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"On my part, I remain committed to the process of dialogue. It is my firm belief that dialogue and a willingness to look with honesty and clarity at the reality of Tibet can lead us to a viable solution."

The Tibetan Paradox

April 27, 2009

Syed Munir Khasru
The Daily Star (Bangladesh)
April 26, 2009

TIBET continues to generate a debate around the
world for many reasons. Starting from plight of
the Dalai Lama to economic development that has
taken place during the Chinese rule, Tibet
remains an enigma as well as one of the most
serene and tranquil piece of land in the world.

Tibet came to limelight again prior to Beijing
Olympics due to unrest and resulting reaction
from different corners of the world. The author
looks into some of the historic facts as well as
recent developments, which hopefully will help
readers develop an objective perspective of the
Tibet paradox. Given the geographic proximity of
Tibet to Bangladesh, it is important to have a
good understanding of the socio-economic,
political, religious, and cultural facets of this land that intrigues many.

In early 20th century, Tibet remained a society
of feudal serfdom under theocracy. The
theocratical social system of Tibet ensured that
upper religious strata and monasteries together
were holders of political power and biggest serf
owners. They possessed political and economic
privileges and powerful influence over material
and cultural lives of Tibetan people.

The ecclesiastical serf owners, though accounting
for less than 5% of population of Tibet,
controlled personal freedom of serfs and slaves
who made up more than 95% of the population. The
serfs had no means of production or personal
freedom, and depended on tilling plots for the estate-holders.

Since the founding of the regional government in
1965, Tibetans have exercised their rights
bestowed by the constitution and laws to elect
and be elected. The organ of self-government of
the Tibet Autonomous Region has been elected and
led mainly by Tibetans and people of other ethnic
groups. There has been greater involvement and
representation of Tibetans in the local government.

Tibet's development over the decades has seen the
society progress in economic development and
modernisation. Tibet economy has been growing at
an annual rate of 12% or more over the past seven
years. Average life expectancy of Tibetan has
increased from 35.5 years in 1959 to 67 years now.

Illiteracy rate among work-aged people has
dropped from 95% to 4.76%. Nearly all Tibetans
live in permanent houses, except for nomads in
pasture areas. One in every 20 Tibetans has an
automobile and telephone popularization rate
reached has 55 per 100 persons. By the end of
2007, 612 townships had been connected by roads,
accounting for 89.6% of all townships in the region.

Economic development of any society leads to
growing desire for political empowerment whereby
people want to have a bigger role in the
development process. This is a reality that the
Chinese government will have to find ways to
address. Reforms and liberalisation that took
place during Chinese rule has resulted in better
living conditions for Tibetians freeing them from
feudalism. Similarly economic prosperity has
fueled political aspirations. Challenge for the
Chinese government is to find a equilibrium that
addresses political aspirations without negating
economic benefits that has enriched the Tibetan society.

People with political empowerment can affect the
nature of economic development -- both positively
and negatively. We see the case of India, where
the government faced opposition from local
residents during construction of the Narmada/Sardar dams.

Similarly political provocation can negate
potential economic welfare, as was the case of
Tata in West Bengal where the state lost
significant opportunities for employment,
industrialisation, and regional development when
Tata moved Nano manufacturing plant to Gujrat.
Roots of US economic crisis were in the need for
greater regulation of financial markets.

The reason that no such legislation ever came
through is because it would have been unpopular
with financial lobby groups. Hence, even in a
free market economy driven by individual
innovation and self interest, there needs to be
some degree of government involvement to protect
economic welfare of the society. This has been
the most important lesson of the current global recession.

In the case of Tibet, the centrally planned
economic programs have provided necessary
infrastructure and social services to innovate
and exercise self-interest. However, there needs
to be greater input from Tibetans at micro-level
and greater decentralisation in the planning
process. Andrew Fischer of the Canada Tibet
Committee observes that one of the concerns
involving current Tibetan government is that most
Tibetans in the TAR live in rural areas while
most Chinese immigrants and government personnel
reside in or around urban centres.

This explains need for greater decentralisation
of Tibetan government. Village-level governments
such as "Punchaits" in India could help the
government in development programs that address
immediate needs of people of the region.

Despite the greater economic benefit that
Tibetans enjoy, in their mind Dalai Lama
represents holiness. They depend on Chinese
Central Government for liberation from serfdom,
help them feed themselves, construct roads, and
facilitate transport. They desire return of the
Dalai Lama for religious identification, and in
the meantime want to enjoy economic prosperity
brought by the Chinese Central Government.

Tibetans are down to earth ordinary people, who
don't think based solely on either religious
beliefs or knowledge of modern science; rather a
combination of both seems to work. For example,
while they consult doctors and access health
services made possible by Chinese authorities,
they also seek divinations from lamas in their
village. This is the ground reality of Tibet.

Tibetan paradox is embedded in finding
equilibrium between economic aspirations
unleashed by development that has taken place
under Chinese rule and the spiritual respect that
the Dalai Lama enjoys. Treating each in isolation
may not yield the outcome that ordinary Tibetans,
particularly the majority who have been freed
from serfdom, either desire or seek.

The author is a Professor at the Institute of
Business Administration (IBA), University of Dhaka.
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