Monday, April 16, 2012

Longing for Greater Autonomy

During an interview with the Dalai Lama’s Representative who headed the Tibetan fact-finding delegation in Tibet in 1979, he recalled his arrival on the Roof of the World: “The Chinese definitively did not expect that we would be received with so much enthusiasm”.
In fact, they Chinese were bewildered by the reception offered to the delegation some thirty years after the so-called Liberation of Tibet during which “the Chinese administration had done everything to denounce and put down the Dalai Lama, the Chinese authorities thought that the Tibetan people had lost their faith in their leader”.
The Tibetan official continued: “When we arrived in Tibet, the Chinese thought that the people might spit on us because we were the Dalai Lama’s representatives, or throw stones at us”. The Chinese authorities had forbidden the Tibetans to do so.
As they arrived in Tibet, the Tibetan delegates were mobbed; people waited for hours or days to have their darshan, to touch them or to grab a piece of their dress as a relic. The Chinese officials were utterly shocked.
Another delegate recounted that the local Tibetans even collected the dust from the tyre prints of the envoys’ car, to keep it as prasad.
These delegations from Dharamsala in the early 1980’s helped the leadership in Beijing to realize that the Tibetans, like the Mongols or Uyghurs, had their own identity; trying to eradicate it could only be counterproductive.
As a result, after CCP General Secretary Hu Yaobang visited Tibet in May 1980; ‘softer’ policies were introduced. Unfortunately, Hu was soon sidelined by the ‘leftist’ hardliners who re-imposed the harsh assimilation policies of the 1960’s.
Nearly 30 years later, in 2008, the resentment which had simmered underground, resurfaced through a series of demonstrations/riots all over Tibet (including areas administered by Sichuan, Yunnan, Gansu and Qinghai provinces.) The unrest lasted nearly two months and once again, severe repression was the only answer that the Party could find to solve the issue. It only exacerbated the situation further.

A new way to express resentment: Immolations
In 2011, it started again, this time, mainly in Eastern Tibet. A series of self-immolations began on March 16, 2011 when Phuntsog, a 21-year old monk of Kirti Monastery set himself on fire in Ngaba. It continued on 15 August with Tsewang Norbu of Tawu Nyatso Monastery. Since then more than 23 cases of self-immolation have been reported.
If one looks at the profiles of those who did the supreme sacrifice, one is surprised to see how young some of these monks or nuns were; for example, Tenzin Choeden who immolated herself on February 11 was a young 18-year old nun of Ngaba (Eastern Tibet).
All these ‘protestors’ had not witnessed the uprising of 1959, the Martial Law in Tibet in 1988/89 or the Tiananmen Square events a few months later.
So where does the problem come from?
Sonam Wangyal Sopa Rinpoche, a Senior Lama who immolated himself recorded a message to his countrymen to explain his gesture: “I am giving away my body as an offering of light to chase away the darkness, to free all beings from suffering, and to lead them …to the Amitabha, the Buddha of infinite light. My offering of light is for all living beings… I offer this sacrifice as a token of long-life offering to our root guru His Holiness the Dalai Lama and all other spiritual teachers and lamas.”

The Tibetan Centre for Human Rights and Democracy (TCHRD) which follows closely the human rights situation in Tibet, gave a rationale for the extreme step taken by these monks and nuns: “Movement is controlled and religious practices are either limited or completely forbidden. Several laws and policies are specifically aimed to control Tibet’s Buddhist institutions.”
The Dalai Lama commented: “these incidents of self-immolation are very very sad. The leadership in Beijing should look into the ultimate cause of these tragic incidents. These Tibetans have faced a tremendously desperate situation, otherwise nobody will commit such drastic acts”. He requested the Chinese leadership to pay serious attention to their minority policies: “Relying on force is counter-productive. Force can never bring unity and stability.”
But is Beijing’s leadership ready to listen?
The renowned dissident and poetess Tsering Woeser (now under house-arrest) recalled on her blog that in 1963, Quang Duc Thich, a Vietnamese monk burnt himself in Saigon. Woeser said that the 67-year-old monk’s last words were, “before closing my eyes and moving towards the vision of the Buddha, I respectfully plead to the Vietnamese President to take a mind of compassion towards the people of the nation and implement religious equality.”
Woeser believes that similar aspirations and feelings pushed Tibetan monks and nuns to set themselves on fire.

What do the Tibetans want?

On June 18 1988, the Dalai Lama dropped a bombshell in Strasbourg. Addressing the Members of the European Parliament, he declared: "I have taken the initiative to formulate thoughts which we hope, may serve as a basis for resolving the issue of Tibet.” He elaborated: “The whole of Tibet should become a self-governing democratic political entity founded on law by agreement of the people for common good and the protection of themselves and their environment, in association with the People's Republic of China."
From that day, he stopped claiming independence for his country, pleading only for a genuine or meaningful autonomy.
Thus was born the “Middle Path” approach.
What were the reasons which motivated the Dalai Lama to walk on this unpopular (for his people at least) Middle Path?
Being a Buddhist monk, it seems logical that the Dalai Lama emulates his Master who was the first to propagate the ‘middle path’.
A more immediate reason was a meeting that Gyalo Thondup, the Tibetan leader’s elder brother, had with Deng Xiaoping in 1979. China’s new boss told Thondup that "the door to negotiations remains wide open… except for the independence of Tibet; all other questions can be negotiated".
This encounter between Deng and the Dalai Lama’s emissary triggered the rapprochement: as already mentioned, it translated into the visit of the fact-finding delegations from Dharamsala who travelled through the three main provinces of Tibet and later by two rounds of talks with officials of the United Front Work Department in Beijing.
Another reason which pushed the Dalai Lama to choose the ‘Middle Path’ was what he himself called the ‘vast seas’ of Chinese migrants who “threaten the very existence of the Tibetans as a distinct people”. In 1985 in an article in The New York Times, he had explained: “In the eastern parts of our country, the Chinese now greatly outnumber Tibetans. In the Amdo province, for example, where I was born, there are, according to Chinese statistics, 2.5 million Chinese and only 750,000 Tibetans. Even in the so-called Tibet Autonomous Region (i.e., central and western Tibet), Chinese government sources now confirm that Chinese outnumber Tibetans.”
Since then, the situation has considerably deteriorated and especially after the arrival of the railway line to Lhasa in July 2006.
However his ‘Middle Path’ approach has never been accepted by the Chinese leadership. In April 2008, when Chinese President Hu Jintao met the visiting Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, he told him: “Our conflict with the Dalai clique is not an ethnic problem, not a religious problem, nor a human rights problem… It is a problem either to safeguard national unification or to split the motherland.”
He however reiterated that Beijing was “ready to meet the Dalai Lama, but only if he met certain pre-conditions, such as desisting from trying to split the motherland". A meeting is no longer on the cards today.
It is worth mentioning that the Chinese leadership has not always been so rigid on the question of autonomy.
Phuntsok Wangyal, a veteran Tibetan Party leader who was the first Tibetan Communist in the forties recounts: “One day in 1955 in Beijing, Mao unexpectedly came to visit the Dalai Lama at his residence… During their conversation, Mao suddenly said, ‘I heard that you have a national flag, do you? They do not want you to carry it, isn't that right’?" Phunwang continues: “The Dalai Lama just replied, ‘We have an army flag’. Mao perceived that the Dalai Lama was concerned by his question and immediately told him, ‘That is no problem. You may keep your national flag.’ This remark had a deep impact on Phuwang who was arrested in April 1958; to 'cleanse his thinking'. During the following 18 years, while he was tortured and jailed in the most atrocious conditions, he continued to ponder over the issues of the ‘nationalities’ issue and their place within the People’s Republic of China. His personal belief was that the relationship between nationalities in a multiethnic state was supposed to be one of complete equality and autonomy.

What has been India’s position on the question of autonomy?
At the time of independence in 1947, the Government of India considered Tibet as an independent nation and dealt directly with Lhasa without referring to China which had a ‘vague and hazy’ suzerainty over it. But the situation changed after the Chinese invasion of Tibet in October 1950. Nehru was rather embarrassed. In a Note attempting to define India’s Tibet policy, he wrote that after the entry of the PLAs on the Roof of the World, for the Tibetans the “autonomy can obviously not be anything like the autonomy, verging on independence, which Tibet has enjoyed during the last forty years or so.”
Over the years, the Government of India’s position has evolved and today, Delhi does not even insist on an ‘autonomous’ status for the TAR or traditional Tibet.

The Poisonous Arrow: the situation in Tibet
This issue has a strategic side.
The present leadership probably remembers that before the start of the Cultural Revolution, resentment was at its peak in Tibet. In January 1962, during a speech at an important Party Forum, Mao brought up the issue of the Panchen Lama and the situation in Tibet. The Tibetan Lama who had been made Chairman of the Preparatory Committee for the Tibet Autonomous Region when the Dalai Lama left for India in 1959, had dared to criticize the Party policies in Tibet.
Mao’s physician, Dr Li recounted: “[After the 1959] crackdown, the Panchen Lama, ordinarily subservient to Beijing, was now arguing that Beijing's so-called ‘democratic reforms’ had moved too far to the left.”
The Tibetan issue became a factor which impeded longer military operations against India at the end of 1962; discontent was indeed brewing on the Roof of the World through which passed all supply lines for the border.
In the 70,000-character petition, (dubbed by Mao as a “poisonous arrow’) sent by the Panchen Lama to Zhou Enlai and Xi Zhongxun (the father of Vice-President Xi Jinping) in April 1962, the Panchen Lama listed several problems such the ‘suppression of the Rebellion’ in 1959.
This had serious military consequences.
On October 6, 1962, during a meeting summoned to decide to go to war against India, General Lou Ruiqing, the Chinese Chief of General Staff was authorized by Mao to start ‘a fierce and painful attack on Indian forces. …you should not only repel them, but hit them fiercely and make them hurt"
When the PLA started to work on the details of the military operations, they soon realized that the campaign could not be sustained for a long time. It was therefore decided to terminate the war “with a unilateral Chinese halt, ceasefire, and withdrawal”.
Historian Shi Bo believes that in view of “practical difficulties associated with China's domestic situation”, the PLA, after achieving its military objectives, had to “quickly disengage and end the fighting as quickly as possible”
‘China's domestic situation’ is obviously referring to the power struggle within the Party and the situation in Tibet.

Is there a way out?
Ultimately, the degree of autonomy that the Tibetans are given depends on the leadership in Beijing.
Today, the hardcore leftists are still at the helm, trying to impose policies reminiscent of the Cultural Revolution.
For example, during the 5th Tibet Work Forum  in January 2010, it was apparently decided to send 21,000 Han and Tibetan Party officials in teams of four to each of the TAR’s 5,453 administrative villages; they had to remain for a period of 4 years. Each team member could rotate to a new location after 12 months, but was assigned to the same village for at least 25 days per month.
The objectives seem to be five‐fold:
(1) to strengthen the Party organization at the local level,
(2) to promote stability by persuading villagers to join the struggle against the Dalai Lama’s splittist activities and independence plans,
(3) to improve the economy of each village and create new jobs for the village youth,
(4) to educate the locals to appreciate and be grateful to the motherland and the Party, and
(5) to get each village to begin to more effectively carry out the plans and policies of the Party.
In addition teams are sent from the TAR to each of the seven prefectures “to oversee that prefecture’s work teams, receive their work reports and monitor their success or failure”.
The scale of the scheme, said to the largest since the Cultural Revolution can only bring further rancor and resentment.
To make things worse, an article written by Zhu Weiqun, the Deputy Director of CCP's United Front Work Department in The Study Times (Xuexi Shibao) raises the possibility of abolishing special privileges and preferential policies offered to minority nationalities, taking the nationality name off all IDs cards and passports and removing nationality names from provinces.
Zhu, who is the interlocutor of the Dalai Lama's Envoys in the so-called Beijing-Dharamsala negotiations, argues that China must change some aspects of its present political and educational system in order to achieve 'national cohesion'.
This would be a radically new policy bringing along fresh tensions on the Tibet plateau which could have serious strategic implications for India.

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