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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."

Challenging Obama's word

October 26, 2009

Special to The Japan Times
October 26, 2009

DELHI, India -- During his U.S. presidential
campaign, Barack Obama promised that he would be
prepared to meet with so-called rogue rulers like
Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran or Kim Jong Il of
North Korea in the interests of peace.

Now in power, he apparently has realized that
there are bigger issues at stake, so no such
meetings have yet taken place, and even a chance
encounter and book present from Venezuela's Hugo
Chavez caused consternation. Yes, one can
understand that the United States does not want
to give the rogues a propaganda coup without
being assured of something substantial in return.

Does this mean that cruel realpolitik has
completely taken over the White House? Obama this
month snubbed someone who is undoubtedly a man of
peace and nonviolence in the interests of
currying favor with a totalitarian state. The
snub was the greater since the man of peace had
met every American president since 1991 and is a
winner of the Nobel Peace Prize — the Dalai Lama.

Obama's staff claimed that the president has not
given up on Tibet, but is much more interested in
getting results rather than making empty
gestures. The Dalai Lama himself was nice enough
to go along with this argument, saying he did not
want to "cause embarrassment" just before Obama
went to Beijing to meet President Hu Jintao.

I hope that Obama understands that the Dalai Lama
was challenging Obama to prove yourself by
getting some results. Obama now should consider
himself obliged to press Hu to resume serious
talks with the representatives of the exiled
Tibetan leader. If he succeeds, Obama may rescue
his own reputation as a serious peacemaker and do China a big favor, too.

It is clear from several recent interviews given
by the Dalai Lama that he is no "splittist,"
Beijing's pet insult for him. He has accepted
that Tibet is part of the People's Republic of
China. He is prepared to talk directly to China
rather than insult Beijing's sensitivities by
appealing to the United Nations. He has condemned
violence by Tibetans, Uighurs and Han Chinese,
and reacted to the recent rioting in Xinjiang by
saying it was "very sad . . . quite a lot of Han
brothers and sisters suffered."

The Dalai Lama spelled out his position in a BBC
interview in August; it is worth reading by both
Obama and Hu. He told the BBC's China editor
Shirong Chen: "The very reason we are not seeking
separation and are fully committed to a solution
within the framework of the Constitution of the
People's Republic of China is economic interests.
Tibet is backward, materially very backward. We
want more material development. So, as far as
material development is concerned, remaining
within People's Republic of China gets greater benefit."

Of course, the Dalai Lama is also a canny
political operator, even though he claims to have
passed the political power of the Tibetan
government in exile to Prime Minister Samdhong
Rinpoche, whom he calls "my boss."

Although he has conceded that Tibet is part of
China, he wants freedom of religion and
expression for Tibet. On paper, such freedoms
would be the same as Hong Kong already enjoys —
with the central government in charge of defense
and foreign affairs, and a Tibetan government in
charge of the rest of its destiny. Perhaps the
real challenge is that a truly autonomous Tibetan
government would not be the pussycat that Hong Kong has been.

Or is Hong Kong just an economic colony? The
Dalai Lama added: "Of course, I totally agree
with the importance of economy. But human beings
are not like animals. For animals, just providing
food, shelter and no immediate disturbances is
OK. But we are human beings. Even though the
economy (may be) poor, (we prefer to be) mentally happy and free.

"If you ask two groups of people, and make
available food, shelter, clothes and everything
but no freedom to one, while the other is not
fully provided with (material) things yet has
complete freedom — I think that most better
educated people would choose (the freedom)."

Despite Beijing's "splittist" accusations, there
have been eight rounds of talks between Beijing
and the Dalai Lama's representatives, but they
have all foundered. The Dalai Lama says Beijing's
suspicion and distrust is to blame: "They always
look from one angle, how to keep their power, their control."

It is easy to see how the disagreements happen.
My friend Sir Mark Tully says the single word
that best describes the Dalai Lama with his
beaming moon- shaped face and constant bursts of
laughter is "joy" — in complete contrast to
China's Hu, whose stern expression would make a lemon feel sugar-sweet.

Hu emphasizes "harmony," but to a stern Communist
Party leader, harmony is seen through his own
experiences and spectacles, including his
formative years as the tough party secretary in
Tibet, with little room to appreciate how the
variety of experiences of the Dalai Lama and his exiles might strengthen Tibet.

The Chinese president also must consider what
happens if he does a deal granting autonomy to
Tibet: How many other parts of China might clamor for similar freedom.

But Obama might point out to Hu that repression
is a mark of weakness, not strength. The Dalai
Lama himself is under pressure from younger
Tibetans in exile who consider his policy as
compromise and talking as a mark of weakness. He
could also point out that the Dalai Lama is a
much changed man from the god-king who fled Tibet
50 years ago — more human, more amenable to questions, more mellowed.

It is long past time for Beijing to talk
realistically and sensibly with the Dalai Lama
and stop the childish insults. Delay is only
playing to hardliners, especially among Tibetans.
Perhaps the Dalai Lama can teach Hu something
about humility and joy, as well as better governance of Tibet.

And if Obama prods Hu in the right direction, he
can tell the Nobel committee when he collects his
prize that he has at least taken a step toward earning it.

* Kevin Rafferty is a journalist specializing in
Asian economic and social issues. He formerly was
in charge of Asian coverage for the Financial Times.
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