Dharamshala: On the last leg of his 10 days official trip to the UK, CTA President Dr. Lobsang Sangay gave a series of two interviews firstly for Asian Affairs magazine and later for BBC Hard Talk Program.
The editor of Asian Affairs, Mr. Duncan Bartlett, asked Dr. Sangay about China’s rising influence in Japan, India, and Nepal, against the backdrop of the ongoing US-China trade war and the G20 Summit in Osaka, Japan. The interview will be published in Asian Affairs in due course. Later that afternoon the President was interviewed by presenter Zeinab Badawi for BBC HARD Talk program, to be telecast in the following week. This is the President’s second appearance on the BBC HARD Talk program after having debuted on this program in May 2011.
Presenter Zeinab Badwal asked President a barrage of grueling questions ranging from India’s position on Tibet, what next after the 14thDalai Lama, the fate of the ‘kidnapped’11thPanchen Lama, Reciprocal Access to Tibet Act, prospects for resolution of Tibet issues, etc. A wide range of topics was covered and discussed in a short span of time.
Below is the full transcript of the President Sangay’s interview at BBC Hard Talk Program interviewed by Zeinab Badwal.
Presenter Zeinab Badwal: How do the Tibetan people remember that revolt 60 years ago?
Sikyong: Thousands of Tibetan people from all over Tibet gathered in Lhasa (the capital city of Tibet) to protect His Holiness the Dalai Lama from the Chinese army and then it resulted in bloodshed. So as per the Chinese military archive, 87,000 Tibetans were killed between the month of March and September of 1959. His Holiness the Dalai Lama had to trek to India in the midnight of March 17. Its been 60 years of tragedy inside Tibet, 60 years in exile along with 60 years of resilience and success. Because in exile, we have set up a democratic system and as per the vision of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, we have a parliamentary system, an executive judiciary which is running pretty well.
Presenter Zeinab Badwal: How do you remember that anniversary amongst yourselves in exile as a community with two hundred thousand in exile globally?
Sikyong: We also observe the 60th anniversary on 10 March as the Tibetan National Uprising Day. Thousands of Tibetans came and said ‘Tibet belongs to Tibetans, China should get out of Tibet’ but that resulted in the bloodshed and thousands of Tibetans were killed, so definitely there was the turning point where we lost an independent Tibet came under Chinese occupation.
Presenter Zeinab Badwal: What exactly are your demands now?
Sikyong: What we seek is all the countries around the world subscribe to one China policy and the Chinese government also says sovereignty and territorial integrity of China cannot be compromised and His Holiness the Dalai Lama has said, “okay we will take that but just give us the genuine autonomy within the framework of Chinese constitution.
Presenter Zeinab Badwal: There is a Tibetan autonomous region now in China that is what is called but you say it doesn’t go far enough.
Sikyong: That’s true. It is only on paper and Tibetans don’t have any power. So, as per the constitution and within China, genuine autonomy should be given to Tibetan people because that is the middle way approach. It is middle between seeking separation from China and repression of the Tibetan people.
Presenter Zeinab Badwal: You now advocate something called the five-fifty strategy. What exactly is that?
Sikyong: Within five years time based on the middle way approach, there should be a dialogue between envoys of the Dalai Lama and representatives of the Chinese government to solve the issue of Tibet, to grant Tibet genuine autonomy. That is five years strategy. But, at the same time, we should plan for fifty years if need be. Fifty years to return to Tibet, fifty years if we remain in exile to maintain solidarity with the Tibetans inside Tibet, to maintain contact with the Chinese people so they understand the plight of Tibetan people and what we are asking for.
Presenter Zeinab Badwal: So basically it’s a long game you are playing.
Sikyong: It is a long game. it’s a short and long game.
Presenter Zeinab Badwal: Can you do both? Can you play the long game where the Chinese leadership has got the strategy that is long?
Sikyong: That is true. But we have a short game too and that is five years strategy.
Presenter Zeinab Badwal: But won’t’ that be giving the Chinese government a choice?
Sikyong: We are not giving them the choice because if you study the exile governments many exile governments were set right here in London during the second world war and after some time they tend to disappear and dilute. So what we are saying is if necessary we need fifty years strategy also to maintain Tibetan identity inside Tibet.
Presenter Zeinab Badwal: Are there any talks going behind the scenes because we haven’t had any talks between the Dalai Lama and his representatives and the Chinese leadership for nearly ten years?
Sikyong: That is true. The last one was in January 2010. However, informal contacts so to speak were a lot of Buddhists. Because China has become one of the largest Buddhist countries in the world where more than 300 million Chinese are Buddhists. So many of these Buddhists and some well-intended people and also some Chinese who have worked in the government are in contact.
Presenter Zeinab Badwal: But informal and unofficial contact will not get you anywhere? Won’t it be like maintaining links without any outcome like the process for the sake of process?
Sikyong: No. It is a process with the hope that it will result in practical consequences. From our side, we are genuine and sincere and we are willing to meet. The envoys of His Holiness the Dalai Lama are willing to meet anytime and anywhere that the Chinese government wants us to.
Presenter Zeinab Badwal: The US Congressional-Executive Commission on China said it last year that the Chinese continuous to regard Dalai Lama as a leader of the separatist forces and that’s still how they see him.
Sikyong: That’s how they say it officially and till now that’s how they say it but what we want is wisdom and will on the part of the Chinese leaders to see that repression on Tibetans is not working so we need a solution. Even Northern Ireland had a similar issue but then good Friday agreement did come even though many people didn’t believe it would come.
Presenter Zeinab Badwa: You mentioned the word repression of the Tibetan people in China. The United Nation’s Human Rights Council last year said conditions are fast deteriorating in Tibet and that the International Campaign for Tibet says in the last 10 years 150 people have carried out self-immolations in protest against Beijing’s actions. What can you do to prevent in particular these self-immolations which have resulted in the vast majority of cases and people dying?
Sikyong: I have made it categorically and consistently clear to Tibetans inside Tibet that you should not commit self-immolation, life is precious, one should live and continue to protest against the repression of the Chinese government. Despite the appeal, self-immolations continue. It is very painful, very tragic but what the Tibetans are saying is “what can I do?. If I lead a small protest in the streets of any town in Tibet I will be arrested, I will be imprisoned, tortured and often disappear and die”. They are saying its better to die quickly burning oneself than prolonging your death and causing a lot of sufferings to your family members. The freedom house has come up with a report on the freedom index every year for the last three years in a row. They listed Syria as the least free region and Tibet as the second least free region in the world.
Presenter Zeinab Badwa: Are the self-immolators old or young? Are there any cases that strike you in particular?
Sikyong: 70% of them are very young and it is very common. They are 16 -20 years old and before burning themselves all they say is “we want to see the return of His Holiness the Dalai Lama to Tibet. We want basic freedom like any other human being”. Their demands are very simple and universal and still, the Chinese government refuses to see the reality that repression is not working. Also, the international community should be talking more about but I can understand why all these are not reported well outside because the Chinese government doesn’t allow journalists to go to Tibet. They don’t allow unfettered access to Tibet.
Presenter Zeinab Badwa: The US just passed the Reciprocal Access Act that allows American officials, journalists, and tourists to Tibet so that may hopefully improve?
Sikyong: True. After passing the Reciprocal Access to Tibet, the Chinese government allowed the US Ambassador and 30 members delegation during the visit. It is a starting step and the UK government and other governments should consider the same.
Presenter Zeinab Badwa: You said we don’t report a lot about what’s going on inside Tibet but for example the way other minorities are treated in China. We have heard about the Uyghurs and how they are treated also we have heard about what the government in Beijing calls the vocational education camps. Do such camp exists for the Tibetans?
Sikyong: Actually, the party secretary of Xinjiang was the party secretary of the Tibet autonomous region so he is the same architect. He implemented the same repressive policies in Tibet for 5 years which is implementing in one year time so we do have these camps but not as large as the Uyghurs so a lot of people are sent for education through labor, imprisonment, detention.
Presenter Zeinab Badwa: Do you have a figure when you say a lot of people? How many are detained?
Sikyong: Now that we really don’t know. Even for Xinjiang, it is estimated. it could be as high as 1 million or more for the Uyghurs but as far as we know, the political prisoners who were arrested in prison it is few thousands we are talking about.
Presenter Zeinab Badwa: We know that China is increasingly a global player politically, economically and on President Xi, its what people describe it as a fairly authoritarian and centralized rule from Beijing. Sarah Sewall who was a special coordinator on Tibetan issue during Barack Obama’s administration says “increasingly we see that countries that have typically spoken out on behalf of Tibet are now shying away from doing so. She said that during a recent interview. China is too big for people to ignore, they will always side with China and not Tibet.
Sikyong: Yes some countries do. We have seen even in Europe 28 members of the European Union is divided. There are 16 European countries and one China and now Italy has joined the group and the number standing is now 17 plus 1. So whenever there is a resolution passed on human rights in China in the Human Rights Council, most of the 16 members of Europe will not vote for Tibet. What we can now do is create awareness and appeal to all these democratic countries and call them to support Tibet issue if they claim they support human rights, non-violence. The moral principle that you claim that you adhere to should be implemented and should be shown.
Presenter Zeinab Badwa: Even India seems to be not supporting the Tibet issue. James Charles Foundation research analysis group in the U.S says India tends to favor a relationship with China at least over Tibetan issues in general. Your host nation isn’t even backing you on this.
Sikyong: No. India has done the most for the Tibetan people. Tibetan Administration is based in India. The largest number of Tibetans are in India. Our education and so many things are subsidized and supported by the Indian government. By far, they support us the most.
Presenter Zeinab Badwa: But when it comes down to it. It will go with China.
Sikyong: No. So far not. For example, India has not signed the One-China Principle in the last few years as per the agreement.
Presenter Zeinab Badwa: But last year it prohibited Tibetan rally in Delhi. What do you have to say about that?
Sikyong: We were asked to move to Dharamshala under the Chinese pressure. On a few things, yes but the ‘Thank You India event’ happened and we got more coverage because of Chinese pressure.
Presenter Zeinab Badwa: But that’s changing. Tsering Shakya a Tibetan academic at the University of British Columbia Canada says “India is sensing that Tibet’s appeal in the west is declining. That is true, isn’t it?
Sikyong: I think he is wrong. I travel to all the capitals and I do see support. Yesterday only Hon. Speaker John Bercow acknowledged me in the House of Common and also Japan 10 years ago they would not mention Tibet but now they have established the largest Tibet support parliamentary group in Japan with 92 members of parliament. In the Czech Republic, they have established 51 members of the Tibet support group parliament which is the largest in Europe. So you can see that it is happening.
Presenter Zeinab Badwa: But the governments are reluctant to meet the Dalai Lama. We saw what happened in the U.K in 2013 when the then Prime Minister David Cameron did meet the Dalai Lama but the Pope on this matter for some other reason didn’t see the Dalai Lama in 2014. The Vatican said because of the delicate situation with China.
Sikyong: It is unfortunate that the Pope who is another moral leader should not shy away from standing up and meeting with His Holiness the Dalai Lama. Having said that, His Holiness met with the President of Slovakia and other leaders too. My point is I just gave a testimony in front of the Canadian Senate Committee on Foreign Relations and Trade, I spoke in front of the Czech Sub Committee on Environment so I do travel and I do get hearings as well.
Presenter Zeinab Badwa: There is another aspect to all these which makes your work difficult as the President in exile which is what Robert Farley from the Pattison school of Diplomacy says. He said while in the 1990s Free Tibet activist had a relatively freehand in many spaces. Beijing has used money and social mobilisation to foreclose some of that rhetorical territory. So China through its infrastructure projects, through lifting people out of poverty. That is resonating with the Tibetan people in the autonomous region in China.
Sikyong: That is not at all true. That is why we have 150 self-immolations right? Unprecedented in the history of Tibet. It has never happened. Not only the self-immolations, nomads protesting, farmers protesting and wherever there is mining taking place Tibetans are protesting. It is true. The repressive system is systematic and through which makes it difficult for Tibetans to protest but they are doing it.
Presenter Zeinab Badwa: But this economic might of China and it has got the high-speed railway link and the official growth rate of the country are high and Tibet as a whole benefit from that. The Chinese most senior official in Tibet has said, “The Dalai Lama has not done a single good thing for Tibet since he left”. When the Tibetan see these economic benefits they might start thinking well, we will just live our lives within China that is prospering.
Sikyong: Not at all! for any given day, if the Chinese government is that confident, you can have a referendum of Tibetan people and make them choose between China and Tibet or Chinese leaders or Tibetan leaders, I can say hands down overwhelming Tibetans in Tibet will vote to have their own Tibetan leaders.
Presenter Zeinab Badwa: Alright but their own leaders have not gone very far and there is dissatisfaction with what their leadership has delivered. For example, the 30,000 strong Tibetan Youth Congress President Tenzin Jigme says, “There is a sense of frustration among our people. We have lived for so many years in exile. We have to educate the people about the need for an independent Tibet”. They are marching towards a different tune. They see the middle way has not delivered. They want something different.
Sikyong: When you are young you will be frustrated and you will be agitated which I completely understand it. In fact CTA, Tibetan Administration has come up with a report saying Tibet was never a part of China, but the middle way remains a viable option’. Historically, Tibet was independent and do we deserve independence? yes. But is there a possibility that we could gain independence from China? No. We have to be pragmatic. Based on the reality of the world and China, middle way approach came out as the genuine autonomy for the Tibetan people.
Presenter Zeinab Badwa: What can you do to meet these frustrations? Could you carry out civil disobedience campaign? Mass protest? for example in Hong Kong against Beijing’s policies. They often turn out into violence.
Sikyong: Violence is futile. Mass protest inside Tibet, given a choice the Tibetans would do it but they are not allowed or they will be repressed immediately. But outside, all kinds of protests are happening all over the world. For example, this March 10 all over the world we had the largest demonstrations and participation of Tibetans in the last 60 years.
Presenter Zeinab Badwa: But does this get you anywhere? I put it to you that Nathan Hill from the School of Oriental and African Studies University says that the fate of Tibetans is in the hands of the Chinese state, Tibetans outside the region are not very relevant to the fate of Tibet and this includes the Dalai Lama. You really don’t have any impact.
Sikyong: We do because I have spoken to hundreds of Tibetans inside Tibet. They do see us as the partner, as the spokesperson. But if you study any movement, had you asked Nelson Mandela in the late 1980s many news media ruled him out. They wrote obituaries about him even Gandhi when he was fighting for the independence of India. Eventually, these things change and as far Tibet is concerned, things will change for the better. That we are very sure.
Presenter Zeinab Badwa: You represent a very small group. You are voted by 58% for the second time by an electorate that is 60,000. You know there is a very small mandate you have. Greg Bruner on Tibetan Affairs writes as many Tibetan refugees it is just pushed away by the time, they are just moving on.
Sikyong: No not at all. In fact, Tibetans across the world are getting a better education, better exposure and they will be far more talented and better leaders in the coming years. Similarly, inside Tibet, they have not given up hope. We are partners you see. What we represent in exile is the moral symbol as the spokesperson for the Tibetan people inside Tibet.
Presenter Zeinab Badwa: Your moral symbol is the Dalai Lama but now he is past 83 years of age, he is cutting back on his travels. He is tired and when we look at the post-Dalai Lama era for all of you, It’s going to be even harder for you to raise interest for you have lost that moral compass.
Sikyong: Already our situation is very hard. we lost our country, we lost our freedom so we should persist and persevere. Having said that the post-Dalai Lama situation will be very difficult but having said that, he is the 14th Dalai Lama. He is very healthy, he would live very long. We will have 15th Dalai Lama and we will carry forward the Tibet movement.
Presenter Zeinab Badwa: Who can succeed him when in 1995 he identified a six-year-old boy as the 11th Panchen Lama who could succeed him and he must be about in his 30s now. We don’t know what has happened to him. Do we?
Sikyong: We don’t know about Panchen Lama because of its been 30 years since he disappeared and we are very concerned about the situation, We demand his immediate release. So hopefully the Chinese government will see to it that he be released and given proper education and that is what they should be doing. This is a religious issue, a spiritual leader who disappeared for 30 years.
Presenter Zeinab Badwa: The Dalai Lama has long advised the Tibetan people to hope for the best and prepare for the worst. It’s been 60 years, you haven’t got anywhere. You were born probably after the exile of the Dalai Lama. You have never seen Tibet. Do you think you will ever see it?
Sikyong: Of course. Definitely. In 2005, I went to Beijing, I was allowed to go. They promised that I will be allowed to go to Tibet but they did not. However, in my lifetime, I will definitely see Tibet. That much I know and freedom will be restored for Tibetans and His Holiness the Dalai Lama will return back to Tibet.
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