Surrendering to the Impatient?

16. Nov 2008

Trine Brox

Ph.D. Candidate, Tibetology

Nordic Institute of Asian Studies

When the Dalai Lama now has called the Tibetans in exile to deliberate on the future course of their freedom struggle, is he surrendering to the impatient Tibetans who want to discontinue his “Middle-Way” approach of dialogue with Beijing authorities? If so, a peaceful and negotiated solution to the issue of Tibet might very well be impossible.

The time has come for the Tibetans in exile to evaluate the current situation of Tibet and rethink the strategies of the Tibetan freedom movement. This was the message of the Dalai Lama when he in October summoned the representatives of the Tibetans for a week-long emergency assembly commencing on 17th November 2008 in Dharamsala, the North Indian town in the Himalayan foothills that is the political and cultural capital of the exile-Tibetans. The Dalai Lama has admitted that his own strategy called the “Middle-Way,” seeking a demilitarised, autonomous and democratic Tibet under China, had been unsuccessful. The conditions inside Tibet, he pointed out, had not improved, and furthermore, his dialogue with Beijing authorities had not resulted in any agreement. By facing the failure of his strategy and asking the Tibetan people to take charge of the future course, the Dalai Lama also showed himself as an upholder of the democratic values that he has persistently communicated to his Tibetan followers. Yet, if it now becomes the impatient Tibetans who guide their fellow exiles, what Beijing authorities will face is a withdrawal from the compromise seeking Middle-Way, a hardening of Tibetan rhetoric, and a return to the original goal of complete independence in Tibet. Then a peaceful and negotiated settlement on the issue of Tibet seems impossible.

The Middle-Way Approach

Since the Dalai Lama’s flight from Tibet in 1959 and the establishment of a Tibetan Government-in-Exile in India, the Tibetan freedom movement in exile has struggled to return to a free and democratic Tibet. The Tibetan Government-in-Exile claims to have a historical, legal and moral right to represent all Tibetans, whether residing in Tibet or abroad. It sees itself as the continuation of the traditional Tibetan government that ruled Tibet in pre-1951 Lhasa as a de facto independent country since 1912. The Dalai Lama and the Government-in-Exile does not acknowledge the existing territorial boundaries of Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) under China, but claims the historical boundaries of Tibet that includes the three provinces of Utsang, Kham and Amdo presently part of the Chinese provinces of Gansu, Qinghai, Sichuan and Yunnan. The Dalai Lama is presented as the disposed leader of a Tibet that once consisted of these three provinces.

Since the beginning of exile, the purpose of the Tibetan freedom movement was to restore independence in Tibet. After the Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping in 1979 apparently told the Dalai Lama’s brother, Gyalo Thondup, that Tibetan independence was not for negotiation, but that other issues relating to Tibet were possible to resolve, the Dalai Lama began to moderate his demands. In the so-called Strasbourg Proposal addressed to the European Parliament in 1988, the Dalai Lama publicly stated that he gave up upon independence. He reached out to Beijing and sought compromises with the Chinese government by not demanding independence in Tibet but merely autonomy. The strategy adopted by the Dalai Lama became known as the Middle-Way approach.

The Tibetan leadership in exile perceives the Middle-Way approach as the moderate position of not accepting the present status of Tibet under Chinese rule on the one hand, and not seeking independence of Tibet on the other hand. By taking the position between these two options, the Tibetan leadership presents the Middle-Way as a compromise that is mutually beneficial to both parties: It secures the unity, territorial integrity and stability of China, which is of outmost importance to Beijing authorities, and it also secures the cultural integrity of Tibet since the Tibetans’ self-governance will protect and preserve Tibetan national identity, religion and culture that are destroyed under Chinese rule.

The Middle-Way forms the basis for negotiations that the Dalai Lama has presented to the government of China. As the official stance of the exile-Tibetan freedom movement, the Middle-Way means that the Dalai Lama has the responsibility to negotiate a solution regarding the Tibet issue on the basis of the following:

An Imaginary Dialogue?

The Dalai Lama has been firmly committed to the non-violent means of diplomacy, cooperation, and dialogue with Beijing authorities to reach a solution on the issue of Tibet. Such dialogues were initiated in 2002. The purpose of these meetings was from the Tibetan side to re-establish direct contact with Beijing, to explain the Middle-Way, and to produce mutual understanding and trust between the two parties. It is the representatives of the Dalai Lama and not the Tibetan Government-in-Exile who have entered the dialogue, since the Chinese government does not recognise the Government-in-Exile as a legitimate representative of the Tibetans. Six rounds of Sino-Tibetan bilateral talks did not bring about any concessions or commitment from the Chinese side and no solution on the issue of Tibet.

A seventh round of talks occurred in July 2008, and on 4th and 5th November 2008, the Dalai Lama’s envoys Kasur Lodi Gyaltsen Gyari and Kelsang Gyaltsen again attended an eight round of talks in Beijing. The Tibetan envoys have yet to disclose their assessment of the latest talk, but according to several news reports, one Communist Party official had conveyed the message to the envoys that any type of “semi-independence” or “independence in disguise” was out of the question. China did not give in to demands and blamed the Tibetans for the failed talks. The negotiations have reached an impasse, and the reconciliation gestures from the Dalai Lama’s side have had little or no effect on Beijing. Some Tibetan critics perceive these talks as an “imaginary dialogue” arguing that Beijing hides behind the image of dialogue in order to appease an international audience and stall the issue of T
ibet-as if the issue of Tibet will disappear with the demise of the present Dalai Lama.

The Emergency Assembly

The Dalai Lama has recently admitted that although he has tried to cooperate with Beijing, his faith in the Chinese government is diminishing and he expects little from the Sino-Tibetan dialogue. Furthermore, the wave of protests inside Tibet since March 2008, and the many calls for independence emerging from the Tibetan diaspora, had made the international media question if the Dalai Lama’s Middle-Way was out of synch with the dreams and opinions of the people for whom he is a spokesperson. It seemed necessary to review the situation. The Dalai Lama called for an emergency assembly to be held on 17th to 22nd November.[*] Among the more than 500 participants are former and present parliamentarians and cabinet ministers, and representatives of non-governmental organisations, schools, religious traditions, and communities in exile. The delegates attending the assembly are supposed to represent the Tibetans and have been ordered to solicit opinions and suggestions from the people to present at the assembly.

The Dalai Lama has compelled the Tibetan people to take the collective responsibility of discussing the future course of their freedom movement. The purpose of the emergency assembly is to be a forum for Tibetan citizens to voice their aspirations and views through “free and frank discussions.” Though no final decision will be taken at the emergency assembly, it will probably propose resolutions to the Tibetan Parliament-in-Exile regarding their freedom struggle. It is the Tibetans’ democratic right to vote for change and they have to decide which role for instance the Sino-Tibetan dialogue should play in a future strategy and what the goal of the movement itself should be. It is only the commitment to a non-violent struggle that is non-negotiable. Taking up arms is not at all a solution that will be contemplated at the emergency assembly.

Resuming the Original Goal of Independence?

Some see the current stalemate in the Sino-Tibetan dialogue as a legitimate reason to review the Middle-Way and change the objective of the Tibetan struggle from “meaningful autonomy” to “complete independence.” Many Tibetans have lost their patience and want to turn their backs to the “imaginary dialogue.” They feel that they are running out of time. The Dalai Lama’s recent hospitalisation was a shocking wake-up call for the Tibetans. The Dalai Lama will not lead their freedom movement forever.

Forces within the Tibetan Parliament-in-Exile and non-governmental organisations have for long pushed the issue of reviewing the Middle-Way strategy. At the emergency assembly commencing this week, that issue will certainly be on the agenda. The issue of the Middle-Way, however, is a source of tension in the Tibetan diaspora. Since the Middle-Way approach originated from and is upheld by the Dalai Lama, the foremost religious and political authority among Tibetans, many impatient and frustrated exiles, who want complete independence and not merely autonomy, are muted. Radical exile-Tibetan activists have lamented that the Government-in-Exile limits their freedom to voice alternatives to the Middle-Way by binding them to their duty of being loyal towards the Dalai Lama. The Dalai Lama is aware of this dilemma that many Tibetans personally feel. Therefore he will not attend the emergency assembly and he has publicly stated that unless he withdraws to the background, Tibetans will not speak freely. It seems that the Dalai Lama welcomes alternatives to his Middle-Way and that he believes the time has come to think anew. It has nonetheless been questioned whether the assembly will result in any radical policy changes. The apprehensive prediction of some Tibetan critics is that although the assembly calls for alternative voices and opinions, it will change nothing. They are afraid that that innovative thinking and alternative voices will be curbed by leaders of the Tibetan Government-in-Exile who stubbornly hold on to the Middle-Way believing that they prove their loyalty towards the Dalai Lama.

Not all Tibetans see the assembly as the appropriate time to change the goal of their struggle from autonomy to independence, since that, according to them, will alienate the Dalai Lama from the freedom movement. They deem this unwise since the Dalai Lama is the unifying force of the Tibetans in and outside Tibet. Tibetans fearfully relate to a future freedom struggle that is not led by the Dalai Lama, and so should Beijing authorities as well: When there is no uniting leader like the Dalai Lama, the force uniting the Tibetans could be the dream of an independent Tibet. Behind this banner they can re-enchant their freedom struggle and work in common effort.

The issue of Tibet may not be resolved during the lifetime of their leader, the Fourteenth Dalai Lama. Thus the emergency assembly can be seen as an opportune time to make policy changes in order to be better equipped to face the challenge of continuing a Tibetan freedom struggle that is not guided by the Dalai Lama. If the exile-Tibetan freedom movement adopt a more hardline approach, cut the dialogue to Beijing, and resume the original goal of independence in Tibet that many Tibetans feel strongly for, Beijing might have lost its chance of a peacefully negotiated solution to the issue of Tibet. Furthermore, when the Dalai Lama is no longer there to restrain the Tibetans, the freedom struggle will undoubtedly be radicalised. A negotiated settlement will, however, be accepted by many of the approximately 122,000 Tibetans living in exile if the Dalai Lama consolidates it. And many Tibetans residing inside Tibet just want the Dalai Lama to return to Tibet, no matter status of autonomy or independence. If China acceded to “meaningful autonomy,” and the Dalai Lama were to return to Tibet, then many Tibetans would in fact accept that. Therefore, Beijing needs the Dalai Lama. His Middle-Way is Beijing’s best option.


[*] The opening and closing sessions of the emergency assembly, taking place daily from 9:30 a.m. until 5:00 p.m. Indian time from 17th until 22nd November, are telecasted live on the Tibetan Government-in-Exile’s website