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Tibet: A New Direction?

September 26, 2007


More than two months have passed since the conclusion of the
much-anticipated sixth round of talks between representatives of His
Holiness the Dalai Lama and the Chinese government. The only clue as to
the outcome of these talks was in a terse statement issued by Special
Envoy Lodi Gyari immediately after his return from China on 7 July:
“Both sides expressed in strong terms their divergent positions and
views on a number of issues. Our dialogue process has reached a critical
stage. We conveyed our serious concerns in the strongest possible manner
on the overall Tibetan issue and made some concrete proposals for
implementation if our dialogue process is to go forward.”

Since then, there has been no further elucidation from Dharamsala
regarding the exact nature of the impasse, or the “concrete proposals”
set forth, or whether there is, in fact, any chance that the “dialogue
process is to go forward”. In the meantime, various other events, both
inside and outside Tibet, are threatening to derail the Middle Way
Approach and make it increasingly irrelevant. And other forces are now
at play, which are willy-nilly determining the direction in which the
Tibet movement is headed.

While Dharamsala fidgets, China has forcefully begun to lay out its
cards. Its official attacks on His Holiness have continued unabated.
Most recently, Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Jiang Yu described
His Holiness as “a political exile who has been engaged in separatist
activities under the disguise of religion. Wherever he goes, in whatever
name, what he does is not simply religious activities but represents a
political force to split the motherland and advocate Tibet
independence.” This gives us some idea about the nature of the
“divergent positions” mentioned by Lodi Gyari. It also indicates that as
far as the Chinese are concerned, the Middle Way Approach is a
non-starter because they don’t trust even the fundamental concession on
which it is based – that His Holiness no longer seeks independence.
Meanwhile, China’s own solution to the Tibet question has been spelled
out in the recent implementation of Order No. 5 of China's State
Administration of Religious Affairs, the so-called “Management Measures
for the Reincarnation of ‘Living Buddhas’ in Tibetan Buddhism”, which
effectively requires all reincarnate lamas to be approved by the state.
As far as Beijing is concerned, the problem of Tibet is the problem of
the Dalai Lama, and Order No. 5 effectively lays the groundwork for
taking control of his reincarnation once he is no longer there.

So where does the Tibet movement go from here? Dharamsala’s resounding
silence in the aftermath of the sixth round of talks may be a sign that
it is rethinking its options. The government-in-exile’s controversial
policy of mollifying China by asking Tibetans and their supporters to
refrain from carrying out political demonstrations seems to have died a
quiet death. But more significantly, there are growing signs that the
Tibetan people are taking matters into their own hands.

The March 10 demonstrations worldwide this year attracted record numbers
of participants.  After years of muted protest, Free Tibet banners and
slogans were once again openly raised. This momentum came to a head in
Delhi during the launch of the campaign against the Beijing Olympics
organized by the Tibetan People’s Movement, and the Tibetan Youth
Congress-led hunger strike, which drew an estimated 20,000 Tibetans from
all over India and Nepal to the Indian capital. This overwhelming show
of support must be seen in the context of the Tibetan Youth Congress’
continuing commitment to independence as the only goal for the Tibetan
struggle.  It is also an indication of the profound sense of frustration
that Tibetans feel with regard to the lack of progress in their
political struggle. After years of being rendered ineffectual, faced by
a profound and debilitating personal dilemma – complete devotion to His
Holiness, and therefore to the Middle Way Approach, on the one hand, and
the instinctive desire to fight for freedom on the other – these actions
must be seen to represent the choice that they are finally making. That
the hunger strikers, who represented a cross-section of Tibetans,
rejected Samdhong Rinpoche’s plea to end their action also showed just
how wide the gulf between Dharamsala and the ordinary Tibetan is
becoming. In the end, it was only a direct appeal from His Holiness that
persuaded the hunger strikers and the Tibetan Youth Congress to call off
the strike.

Meanwhile, in Tibet we have seen a string of incidents – from the
ongoing controversy over the use of animal skins, sparked directly by
His Holiness’ appeal, and the much-publicized public cry for his return
made by the nomad, Runggye Adrak, in Lithang, to the more recent arrests
of seven teenagers in Amdo for writing pro-independence graffiti – that
continues to expose the Chinese lie that His Holiness has little or no
support inside Tibet. These events convincingly demonstrate that despite
some economic progress, Tibetans inside Tibet continue to revere their
exiled leader and that beneath the country’s tightly controlled surface,
a deep frustration and anger seethes. They also send out a strong
warning to the Chinese about the fragility of their hold over the hearts
and minds of Tibetans and will make them redouble their efforts to
neutralize His Holiness’ influence inside Tibet. In the wake of the
Runggye Adrak incident, the authorities have already launched an
aggressive “re-education” campaign in Lithang. Over the next few months,
particularly in the lead-up to the Beijing Olympics, we can expect more
of the same throughout Tibet.

In March 2009, 50 years will have passed since China’s takeover of Tibet
and the flight into exile of His Holiness.  The Chinese have made it
clear that the battle against His Holiness is, in their own words, “a
fight to the death”. Dharamsala must respond forcefully to China’s
attacks on His Holiness and its pre-emptive moves to snuff out what
remains of the Tibet movement. And it must heed the expressions of
growing desperation among its own people who are crying out for a more
clear-cut political policy to rally behind. Now, more than ever,
Tibetans, both inside and outside Tibet, need to be motivated, committed
and united in the interests of our common cause. The alternative is to
wait…and witness the disintegration of our struggle and the end of Tibet
as we know it.

Tenzing Sonam is a writer and filmmaker based in New Delhi

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