Two Issues That Need To Be Discussed In This Election Cycle

Sino-Tibetan Dialogue Is One Of The Issues That Often Doesn’t Get The Attention It Deserves During An Election Cycle

Almost all regrets stem from a failure to do the right thing at the right time or as we like to call it, missed opportunities. It can be about a purchase we didn’t make when the price was low or services that we failed to use when they were provided to us. This tends to leave a lot of us thinking about “what if”, “had I” or in Tibetan “གལ་སྲིད་”. And in our defense, we just didn’t know if it was the right thing to do at the time. But one thing is certain, our action or inaction today may well be sowing the seeds of our future regrets. It is this thought that scares me when I think of the upcoming Tibetan elections 2021. With the election date out and all candidates announced, I reflect on the idea of why this election will be different from all the ones we had before.

For a start, the coming primary elections in January will not only see the largest number of officially announced candidates (8) running for the Sikyong’s office but also the largest number of younger candidates contesting for the 17th Member of Tibetan Parliament in exile. This sudden gush of young Tibetans taking interest in the highest legislative body of the Central Tibetan Administration is truly encouraging. But what I am most interested in and looking forward to in this election cycle is the discourse it is likely to bring given the recent political developments we witnessed. China’s fall from grace since the spread of coronavirus has put them in a tough spot. From Japan providing subsidies to its companies to shift manufacturing from China to the President-elect Joe Biden promising to meet His Holiness and sanction Chinese officials responsible for human rights abuses in his statement during his campaign; these are all signs of changing tides. With these unfolding political attitudes, it’s time we engage ourselves in discourse pertaining to our movement and China. Here, I present my views on two issues that I think need more discussion and when better to do that than this coming election cycle.

Middle Way Approach

Much of Central Tibetan Administration’s discourse on Tibetan movement and negotiations with China revolves around the Middle Way Approach (MWA) or Umay Lam. MWA which seeks “genuine autonomy within the framework of the People’s Republic of China” has been the official stance of the Central Tibetan Administration for close to four decades. Ever since its inception in the 80s, except for a handful of critics, MWA has largely been uncontested and enjoys unanimous support from the exile Tibetans. Even after decades of its failure in convincing the CCP of “the mutual benefits of the policy”, there hasn’t been much discourse around the achievability of MWA. One of the main reasons for its failure could be that the Middle Way Approach is purely based on the idea of persuasion. We believe that educating our Chinese counterpart of our honest intention to seek genuine autonomy and not independence will persuade the CCP, who is always quick to label every act of resistance as separatist, in granting our wish.  But the strategic utility of persuasion techniques in changing a power structure is almost unheard of. An oppressive regime settling for anything less than a whole without any imminent threat to its existence is as rare as finding a Starbuck server who can get our Tibetan names right.

I was surprised at the absence of discourse around MWA and Genuine Autonomy in our community after the revocation of Article 370 in Kashmir and the Chinese government’s brutal suppression of protesters in Hong Kong. Article 370 under Indian Constitution provided special status to the state of Jammu and Kashmir through Presidential Order of 1954. This provision allowed the state of Jammu and Kashmir to have its own flag, its own constitution and even a Prime Minister and Sadr-i-Riyasat (Persian equivalent of Arab’s Emir) which was later replaced as Chief Minister and Governor when the J&K constitution was amended in 1965. As per the constitution, amendment of the said Article can be performed only in agreement with the J&K government thus putting the issue of Kashmir in the hands of Kashmiris.

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And then there is Hong Kong, a former British colony handed over to China in 1997 under an agreement which introduced China’s Special Administrative Regions and “One country, two system” policy. Under this agreement, Hong Kong was to continue its capitalist economic system and didn’t have to conform to China’s communist model of governance. With its autonomy over socio economic aspects and a far greater freedom of expression and political participation than the rest of China, Hong Kong had the highest degree of autonomy till this summer. The revocation of Article 370 by the Indian government and breaching of Sino British Joint Declaration by the Chinese government is a reminder of the underlying fact that the fate of Autonomy lies in the hands of terrifying unpredictability that is the center.

Though Kashmir and Hong Kong might have been engulfed in the centre’s dominion, it is not to say that every autonomous region will share a similar fate. Regions like Quebec under Canada and Scotland under the UK have taken its discourse of autonomy to referendum. Only a center that stops viewing these regions as a strategic military importance and starts to see its residents as human and not barbarians who are in need of a civilizing mission is likely to accept the will of the people in deciding their own fate. In short, there are more chances of an earthquake, flood, tornado and meteorite happening all at once than the current Chinese regime accepting any form of genuine autonomy let alone referendum. Even if CCP agrees to 2010’s “Memorandum on Genuine Autonomy for the Tibetan People”, should we really trust and put faith in the Chinese government who has a history of overriding agreements?  Long before they breached Sino British Joint Agreement and vacuumed Hong Kong from its autonomous governance, they violated Seventeen Point Agreement which guaranteed Tibetans protections of the traditional religio-political structure. 

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Following the ancient Buddhist philosophy of finding positive in negative and seeking lessons in tragedy, I choose to believe that the events in Kashmir and Hong Kong are an opportunity for us to discuss and debate on MWA during the elections and if needed, review the policy.

The Sino-Tibetan dialogue

Sino-Tibetan dialogue is one of the issues that often doesn’t get the attention it deserves during an election cycle. As contradictory as it may sound after the above interpretation of MWA, I still feel that dialogue is an important issue as it has become a part of our movement and needs more discussion. I want to be clear before I proceed further that by Sino-Tibetan dialogue here, I mean a dialogue between two representatives of the states. Hence, dialogue between a Tibetan official and a Chinese professor at a university would not qualify as Sino-Tibetan dialogue. The reason why I point this out is because our current administration characterizes these communications or interactions as Sino-Tibetan dialogue sticking to the persuasion technique.

With that being said, if one makes an effort to look into all the Sino-Tibetan dialogue starting from 1979 when Gyalo Thondup met the then supreme leader Deng Xiaoping in Beijing to the last meeting in 2010 between His Holiness’s Special Envoy and CCP’s United Work Front Department, one will find a downward trajectory in the dialogues marked by our losing ground in the negotiations. From the delegations of 1982 urging PRC to respect Tibetan people’s right to national self determination on the basis of the Resolution of First All China Congress of Soviets to 2010 delegations submitting the “Memorandum on Genuine Autonomy for the Tibetan People”, our strategic retreats in the battle of negotiations has our back against the wall now with a tough uphill battle.

While the Strasbourg proposal of ‘88 called for territorial autonomy of all three traditional provinces of Tibet, 2010’s memorandum has trickled down to socio-economic autonomy for Tibetans and hardly mentions territorial autonomy of all three provinces of Tibet. Our submission at each level has led to more aggression from China. The Chinese government as early as September 1988 outright refused to recognize the Tibetan Government in Exile (CTA now) as a legitimate governing body in a statement through their Embassy in New Delhi.

“We have never recognized the “Kashag Government” (Tibet government-in-exile) which has all along indulged in the activities of the independence of Tibet. We will not receive any delegation or fact-finding group designated by the “Kashag Government.

Their refusal to even acknowledge the dialogues and calling the visit of 2002 delegations to Tibet as private matters is disrespectful of the basic principle of official dialogue. One might wonder why China indulges itself in these dialogues and continues to receive Tibetan delegations who have been calling for autonomy when they clearly do not intend to discuss anything but the future of the Dalai Lama. Perhaps their strategy in resolving the issue of Tibet is to stall the whole process, wait for His Holiness to pass away, and gain control over the next Dalai Lama as they believe that the issue of Tibet is solely about the institution of the Dalai Lama. As His Holiness turns 86 next year, it is in the interest of our people and our movement that we counter such ideas. And one starting point can be for the CTA to take a bigger role in the Sino-Tibetan dialogue which will affirm His Holiness’ belief of Tibet as an issue of not just him but of six million Tibetans. Sending delegations under the banner “Special Envoy of Central Tibetan Administration” in future dialogues might not bring an outright result but its impact and implication will be far bigger than one can imagine. Our current position at the negotiation table is that of a prisoner in a visitor booth where the two participants are seated on each side of a see through mirror and connected by a one-way phone line, putting us at their mercy.

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To break this cycle, we need to have a clear strategy and take stronger stands. Demands like the release of political prisoners, suspension of negative campaign against His Holiness by the Chinese government, a halt on mega infrastructure projects to protect Tibet’s fragile environment should be the basis of dialogue resumption. Failing to meet these demands will prove China’s insincerity in dialogue initiation to the world. I also wouldn’t shy away from asking for access to Gendun Choekyi Nyima during these dialogues. Call me naive for thinking China might meet these demands but honestly we have nothing to lose and everything to fight for while CCP has everything to lose but nothing to fight for.

Our line of reasoning to every success and failure can not be about how far we have come and how far we have to go. As important as the past and future are to us, the present is our current reality and ignoring it would be living in denial. The reality is China’s popularity is at an all time low and it is likely to remain so for the foreseeable future thanks to their handling of the coronavirus. As the world prepares for the Post Covid-19 era, the likes of Europe and the US will act hard on China and so should we. Persuasion as our strategy in resolving the issue will not get us to our desired goal. It is highly likely that the international community led by the US government will pressure China to indulge in dialogue with us to assert their dominance over China. And when dialogue calls from Beijing rings, we should serve them our demands and wait for them to react to the ball in their court. The upcoming election is the perfect time to look beyond differences to discuss and debate on these issues to strengthen our movement and to remain hopeful for a Free Tibet.    

This news was originally published at Phayul

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