Hopeful, not optimistic, on China
Tibetan exiles concluded their biggest gathering in four years on Sept. 28, with 31 recommendations, made with an eye on leadership change in China and in light of a wave of self-immolations by Tibetans. A total of 432 Tibetans from 26 countries had got together in Dharamsala of northern India, the headquarters of Tibetan government-in-exile, for a four-day (September 25-28) special gathering.
The meeting is the first since the Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhism, transferred his political responsibilities to Lobsang Sangay, 44, who was elected the prime minister of the Tibetan government-in-exile last year. While China has ruled out any dialogue with the government-in-exile, former Harvard law scholar Sangay, in his discussion with Republica’s Purna Basnet at the end of the four-day meet, expressed his hope from the Chinese leader-in-waiting Xi Jinping.
Can you give us the background of the second special meeting of the Central Tibetan Administration (CTA, the administration of the Tibetan government-in-exile)?
Since March 2009, there have been 51 cases of self-immolations, in which 41 people have died. As far as the Tibetan Administration is concerned, we discourage drastic actions including self-immolations. But Tibetans are still continuing with it. So as Buddhists we are holding prayers for them, which is a way of showing our solidarity. We summoned Tibetans from around the world to Dharamsala to discuss what we could do. How could we show our support and solidarity for them? What activities and events can we organize to highlight the sufferings of Tibetans in Tibet, including self-immolations? Addressing these issues was the main purpose of the meeting.
The Chinese government has blamed CTA and the Dalai Lama for the self-immolations. What is the position of CTA?
Our position is very clear. The Chinese government can blame us all it wants. But there is no truth to their claims and blames. The Tibetan Administration has repeatedly asked people not to resort to drastic actions including self-immolations. When I travel to the US, Canada, Australia, when I write opinion pieces for The Washington Post, I have made it clear that no one should resort to self-immolation. But as Buddhists, like Hindus, Christians or Muslims, you pray when someone dies. We are doing this to show solidarity because they [the self-immolators] are doing this for the Tibetan people.
Did you arrive at any kind of solutions from the special meeting?
We have to highlight why Tibetans are suffering, why they are dying. That means we will have to organize more events around the world. We seek support from the international community to press on the Chinese government to resolve the issue of Tibet peacefully through dialogue. This time we didn’t debate the independence vs. middle way issue. Our way is the only peaceful way, the way of dialogue.
There were altogether 31 recommendations, some on international issues, some on India and Asia, and some on Tibetan people themselves. On India and Asia, it’s important to highlight the importance of Tibet’s environment and the geopolitical importance of the area.
But the dialogue between Dharamsala and Beijing has been stalled since 2008. What do you think is the main hurdle?
The main hurdle is obviously the hard-line Chinese policy. From our side we are willing to engage in dialogue anytime, anywhere. But the Chinese government refuses it. If the Chinese government shuns its hard-line or is ready to review its policies on Tibet and engage in meaningful dialogue, we are ready [for dialogue] as well.
Do you think Beijing will review its Tibet policy after the 18th national congress of Communist Party of China?
If you look at the past 50 years, we are not optimistic. The Chinese government has always adopted a hard-line policy on Tibetans. Tibetans are protesting now, in what is their stand against 50 years of misrule in Tibet. The Chinese government has to find better ways to deal with Tibetans. We remain hopeful. Hopefully, the new Chinese leadership realizes this. With new people you want to see new policies. The new leadership, hopefully, will have a more positive view of Tibet and Tibetan people.
What is your hope with Chinese leader-in-waiting Xi Jinping?
His father Xi Zhongxun has some understanding of Tibet. He was a liberal-minded leader in China. But whether Xi Jinping is like his father is yet to be seen. In that sense it’s too early to say. We are hopeful but not optimistic.
At the end of the special meeting, what is the message to Beijing from the exiled Tibetan community?
In some ways we are sending a message to Beijing that the Tibetans are united. We are in solidarity with Tibetans inside Tibet. The Tibetan cause will carry on even though His Holiness Dalai Lama has transferred the authority, even though a new generation of leadership has come. Our movement will carry on and it is in the best interest of both Beijing and Tibetan people to resolve the [Tibet] issue. That is our message to Beijing.
Some believe the Tibet issue may not be settled through the middle path as China continues to grow as a strong power. What is your take?
Yes, the Tibetan Youth Congress and some other organizations have different views, they are working towards independence. Our community is a democratic community and we have freedom of speech. But the Tibetan administration follows middle-way policy, which seeks genuine autonomy within China within the framework of the Chinese constitution. This is the mainstream view.
Do you think the middle way approach will be successful?
Yes, we believe so.
If it fails, what can be the alternative?
It hasn’t failed so far. But it is true that there have been obstacles. But if you study Northern Ireland or East Timor, dialogue always takes some time. So our turn will come.
Recently, the Tibetan parliament-in-exile decided to change your title from Kalon Tripa to Sikyong. Why the need for this change?
The term Sikyong was brought to use by the seventh Dalai Lama. When he wanted to hand over political authority, he started looking for a Sikyong, someone who could handle politics. Sikyong means political leader. So in the period between the seventh and 13th Dalai Lama, Sikyong ruled Tibet. Sikyong Tara Rinpoche handed over political authority to the present Dalai Lama. And on August 8, 2011, the day of my inauguration, His Holiness Dalai Lama said—Sikyong Tara Rinpoche gave me the political authority and today I am handing over that authority to Sikyong Lobsang Sangay. With that, the legitimacy of Tibetan authority continues with me and with the democratic mandate I have.
But some say the purpose of this change is to convince Beijing to return to dialogue.
There might be some secondary consequences; the primary consequence is the transfer of the political authority. Kalon Tripa means there is someone above. Kalon Tripa means the person who follows the decisions of the Dalai Lama. Now Sikyong means in political and administrative matters there is no one above him. That means Sikyong is the political leader and he will continue the Tibetan movement.
When are you going to appoint a new special envoy for dialogue with Beijing?
We are thinking about it. If the Chinese government indicates its willingness for dialogue, we are always ready.
You have been the political leader of the exiled Tibetans for a year. In the period, did you get any feelers from Beijing for dialogue?
We have heard different views. But we are yet to see a formal opening of the door.
What will be the main agenda for dialogue from Dharamsala?
A genuine autonomy within China for the Tibetan people.
As Beijing does not seem to be ready to accept your demands, how can the two sides come to an agreement?
We have compromised as much as we could. Now it’s for the Chinese government to reciprocate.
Some say China is waiting for the demise of the Dalai Lama to bury the Tibet issue once and for all. What do you believe?
On that the Chinese government is wrong. As per the vision of His Holiness, he has transferred his political authority, so the Tibetan movement will carry on. And we have invested in democracy; we have invested in non-violence. The democratic system that we have, we will carry it forward.
Do you have any inkling of what may happen in the post-Dalai Lama scenario?
It is too early to say. He is very healthy at the moment. It might be many-many years before we have to think about it.