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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."

OPINION: Autonomy? Think Again

July 20, 2009

Times Of India [Monday, July 20, 2009 09:20]
By Elliot Sperling

As if any further evidence were needed of the ways in which China has
been running rings around the Dalai Lama and his government-in-exile,
recent events have made the situation abundantly clear. Last November
the Tibetans presented a memorandum to China, meant to demonstrate that
the Dalai Lama's position on Tibetan autonomy was wholly compatible with
China's existing laws on regional nationality autonomy. The memorandum
was vehemently rejected and the dialogue process between the two sides
screeched to a halt.

On June 22, there were reports that exiled Tibetan officials were
meeting to draft a statement clarifying their stand and, it was hoped,
would open a way out of the impasse. The new statement is intended to
demonstrate that the Tibetans want to reach an accord with China on the
basis of Chinese autonomy laws. Unfortunately, the ignorance with which
the authorities in exile deal with China is now on display in
embarrassing detail.

The Dalai Lama's chief negotiators, Kelsang Gyaltsen and Lodi Gyari,
have met with other officials to hammer out a position that they
fantasise will interest China, and Lobsang Sangay, a Harvard-trained
expert, has been reinforcing the exiled government's views with his own
analysis of the law. But the fact is that all of these people are
functionally illiterate in the hundreds of articles and books all in
Chinese that constitute the body of interpretive literature on regional
nationality autonomy in China. That never seems to have perturbed the
Dalai Lama's people as they wander quite blindly around major issues of
Chinese policy.

Since the spring of 2008, China has responded to criticism of its
historical claims to Tibet by scrapping its common line, that
13th-century Mongol conquerors made Tibet part of China, with the more
forceful, take-no-prisoners position that Tibet has been a part of China
"since human activity began". Much as this exemplifies the attitude that
history is not an objective measure against which to weigh Chinese
claims, so too a new debate has opened in China that demonstrates that
the laws on autonomy are not to be considered fixed standards against
which the government can be challenged. To the contrary, they are tools
of the government and party, dispensable when they are not serving the
desired political ends.

In April, seemingly unbeknownst to the Dalai Lama's authorities, Ma
Rong, a scholar who often writes on minority demographic and population
issues, proposed a drastic measure, akin to what was done in the area of
history: scrap the regime of regional nationality autonomy laws. The
real problem, according to Ma Rong, is that China's autonomy laws derive
from a Stalinist heritage (which, in the Soviet Union, included rights
to secession and independence), saddling China with a system that
alienates minorities from the notion that they are part of the larger
Chinese nationality. Now, with uncanny timing, the recent unrest in
Xinjiang has underscored his contention.

As Ma Rong puts it, the nationality laws encourage minorities to exclude
others from their regions, privilege their own language, assert economic
rights of their own and maintain and strengthen the historical
consciousness, religions and practices that differentiate them from
others, all in accord with Stalin's definition of "nationality". For Ma
Rong, this is the crux of the problem: the current system leaves
minorities with little or no sense that they are Chinese. Only three
other countries, he notes, ever implemented a similar system with
specific geographical regions for minority nationalities: the Soviet
Union, Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia. It goes without saying that the
historical track record is not good.

In contrast, India and the United States provide useful
counter-examples. Jawaharlal Nehru in particular is cited for imbuing
the members of various groups with the sense of being part of "the
Indian nation", while at the same time dulling the areas of
ethno-national conflict between them. In the US, the election of Barack
Obama is presented precisely because his platform was directed at the
benefit of all Americans, with no taint of racial interest. Neither
country has regional minority nationality autonomous structures.

The debate that Ma Rong opened up in April is of critical importance to
China's Tibet policy. But no one in Dharamsala seems to have noticed.
Rather than devote resources to acquiring the databases that would allow
them to access the wide range of Chinese materials available online, the
Dalai Lama decided in May to send $1,00,000 to Florida International
University to support its religious studies programme. Though American
dharma students are hardly an endangered species, such are Dharamsala's
priorities.

Sonam Dagpo, of the Dalai Lama's Department of Information and
International Relations, told a news agency towards the end of June that
the Tibetans "want to settle the issue mutually and within the framework
of the Chinese constitution, law and national regional autonomy". Best
of luck with that one, guys.
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