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"For a happier, more stable and civilized future, each of us must develop a sincere, warm-hearted feeling of brotherhood and sisterhood."

A democratic state without a territory

November 19, 2008

Kate Heartfield
The Ottawa Citizen
November 18, 2008

It doesn't take a prophet to foresee the future of Tibet, as a nation
within a territory, if the Chinese government continues its current
course of "re-education" on a mass scale.

I can sum up that future in a single word: Annihilation. It might
take a hundred years -- those monks are stubborn -- but it will
happen eventually.

The more difficult question is: What is the future of the Tibetan diaspora?

It's a diaspora that is unique in the history of humanity, as far as
I can tell. It is a democratic state without a territory.

Its government in exile in Dharamsala, India is more than a symbol
and a prototype. It has working ministries of health and education,
for example, that provide care and schooling for thousands of refugees.

Through its schools and cultural institutions, it is preserving such
riches as Lhamo opera and thangka painting from extinction -- not to
mention the Tibetan language and literature. When I visited
Dharamsala earlier this year, I stayed a few steps away from the
Institute of Buddhist Dialectics. The Library of Tibetan Works and
Archives contains more than 80,000 books and documents.

The elected Tibetan parliament in exile has developed a
secular-democratic constitution that would serve as the basis for the
country's law if Tibet were ever to regain its independence. People
who say that Tibet would revert to a feudal theocracy if it weren't
for its occupation by Communist China are misinformed.

It's funny that apologists for China are always saying that it takes
a long time for an Asian country to develop into a mature modern
democracy. Isolated and impoverished Tibet did it in less than half a
century, despite the fact that it had to do so in exile, in a little
complex of plain concrete buildings on a remote hillside in India.
China, which is infinitely richer, more stable and better-connected,
ought to be able to develop even faster. China's government resents
Taiwan and Tibet because they have shown just how possible democratization is.

The talks between this exiled Tibetan government and the Chinese
government have broken down -- not that there was ever any real
prospect that they would succeed. The Dalai Lama's middle way --
peaceful dialogue leading to an autonomous Tibet within China -- has
failed, because China has absolutely no incentive to negotiate.

So the Dalai Lama, in evident dismay, has convened a special meeting
of hundreds of Tibetans from various parts of the diaspora.

The meeting began yesterday in Dharamsala. The Dalai Lama said in a
public message that "all the participants, as Tibetan citizens,
should discuss in a spirit of equality, co-operation and collective
responsibility the best possible future course of action to advance
the Tibetan cause."

He has said he wants the meeting to be "a forum to understand the
real opinions and views of the Tibetan people through free and frank
discussions."

China has asked India to prevent people from even attending the
meeting in Dharamsala, which tells you a lot about the Chinese
government's attitude toward participatory democracy and the freedoms
of mobility, association and expression -- not to mention its
attitude toward interfering in other countries' affairs (namely India's).

Tsewang Rigzin, the president of the Tibetan Youth Congress, which is
not as patient as the Dalai Lama, said recently that "We have nothing to lose."

As far as Tibet within China goes, he might be right. The one benefit
of life under China's rule is economic development, and even that is
fragile, uneven and environmentally unsustainable. And without
freedom, development is hobbled. From what those of us on the outside
can tell, the Chinese government's restrictions on Tibetans have not
eased since the Olympics.

But the Tibetan diaspora does have something to lose. It has the
moral high ground. It has democracy and non-violence. It is the Dalai
Lama who condemned the riots in Tibet in March, and who repeatedly
calls for protest to remain peaceful.

It would be a sad thing for the world if the Tibetan diaspora, this
democratic state without a territory, were to fragment and devolve
into an anarchic collection of freedom fighters.

It would almost be analogous to watching Brazil or Spain revert to
pre-democracy days. The evolution of the Tibetan nation into a
democratic society in exile is one of the triumphs of freedom in the
20th century.

That triumph, and not only the future of Tibet proper, is now at risk.
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