the
continent, pressure will mount on Beijing," said Tsering, an elderly monk in
Tibetans in exile have already launched initiatives with Western organizations
that aim to call attention to issues like climate change and China's coercive
resettlement of nomads. The Tibet Third Pole is one such group that shows the
world how climate change is threatening Tibet's ecosystem.
Tibetans watched closely as the United States launched the Strategic and
Economic Dialogue with China, and they want the US to reach out to China on
climate issues in Tibet. Other WikiLeaks documents show the Dalai Lama asking
diplomats to "use all effective means to persuade the PRC [People's Republic of
China] to engage in dialogue with him" and urging Washington to take action
that would "make an impact" in Beijing. "Tibet is a dying nation. We need
America's help," the Dalai Lama said in one cable.
Saransh Sehgal is a contributor based in Dharamsala, India, who can be
reached at email@example.com.