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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."

Flying the flag of Tibet

May 1, 2008

Claude Arpi
The Pionner
April 30, 2008

Following the protests against China's oppression of Tibet, Kashmiri
Pandits have begun to view their plight through the Tibetan prism.
Unfortunately, Kashmiri Pandits don't have a charismatic leader like the
Dalai Lama, though India's ruling family is linked to their community

The recent unrest in Tibet and its impact elsewhere has generated a
healthy debate in India. Some sections of the Indian society, like the
Kashmiri Pandits, now view their plight through the Tibetan prism.
Unfortunately the Pandits do not have a charismatic leader like the
Dalai Lama, though India's ruling family belongs to their community and
they have remained a divided lot.

Some others say that we should give time to China to progressively
evolve into a democratic system. Probably they are not aware that time
is also ticking away against India's interests. Last year alone 3.8
million Chinese 'visited' Tibet using the railway line to Lhasa; many of
them decided to stay back on the Roof of the World. By the time we
realise that the situation is irreversible, it will be too late. And it
is India that will have to suffer.

More than 20 years ago, I had asked the Dalai Lama how Tibet would
regain its independence (or autonomy). He had answered, "It does not
depend on us Tibetans. Change will come from within China." He was
clearly not expecting the United States or India to offer him on a
platter the most cherished dream of his people. Since then he has
repeatedly said that the people of China will bring about changes in
their own country which will give a chance to the people of Tibet to
fulfil their aspirations.

This is a far more plausible alternative than any other, including a
deadlocked dialogue between Dharamsala and Beijing. In this context,
three letters addressed to China's President Hu Jintao by veteran
Tibetan Communist leader Phuntsok Wangyal, who had led the Chinese
troops into Lhasa in September 1951, could trigger a larger debate in
China once the Olympic Games are behind us.

Wangyal (known as 'Phunwang' among Tibetans) mentioned several
interesting things in his letters to Mr Hu Jintao. He said the Dalai
Lama's demise would only radicalise young Tibetan hardliners frustrated
with his 'middle way' approach; he reminded the Chinese President about
his own objective of establishing a harmonious society; and that if he
would strive for the return of hundreds of thousands of exiled Tibetans,
he could turn "confrontation into harmony".

The present debate veers around the role and status of the nationalities
within the People's Republic of China. A historical incident about the
Tibetan flag gives an indication of the direction in which the question
could lead.

In the 1980s, I had interviewed Phuntso Tashi Takla, the Dalai Lama's
brother-in-law who was in charge of the Tibetan leader's security when
the latter visited China in 1954-55. Takla recalled, "At that time (in
1954) because the Chinese occupation of Tibet was not complete, the
Chinese extended full courtesy and cooperation to the Dalai Lama. On
some occasions Mao Tse-tung himself came to the Dalai Lama's residence
(in Beijing). During one of the several discussions that the Dalai Lama
and Mao Tse-tung had, Mao (suddenly) said, 'Don't you have a flag of
your own, if you have one, you can hoist it here (on the Guest House)'."
Takla was surprised to hear Mao Tse-tung speaking thus.

Personally I did not immediately realise the importance of Mao's point,
but when I later read Phunwang's biography, I understood better the
incalculable implications of the Chairman's statement. It is worth
quoting Phunwang: "One day, Mao unexpectedly came to visit the Dalai
Lama at his residence... During their conversation, Mao suddenly said,
'I heard that you have a national flag, do you? They do not want you to
carry it, isn't that right'?"

Phunwang further recalled, "Since Mao asked this with no warning that
the topic was to be discussed, the Dalai Lama just replied, 'We have an
Army flag.' I thought that was a shrewd answer because it didn't say
whether Tibet had a national flag. Mao perceived that the Dalai Lama was
concerned by his question and immediately told him, 'That is no problem.
You may keep your national flag.' Mao definitely said 'national' flag."

Mao added that in the future the Communist Party of China could also let
Xinjiang and Inner Mongolia have their own flags. He then asked the
Dalai Lama if it would be fine for him to hoist the national flag of the
People's Republic of China in addition to the Tibetan flag. Phunwang
says that the young Lama nodded his head and said yes. "This was the
most important thing that Mao told the Dalai Lama, and I was amazed to
hear it," Phunwang later wrote.

His mind immediately started racing. He was not sure if Mao had
discussed this with other leaders in the Politburo or if it was his own
idea: "As I had always paid great attention to the Soviet Union's
nationality model, I was excited because I took Mao's comment that Tibet
could use its own flag to mean that China was contemplating adopting the
Soviet Union's 'Republic' model, at least for these three large minority
nationalities." Phunwang realised that the innocuous remark of the
'Great Helmsman' had far reaching consequences for the future of China
and particularly for the Tibetans.

Unfortunately, Phuwang was arrested in April 1958 as he 'needed to
cleanse his thinking'. He spent the following 18 years in solitary
confinement. This gave him time to ponder over Mao's remarks on the flag
and the 'nationalities' issue and their place in the People's Republic
of China. His study of Marxism had led him to believe that the
relationship between nationalities in a multi-ethnic state should be one
of complete equality.

He wrote, "In socialist states, the majority nationality does not (or
should not) oppress the minority nationalities. All should be equal, and
there should be complete unity and cooperation among nationalities."

Most of the problems faced by China today are due to the great Han
chauvinism. The state (or Central Government) was supposed to guarantee
equality among nationalities -- for instance, by not imposing Chinese
language over a 'nationality language' such as Tibetan.

Phunwang was finally rehabilitated at the end of the 1970s. In the
early-1980s he managed to send a 25,000-character memo to senior party
leaders such as Deng Xiaoping, Hu Yaobang and Zhao Ziyang. He stressed
that the outcome of a debate on the question of nationality would have a
huge impact on future work in 'minority nationality areas' such Tibet.

After Hu Yaobang and Deng Xiaoping instructed officials not to remove
him as a member of the Standing Committee of the National People's
Congress, his stand seems vindicated.

In May 1980, a delegation headed by Hu Yaobang, then General Secretary
of the Communist Party of China, visited Lhasa. Hu Yaobang was shocked
to see the level of poverty in Tibet. During a meeting with the party
cadre, he asked "whether all the money Beijing had poured into Tibet
over the previous years had been thrown into the Yarlung Tsangpo
(Brahmaputra) river". He said the situation reminded him of colonialism.
Soon hundreds of Chinese Han cadre were transferred back to China and
Tibetan language rehabilitated. Tibet witnessed a few years of glasnost.

The debate started by Mao's remark more than 50 years ago and reignited
by Phunwang 20 years later, is still on. Will Mr Hu Jintao and his
colleagues listen to Phunwang's point on the issue of nationalities? Or
will great Han chauvinism continue to prevail?
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