By Sonam Wangdu (Chairman, US-Tibet Committee, New York)
Those who know me know that I have never wavered in my advocacy for an independent Tibet. But what is not known to them is that my stance was inspired and shaped by my time with the Tibetan Government in Exile (TGIE). In 1960, when I joined the TGIE as a young interpreter, my elder TGIE bosses made it clear that their stay in India was only temporary, and that their goal was to return to Tibet and restore His Holiness the Dalai Lama to His rightful place as Head of State. I remember clearly how dedicated those officials were to the cause of Tibet. These elder statesmen’s tireless focus on accomplishing the will of the Tibetan people was profoundly moving, and it made a deep impact on me as a young man.
When it became clear that our return to Tibet was not as imminent as we had all thought, there was an urgent drive to tend to our fellow Tibetans who were pouring into India as refugees. His Holiness and his devoted government officials, with tremendous support from the Indian government as well as from foreign aid agencies, focused on addressing the needs of this growing number of displaced Tibetans: our refugee families were resettled in various resettlement camps across India; their children were given a Tibetan and Western education at the Tibetan Homes Foundation, The Tibetan Refugee Schools, and the Tibetan Children’s Villages (TCVs); and our monks were rehabilitated into monastic centers to help preserve our religion.
During those early time of exile, His Holiness reformed the Tibetan Government to be consistent with a democratic system of government that existed in the world outside. The three regions of Tibet, U-tsang, Kham and Amdo were equally represented in the Chitue Lhenkhang (Tibetan Parliament) even though the people of U-tsang were by far in the majority. The Chitue Lhenkhang represented all of Tibet. As a parliament-in-exile it was unencumbered by the usual competing regional issues, and in those early days, there was a deep unity and focus, and most important of all, a sense of common purpose: the regaining of Tibet’s independence.
The departments were headed by Tibetan Government officials who had accompanied His Holiness into exile. I was amazed how those old officials worked in complete unison to plan and implement His Holiness’ vision. As a young Khampa, it was an incredible time of learning and bonding with many of those officials including my own bosses, Foreign Minister Sawang Thupten Tharpa Liushar and Lord Chamberlain, Thupten Wodhen Phala. Practically all of those dedicated officials have now passed on, but the memories of them still linger in my heart with great fondness and gratitude for what I learned from them. The selflessness of their wish to escort His Holiness the Dalai Lama back to Tibet still moves me and inspires my commitment to the cause of Tibet.
As the months turned into years, and the years into decades, the brutal suffering of the people in Tibet continued, as did their resistance to Chinese rule. In 1979, Gyalo Thondup, the elder brother of His Holiness, was told by Deng Xiaoping that, “But except for independence, everything is negotiable. Everything can be discussed” (Gyalo Thondup, The Noodle Maker of Kalimpong (2015), p. 258). This declaration was quickly proven evident when in 1980 His Holiness and the TGIE sent 3 separate “Fact Finding Missions” to survey the current conditions inside Tibet. The Chinese government promptly terminated the missions when they realized how strongly the Tibetan people sided with His Holiness the Dalai Lama. Undaunted, numerous delegations were sent to China for a number of years to initiate talks. Subsequently, due to a lack of China’s meaningful response, on September 21, 1987 His Holiness addressed the US Congressional Human Rights Caucus and unveiled The 5 Point Peace Plan with these basic components:
1. Transformation of the whole of Tibet into a zone of peace;
2. Abandonment of China’s population transfer policy which threatens the very existence of Tibetans as a people;
3. Respect for the Tibetan people’s fundamental human rights and democratic freedom;
4. Restoration and protection of Tibet’s natural environment and the abandonment of China’s use of Tibet for the production of nuclear weapons and dumping of nuclear waste;
5. Commencement of earnest negotiations on the status of Tibet and of relations between the Tibetan and Chinese peoples.
On June 15 1988, His Holiness’ address to the members of the European Parliament in Strasbourg, France, which came to be known as the “Strasbourg Proposal”, and was the origin of the Middle Way Approach (MWA) which clarified the 5th point of the 5 Point Peace Plan. Here are some of it’s major condition:
1. The whole of Tibet known as Cholka-Sum (U-Tsang, Kham and Admo) should become a self-governing democratic political entity founded on law by agreement of the people for the common good and protection of themselves and their environment, in association with the People’s Republic of China;
2. The Government of the People’s Republic of China could remain responsible for Tibet’s foreign policy;
3. The Government of Tibet should be founded on a constitution of basic law. The basic law should provide for a democratic system of government entrusted with the task of ensuring economic equality, social justice and protection of the environment. This means that the Tibetan government will have the right to decide on all affairs relating to Tibet and the Tibetans;
4. A regional peace conference should be called to ensure that Tibet becomes a genuine sanctuary of peace through demilitarization. Until such a peace conference can be convened and demilitarization and neutralization achieved, China could have right to maintain a restricted number of military installations in Tibet.
Deng got what he wanted “except for independence, everything is negotiable.” In spite of Deng’s betrayal, His Holiness made every effort to resolve the tragic situation in Tibet. In response to China’s indifference, in 1992, His Holiness called on His people to come up with suggestions on the path to take. In the mid-1990s, the Chitue Lhenkhang undertook a referendum which later was called “a polling of public opinion” with a series of goals, such as: Middle Way Approach (MWA), self determination, self rule and complete independence. The result of the polling was announced that 64% of the exiled Tibetan public wished His Holiness to continue to handle the Sino-Tibet relationship. In my opinion, the Tibetan people in exile failed His Holiness by throwing the problem back into His corner instead of coming up with viable suggestions. At that point the stewardship of the MWA policy changed hands from His Holiness to the Tibetan people.
So therefore, in my view, the Chitue Lhenkhang, as the representative of the Tibetan people, is now the steward of the MWA policy, and whatever action taken by His Holiness was and is at the directive of the Chitue Lhenkhang. Over the years the terms of the MWA proposal have changed significantly at the hands of the elected officials. It is my strong belief that His Holiness did not guide these changes, and as a result, the MWA has now become a problem rather than a solution. The Central Tibetan Administration (CTA) often claims that the MWA is a “win-win” situation – but the question is for whom? I have not seen any positive results for the Tibetan people in Tibet. In fact, the situation in Tibet has grown worse because in exile we are divided and therefore weak. Attempts by MWA supporters to silence Rangzen advocates from having a voice in Tibetan politics (e.g. the barring of Lukas Jam’s talk during the recent Sikyong election process) does chill free speech and adversely affects Tibetan democracy in exile. As a result, unfortunately, we have betrayed the aspirations of those hundreds of thousands of Tibetans who have died struggling for Tibet’s freedom. Rangzen advocates will never forget their sacrifice and we pay homage to those still in Tibet who reject Chinese rule and desire their homeland to be independent of China. We will never forget the 150 young self-immolators who have never experienced an independent Tibet, yet who have put their lives in harm’s way to keep the issue of an independent Tibet in the foreground. The moral strength of Tibetans in Tibet should be a call to us Tibetans who live comfortably in exile. Please remember that Tibetans in Tibet are not setting themselves on fire because they want to live under China’s rule or under the current MWA.
My memory of the devotion and commitment of the early government officials in Mussoorie and Dharamsala to returning to an independent Tibet, as well as the continued examples of courage of Tibetans inside Tibet are the main reasons why I accepted the invitation to attend the International Rangzen Conference in New York City on July 1-3, 2016. My other pertinent reasons were:
1. I shared the same aspirations of these young Tibetans who honestly believe that Tibet was an independent nation and that the need to restore Tibet’s historical sovereignty in their lifetime was paramount or, in the very least, the importance of keeping this issue alive for our future generations to continue the struggle;
2. It was remarkable to observe the bravery and unbreakable spirit of these young Tibetans who, on their own initiative, organized the conference when the issue of Rangzen continues to be under attack and the folks supporting this struggle were being labeled anti-His Holiness the Dalai Lama and anti-CTA. It was very gratifying and hopeful to observe young Tibetans take the issue of Tibet’s true freedom seriously into their hearts and not be afraid to stake their claim; and
3. I saw this event as an opportunity to clarify to the Tibetan world that Rangzen supporters are real people with real feelings for their people in Tibet, a nation under foreign occupation for decades, and not war-mongers, putting Tibetan lives in Tibet in harm’s way.
There is a great need to understand the Rangzen movement.
I do not accept the notion that Rangzen advocates are disrespectful to His Holiness
the Dalai Lama and are anti-CTA or that they advocate armed resistance against
China. These are false charges that serves no useful purpose for the
freedom of Tibet other than to purposefully fulfill the wishes of the PRC, i.e.
to divide our people and strengthen China’s hand in her oppression of Tibet.
The CTA claims to have a democratic form of government but the recent Sikyong
election process proved otherwise.
I further believe the culture of mean-spiritedness caused the false accusations that were placed on Lukar Jam for his use of ‘Gyatsongpa’ and ‘La-Gen’. Let’s start with ‘Gyatsongpa,’ or treason. First of all, Lukar Jam has completely denied he had ever used the term much less, using that word to blame His Holiness! Secondly, Tibet is under complete Chinese rule so how can anyone “sell” or commit treason at the expense of Tibet? ‘La-Gen’ is a term used by a disciple to refer to his/her teacher. It is not a term used as a put down of one’s teacher. The purposeful accusation and misinterpretations of these terms were only to create mischief and again divide our people.
His Holiness divested Himself of His political authority in 2011. Therefore, technically, the Sikyong is the political leader of CTA. So if the CTA maintains that the MWA is its policy then it must take full ownership of it and not hide behind His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s cloak.
To reiterate: the current MWA is not His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s proposal as announced in 1988. Lobsang Sangay’s interpretation of the Middle Way is dramatically different from what His Holiness had proposed. I say this because I have never heard His Holiness say that He embraces the Communist Party rule; or that He does not seek democracy for Tibet; or that He approves militarization of Tibet. Therefore, the claim that this MWA policy is His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s position is completely false. Moreover, the revised MWA puts the CTA at odds with the growing number of Chinese who are opposed to the rule of the Communist Party and who are demanding democratic reforms in China. China is changing very fast, and it is inevitable that China will adopt a democratic system of government. The spread of Buddhism in China is a good thing and our religious institutions will benefit from the financial support of their Chinese followers, but politically, we must advocate for the sovereignty of Tibet or we will close the door on any future hope and basis on which to reclaim our country. The voice for an independent Tibet should be allowed to remain loud and strong until Tibet is free.
I believe it is also very important to make the Tibet issue relevant to current global concerns, such as security and climate change. (1) Tibet is not an isolated region that has no consequence to two growing world powers in Asia: i.e. India and China. It is central to the Sino-Indian relationship. The continued Chinese occupation of Tibet puts India’s national security at risk as we witnessed it in 1962 when China invaded India from occupied Tibet. This is why to restore and develop Tibet’s status as a buffer state between China and India is paramount to regional and global peace and security. (2) China’s direct misuse and environmental destruction of Tibet’s once pristine land and water is now showing global consequences in the well-documented frequency of devastating typhoons, hurricanes and floods
Therefore, I am profoundly inspired by having borne witness
to the passionate selflessness of our government officials during the early
years of exile; by the moral strength of our brothers & sisters in Tibet
who still courageously reject Chinese rule; and by our young Tibetans in exile
who refuse to accept Chinese rule of their homeland. I am confident that
Tibet will be free if we are united on the truth of Tibet, that Tibet must be
returned to its original status as a free and independent nation. Let us not berate and divide. Instead, let us stand side by side, and show
an unbreakable chain of devotion to our history, to our future, and to
humanity, that reaches all the way to Tibet.