|Photo: Lobsang Wangyal|
Sikyong Lobsang Sangay and his cabinet colleagues visited Sonam Tobgyal's home to pay their last respects.
Topgyal, 77, breathed his last at 4.30 am at his residence near Norbulingka Institute in Dharamshala. He was suffering from stomach cancer, family sources said.Sonam Topgyal was born in 1935 in Chamdo, Tibet.
Sonam Topgyal held the post of Prime Minister of the Central Tibetan Administration (CTA) from April 1997 September 2001. The post was then called Kalon Tripa.
He had worked in different capacities in various departments of CTA. He was one of the members along with Tenzin Geyche and Tenzin Namgyal Tethong who started Sheja, a Tibetan publication, in 1968. The same became a part of the CTA publication from 1971.
He was one of the four convenors of the first Tibetan youth conference in Dharamshala, along with Tenzin Geyche, Lodi Gyari and Tenzin Tethong. This conference resulted in the formation of the Tibetan Youth Congress. The organisation advocates for an independent Tibet from China.
In 1959, he left Tibet to come into exile in India.
In 1971, he joined the Central Tibetan Administration. Rising through the ranks and working mostly with the erstwhile Information Office, now the Department of Information and International Relations, Sonam Topgyal served twice in the exile Tibetan cabinet.
In the 10th Kashag from 1993−1996, Sonam Topgyal served as the minister of the departments of home and health and later as the Chairman of the Cabinet. In the 11th Kashag from June 1996 to August 2001, Sonam Topgyal served as the Kalon Tripa, the de facto Tibetan Prime Minister from April 1997-2001.
In July 1993, Sonam Topgyal, who was then the secretary of DIIR, visited China along with Kalon Gyalo Thondup to deliver a letter and memorandum on behalf of His Holiness the Dalai Lama. The Tibetan delegation met Wang Caogo, Director of the CPC’s United Front Work Department.
Here is the rough transcript of my interview with Sonam Topgyal on March 17, 1997 (translator: Ngodup Dorjee).
The interview was conducted in the Kashag Office, Gangchen Kyishong, Dharamsala. Very kindly, the Kalon Tripa came out of a Kashag's meeting to answer my questions.
Interview with Kalon Tripa Sonam Tobgyal
[About his visit to Beijing]
Claude: After the visits of Gyalo Thondup, Juchen Thupten Namgyal and Phuntsok Tashi Takla in 1984, the Tibetan Administration had no contact with the Chinese Government, am I correct? Yours was the first visit after 9 years?
Kalon Sonam Tobgyal: Officially, of course, the 1984 visit was the last contact [before our visit], but unofficially, Gyalo Thondup visited Beijing 13 times; sometimes just to give a message; sometimes to discuss [the Tibet issue] or for personal reasons.
Apart from the two earlier visits, in 1982 and 1984; there was also Mr Kundeling’s fact finding mission in 1985.
Claude: What was the purpose of your visit?
Kalon Sonam Tobgyal: The purpose of our visit was to negotiate [with China]. His Holiness always believes that the problem between China and Tibet can only be resolved through negotiations. That was the main focus of the visit. [The background was] that Deng Xiaoping had said that except independence, all other matters can be discussed and sorted out.
On the basis of these two points, we visited China.
In 1987, His Holiness the Dalai Lama presented his Five Point Peace Plan and then the Strasbourg proposal [in 1988] and he also made a speech at Yale University in the States [in 1991], all these proposals were made on the basis of the promise made by Deng Xiaoping in 1979.
Our team went with the purpose to check on the Chinese reaction to His Holiness’ proposals; from our side, we had given so much, we wanted to know the position of the Chinese Government. We wanted to ask Deng Xiaoping and Jiang Zemin ‘what are your reactions?’
We also carried two letters from His Holiness, one to Deng Xiaoping and the other one to Jiang Zemin.
Secondly, we wanted to know why the Chinese are always calling His Holiness a ‘splitist’; whatever he had done, whatever proposals he had made, it always was on the basis of Deng Xiaoping’s guidelines, so we wanted to know from the Chinese themselves, “explain to us when His Holiness had splitist activities; in which place, on which date, why are you always saying that His Holiness is a splitist?”
That was the main purpose of our visit.
Claude: How long did you stay in China?
Kalon Sonam Tobgyal: One week. All together seven days, but for a few days we went out of Beijing.
Claude: Who did you meet, which senior official?
Kalon Sonam Tobgyal: An official of the United Front Department [Wang Caogo, Director of the CPC’s United Front Work Department]; we also met the Deputy Minister [of the United Front] and some other more junior officials. At that time, Raidi [Deputy Party Secretary of the Tibetan Autonomous Region] was also there.
Claude: Were Gyatsen Norbu or Dorjee Tsering [other Tibetan Party officials] there?
Kalon Sonam Tobgyal: Raidi was the only Tibetan present.
Claude: What was the Chinese position? Did they stick to their Five Point made in 1981 about His Holiness status and welfare and his return to Tibet?
Kalon Sonam Tobgyal: If one analyses what they were saying, there was no clear argument. They were only saying that their position vis-a-vis the Dalai Lama was very clear; they were very happy to keep in contact with the Dalai Lama’s representatives; they were keen that these contacts should go on; they were glad that the Tibetans spoke in very frank and clear manner.
The Chinese reiterated that they felt that the Dalai Lama was having splitist activities.
[On our side] we proposed that the three provinces of Tibet should be reunited: Central Tibet, Kham and Amdo. There should ‘One Tibet’.
To this the Chinese replied that this was not realist. Tibet was already divided; administrative arrangements have already been made [to divide Tibet]. This had been decided in the National People’s Congress. It was now part of the Chinese Constitution.
They kept using these types of arguments.
I feel that whatever we were saying, it was always the same thing [we got the same answer]. They were repeating that they were very happy that the team had come to China; they kept repeating the same thing.
But one thing that was clear, was that the officials with whom they were talking, had not the authority to decide anything on their own.
If something had to be decided; if some policy decisions had to be made, it was clear that these officials had no power.
I did not feel that very substantive discussions were taking place; I had more an empty feeling.
Claude: Did the Chinese promise to meet you again?
Kalon Sonam Tobgyal: They were saying, ‘please come again, you are always welcome’, especially His Holiness’ elder brother, Gyalo Thondup. They said that he had always been kind to them and ‘next time you come, bring your family and we will take you to all parts of China’.
[Regarding the reincarnation of the Panchen Lama]
They said that the process had started; we said that His Holiness should be involved; he should be able to consult lamas, geshes, oracles, [if they had] visions at the Lhamoi Lhatso [sacred lake where one can get visions] and [he should be in contact with] the authorities of the Tashilhunpo monastery.
The Chinese replied that it was the Tashilhunpo’s business and the Tashilhunpo Search Committee was responsible [to find the true reincarnation].
The Chinese officials said one day that Chatrel Rinpoche [head of the Tashilhunpo Search Committee] would come after two days and we could have a meeting with him, but Chatrel Rimpoche had actually come to Beijing eight days earlier.
This type of deceptive attitude from the Chinese side occurred all the times.
Claude: Did you eventually meet Chatrel Rimpoche?
Kalon Sonam Tobgyal: We met him and he left a letter for His Holiness where he mentioned that whatever they had done so far [to discover the Panchen Lama] and what he had found [during the search]. It actually wanted to give this letter to His Holiness.
When we met Chatrel Rimpoche, he said that at the time of death of the Panchen Lama, he was [?]
We met Hu Jintao and told him that for the search of the Panchen Lama His Holiness should be consulted. Hu Jintao was also in Beijing at that time.
Claude: Was he still the Party Secretary in Tibet or in the Politburo?
Kalon Sonam Tobgyal: No, no. He was not yet in the Politburo. He was in Beijing and we met him.
Claude: Was the overall visit positive?
Kalon Sonam Tobgyal: My feeling is that the visit was helpful in the sense that the contact was renewed after so many years. Otherwise we did not achieve anything.
After our meeting, the Chinese position even hardened.
Claude: Why has it become so hard? Last week, the Beijing Review mentioned that Tibet has never been independent, while earlier that they had been saying that Tibet is a part of China since the 13th Century, do you consider this as a hardening? It seems to me that the Chinese position has never been so hard since 1980.
Kalon Sonam Tobgyal: This is my personal view. The issue of Tibet has been internationalized and there is a great deal of sympathy for the Tibetan cause; for the Chinese, it is a big problem.
Secondly, the Tibetans inside Tibet dislike the Chinese.
There is a lot of hatred. There is great animosity from the Tibetans side towards the Chinese. Wherever the Chinese and the Tibetans live together, particularly in cities, there is a great animosity. The Chinese feel that it is a long term problem, so now their policy is: as long Tibet is under their control, they want to control it and suppress it.
Claude: Another reason is perhaps that there is a power struggle within the Chinese Communist Party?
Kalon Sonam Tobgyal: Most Chinese know that in the long run, there will be internal problems in China. At that time, the Tibet issue will be a big problem which can split China. For this reason, the Chinese want to suppress the Tibetans feelings.
The Chinese documents say that the US and other western powers are the enemies of China; they want to split China. Their point is that “the Dalai Lama’s clique is used by these forces”, the Dalai Lama is a tool of these imperialists against China.
Claude: Last question, who will be, according to you, the next leader of China?
Kalon Sonam Tobgyal: This is again my personal view, I do not know, but deeply inside, I think that there will be upheaval in China. It will come very soon.
It will come in a very short time.
If you look at the Chinese economic situation, the difference between the rich and the poor and the deception of the intellectuals who are very dissatisfied with the political system and then, the power struggle. All these together make me feel that there will be upheaval very soon.
I feel that the Chinese leader Jiang Zemin will not be able to lead China through this difficult and critical period. He will not be able. But some people think that Jiang Zemin can manage, but I think otherwise.
Just looking at the events taking place, one can predict something; otherwise it is quite difficult.
Claude: One problem that you have not listed is corruption, corruption by Party members?
Kalon Sonam Tobgyal: Yes, yes, corruption. There is a saying in Lhasa, that if you have money, you can buy independence for Tibet. It means that if you have money, you can buy anything.
Most of the officials are corrupt; the corruption is the worst amongst officials.