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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."

Middle Way or Bust

May 3, 2009

By: Tenzing Sonam
Himal Southasian
May 2009 Issue

The year 2008, for many reasons, is likely to go
down in the annals of recent Tibetan history as a
watershed year. This was the year when Tibetans
in Tibet, 49 years after the takeover of their
country, demonstrated clearly and loudly that
they were still unhappy under Chinese rule; when
a new generation of Tibetans in Tibet, spanning
the entire society from monks and nomads to
farmers and students, became politicised; and
when the Tibetan movement assumed a pan-national
character, involving people from all three
traditional provinces of Tibet in a united and
hitherto unprecedented manner. Finally, this was
also the year when the Dalai Lama’s Middle Way
approach, which gives up the demand for
independence in return for genuine autonomy, and
which he has pursued patiently and unwaveringly
since the late 1980s, finally crashed in the face
of Beijing’s unequivocal rejection. Now, a year
on from the widespread anti-Chinese
demonstrations of spring 2008, and six months
since the ‘special meeting’ convened by the Dalai
Lama to discuss future options for the Tibet
movement, it is time to face up to some harsh realities.

After years of leading Dharamsala up the garden
path of promised negotiations, Beijing
unceremoniously and unambiguously pulled the rug
out from under the Dalai Lama’s envoys in
November 2008, when it categorically rejected his
Middle Way approach and the formal proposal that
emerged from it, the Memorandum on Genuine
Autonomy for the Tibetan People. Not only this,
Chinese officials even dismissed the right of the
Dalai Lama to represent the Tibetan people. In a
news conference in Beijing on 12 November, Zhu
Weiqun, the Executive Vice-Minister of the United
Front Work Department, accused the Memorandum of
seeking "half-independence" and "covert
independence." Furthermore, he stated: "We talked
with Mr Lodi Gyari" -- the Dalai Lama’s special
envoy -- "and his party only because they were
the Dalai Lama’s private representatives. And we
merely talked about how the Dalai Lama should
completely give up his splitting opinions and
actions, and strive for the understanding of the
central authorities and all Chinese people so as
to solve the issue concerning his own prospect.
We never discussed the so-called ‘Tibet issue’."

It was a major turnaround. Whatever the nature of
their discussions in private -- and observers
have always been led by the Dalai Lama’s envoys
to believe that these were substantial and
building up to real negotiations -- the Chinese
clearly had no qualms about publicly quashing the
entire exercise in one humiliating move. Those
who had always warned that Beijing was not
serious about the talks, and was simply playing
for time, were vindicated. But even to the most
ardent critics of the Middle Way approach,
China’s decision to abandon any pretence of
discussion with the Dalai Lama so soon after the
Beijing Olympics, held just three months before,
undoubtedly came as a surprise.

It is clear that China is now ready to embark on
a new strategy in its efforts to resolve the
Tibet question -- one that has no place for the
Dalai Lama. In the short term, this seems to mean
continuing its campaign to discredit and sideline
the Dalai Lama internationally, while using brute
force and draconian measures to stamp out any
sign of protest or dissent on the plateau. China
is engaging in this with impunity, simply because
there is no one to tell it not to do so. The
international economic crisis has made China an
even stronger world player, one that is able to
dictate terms to the West in a way that would
have been unthinkable even a year ago. Beijing is
in no mood to listen to Western admonitions about
its human-rights record or conduct, and Western
governments are in no position to push the point.

Of course, Chinese officials do understand that
there is deep discontent in Tibet. But they
believe that this will disappear in the longer
term, particularly once the Dalai Lama is no
longer there to provide inspiration. And the
government is clearly prepared to wait for this
to happen. More interestingly, Beijing also seems
to have decided to confront the Dalai Lama’s
influence on the world stage, by challenging the
exile Tibetan perspective in the public debate
over Tibet -- or, at least, influencing it so
that it is no longer a black-and-white issue. It
is doing this by aggressively asserting its own view of Tibet to the world.

A case in point is the eight-page advertisement
supplement headlined "China’s Tibet: The Past and
the Present," which came out in the Hindustan
Times edition of 9 April 2009. Abundantly
illustrated with photographs and statistics, it
purports to show how backward and hellish old
Tibet was, and how much progress and development,
both socially and economically, the Chinese
government’s munificence has brought to the area.
It makes no mention of the Dalai Lama -- China
wants to marginalise him -- or the recent unrest
in Tibet, which it chooses to portray as the work
of a few agents provocateurs. Instead, it
stresses its claim that China’s rule in Tibet has
brought modernisation, prosperity and happiness
to the long-suffering, and now eternally
grateful, people of Tibet. For the uninformed
reader, the facts are impressive and convincing.

Similarly, China’s declaration that, beginning
this year, 28 March would be celebrated as Serf
Emancipation Day in Tibet, is a direct challenge
to the 10 March Uprising Day commemorated by
Tibetans in exile, an anniversary that has
continued to challenge the legitimacy of China’s
rule over Tibet. This may seem provocative  and
crude to those who know something about the real
situation in Tibet; but China is not concerned
about such individuals. Rather, its officials are
seeking to influence the vast majority of the
world’s population that knows little to nothing
of Tibet. Why else would they decide to take out,
on 6 April this year, an 18-page supplement
entitled "50 Years of Democratic Reform in Tibet"
in, of all places, the Daily Times of Malawi?
Indeed, we can expect many more such supplements
to appear, throughout the world, as China
ratchets up its public-relations campaign on Tibet.

Dithering Dharamsala
How can the Dharamsala government-in-exile
counter this new offensive? Unless it fights to
reclaim its ground in this debate, and brings
fresh thinking into the movement, the Tibet issue
risks becoming increasingly amorphous and
eventually sidelined. But Dharamsala’s response
to both the situation in Tibet and the failure of
its talks with China has been anything but
convincing. It has simply insisted on holding on
to an ever-more tenuous moral high ground, by
claiming that the Middle Way approach and the
Memorandum for Genuine Autonomy remain the only
ways by which to resolve the Tibet issue.

The two key strategies outlined by the Kashag,
the exile Tibetan cabinet, earlier this year, are
to continue to promote and explain the Memorandum
both among its own people and internationally,
and to reach out to ordinary Chinese citizens.
Its position with regard to China’s rejection of
its Middle Way approach is simply to state: "The
entire responsibility for the future status of
our dialogues, irrespective of what it is going
to be, lies squarely on the Chinese leaders. The
Tibetan side has already made all the required
clarifications and brought a process of dialogue
that began in 2002 to its logical conclusion."
But what does this mean, exactly? That, in an
ever-unpredictable, politically charged
situation, Dharamsala has played its final hand
and, come what may, will not budge from its
position? A recent Reuters report quoted the
Dalai Lama’s lead envoy, Kalsang Gyaltsen, as
saying: "If there is any seriousness and
political will on the part of the Chinese
government, the ball is now in their court," a
sporting metaphor thereafter repeated by Prime
Minister-in-exile Samdhong Rinpoche. The image
here is of two equally matched contestants
playing a back-and-forth game of tennis. But in
reality, China has long since abandoned both the ball and the court.

Dharamsala’s curiously passive and moralistic
response to the gauntlet thrown down by China is
evident in a second statement by Samdhong
Rinpoche, from mid-March. "If the present
leadership do not wish to take the credit of
resolving the Tibetan issue," he said, "the next
leadership will take the credit." This seems to
imply that Dharamsala has done the current
Beijing leaders a favour by giving them the
opportunity to respond positively to its
proposal, and that it would be their loss if they
were to refuse. But the most mystifying of the
confusing signals emerging from Dharamsala is
Samdhong Rinpoche’s assertion that, "As far as we
are concerned, we are prepared for another
hundred years of struggle. The inspiration is there. So we have no worry."

This latter contention needs to be examined
within the context of the primary justification
for the Middle Way approach. The way that this
strategy was originally sold to the Tibetan
people was on the grounds that the situation in
Tibet was so dire and so desperate that its very
existence as a culture and a nation faced
imminent extinction. Therefore, in order to
forestall this, Tibetans had to give up the goal
of independence, so that genuine negotiations
over the future of Tibet could begin with China.
The Dalai Lama has since repeated many times that
"Tibet faces something like a death sentence;"
that a "cultural genocide" is taking place there;
and that if the situation does not improve soon,
Tibet, as a nation, would soon disappear.
Samdhong Rinpoche himself, in an interview last
March, said, "If the Tibet issue is not resolved
amicably within five, ten years of time, there
will be no more Tibet inside Tibet. It will be a
completely non-Tibetans’ land. It may be Han
Chinese or it may be some other minority but
Tibetans will be completely lost in the vast
majority of non-Tibetans. It is very true and we
also realize that it is a very urgent threat for
the survival of Tibet, but what we can do?"

The crux of the Middle Way approach was that it
provided a compromise position that would,
ostensibly, be acceptable to China and,
therefore, would stand a better chance of being
able to save Tibet’s culture and identity. In a
meeting with Chinese journalists in Seattle in
April 2008, the Dalai Lama clearly spelled out
his reasoning behind this approach: "We are not
seeking independence. We are very much happy to
remain within the People’s Republic of China. We
are concerned about the preservation of Tibetan
culture, Tibetan Buddhism, environment." But if
this is not the case, as Samdhong Rinpoche now
seems to be implying, and if the struggle can
continue for another hundred years without any
worry, then the question inevitably arises: Why
should Tibetans spend the next hundred years
struggling for genuine autonomy when they could
just as easily be fighting for the very goal that
all Tibetans believe in -- independence?

Dharamsala’s justification for continuing with
the Middle Way approach is that it is a
democratically endorsed policy, and one that
received renewed support from the people through
the outcome of the special meeting that the Dalai
Lama convened in November. Unsurprisingly,
delegates at that meeting, representing a
cross-section of the exile Tibetan community,
reiterated their faith in the Dalai Lama’s
leadership, and a majority endorsed his Middle
Way approach. But anyone familiar with the
workings of Tibetan society knows that such an
endorsement is not so much for the Middle Way
approach as it is for the Dalai Lama himself. If,
tomorrow, the Dalai Lama were suddenly to decide
that the Middle Way approach is no longer a
viable option and that he would instead revert to
the goal of independence, would even one Tibetan
be prepared to stand up to him because of his or
her belief in the principle of the Middle Way
approach? The spiritual devotion to the Dalai
Lama simply clouds any kind of political realism among his people.

In fact, a more significant result of the special
meeting was the recommendation that support for
the Middle Way approach should be made
conditional on concrete results emerging within a
short timeframe. Failing that, all other options,
including independence, were to be discussed.
Strangely, this point has neither been taken up
by the government-in-exile, nor even mentioned in
its subsequent statements, which only stress
overwhelming support for the Middle Way approach.
Why this reticence to open up the debate on the
future course of action for Tibet when, patently,
the current policy has run its course? What is to
be gained from holding on to the Middle Way
approach in this context, other than in trying to prove a moral point?

The Middle Way approach is, after all, a
political strategy, and one that has not paid
tangible dividends. Why, then, is it being
promoted with the dogmatic zeal of a religious
doctrine, unchallengeable and unshakable? In
fact, the Kashag’s insistence on holding on to
the Middle Way approach as a ‘democratically
endorsed’ decision is both disingenuous and, in
the long run, dangerous. There is absolutely no
guarantee that, in the Dalai Lama’s absence,
there would be continuing support for the Middle
Way approach and genuine autonomy.

Baltic archetype
Meanwhile, in Tibet itself the situation could
not be worse. A year on from the massive protests
of March-April 2008, it would appear that the
spring uprising, which inspired Tibetans
everywhere so powerfully and seemed to have held
out so much promise, has ended in tragedy. The
sacrifice of the thousands who risked their lives
has today achieved nothing more than a brief,
incandescent moment in the international spotlight.

In fact, however, all is not as it seems. The
long-term consequences of the demonstrations may
yet prove to be more significant than anyone can
currently imagine, and might come back to haunt
the Chinese leadership. One hint of this came
during a radio call-in show on Radio Free Asia’s
Tibetan language service in Washington, DC, last
September. The reporter, Dolkar, was in
conversation with three young Tibetan students
studying in Beijing. One told her:

The uprisings of ‘89 and ‘59 were a long time
ago, and for us youngsters, these are just like
stories from the past. But now, with the recent
uprisings and the oppression, the story has
unfolded for real in front of our own eyes. This
was a reminder of our past; it woke us up. Until
recently, people have been disheartened and
scared to carry out any action. But with the
March demonstrations, and with the
coming-together of people from all walks of life,
we have been reminded that the burden of the
struggle for truth and freedom does not rely only
on one or two persons. It isn’t just the
responsibility of His Holiness or the Tibetans in
exile, nor is it just the responsibility of the
educated ones, but it is the responsibility of
every one of us. This has become very clear this time.

This may be the real impact of the protests, and
the reason why they may not ultimately have been
in vain. A new generation of Tibetan activists
has been born in Tibet, and it has now been
empowered to carry the struggle into the future.
The renewed belief and commitment of this new
generation in Tibet demand that the policies made
by the government-in-exile are strong and
inspirational, and are designed to keep the
movement alive for as long as it takes to achieve
its goals. But it seems increasingly unlikely
that doggedly hanging on to the Middle Way
approach is the way to meet this challenge.

Given Beijing’s aggressive new strategy to
neutralise the Tibet issue internationally, the
only practical and effective course of action
open to Dharamsala would seem to be what one
long-time Tibet watcher calls the ‘Baltic
solution’. This would entail shifting the goal of
the struggle back to independence. It would
require persevering in the international forum by
repeatedly and forcefully asserting Tibet’s claim
to independence, both historically and in
accordance with the principles of
self-determination; knowing full well that, in
the short term, this would not pay concrete
dividends other than keeping the idea of Tibetan
nationhood alive. At the same time, it would mean
building up a strong and genuinely democratic
government-in-exile, which would prepare Tibetans
for a post-Dalai Lama future and shift the focus
of the struggle away from his person, thereby
keeping it from disintegrating in his absence.

These measures would invigorate the Tibet
movement, make it vibrant and unified, and help
it to remain a source of hope and inspiration for
the people inside Tibet. And in some distant
future, when the Communist Party of China no
longer holds power, these measures would also do
much to prepare the ground for real negotiations,
and for the possibility of either complete
independence or genuine autonomy in its true
sense. It took the Baltic states more than 70
years to regain their independence; today, Tibet
has as much right and resilience as a nation to
hope for the same. If Samdhong Rinpoche is
serious about keeping the Tibetan struggle alive
for a hundred years, this may be the only option he has.
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