By Tenzin Dorjee and Lhadon Tethong
Message given to participants in the International Rangzen (Independence) Conference held in New Delhi, India, May 23-24, 2015
We are deeply encouraged that this gathering - one that brings together so many thoughtful, passionate and committed Tibetan freedom fighters - is taking place in New Delhi at the India International Center. We send our regrets that we’ve not been able to join the meeting in person, but we are grateful for the opportunity to share our thoughts with you.
Many people, including ourselves, continue to pursue Tibetan independence as the goal of the struggle. From a principled and strategic standpoint, Rangzen must be kept alive in our world for reasons we all know well and, thus, we won’t restate them here. Unfortunately, there seems to be a growing misperception that advocating independence is synonymous with endorsing violent separation of Tibet from China, opposing the Central Tibetan Administration, and even opposing His Holiness the Dalai Lama. Of course, nothing could be further from the truth, and we would like to address these dangerous myths here.
We wholeheartedly believe in, practice and promote nonviolent means of achieving change in Tibet and ultimately, independence. But our belief in nonviolence is not based on faith or morality alone, it stems from our study and practice of nonviolent theory that shows us a peaceful resolution to the Tibetan issue is possible if we wage a struggle that combines strategy and nonviolent discipline. We believe the only way for Tibetans to secure our long-term interests – including the preservation of our culture – will be through active and creative resistance that gives future Chinese leaders no option but to address Tibetan grievances. No small nation, like Tibetans, can protect its long-term interests without making noise, taking action and agitating for change. It is never the inclination of the majority population – certainly not in a situation of colonial occupation as in Tibet – to truly address the needs of the minority unless clear demands are made and backed up by constructive as well as agitative action. The status quo in Tibet is unacceptable and must be challenged, but the only feasible way to do it, while maximizing participation and minimizing destruction, is through nonviolent means.
As for our position in relation to the official policy of the Tibetan Government, we believe that promotion of either genuine autonomy or independence does not need to pit people against each other. In fact, to achieve either of these goals, Tibetans and our supporters must continue to engage in activism and advocacy in order to create the pressure on the Chinese leadership that will compel them to change at all. In addition, a firm stand on independence in fact significantly strengthens the Middle Way Approach by positioning genuine autonomy as a real compromise. Without people advocating for independence, the Middle Way would no longer be a compromise – and, in the eyes of the Chinese, genuine autonomy then becomes a radical position that seeks to separate Tibetans within the People’s Republic of China. From this perspective, it can be understood that multiple approaches and diverse positions actually bolster our struggle for freedom instead of weakening it.
Furthermore, our advocacy of independence does not mean that we are opposed to dialogue or negotiations – far from it. We recognize the importance of both as a means of resolving conflict. At the same time, we believe that dialogue and negotiations achieve major changes only when both parties have a high degree of influence and power vis a vis each other. In the Tibetan case, this means negotiations would be effective only when there is enough at stake for the Chinese leadership that they feel compelled to compromise. This is true whether the Tibetan negotiators are ultimately pursuing autonomy or independence. We have every certainty that this pressure and influence on the Chinese leadership can be created through purely nonviolent means, if carried out strategically and according to the lessons of the many nonviolent struggles, both successful and unsuccessful, seen throughout history. Though the current Chinese leadership appears unwilling to change now, we believe the situation in China will evolve and that future Chinese leaders can be compelled to engage in meaningful dialogue, whether they want to or not.
As Tibetans and global citizens, we have always been encouraged and inspired by His Holiness’ openness and acceptance of diverse political opinions. We have taken to heart His advice that as members of a democratic society we are free to have our own opinions and political stance but that we should make sure to pursue our work with the right motivation and, of course, through nonviolent means. We have tried our best to do this, over many years of working with various Tibetan NGOs and support groups. We believe that we and the organizations we have had the privilege to lead are making an impact, especially amongst youth all over the world.
Lately, however, we have been concerned to see a situation emerging where advocates of independence and Middle Way are perceived as being in irreconcilable opposition to each other, and people increasingly seem to feel that they must choose a “side.” As this choice is often presented by a misguided few as being a choice to be either “with” or “against” His Holiness the Dalai Lama or the Tibetan Government, it has proven extremely divisive and toxic to our struggle. This year’s March 10th commemorations in New York City and Dharamsala show the extent to which this wrong-headed thinking has progressed in our society and, sadly, it appears only to be growing worse.
We believe that unity of Tibetans must come from a positive common purpose of ending the suffering in Tibet and supporting the efforts of our people there to restore human rights and freedom. A climate where Tibetans seem more focused on working against each other rather than focusing on China, and where people are afraid to openly speak their views for fear of being ostracized or wrongly charged with being “against His Holiness”, severely hinders our ability to do this. Many of us, who are working earnestly to organize nonviolent campaigns and activities to strengthen the Tibetan struggle, feel alarmed by this situation. We are also concerned to see that among the educated youth – many of the most active, committed and progressive members of our society – and among our supporters, the perceived shrinking of space in the Tibetan community for diverse views is leading to disillusionment and doubts in the leadership of the movement. This is damaging for our entire movement, because we all – Tibetans inside Tibet and in exile – need our government to be strong, credible and genuinely representative of all Tibetans.
As youth who have the great fortune of living in the same era as His Holiness, we believe His great legacy of democracy for the Tibetan nation is critically important and one of the greatest assets in our struggle that we must safeguard. We must ensure that His Holiness’ fundamental, lifelong commitment and contribution to democratizing Tibetan society and government is not just recognized and celebrated but, more importantly, practiced and promoted within Tibetan society. It is clear that His Holiness’ promotion of democracy is not limited to just electoral democracy, but rather one with critical attributes including, in the words of democracy scholar Larry Diamond, substantial individual freedom of belief, opinion, discussion, speech, publication, broadcast, assembly, demonstration, petition and Internet.
To achieve any meaningful political solution to the Tibetan issue – whether genuine autonomy, independence or some other outcome that would protect Tibetan rights – there are many more years of difficult work ahead of us. And our hope lies in our collective trust in each other as Tibetans, determination to end the suffering inside Tibet, and strategic nonviolent action. When people in our community are sidetracked into criticizing each other or trying to shut out voices of those who have different opinions than our own, rather than finding ways to work together for a positive result, all of us lose, and most of all, Tibetans in Tibet who rely on those of us in the free world to help advance our common cause.
The nearly 150 Tibetans who have committed the act of self-immolation in the last three years have achieved the monumental goal of propelling the Tibetan people’s fundamental desire for freedom onto the conscience of the global community. They have proven with the utmost eloquence their unquestionable allegiance to His Holiness the Dalai Lama, reaffirmed the unparalleled strength of the Tibetan spirit of resistance, and exposed the immensity of the suffering brought upon Tibet by Chinese rule. Their actions, which will enter our history books, have forever changed the future of our nation.
But we fear for a future where the most committed and impassioned Tibetans in Tibet feel burning their bodies is the only way to demonstrate their opposition to Chinese rule and loyalty to His Holiness. The purpose of our work in exile should be to pursue strategies and tactics that encourage and give hope to Tibetans inside Tibet and help build more political space and breathing room there so that they feel it is possible to engage in long-term change-making actions that are lower in risk but high in effectiveness.
We can do this by educating and training ourselves and the younger generation in the art of nonviolent resistance, waging strategic campaigns that advance the cause of Tibetan rights and freedom, using our love of life, culture and freedom to bring an end, once and for all, to China’s oppression in our land. As Tibetans and Rangzen activists, let us commit to live and work together with all our people so that we can continue this fight until we reach our goal of freedom and independence within the lifetime of our revered and beloved leader, His Holiness the Dalai Lama.
With best wishes for a successful conference and thanks to the organizing team and all in attendance,
Tenzin Dorjee & Lhadon Tethong, May 19, New York City