Independence: The Tibetan People’s Dream
Fifteen years ago, I wrote a lengthy article Independence: Tibetan People’s Right published in the Beijing Spring magazine. In the article, by respecting history and accepting the reality, I elaborated the justification of pursuit of independence by the Tibetan people from the perspective that human rights and freedom should be given the top priority.
In these years, Chinese intellectuals have increasingly started paying attention to the Tibetan issue and some even supporting Tibetan independence. However, the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan government-in-exile still adhere to the Middle Way Approach, middle way to the two extremes – neither accepting Chinese colonial rule in Tibet nor seeking independence for it; China can have Tibet’s sovereignty but with genuine autonomy in return (including democratic elections).
On the recent Sino-Tibetan conference held in Geneva, the Dalai Lama and Samdhong Rinpoche, prime minister of Tibetan government-in-exile, gave speeches and both reiterated to continue the same policy, expecting genuine autonomy for Tibet through dialogue with the Chinese government to reach a “win-win” solution. What is different from the past is the main focus that used to be on the West (putting pressure on Chinese government through western support) and Chinese government (seeking dialogue with Beijing) has been shifted to the Chinese people, especially engaging the overseas Chinese intellectuals to disseminate Tibet’s realities.
I participated in the conference called “Finding Common Ground”. During the question-answer session followed Samdhong Rinpoche’s speech, I asked him two questions regarding the Middle Way policy, the win-win proposition of the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan government-in-exile:
First: Has there ever been an instance, in the entire human history, that democracy and despotism coexisted under one system and mutually benefitted? If not, then why the Tibetan government-in-exile is taking such an unrealistic path? Second: Is there a deadline for the Middle Way approach? Isn’t the decision of the Tibetan government-in-exile to give up independence deprives the six million Tibetans and their future generations of the right to choose their own country’s future?
Samdhong Rinpoche answered that they were seeking “genuine autonomy within the framework of Chinese constitution.” However, regarding Chinese constitution, Zhu Weiqun, the deputy director of United Front Work Department of Chinese Communist Party (CCP), said last year in a news conference in Beijing that Chinese constitution was based on three core principles: the CCP’s leadership, socialism with Chinese characteristics and national regional autonomy (regarding Tibetan Issue). The CCP’s leadership, everybody knows, is an authoritarian rule; socialism with Chinese characteristics is nothing but the CCP to dictate economy. As for regional autonomy, using a process of elimination, Mr. Zhu said that neither federation and confederation, nor the Hong Kong style of “one country, two systems”, and never "Dalai’s genuine autonomy," which left only the current “Tibet Autonomous Region” under the leadership of CCP. Zhu further outrageously added, “As for regional autonomy in China, this is how we conduct our business here, and there is no any other way, nothing that’s called ‘genuine autonomy’.”[sic]
Zhu further stated, “We’ve never recognized the so-called Tibetan government-in-exile. We only contact with Dalai’s personal envoys just to talk about how Dalai should correct his mistakes to earn our understanding and forgiveness. If he behaves well, we may allow him return, and we may also allow those around him to return.” Facing many foreign reporters, without even the basic diplomatic courtesy, Zhu declared, “This is what we’ve been talking about with the Dalai’s envoys, and in the future too, we’ll talk about this, it will not change.” Such offensive and arbitrary talk is beyond normal exchanges of reasonable human beings, let alone diplomats. To keep talking with such people is self- humiliating.
I asked Samdhong Rinpoche that the CCP had already made it so clear, still what was the Tibetan government-in-exile expecting from Beijing? It is obvious that asking for a genuine autonomy from an authoritarian regime is like expecting a wolf to turn kind-hearted. It is unreasonable to expect coexistence of a wolf and a lamb and to be beneficial for both. Has mankind ever had a successful example of such?
Samdhong Rinpoche replied, “Middle Way has been favored by the majority exile Tibetans through referendums, and recently it was supported by the majority in the Tibetan parliament too, so it reflects public opinion.”
I said that there were only about 130,000 Tibetans in exile, even if all of them supported the Middle Way, it still couldn’t represent the aspirations of six million Tibetans in Tibet. So wasn’t the Tibetan government-in-exile depriving the greater majority of Tibetans of their right to choose their country’s destiny?
Tibet was historically an independent country; it had its own national title and flag, head of the state, capital, currency, passport, military, taxation system etc. Even after the Qing Dynasty, during the period of Chiang Kai-shek and Republic of China, Tibet was not a province of China; it was invaded by the CCP troops only in the beginning of 1950’s.
Today, the Tibetan issue is not just about the preservation of religion and culture and protection of Tibet’s environment; it’s about a country’s survival. The Dalai Lama being the spiritual leader of Tibetans is highly respected by them, but as per democratic principles, however noble a leader is, he can’t decide the people’s right to choose their own country’s future. The decision about Tibet’s future should be taken by the six million Tibetans through referendum, not by any officials from the Tibetan government-in-exile. The Tibetan Youth Congress (TYC) vice president Karma Yeshi and MP of Tibetan parliament Karma Choephel once said, “We, the few Tibetans in exile, have no right to deprive Tibetans of their right to restore independence of Tibet that was historically independent. Our issue is about freedom and independence of our country, not about religion, culture and environmental protection.”
Presently the six million Tibetans in Tibet are under the tyranny of China’s colonial rule and they can’t air their voice. However, the slogans shouted in the endless demonstrations in Tibet showed that the majority Tibetans aspire for independence. In the past, I interviewed hundreds of Tibetans in India, Europe, and the US, etc. and I had asked them the same question that whether they wanted autonomy or independence. Everybody wanted independence except the Dalai Lama. I once told this to the Dalai Lama in person, and I said that all the Tibetans I interviewed wanted independence except one. His Holiness asked with curiosity, “Who?” I said “You”. What followed then was again his famous and infinitely charming laugh.
Of course, I understand the Dalai Lama’s difficulties – Tibetan culture and religion are being destroyed, the CCP is implementing assimilation (Hanization) policies in Tibet by flooding Tibet with Chinese migrants, and they want to “resolve” the Tibetan issue like they’ve done in Inner Mongolia (today out of 23.8 million population in Inner Mongolia, 80% are Han Chinese! And among the marginalized Mongolian ethnic, it is said that three out of four are already assimilated). Some Middle Way advocates say it’s impossible to seek independence as China is so powerful. This indicates that their own way of thinking too has been “assimilated” into the Chinese way of always thinking calculatingly if it "could" be done, while most Westerners might be thinking if it "should" be done. The former assesses the possibilities, and the later attaches more importance to principles and beliefs.
History has proved time and again that success is always possible if one struggles unrelentingly by sticking to the beliefs and upholding the principles. That’s why the Westerners say “give me liberty or give me death” whereas Chinese believe “better a bad life than a good death." Freedom and prosperity started from the West just because they thought “if they should”, not “if they could”.
Zionism is an epitome of success cases. The situation of the Jews was even worse than the Tibetans who have always had a place to live. The Jewish diaspora didn’t even have a place to settle down and wandered around the world for centuries. But they stuck to their dream and eventually established the state of Israel after many years of struggle and bloodshed. But on the very next day of their country’s founding, five neighboring Arab countries joined together and declared war on Israel. The population of those five countries was 40 million and Israel had only about 600 thousand then, plus with no regular army. When the survival of their country was at stake, Israelis didn’t think “if they could”, but “if they should”. They resolved to defend their homeland. The entire people took part in the war, never gave up, never backed down, and finally defeated the invaders and saved this nascent Jewish country.
East Timor got independence in the recent past also because they followed the Western way of thinking – whether they should – and thus succeeded. East Timor’s population was only 0.5% of Indonesia’s 200 million. Under Suharto’s military regime for more than 30 years, as per the thinking of “whether one could”, then East Timorese shouldn’t even think about gaining independence. However, they succeeded in the end, just because both the leaders and people persisted with their principles and beliefs rather than racking their brains to ponder over the possibility of the operation.
Kosovo as well, with a land of only about 10 thousand sq km (previously an autonomous province of Serbia) and population of two million that accounted only for 1/5 of Serbia’s population, the Kosovans never gave up on independence. And after many years of struggle, they too realized their dream of becoming an independent country. As of the end of last month (2009), it received diplomatic recognition from 62 countries. Their initial hardship too would make people think “impossible” to gain independence.
When the United Nations was first established, there were only about 50 countries in the world, but now there are about 200, fourfold increase in the number, which indicates that independence and national self-determination are the current global trends. The underlying decisive factor here is how determined a nation is, especially how clear and firm the leader sees of the country’s future.
Today, any attempt to demand the CCP for democracy and genuine autonomy is as impossible as asking a tiger for its skin! Talking about “Chinese constitution”, even if making it merely a strategy of the struggle, there will be no result, as the CCP itself has never acted in accordance with its own constitution. Constitution is just an ornamental flowerpot, if you think flowers will bloom out of it, you are daydreaming.
The Tibetan government-in-exile should recognize the reality and respect the fact – the CCP, in any case, will not give the Tibetans genuine autonomy, this is predetermined by the very nature of the dictatorship. However you compromise, plead, kneel, kowtow, all will be in vain! Look at this exemplary case: The Dalai Lama genuinely from the core of his heart wants to give up independence and expressed this on countless occasions for many years in the West and also told Beijing many times directly through his envoys, but the CCP still keeps labeling him as a “separatist” and propagandizes it through the media that is completely under its control. Hence, the 1.3 billion Chinese almost unanimously think the Dalai Lama is the real culprit behind “Tibetan separatism” and despise him. Therefore, reasoning with a scoundrel such as the CCP is not their fault, it’s yours. The CCP clearly behaves as per the principle and belief of a despot whereas you don’t even have a clear principle and tangible belief. How would it be possible for you to prevail over the CCP?
Then what should the Tibetan government-in-exile do in the face of such a “powerful” communist dictatorship? It should unequivocally put forth that Tibet was historically an independent nation, now occupied; effort must be made towards putting an end, once and for all, to the communist rule in Tibet and entire China, joining hand with everyone to promote democracy. I do not see any fundamental change of the current situation in Tibet before the CCP collapse. When China becomes democratic, Tibetans will decide their own future through a referendum. If a democratic China, at that time, treats the Tibetans with equality and respects their right to choice, then the Dalai Lama may come out and propose Tibet to have genuine autonomy and be a part of China (He may suggest, but not decide). Due to the extraordinary prestige of the Dalai Lama, many Tibetans might agree. If not, then the choice of the majority Tibetans must be respected.
The Dalai Lama is already 74 years old now (2009). He is one of the Dalai Lamas who enjoyed longevity (nine Dalai Lamas lived not more than 50 years) and he is one of the most respected and welcomed spiritual leaders in the world. Since two decades of effort towards negotiating with China to achieve genuine autonomy hasn’t yielded any result (in the future too it won’t, this is for sure), the policy should be changed and start focusing on letting the world know two facts about Tibet: Tibet was historically an independent nation and the majority of Tibetans want independence. In addition to accumulating supports from the international community and promoting awareness inside Tibet, efforts should be made in the awakening of the Tibetan themselves, not in hoping and begging the CCP to change and show mercy.
The Middle Way has reached its dead end. And of course, the above-mentioned efforts will also not show any immediate result. However, when both ways are equally difficult, why not choose the right one that stands by principles? Taking the right way will eventually bring real results. A blind policy of compromise and negotiations with Beijing will only prove self-paralysis, and it will only undermine the morale among the Tibetans for fighting for their national cause. Besides, "endorsing” the legitimacy of the CCP’s authoritarian rule will mislead the Tibetans in Tibet, resulting their ignorance of their own history and thus unable to imagine restoring independence for Tibet. This can even generate “spiral of silence” that makes individuals to think the majority of Tibetans don’t want independence, and he is the only one who wants, so it’s better to give it up.
Accepting Chinese sovereignty over Tibet in order to gain support from Chinese intellectuals is also not only wrong in principle, but also ineffective. Restoration of Israel, independence of East Timor and formation of Kosovan State, not to mention American war of independence etc. all succeeded with the efforts of their own peoples, NOT with reliance on the awakening of the intellectuals inside the regimes. These intellectuals’ voices of conscience are precious, but not essential, never the “pre-requisite”.
With the Dalai Lama’s worldwide prestige, it’s an excellent opportunity to make known the two facts about Tibet, because once this Dalai Lama passes away, it will take at least 20 years to have an adult Dalai Lama, and for the new Dalai Lama to become a global icon as this 14th Dalai Lama is not an easy task, if it’s not impossible. The current Dalai Lama possesses a unique charisma – his personality, style, humility, attentiveness to others, guiltless openness, and hearty laughs, etc. are not something that can be imitated. Such an eminent figure loved and esteemed worldwide, is not gained simply by whoever is called “Dalai Lama”. However, using this priceless personal resource to advocate Middle Way Approach is something that is truly regrettable.
I do not have the slightest doubt that independence is the heartfelt dream of the majority of Tibetans. It is only because of the Chinese authorities’tyranny that the Tibetans cannot air their real voice, and also due to their infinite respect and dedication to the Dalai Lama, they accept his policies out of religious devotion. However, throughout the human history, freedom is everybody’s heart-felt dream, and building one’s own home is what every nation strived for even at the expense of shedding blood, and the Tibetan people are no exception.
I wish the Tibetans in exile keep the flame of their dream of independence burning. It is these flames that pave the way for the restoration of Tibetan independence. Regardless of how difficult this way is and no matter how many generations’ effort is required, sooner or later, this is the way they have to take. If this is the case, then why not start it now?! Despite how small the first step is on the long road to independence, it is moving toward the heart’s call, toward the dream, and therefore it is the right step and it’s worth it. One step on the right way is far better than a thousand on a lost one. Even the slightest effort toward realizing one’s dream can generate great potential as that’s the right effort based on truth. Any achievement and any victory mankind has ever made have all been the results of pursuits of dreams. The dream of Tibetan people too will one day become a part of mankind’s dreams that have come true!
（This article was originally published in《观察》(www.observechina.net) in August 2009.
The translator, Ogyen Kyab, a Tibetan born in Tibet and went into exile in India as a child after completing his primary education in a Chinese school in Tibet. In India, he studied in Tibetan schools and Indian universities and completed his post-graduation. Currently he works as a project manager in an American company but with a plan to leave the job and resume his further studies. ）