Nayanima Basu for ABP LIVE
Dharamshala: Penpa Tsering, President of the Tibetan Government-in-Exile, believes that Tibet had been for the last many decades considered to be the “buffer state” between India and China, but it can now play the role of a “bridge” between New Delhi and Beijing. Tsering, who is officially the ‘Sikyong’ of the Central Tibetan Administration (CTA), a democratic body created by the Tibetan Parliament-in-Exile in 2011, was born in the Bylakuppe Tibetan Refugee Camp in Karnataka. He succeeded Lobsang Sangay, former Sikyong, in 2021.
As the head of the Tibetan government-in-exile, Tsering is now focusing on taking the democratic values forward and making them more relevant for the new generation of Tibetan youth living in India and maintaining democratic ethos within the Tibetan refugee community living in India and abroad.
Edited excerpts from an exclusive interview to ABP LIVE:
Do you want complete freedom of Tibet or do you seek to make Tibet an autonomous region within China? There is a bit of dichotomy here.
Freedom is a very generic, independent and specific term in terms of sovereignty. I think His Holiness’ (the Dalai Lama’s) thinking is more on the quality of rule rather than the person who rules. So even if it’s a Tibetan, if that Tibetan doesn’t rule well it doesn’t help the people. And if anyone else if they rule well then it is workable. That is why through the ‘middle way’ policy we are seeking autonomy and not independence.
How do you perceive India’s overall attitude towards the Tibetan movement in present times?
I think, for the keen observer, small changes are discernable. But for the general observer, it may not be clear. Besides the Indian government, we now also see a lot of Indian intellectuals writing more on the cause of Tibet, and there is more response from the opposition parties. So, there is an overall interest in the Sino-Tibetan conflict, but how far can India go is still a question.
Does the ongoing India-China border standoff impact the Sino-Tibetan conflict too because the border is essentially the Tibetan boundary?
When there is a Sino-Indian conflict then Tibet naturally becomes part of it because the conflict is on India-Tibet border and China’s claim is Tibet’s territory. Whereas, we are very clear about our boundaries. The Ladakh boundary was settled during the 5th Dalai Lama’s time, and the rest of the border is the McMahon line which we signed as an independent state with British India. And India still follows the McMahon line, which means there should be some recognition for the status of Tibet at that time. But that’s not very forthcoming and that’s understandable also. However, now the more important thing is for India to be able to stand up for its position whether it’s on the boundary or any of the values that India so cherishes as a democratic country. You cannot succumb to the dictates of the Chinese government. That is very valuable to us.
But under President Xi Jinping, haven’t issues become more complicated in China?
It could be good, could be bad, both… Because when all powers lie in hand, if that one hand is doing good then he can take that country and the whole international community in the right direction. But if he decides to go in the wrong direction, then it could be catastrophic for everybody. He (Xi) is thinking more on Mao’s line of importance of the Chinese Communist Party and the survival of the Communist Party. So, every word that comes out of Chinese leadership right now is everything about security and stability. Nothing else. Who is prompting all that? It’s China who is attacking other countries and having a colonial thinking. It’s not the other way round – neither Japan, nor Taiwan, Australia or any of these countries in Southeast Asia like Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei, Vietnam and then in India also. China is the belligerent party, not the others.
India, I have always maintained, is a country that’s more defensive in its interest than offensive. And for India it is very important that they protect their territory and their sovereignty. So, in that sense we don’t have any problem with the Indian government on the boundary issue, then why should the Chinese government have a problem with India on the boundary issue.
What after His Holiness Dalai Lama? Do you think India will continue giving the same treatment to the Tibetan cause and also to the Tibetan refugees?
We would like to believe that India will extend the same accord to the next Dalai Lama whenever that happens. His Holiness keeps assuring us that he will live for another two decades and more and that His Holiness will live up to 113 years of age, and there have been prophecies signed that this Dalai Lama will live for very long. He also shows his teeth all the time. Even at the age of 89, he crossed 88, he hasn’t lost one tooth.
I always tell our Chinese friends, let us see whether Communist Party outlives His Holiness or whether His Holiness outlives the Communist Party. So, when it comes to the process of selection of His Holiness that’s entirely up to His Holiness, organisations and institutions that he entrusts. But other areas where the Central Tibet Administration (CTA) needs to be involved, we will be.
His Holiness has been preparing us from the 1960 and began the process of democratic evolution. He was preparing us for the long haul (since he came to India from 1959 onwards). He had been doing that for the last 64 years. That, in a way, prepared us for democracy for people to be able to carry forward their responsibilities for Tibet in future. Of course, His Holiness not being there will be a huge setback. But then this is something we will have to cope with.
China has said any successor to the present Dalai Lama would have to be approved by Beijing, essentially ruling out recognition to any successor nominated by His Holiness or by his followers?
China is always waiting for His Holiness to pass away. They have been preparing for the last 20 years for the death of this Dalai Lama. They are not concerned about this Dalai Lama. They are more concerned about the 15th Dalai Lama through whom they know that they can control Tibet. But my message to the Chinese Communist Party is that, “Have you not learnt enough lessons from the Panchen Lama saga when the Panchen Lama chosen by the Chinese government was not recognised by any Tibetan?” They had to pay money to the people to listen to him or to welcome him. So, when Tibetans living inside Tibet do not recognise the Chinese Panchen Lama then how will they recognise the Chinese Dalai Lama? It’s not possible, unless they force the people. It’s not going to carry any impact.
Do you think the Tibet liberation movement still has the same traction in India and outside as it used to?
Everybody today is looking for more violence. Ours is a non-violent movement. So there is not much traction every time. When there is war and violence then everyday people notice it. But when the movement is non-violent, gradual and more people in nature, many people believe everything is okay. Even news from inside Tibet does not come so people believe everything is fine. They don’t have access to the internet. Even if you have access to Tibet, they take you on guided tours and there is no freedom to talk to people on your own. That makes it impossible for the world to know what is happening inside Tibet even though everything that the Chinese government is doing now is to gain more control and not loosen their grip whether it is the whole of China, Tibet or Uyghurs. Right now, every policy and programme of the Chinese government is aimed at eradicating the identity of the nationalities within China, including Tibetans.
Is the Chinese government still talking to you?
We have backchannels but I cannot reveal much on that. First, we have to rebuild our contacts and for now we are stuck in that.
So, keeping this mind, are you planning to further strengthen your outreach efforts?
It is our job to reach out to the international community. But then you cannot reach out to those countries which have autocratic leaders and align their interests more towards China. We can only reach out to the democratic, free world.
What’s next for the CTA?
There is a Tibetan saying that we have to hope for the best and prepare for the worst. We hope for the best that we will be able to reach a resolution with the Chinese and return to Tibet, which will then contribute towards more peace and stability in the region. Historically, we were the buffer between the two most populous nations in the world, now we can be the bridge if the situation demands and allows us. So, for that purpose we are turning every challenge into an opportunity whether it is in terms of advocacy for the younger generation of Tibetans who are now living in some 25 different countries and then also at the same time, I focus in managing this institution, to develop databases, to develop systems, to develop a structure and a system to focus on delivery of services. So, these are I think are important elements.
But are the youth, the next generation, as passionate to take forward the cause? They have never seen Tibet, nor have they experienced the atrocities?
Yes, they are extremely passionate about the cause. This year, we had for the first time the International Youth Forum of Tibetans from all around the world. The response has been very strong. I, myself, was born in India and we heard about the stories of atrocities and struggle from our parents. So, the younger generation is very interested, that is we have decided to have this kind of conference every year now so that we can train 100 leaders every year and then go back to their respective countries and start working as advocates for the cause of Tibet. By this, they will keep learning more. At least this way they will be able to carry the movement forward for the next 30-40 years.