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Past presents problems for Tibet

August 28, 2008

By Karine Gagne, Francois Pesant and Denis Burke
Asia Times
August 28, 2008

Sporadic negotiations between Beijing and representatives of the
Dalai Lama, the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader, over the past 30
years have stalled repeatedly. The latest invitation from Beijing
came amid trouble in Tibet and the public relations nightmare
surrounding the route of the Olympic torch as it made its way to
Beijing. Cynical appraisals of these talks could be both expected and
forgivable. Nevertheless, the possibility that the stakes and
positions of the actors in these talks have changed recently should
not be ruled out.

"Almost every year, almost 500 [Tibetan refugees] at school age are
coming, then there must be 1,000 or 1,500 older people," Samdhong
Rinpoche told us. These numbers are consistent with the annual
statistics published by the Tibetan Center for Human Rights and
Democracy. The sheer volume of refugees leaving Tibet every year has
left UN refugee centers in Nepal overwhelmed for some years now. Such
high numbers speak volumes about conditions in Tibet.

Samdhong Rinphoche was among the first wave of these refugees who
left Tibet in 1959 following the Dalai Lama. Since he was elected
prime minister of the Central Tibetan Administration, he has made it
a top priority to push for negotiations with Beijing in response to
these conditions. In 2002, his efforts were rewarded as talks resumed
with vigor after seven years of no communication. In the following
four years, positive steps were taken, Samdhong Rinpoche told us, as
both sides came to feel comfortable that the other was not masking
another agenda.

Measuring his words carefully, he described the six rounds of talks
very positively. "During the third round, China cleared up all their
doubts and suspicions. In the fourth round, we responded to all their
questions, and for both sides, everything was crystal clear. We know
now what the Chinese concerns are and the Chinese now know our
aspirations ... there is no misunderstanding, each one knows the
other's position very well."

But without any clear catalyst, Beijing launched a campaign against
the Dalai Lama in the monasteries and convents of Tibet, reaffirming
their stance that he is a "splittist" through re-education for those
who persisted in venerating him. Not unsurprisingly, this had the
effect of poisoning and stalling these talks.

China has reinvented itself in many ways in the last three decades.
Could Beijing's stance on Tibet yet see a similar transformation?

Tibet, like so many points on Beijing's political agenda, was
reassessed in the wake of the Mao Zedong era. Prior to the mid-1970s,
Beijing refused to entertain the possibility that Tibet as a
political entity, let alone the Dalai Lama's government, warranted
discussion. But the far-reaching reforms, implemented largely under
Deng Xiaoping, led to an unexpected shift in the China's attitude
towards Tibet. Beijing contacted the Tibetan administration in India
with a new message; if the exiles were prepared to rule out secession
from greater China, negotiations would be possible. The Dalai Lama
signaled his approval and negotiations have taken place several times since.

History, however, has been an almost insurmountable obstacle to these
talks. Among the many conditions demanded by Beijing was the
disclaimer that Tibet had never been an independent entity. Any such
claim would mean that Chinese military action in Tibet in the 1950s
would be considered an act of aggression and not of liberation.
Neither the Dalai Lama nor any of his envoys have been willing to
concede this point. Like in so many conflicts, neither of the
opposing accounts of the 20th century history would satisfy
reasonable academic standards.

Nevertheless, this ground-level problem has far-reaching implications
for the possibilities of meaningful discussion. As long as China is
of the opinion that Tibet is (and always has been) part of its
territory, and Tibet is of the opinion that Tibet was not under
Chinese jurisdiction prior to 1950, progress will most likely
continue to be evasive. Tibet's stance demands legal, international
negotiations while China's demands localized, mediated talks. In
short, the Tibetan administration in exile aspires to be treated as
representative of a nation and Beijing has repeatedly signaled that
they are not prepared to deal with them as such.

Although cynical reactions to the Chinese stance are common and
understandable to a point, it is worth underlining that Beijing has
not shut the talks down completely, though the administration's
behavior has been highly unpredictable and certainly not conducive to
rapprochement. The premature termination of the last round of
negotiations undid a deal of progress on both sides, leaving Tibet in limbo.

And that was the lay of the land as the Olympics approached. Tibetans
in Dharamsala, the current residence of the Dalai Lama and the
Central Tibetan Administration, were showing signs of frustration
with the negotiations, the entire political agenda was, in some ways,
beginning to look stale and outdated.

March 10 is an important day on the Tibetan calendar. It marks the
anniversary of the failed uprising in Lhasa that ultimately led to
the flight of the Dalai Lama into exile.

This year brought the Olympic Games, and a great deal of
international media attention, to Beijing. The Beijing Olympics have
been China's coming-out party. Three decades of economic reform and
lightning growth have culminated in this opportunity to showcase the
country's newfound prosperity and rapid advancement.

March 10, 2008, then, was not going to be any given Monday. Protests
led to disorder all over ethnically Tibetan China, and eventually,
around the world. Paris, London, Katmandu, and New Delhi all saw
large-scale protests. Trouble followed the Olympic flame from Greece
to California to Tokyo.

And somehow, even as official state media organs were painting the
Dalai Lama as a saboteur, Beijing announced that they were prepared
to meet his envoys for another round of talks.

The Dalai Lama's top advisers heard about the invitation through the
international press as Beijing neglected to inform them before
announcing it to the media. What followed was surprising for a
variety of reasons.

As governments around the world signaled their approval of the talks,
some unexpected reactions came from Dharamsala. The Dalai Lama
himself was quoted in The Observer saying "'merely meeting some of my
men in order to show the world they are having dialogue would be
meaningless". Samdhong Rinpoche expressed the opinion that the
conditions in Tibet were not an "appropriate platform for a
meaningful dialogue".

Following this chilly reception to the Chinese invitation, the exiles
then sent their top negotiators, Lodi Gyari and Kelsang Gyaltsen, to
this "inappropriate platform". Within days of the talks, Gyari told
The Times of India: "We made it clear (at the weekend talks) that the
events in Tibet are the inescapable consequences of wrong policies of
the authorities towards the Tibetans, which goes back several decades."

Not a single country in the world recognizes the Tibetan government
in exile, including India where it is based. Yet it seemed that this
same administration had found fresh confidence. At this point,
political rhetoric aside, it must have been clear to Beijing that
there are distinct limits to the power of the Dalai Lama within Tibet.

Dharamsala's call for non-violent resistance advocating autonomy
within China and not independence is a blessing that China has yet to
fully appreciate. As riots spread across Tibet and dissident Tibetan
groups became more vocal at protests around the world, the Dalai
Lama's non-violent demands might have seemed a lot more appealing.

And yet, the passage of the Olympic flame through Tibet saw a massive
shut down of daily life and some incendiary remarks from the local
Communist Party leader Zhang Qinli. The July round of the 2008 talks
achieved little, though further talks have been scheduled for October.

The wide politicization of the Games that the international Tibet
movement hoped for has failed to materialize. This could further
drive support from the established policy of seeking autonomy within China.

On August 21, the Dalai Lama told Le Monde that he had heard reports
that as many as 140 people may have been killed in Tibet this week.
His unconfirmed report was not taken up by the international press.

Neither the exiles nor Beijing are prepared to concede to the other's
version of history, but today as frustration looms large in the
Tibetan diaspora and China shoulders the mantle of responsible world
player, they need to find a way to reconcile the present.

(Karine Gagne spoke to Kalon Tripa Samdhong Rinpoche in his office in
Dharamsala, India. With Karine Gagne and Francois Pesant in
Dharamsala and Denis Burke in Amsterdam.)

Karine Gagne is a Canadian writer and anthropologist conducting
research among the Tibetan community in exile in India. Francois
Pesant is a freelance photojournalist based in Montreal, Canada.
Denis Burke is a writer and editor based in Amsterdam where he
recently completed research on Chinese- Tibetan affairs in the 21st Century.
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