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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."

'Time is fast running out for Tibetan people'

September 28, 2009 - 28 September 2009

LORD Steel is just back from leading the first all-party delegation to Tibet
since last year's demonstrations. Here he reflects on the visit.

AS A parliamentarian, I have enjoyed 40 years of association with the
largest Tibetan Buddhist monastery in Europe - Samye Ling near Eskdalemuir,
in Dumfries and Galloway - just over the hills from where I live.

Last year, I met the Dalai Lama and the "Tibetan government in exile" at
their Indian HQ in Dharamsala. Therefore, I was pleased to accept an
invitation from the Chinese embassy to send a delegation from the British
parliament's all-party China group to see the situation for ourselves.

Arriving in Beijing, we pointed to the British government's unambiguous
acceptance of the status of Tibet as an autonomous region of the People's
Republic of China (PRC), the Dalai Lama's public disavowal of claims for
Tibetan independence and his rejection of violence.

Taking the new train to the Tibetan capital, Lhasa, we climbed to over
16,000ft through breathtaking scenery of desolate mountain passes with the
higher snow-capped peaks in the distance.

We met the deputy head of the Tibetan government - or to give him his
ponderously correct title, the Vice-Chairman of the Standing Committee of
the Tibet Autonomous Regional People's Congress - for our first of several
frank exchanges of views. The Tibetans themselves, of whom he is one, are by
far the largest slice of the population, which also has a growing Han
Chinese minority - some of whose shops were ransacked in last year's
disturbances - and a substantial Muslim community.

We delighted in a tour of the oldest monastery, Samye, some 50 miles into
the countryside.

We knew some of their monks had been arrested and imprisoned for their role
in the demonstrations, but all the monk I spoke to could say was that they
"did not know where they are".

On questioning government officials, they fall back on the familiar line
expressed by all governments that their sentences were a matter for the
judicial authorities, not for them. Nevertheless, it seems unacceptable that
their host monasteries do not know where they are.

In all our meetings, we increasingly focused on the future of the Dalai
Lama, simply because it is our view that, at 75, as he grows older, the time
is running out for a settlement between the central government in Beijing
and the acknowledged religious leader of the whole Tibetan population. Talks
between representatives of the two sides have now been dragging on
spasmodically and painfully slowly with no sign of progress.

The Chinese continue to accuse the Dalai Lama of seeking independence,
despite his frequent recent declarations to the contrary. Frankly, the level
of distrust on both sides is what is making progress impossible.

At our final meeting back in Beijing, I summarised what I took to be the
three stated aims of these discussions:

&149 Acceptance of the status of Tibet as an autonomous region of the PRC;

&149 An end to tensions between the ethnic communities in Tibet and the need
to avoid destructive protest demonstrations;

* The return of the Dalai Lama to Lhasa.

The real argument is over how these aims should be achieved. We pointed out
that the ban on displaying photographs of His Holiness was akin to the ban
we used to have on Martin McGuinness appearing on radio and TV (remember the
use of actors' voices if ever he was quoted?), and that he was now deputy
first minister in Northern Ireland.

We showed that a political solution could be assisted by an outside
independent intermediary, as US Senator George Mitchell did in the province.

But so far they will have none of it - "It is an internal matter for China".
Yes, but so were these internal matters, and yet outside mediation helped
towards their solution.

At our farewell banquet in Beijing, Tory MP James Gray, in a bold attempt to
lighten the conversation, asked why the Chinese present all had black hair
while we on our side were all grey.

"Perhaps," came the smiling reply, "it is because you worry too much about
other people's affairs." Touché!

Worry about them we should. China is an increasingly important and
successful economy, but its reputation in the world would be greatly
enhanced if we saw a rejoicing Tibetan people welcoming back the Dalai Lama
to Potala Palace with a non-political status similar to that enjoyed in
Italy by the Pope in the Vatican.

China should be great enough, and the Dalai Lama humble enough, to allow
this to happen. They should not be too entrapped in their mutual distrust to
refuse outside help in mediation.

* Lord Steel is a former MP, Liberal leader and Presiding Officer of the
Scottish Parliament.
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