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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: Talking of Tibet

January 30, 2010

Venkatesan Vembu
DNA India
January 29, 2010

Representatives of the Dharamsala-based Tibetan
government-in-exile are currently in Beijing for
talks with Chinese officials on the restive
region over which China claims historical
sovereignty and which witnessed an uprising
against Chinese rule as recently as two years
ago. The current, ninth round of talks, like much
of the eight earlier rounds since 2002, are
enveloped in secrecy, but there is little
indication that any progress has been made towards political reconciliation.

The Dalai Lama, the Tibetan spiritual leader and
temporal authority who fled to India in 1959
following a failed uprising against Chinese rule,
claims he isn’t campaigning for Tibetan
independence but only seeks ‘meaningful autonomy’
for Tibetan areas within the framework of Chinese
sovereignty over Tibet. But even up until the
latest round of talks began, the Chinese
propaganda machinery, which is given to purple
prose, has been projecting the Nobel Peace
laureate as a “splittist” with a secessionist
agenda. It has also sought to blame the "Dalai
clique" for the riots in Lhasa in May 2008, despite disavowals from Dharamsala.

Given that India has offered refuge to the Dalai
Lama and the countless Tibetans who’ve fled their
homeland -- including the rather more radical
Tibetan youth movement — Beijing authorities are
also deeply suspicious of India’s intentions and
motives vis-à-vis Tibet. This is despite the fact
that India, like the rest of the world,
acknowledges Tibet to be an integral part of China.

Sino-Indian distrust, of course, runs deep, and
across several other issues, including the
unresolved border dispute, but China’s
insecurities arising from its infirm hold on
Tibet only serve to widen that trust deficit.

Chinese claims over Arunachal Pradesh, the
northeastern Indian state that is home to the
Tawang Tibetan Buddhist monastery, represents the
most stark manifestations of this insecurity.
They also underline India’s strategic misstep in
acknowledging China’s territorial sovereignty
over ‘Tibet’ without an underlying understanding
on precisely how that geographical entity was
defined in the Chinese perspective.At their core,
China’s dilemmas over Tibet arise from its
inability, even 60 years after it secured control
over it, to win over the hearts and minds of the
Tibetan community. As the uprising in May 2008
demonstrated, Tibetan resentment over the
clampdown on religious freedoms (particularly the
worship of the Dalai Lama) and the Sinicisation
of Tibet, including the incentives to Han Chinese
to settle in Tibetan regions to alter the demographic profile, run deep.

For all the inflamed passions of radical
activists in exile, however, the movement for
Tibetan independence today enjoys no
international support: not a single government
recognises the Tibetan government-in-exile, not
even the host country. And even the Dalai Lama
has publicly reconciled himself to Chinese
sovereignty over Tibet. Given China’s ascendance
as a global economic power, and its ability to
garner political influence on the strength of
that economic might, Chinese sovereignty over
Tibet faces no real threat. Even so, for
Communist Party leaders, their manifest inability
to completely pacify Tibet even 60 years after
the founding of the modern nation-state, counts
as a colossal failure of their Tibet policy.

Yet, Chinese policy towards Tibet has proved
singularly lacking in imagination. Last
fortnight, the Chinese government unveiled what
it claimed was a ‘new approach’ to Tibet, but
which in effect amounts to more of the same:
greater investments in the region, coupled with a
tightening of political hold — as manifested in
the appointment of hardline, militarist leaders
to the Tibetan Autonomous Region. In Beijing’s
perspective, there is no provision for
acknowledgement of the popular disaffection that Tibetans feel.

China’s strategy on Tibet evidently lies in
‘waiting out’ the Dalai Lama. Even the best
efforts of the virulent Chinese propaganda
machine haven’t taken anything away from the
enormous goodwill that the Dalai Lama commands on
the international stage. But since he is of
advanced age, and since there isn’t a second-rung
leadership among the Tibetan exile community that
has an international standing, Beijing perhaps
calculates that after his time, the Tibetan
movement — such as it is — will flounder,
enabling it to tighten its hold without any international pushback.

That prospect holds implications for India’s
relations with China, as well. Should the Tibetan
community in India become more radicalised after
the current Dalai Lama’s time -- as seems
increasingly likely -- it would bode ill for
Sino-Indian relations. The best-case scenario
would be for an enduring political reconciliation
between Beijing and Tibetan leaders during the
Dalai Lama’s time that would allow China to feel
rather more secure about its hold on Tibet,
perhaps in exchange for some concessions on
preservation of Tibetan culture. But in a
political environment where Chinese leaders
believe they hold all the aces, and have
everything to gain from outwaiting the Dalai
Lama, the prospects for such an outcome appear decidedly dim.
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