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"We Tibetans are looking for a legitimate and meaningful autonomy, an arrangement that would enable Tibetans to live within the framework of the People’s Republic of China."

Tibet - Still seeking Nirvana in the West

April 30, 2009

Human Rights Features Bimonthly (India)
March 31, 2009

That South Africa refused to allow the Dalai Lama
to attend a peace conference meant to promote the
2010 FIFA World Cup in that country is hardly
surprising. China’s enormous clout in Africa,
sustained by ‘no-strings’ aid, investment in
infrastructure and natural resources projects,
means that African countries have little choice but to bend to China’s whims.

What continues to astonish, however, is the
refusal of Tibetan groups, barring a few, to
acknowledge the failure of their approach when it
comes to seeking world attention for their cause.

Tibetan groups across the world, and the Tibetan
government-in-exile, have sought to focus their
energies on engaging with Western governments, in
itself not an imprudent move. However, putting
all their eggs in the Western basket has hardly
paid the required dividends. The high regard for
the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan cause professed by
Western governments – and elevated to cinematic
adoration by well-meaning Hollywood celebrities –
has not led to concrete results. As shown below,
both the United States and the European Union
have steadily whittled down their positions on Tibet.

On 31 October 1997, then US Secretary of State
Madeline Albright created a Special Coordinator
for Tibetan Issues within the State
Department.  Unfortunately for proponents of a
“Special Envoy” position, who would work to
actively promote negotiations between the China
and the Dalai Lama, the position did not hold
ambassadorial rank.[1] Although the
demonstrations in Tibet in March 2008 resulted in
a raft of proposed legislative measures by
members of the US House of Representatives[2],
official US policy on Tibet merely advocates for
autonomy for Tibet within China.[3]  This
position is a far cry from the high water mark of
the mid-1980s when the US Congress enacted a
provision under the Foreign Relations
Authorization Act, 1994 mandating that Tibet be
listed as a separate country in the annual report
of the State Department.[4]

Europe has unequivocally asserted its position
that it considers Tibet to be a part of China. In
April 2008, European Commission President Jose
Manuel Barroso assured Chinese Prime Minister Wen
Jiabao that Europe supported China’s territorial
integrity and unity and that applied to Tibet as well.[5]

Despite the long and vocal feud between France
and China on President Sarkozy’s meeting with the
Dalai Lama, a communiqué issued the President in
April 2008 welcomed the resumption of dialogue
between the Dalai Lama and the Chinese
authorities but also highlighted the willingness
of the French government to accept a solution to
the Tibetan question that allowed all Tibetans
“to enjoy their cultural and spiritual identity
to the full in the framework of the People’s Republic of China.”[6]

The Scandinavian nations of Denmark, Norway and
Sweden also do not have a clear policy on the
Tibet question apart from repeated emphasis on the need for dialogue.

In recent talks with his Chinese counterpart,
German Federal Foreign Minister Frank-Walter
Steinmeier "emphasized Germany’s commitment to a
One China policy” while stating that Germany was
“very keen see progress on preserving and
promoting Tibetan culture and religion.”[7]

Australian Foreign Minister Steven Smith speaking
on the floor of the Australian House of
Representatives on 17 March 2008 outlined that
country’s position on Tibet.  Minister Smith
began by asserting that “Australia of course
recognises China’s sovereignty over Tibet.”[8]

Then, in November 2008, the United Kingdom for
the first time recognised China’s direct rule
over Tibet, overturning the long-held position of
Chinese “suzerainty” – as opposed to ‘sovereignty” – over Tibet.[9]

The Tibetan government-in-exile in India
expressed disappointment[10], but as Tibet expert
Elliot Sperling of Indiana University points out,
it is the Tibetan leadership’s sustained dilution
of its position – from independence to “real
autonomy” to merely “cultural rights”[11] – that
has helped China gain the winning edge in the
debate on the Tibetan question. By renouncing
calls for independence early on – Sperling claims
this decision was made in the early 1970s – the
Tibetan leadership has played into China’s hands.
Beijing for its part has doggedly held to its
position and uses every opportunity to insist
that the Dalai Lama must be even more forthright
in his rejection of the idea of Tibetan independence.[12]

In its attempts to highlight the Tibetan cause,
the Tibetan leadership has given little attention
to cultivating Asian and African countries. It
could have taken a lesson from the example of
Timor Leste, a nationalist cause that held little
fascination for the West apart from Portugal, but
was successful in part due to the skilful
lobbying firstly of Asian opinion makers and
subsequently governments by the pro-independence leadership.

It is therefore no wonder that even Asian nations
with large Buddhist populations have offered
little support to Tibet. In April 2008, the then
Thai Foreign Minister Noppadon Pattama told the
Chinese Foreign Minister “that Tibet was China's
‘internal affair’ and that Thailand opposed
linking it to the Beijing Olympics.”[13] In a
recent statement the Sri Lankan foreign ministry
affirmed “its adherence to the ‘One China Policy’
and the territorial integrity of China.”[14]

A cursory examination of the work of
international Tibetan advocacy organisations
shows that there is little or no introspection on
strategies adopted thus far. And the target of
these strategies has always been the West. The
International Campaign for Tibet (ICT) describes
the US government as a “powerful and effective
advocate for Tibet.” Although critical of US
affirmation of the “One China” policy, ICT pays
tribute to US criticism of Chinese government
policy in Tibet contained in annual reports on
religious freedom and human rights, as well as
through testimony at congressional
hearings.[15]  ICT also acknowledges European
support for a negotiated settlement in Tibet and
the efforts of European based international
organisations to protect the religious freedoms
and human rights of the Tibetan people.[16]

A considerable contrast to the calls for autonomy
can be found in the Tibetan Youth Congress (TYC).
By its own admission this organisation advocates
“for the restoration of complete independence of
the whole of Tibet” and claims to have more than 30,000 members worldwide.[17]

The aims and objectives of the organisation
include "serving one’s country and people under
the guidance of" the Dalai Lama, but members are
exhorted “to struggle for the total independence
of Tibet even at the cost of one’s life.”[18] The
strong rhetoric, coupled with their energetic
participation in vigorous protests[19], has led
to the Chinese media labelling the group a
terrorist organisation.[20] However, the TYC’s
position in the pecking order of the Tibetan
leadership is insignificant, with the result that
its voice goes largely unheard in Dharamsala, the
seat of the government-in-exile in northern India.

It is nevertheless apparent that engaging with
Asian and African countries has not crossed the
minds of Tibetan strategists. And it might be too
late now. Following the furore over the refusal
of a South African visa to the Dalai Lama,
Beijing called on India to ensure that the Dalai
Lama is not allowed to engage in “political
activities”.[21] The pressure on India will only
increase in the days to come, and will further
complicate the question of the fate of the
Tibetan government-in-exile and the Tibetan community in India.

Meanwhile, Tibetans in India continue to labour
under the belief that the reiteration of
‘cultural ties’ and the holding of
arts-and-crafts festivals will keep the Tibetan
cause alive in Indian minds. They might, but only
as a romantic notion, a lost cause, feebly
flogged by young Western pilgrims trying to find
themselves in the unkempt, decaying streets of
Dharamsala, and symbolised by little more than
the dazzling thangkas mounted on the walls of elite Indian homes.

[1] Dumbaugh, Kerry, ‘Tibet: Problems, Prospects,
and U.S. Policy’, CRS Report for Congress, 10
April 2008,  p.18 at
(last visited 31 December 2008).

[2] Ibid., pp.20-21.

[3] ‘Call for Calm in Tibet’, (Statement by
Secretary Condoleezza Rice) 15 March 2008,
(last visited 30 December 2008).

[4] Sec. 536 (b) (1), "Reporting Requirements on
Occupied Tibet," H.R. 2333, Foreign Relations
Authorization Act, Fiscal Years 1994 and 1995
(Enrolled as Agreed to or Passed by Both House
and Senate), Library of Congress website
(THOMAS), at

[5] "EU’s Barroso encouraged by Tibet talks with
China," Deutsche Welle (DW-World.De), 25 April
2008, at,2144,3292563,00.html.

[6] ‘Announcement of the resumption of dialogue
between the Chinese authorities and the
representatives of the Dalai Lama’, (Communiqué
issued by the presidency of the Republic) 25
April 2008,
(last visited 29 December 2008).

[7] ‘Relations with China Completely Back to
Normal’, 16 June 2008,
(last visited 29 December 2008).

[8] Commonwealth, Parliamentary Debates, House of
Representatives, 17 March 2008, 1869 (Stephen
Smith, Minister for Foreign Affairs) at;fileType=application/pdf#search=%22Tibet%20%20house%20of%20representatives%22
(last visited 30 December 2008).

[9] "UK recognises China’s direct rule over
Tibet," The Telegraph (UK), 5 November 2008, at

[10] Ibid.

[11] Elliot Sperling, "Big Brother is Watching,"
The Times of India, 17 March 2008, at

[12] Ibid.

[13] Nagpal, Sahil, ‘Thai Foreign Minister backs
China on Tibet, Olympics’, 15 April 2008,
(last visited 30 December 2008).

[14] Ministry of Foreign Affairs Sri Lanka, ‘GOSL
reaffirms its adherence to the "One China Policy"
and the territorial integrity of China’, 25 March
(last visited 30 December 2008).

[15] The International Campaign for Tibet, ‘U.S.
Government and Legislative Advocacy’, Policy
(last visited 31 December 2008).

[16] The International Campaign for Tibet,
‘European & International Advocacy’, Policy
(last visited 31 December 2008).

[17] ‘Origin’,
(last visited 31 December 2008).

[18]  ‘Aims and Objectives’,
(last visited 31 December 2008).

[19] Lakshmi, Rama, ‘With Reports of Violence,
Anger Ignites Beyond Tibet’, Washington Post
Foreign Service,
(last visited 31 December 2008).

[20] Qu, Xiong, ‘Tibetan Youth Congress = a
terror group’,,
(last visited 31 December 2008).

[21] "Dalai Lama shouldn’t engage in political
activities: China to India," The Times of India,
26 March 2009, at
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