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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."

COMMENTARY: A NOT SO SPECIAL MEETING

February 21, 2009

JamyangNorbu.com
February 4, 2009

(My apologies for the long delay in this posting. I have not been well
since my trip to India. My thanks to readers for their continuing
interest and lively comments which have kept my website, but more
importantly the rangzen discussion alive and kicking, even without any
input on my part.)

There’s no denying that I walked into the thing with my “eyes wide
shut” – to borrow the title phrase of Stanley Kubrick’s last film. I saw
the warning flares that went up following the announcement for the
November Special Meeting, one of which I mentioned in an earlier
article. This would be Prime Minister Samdong Rimpoche’s rejection of
the general anticipation that the meeting might contribute to a
rethinking of our failed China policy. Rimpoche was quoted on Phayul.com
as declaring: “We are committed to our Middle Way Approach and we will
continue our efforts for a genuine autonomy within China’s framework,
and that will not change.”

Then there was the composition of the gathering itself. Most of the 600
expected participants were near exclusively made up of former and
serving Tibetan government officials, former members of Parliament,
settlement officers, leaders of the narrow regional-based political
organizations and subsidized pressure groups masquerading as political
organizations. The Tibetan Youth Congress, the largest political
organization in the Tibetan exile world, and one committed to Tibetan
independence, was only allotted two seats. Such organizations as the
Students for a Free Tibet were not even asked to attend.

In the initial announcement of the meeting it was mentioned that Tibetan
intellectuals, scholars, experts and Tibetan youth would participate.
There was a caveat though, that while all officials (retired and
otherwise) would have their travel and living expenses reimbursed,
everyone else would have to pay their own way. It also appears that
though officials had received invitations (or instructions) to attend
the Special Meeting, no Tibetan scholar or expert had received an
invitation, nor been informed. Not surprisingly, none showed up at the
meeting.

I can think of a few scholars, even offhand, who would have greatly
contributed to the discussions. For instance Professor Namkhai Norbu the
unique authority on the proto-history of Tibet (author of Drung, Diu and
Bon, The Necklace of Gzi, A Cultural History of Tibet and other works)
should definitely have been invited. Then there is Tarthang Tulku,
author of the remarkably scientific resource compilation, Ancient Tibet,
and Khetsun Sangpo, author of the analytical 13-volume history of
Tibetan Buddhism. The contribution of Drikung Rimpoche would have also
been valuable. Rimpoche has single-handedly created a amazing Tibetan
history archives (The Songtsen Library) housing, among other things,
reproductions of nearly every existing Tibetan text and art from Central
Asia (the so called Tunhuang documents) discovered by archeologists in
the early 20th century in Central Asia.

We also have such eminent lay Tibetan scholars as Tsering Shakya, our
leading historian on modern Tibet (author of Dragon in the Land of
Snows) and world-renowned scholar of Tibetan history and culture, Samten
Karmay (author of The Arrow and the Spindle and many other profound
works on Tibetan history). Samten Karmay who is also the president of
the International Association of Tibetan Studies, recently published an
article which has a direct bearing on the Special Meeting. In “Tibetan
Religion and Politics” which appeared in Phayul.com on September 13,
2008, a reasoned and compelling case is made for the secularization of
Tibetan government and politics.

Living in Dharamshala we have Tashi Tsering, director of the Amnye
Machen Institute who without exaggeration can be described as a one-man
think-tank on Tibet. He is regularly sought after by scholars, lamas,
foreign Tibetologues, the Tibetan government and even by His Holiness
himself (on a number of occasions) for his encyclopedic knowledge of
Tibetan history, culture and politics. Tashi Tsering is not an ivory
tower pedant but someone with wide knowledge of Tibetan society and
politics. He was an active member of the editorial board of Mangtso the
largest Tibetan language newspaper-in-exile, and for a number of years
co-edited and published the in-depth political review (Da-sar).

There will be those who will ask why these people needed invitations in
the first place? Why didn’t they just come uninvited if they cared about
what was happening in Tibet? But then you could also ask right back what
the problem was about mailing a dozen odd invitations to Tibetan
scholars and intellectuals if you were sending out invitations to five
or six hundred officials and politicians in the first place? Unless, of
course you didn’t want any free-thinking intellectuals to come in the
first place.

The first day of the meeting was at the Tibetan Children’s Village. The
auditorium was packed with officials of every kind. Those who had come
on their own steam were seated in the back rows. The speaker of the
Parliament, Karma Chomphel, gave the opening speech. He restated some of
the points about the reasons for calling the Special Meeting: That the
Dalai Lama had called for this gathering because of his concerns about
the desperate situation inside Tibet. That the meeting was not being
held to seek any kind of vindication or support for the Middle Way
policy but was rather a forum where various ideas and strategy
alternatives would hopefully be forthcoming which would help the Dalai
Lama and the Tibetan government cope with the crisis. He added that the
Tibetan government was also considering holding subsequent follow-up
meetings with other select groups of participants.

Prime Minister Samdong Rimpoche’s talk was conspicuous for its
disclaimers. He spent most of the time informing the audience what the
meeting was not about. There was a laundry list of denials: The
meeting was “not a political strategy or tactic to pressure the PRC”. It
was not a ploy by the CTA “to shirk responsibility for the failed talks
or pass the blame to others”. It was not a means to change CTA’s current
policy or “stance”. Not a means to seek popular backing for current
policy. And so on. Towards the end of his talk the defensiveness became
overpowering. “This must be stressed that the CTA has no hidden agenda
and plan behind this Meeting. The Kashag will not make a statement about
the work and programs of the CTA thus far. The Kashag will neither say a
single world about what is right or wrong on the agendas of this meeting.”

“The lama doth protest too much, methinks” (I thought).

Then the participants were divided into committees which met that same
afternoon in different locations throughout Gangchen Kyishong. I was in
committee sixteen with about thirty other people and we met at a
classroom at Nechung monastery. Our committee opened its deliberations
with a senior retired kalon holding forth for about two and half hours.
By the time he finished there were only about fifteen minutes left for
the meeting to end. I managed to squeeze in an opinion that
considering Beijing’s press conference of November 10th , where it was
made humiliatingly clear that China would never accept the Dalai Lamas
request for ‘meaningful’ autonomy, the first thing Tibetan government
should do was announce that it was discontinuing further negotiations
with China. I added that the government should not specify whether its
action was provisional or permanent, but should leave it up in the air.

The next day it became clear what the strategy of the Middle Way
campaigners was going to be. The representatives of Tibetan settlements
and centers in India and Nepal insisted on reading the written
proceedings and resolution of the public meeting that had earlier been
held in all these communities – probably on Dharamshala’s instruction.
They also insisted that the complete documentations be included in the
record of the committee meeting as expressing the near unanimous support
received for the Middle Way Policy by the Tibetan public. I tried to
argue that the Special Meeting had been convened for the presentation
and discussion of new ideas and strategies, specifically from the
participants of the Special Meeting, and that a broad public expression
of support for the Middle Way and His Holiness should be presented to
the government or His Holiness in a different forum or on a separate
occasion.

The senior retired minister I mentioned earlier, also spoke out against
the inclusion of the resolutions of the public meeting in this Special
Meeting. He had an interesting take on this issue. He maintained that
the Beijing Press conference of November 10th and the Dalai Lama’s
important statement at the Tibetan Children’s Village on October 28
(about losing faith in the Chinese government) had fundamentally altered
the basis of the Tibetan government’s Middle Path Policy. Therefore the
proceedings and resolutions of the public meetings, which had been held
before these two critical events, were now outdated and irrelevant, no
matter how well meant and patriotic the intentions of the public had
been. He concluded that what was needed now were new ideas and
strategies that took into account His Holiness’s latest statement and
the events of November 10th, and that this Special Meeting was the right
venue for this fresh discussion to take place, without any previous
arguments, debates and resolutions getting in the way. But the Middle
Way adherents insisted on reading out the documents in their entirety.

These public meetings had been held in most Tibetan centres and
settlements shortly after the initial announcement of the Special
Meeting in September. From reports I received, they seem to have been
conducted in a way so that an appearance was created of enthusiastic
public endorsement for the Middle Way Policy. In some cases the
impression was given that the Tibetan people did not want any discussion
on the issue of the Middle Path but were putting their complete faith in
the Dalai Lama’s all-knowing (thamchekyenpa) powers to make the right
decision on all such matters. Of course for many Tibetans such faith
would be completely natural and would require no manipulation by
politicians for their expression. On the other hand, because of the
successive failure of the negotiation efforts for the last many years
and the scale and extent of the uprisings that had taken place
throughout Tibet from March 2008, an increasing number of Tibetans had
begun to question the Middle Way Approach. It was probably to forestall
such thinking in Tibetan society that the public meetings had been
undertaken.

The Tibetan People’s Movement for Middle Way made an open declaration
about organizing “workshops” and meetings to educate the Tibetan people
about the Middle Way Policy. Other political groups, regional
organizations and even the settlement leadership appear to have joined
in this well-coordinated campaign. From the reports I received it
appears that the whole tone of the campaign was negative, and the
arguments put forward to promote or justify the Middle Way Policy
consisted near exclusively of scare tactics.

The fundamental fear exploited was, of course, the one that we have all
been subjected to in every discussion about Rangzen and Middle Path:
that Tibetan religion, culture and even identity would be completely
wiped out because of the rapidity of the Chinese population transfer
into Tibet. Therefore we did not have the time to keep up the
independence struggle but had to accept “meaningful autonomy” under
China. The fact that China had never even remotely offered to halt
population transfer or cultural genocide if we gave up the goal of
independence, was somehow always overlooked.

Instead, what is invariably brought up is the “assurance” that Deng
Xiaoping had supposedly given to Gyalo Thondup in 1979 that if Tibetans
gave up independence then everything else would be open to discussion.
The fact that Deng might not have offered such a guarantee, or more
probably, not expressed it in exactly the hopeful way as Gyalo Thondup
interpreted it, is never considered. Even in the aftermath of the
Beijing press conference of November 10th, when Chinese officials flatly
(and contemptuously) denied that Deng Xiaoping had ever made such a
statement, there appears to be no loss of faith in Deng’s “assurance”,
which, for die-hard Middle Way devotees, has now taken on the
inviolability of a spiritual truth.

When this matter of Deng’s “assurance” came up in my committee I
mentioned that the former governor of Hong Kong, Chris Patten in his
book (East and West) about the handover of the Crown Colony to China,
had stressed that when negotiating with Beijing it was crucial for
Western negotiators not to take at face value any assurance or promise
made by important Chinese leaders. I added that other books and
publications on negotiating with China also mentioned this problem. But
I was talking to a brick wall.

Another scare was that the Tibetan cause would lose the support of the
nations of world if we gave up the Middle Way policy and went for
Rangzen. The warm reception that the Dalai Lama receives on his travels
in the West and statements by heads of states and political leaders
calling on China to talk to the Dalai Lama, have been naively construed
by simple Tibetans (and sometimes spun by Tibetan officialdom) as
evidence of Western support for the Middle Way Policy. Of course, no
western leader has ever come out and expressed support for the specifics
of the Middle Way policy such as the unification of the three ancient
provinces of Tibet (which would include the whole of Qinghai and large
parts of Gansu, Sichuan and Yunan provinces) and the establishment of a
democratic autonomous entity within the PRC. What Western leaders and
heads of states have occasionally “urged” China’s leaders to do is to
talk to the Dalai Lama, often for no other stated objective than for
“the Dalai Lama’s peaceful return to Tibet”. If one listens to the
speeches made by American leaders on the occasion of the Dalai Lama’s
Gold Medal ceremony (there is a DVD available) one hears far too many
instances of American leaders appealing to Chinese leaders to allow the
Dalai Lama “to return to Tibet” and even “to return to China.”

Most world leaders are well aware that China won’t make any meaningful
concessions to the Dalai Lama, but the gesture of supporting dialogue
makes these leaders look good to their constituencies, while enabling
them to avoid taking a real position on the Tibetan issue that might
anger China and adversely affect trade.”

Another very dishonest and potentially conflict-provoking assertion used
by Middle Way propagandists to alarm the Tibetan public was that if
Tibetans gave up the Middle Way and declared for Rangzen then the
government of India would deport all refugees back to Tibet.

Perhaps I should also mention one other claim by Middle Way votaries
that seems to have caused a great deal of anxiety with older Tibetans,
especially those in institutions as the Old People’s Home in
Dharamshala. This was that if Tibetans should demand political
independence then Western aid (kyopso) for Tibetan refugees would be cut
off and inji sponsors (jindak) would discontinue their support. I heard
this from at least a couple of old Tibetans I talked to in Dharamshala.
If readers have heard anything similar, I would appreciate an account.

Of course not all those campaigning for the Middle Way were so
underhanded in their tactics. I met a young monk from Sera monastery who
was a firm believer in the Dalai Lama’s Middle Way and who had traveled
around the settlements and communities to educate the public on this
issue. He and I participated in a panel discussion organized by a Voice
Of America correspondent. The monk attempted, in a very friendly way, to
explain to me what he perceived as the philosophical strong points of
the Middle Way. When he was asked by the moderator, Namgyal Shastri,
whether he had used scare tactics on the Tibetan public as other Middle
Way campaigners had allegedly done, the monk denied it emphatically. I
thought he might have been intellectually naïve but he was sincere and
well meaning.

Nonetheless there is no doubt that the political organizations and
officials advocating for the Middle Way policy had used arguments and
methods that exploited the ignorance and fears of the uneducated Tibetan
public. This became clear not only from the reports I received but were
fairly obvious from the rhetoric of many of the Middle Way advocates at
the Special Meeting. This extensive propaganda campaign was well
organized and no doubt well funded, but it is not clear if Tibetan
government or the Prime Minister Samdong Rimpoche were somehow involved.
From some of the speeches at the committee meetings it also became
apparent that a great deal of demonizing of Rangzen activists had taken
place during the campaign.

The president of the U-Tsang society who was in my committee, spoke at
length on how the failure of the negotiations talks with China was the
fault of the Tibetan Youth Congress and others. He maintained that such
activist organizations had, through their protests against the Beijing
Olympics and the Torch relays, deliberately provoked the Chinese
government and people. He stopped short of blaming the demonstrators
inside Tibet. He added that the Dalai Lama’s distress and disappointment
had come about because of the actions of the Tibetan Youth Congress. He
also made the accusation that the organizations involved in the Peace
March to Tibet in 2008 had expressly disobeyed the Dalai Lama and caused
him much distress.

This was the big scare tactic. That if we caused the Dalai Lama any more
distress he was going to step down from power and give up his leadership
role – in effect abandon us all. The only way to prevent this terrible
calamity was to demonstrate absolute and uncritical loyalty to him, and
assure him that we absolutely supported all his policies, including the
Middle Way. This was emotional, even spiritual, blackmail, no doubt, but
it was effective.

I don’t want to give the impression that there was no dissent or
original idea expressed in the Special Meeting. Although in the
minority, Rangzen advocates were not reticent about presenting a variety
of ideas, some of them quite radical. One retired paratrooper from
Chakrata of gyakpon rank in our committee, spoke passionately about the
need for Tibetans to able to conduct a guerilla campaign against the
Chinese occupation force in Tibet. He also made it quite clear that he
was ready to volunteer for the task.

The Middle Way crowd immediately pounced on him and tried to represent
him as being disloyal to the Dalai Lama and His doctrine of
non-violence. It appeared to me that this criticism was made in a
jeering sort of way – to show up those Tibetans who had fought for their
country as disloyal and also stupid.

It provoked me to respond at some length. I pointed out that the Dalai
Lama had been rescued from the Chinese by fighting men and that His
Holiness had not only approved of Tibetans fighting for their country
but had even issued a special message to them, thousands of copies of
which had been scattered by air in Sog, Naktsang and Pembar, where the
people had risen up against the Chinese.

I also reminded everyone that the Tibetan government-in-exile had not
only approved of Tibetans joining the Establishment 22, but had even
made it compulsory (in the 70s and 80s) for every young Tibetan refugee
to serve a term in this military unit. The Dalai Lama had even given his
permission for the Indian government to use this special fighting force
in the Bangladesh war where many Tibetans died in action. His Holiness
himself attended the victory parade of the force at their base at
Chakrata, and reviewed the soldiers as they marched past. In conclusion
I pointed out that if every Tibetan had to embrace the doctrine of
non-violence to demonstrate loyalty to the Dalai Lama, then the Dalai
Lama’s bodyguards could not be expected to pull out their weapons and
shoot anyone who came to attack His Holiness.

I don’t think it is necessary for me to mention that the retired
military officer I mentioned was a Rangzen man. Whether one agreed with
him or not about the effectiveness of guerilla warfare in our current
freedom struggle, one at least had to concede that his idea was his own.
And this was something that fundamentally differentiated the Rangzen
activist from the Middle Way devotee whose whole belief system was based
on unquestioning faith in the Dalai Lama. Every argument that the Middle
Path believer put forward in every discussion was invariably the
official one.

Although Rangzen activists and advocates were in the obvious minority in
the Special Meeting, the only ideas and suggestions that could be
considered original or worthwhile seemed to come from that group of
people. I offered a few which I need not go into here. But there was one
I spent the greater part of a night working on.

Since I had earlier suggested that the Tibetan government should suspend
negotiations with China, I proposed to my committee that there should be
a logical next step, a follow up action, that could be implemented in
the next few months. This would be the setting up of a Rangzen Review
Commission of the Tibetan Parliament (rangzen thaplam ki kyarship
tsokchung.) This select commission of senior parliamentary member (with
maybe a member of the kashag sitting in) would hear testimonies from
leaders, spokespersons and activists from Rangzen-based organization.
The commission could ask questions to these people about why they
thought Tibetan independence was possible, what were their plans and
strategies, and so on. The commission could also solicit expert opinions
from scholars, political scientists, legal experts, historians and
writers on Tibet.

I stressed that the setting up of such a commission would not commit the
Tibetan government to a Rangzen policy, but would demonstrate that the
exile government did have alternatives to merely seeking negotiations
with China. Furthermore the establishment of this commission would be an
appropriate and dignified response to Beijing’s very insulting press
conference of November 10th. Most important of all such a step could
lead to a real national debate on the future direction of the Tibetan
struggle.

Similar proposals for a policy review seem to have been made in other
committees. There had also been a proposal in one committee that a
review of the Middle Path policy itself should be conducted. No doubt
all such suggestions had come from the minority of Rangzen activists and
also from some of the more discerning retired officials alarmed by the
complete failure of the negotiations and the total inability of the
exile government to respond to the crisis in Tibet.

On the final day of the Special Meeting all the participants met at the
TCV auditorium where the reports of the different committees were read
out. The inclusion of the proceedings and resolutions of the earlier
public meetings at Tibetan settlements and centres into the records of
the Special Meeting, largely overwhelmed whatever discussions had taken
place at the committee meetings. There was scant mention of alternative
policy ideas and strategies that had been raised by Rangzen advocates.
The concluding session of the Special Meeting created the distinct
impression of near unanimous support for the Middle Way Policy and of
unquestioning acceptance of anything the Dalai Lama had decided.

In his concluding speech Samdong Rimpoche’s declared victory for the
Middle Way policy claiming that over 90 percent of Tibetans clearly
supported the Dalai Lama’s Middle Way Approach. I did not attend the
Tibet Support Group Meeting in New Delhi the following week, but was
told that Rimpoche repeated the victory claim and the same statistic at
this event.

There is no getting around this final and unpleasant question. Was the
whole thing a setup from the outset? Had the Special Meeting been a ploy
by the government-in-exile to coerce public support for a policy that
had crashed and burned this March with the Rangzen Uprisings in Tibet
and later ignominiously repudiated by Beijing at a press conference on
the 10th of November? There is the other possibility (and a part of me
still very much wants to believe this) that the Dalai Lama had come
around to realize the flaws in His Middle Way Policy and had called for
the Special Meeting in good faith, in a genuine desire to hear
alternative ideas and strategies. It might then follow that underlings,
official and otherwise, with a vested interest in maintaining the status
quo had rigged the meeting to give His Holiness the impression the
Tibetan public enthusiastically and near unanimously supported His
Middle Way policy and would never loose faith in Him or question any of
His decisions.

But this begs the question why His Holiness wasn’t aware that most of
the people who attended the meeting were those who invariably echoed his
own thoughts and feelings and would never dare contradict him under any
circumstance? Why hadn’t he just called a meeting of real experts,
intellectuals and people of independent views and asked them all
outright, (and not through the intervention of committees and the prime
minister) what they thought of the present crisis. His Holiness has
participated in, and even presided over international gatherings of
physicists and cognitive scientists and is most probably aware that in
any endeavor to seek the truth, the value of genuine expertise and
independent and fearless thinking, is preferable to faith and devotion.

I think it can be said that the Special Meeting has raised more
questions than it was supposedly intended to answer.

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