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The Dalai Lama and the ‘Tibetan Question’: Unresolved and Undecided?

posted Feb 1, 2014, 6:45 PM by The Tibetan Political Review

By Tunga Tarodi



The Dalai Lama needs little introduction. His Holiness, Tenzin Gyatso, the XIV Dalai Lama has been the spiritual and temporal leader of the Tibetan people in exile, as well as a renowned Buddhist monk, with admirers all over the world. In March 2011, the Dalai Lama announced his retirement from his position as the temporal head of the Tibetan government-in-exile.

In the last fifty decades in exile, His Holiness has played a critical role in the ‘Tibetan Question’, and the Tibetan refugees hope that eventually, the Dalai Lama will eventually be able to find a resolution to the Tibetan question. What does the Dalai Lama’s retirement mean for the Tibetan Movement? What shape has the Tibetan Question taken in the present political scenario? This article discusses these questions, taking a historical perspective of the Tibetan issue and the role played by the Dalai Lama.

The article argues that not only is the Tibetan Question unresolved, even what constitutes the Tibetan Question has become vague and ambiguous over the years. While the charisma and leadership of the Dalai Lama has put the Tibetan question on the front stage of international politics, the goals of Tibet movement have tended to get blurred on account of shifting stance from independence to autonomy. In this context, the article traces the Tibet Question’s changing contours over the years, and dissects the issues that arise as a consequence of vacillating stand regarding Tibet’s independence. It suggests that within the lifetime of His Holiness, Tibetan leadership should bring in clarity on what constitutes genuine autonomy, and how the Tibetan exile government is proceeding towards it, to save dissensions and fragmentation of the movement eventually.

Dalai Lama and the Tibet Question: The term ‘Tibet Question’ is used within international politics to refer to the disputed status of Tibet vis-a vis China (Anand, 2006:285). In 1959, the Dalai Lama sought exile in India and established the Tibetan Government-in-exile in 1960. This exile government has evolved to a democratically elected government, though the Dalai Lama, till 2010 was the head of the government-in-exile. While the Dalai Lama has voluntarily stepped down from his temporal position, he continues to be the spiritual head of the Tibetan people.

The relinquishing of his temporal powers by the Dalai Lama marks a significant event in Tibetan history. To understand the significance of the Dalai Lama’s decision, one has to understand the institution of the Dalai Lama which has a history of five centuries. This is touched upon in the following sub-section, before we proceed to the specifics of the Tibetan issue.

The Dalai Lama: Brief History of the Institution

Buddhism was introduced to Tibet in the 7th century A.D, and the oldest tradition of Buddhism established by Padmasambhava came to be known as the Nyingma tradition. The Kagyu and the Sakya traditions were established in the 11th century A.D and the Geluk sect came into existence in the 14th century. The idea of religious succession through reincarnation was developed by the Kagyu sect in 1193. Incarnate lamas developed lineages, and formed an unbroken chain of successions according to the idea of rebirth. This is also called the ‘tulku’ concept, as the reincarnation of the highest Lamas was called ‘tulku.’ The Geluk sect adopted this tradition in 1474 (Goldstein, 1997: 7). Following the tulku concept, the Dalai Lama is the reincarnation of none other than the Buddha of compassion, or ‘Chenrezig’(ibid: 21).

In 1578, Altan Khan conferred on Sonam Gyatso, the head of the Geluk sect, the title of ‘Dalai’ which means ‘ocean’ in the sense of ocean of wisdom and compassion (Goldstein, 1997:8). The Dalai Lama institution thus came into existence in the late sixteenth century. Sonam Gyatso became the third Dalai Lama, with the previous two heads of the Geluk sect being posthumously referred to as the first and second Dalai Lama respectively (Goldstein, 1968).

Meanwhile, the political power in Tibet was invested in the religious head of the four Buddhist sects and each of the sects tried to exercise their political control over Tibet. The third Dalai Lama managed to emerge stronger, with Mongol assistance and the fifth Dalai Lama consolidated this position further and tried to unify Tibet under his rule. (Goldstein, 1998: 11).

The institution of the Dalai Lama thus has a long history dating back to the late sixteenth century. By voluntarily giving up his position as the head of the Tibetan government-in-exile, the Dalai Lama has discontinued the tradition of the Dalai Lama holding the dual temporal and spiritual positions, which has been in existence for the last five centuries. This act of the Dalai Lama has thus a historical significance. What were the causal factors behind this decision?

The Dalai Lama on his retirement:

As earlier stated, the Dalai Lama established the Tibetan government-in-exile in 1960. The government-in-exile, since its establishment, had gradually evolved to contain certain features of a democracy, which were lacking in Tibet. These consisted of a popularly elected legislature, known as the Assembly of Tibetan People’s Deputies (ATPD), the direct election of the head of the executive (the Kalon Tripa) and a constitution (the charter of the Tibetans in exile) (Ardley, 2003). The Dalai Lama was however the head of the government-in-exile, owing to the historical institution of the Dalai Lama as the head of the state, a position which was not democratically elected.

The Dalai Lama, since his setting up of the government-in-exile, had gradually been delegating his executive powers, by setting up for a system of democratically elected ministers, as well as the chief executive – the Kalon Tripa. Against the wishes of the Parliament, His Holiness also had a clause inserted in the Charter which gave the Tibetan Assembly the power to impeach the Dalai Lama. In the recent years, the Dalai Lama had indicated several times that he would like to retire soon, and that the government-in-exile was capable of handling its responsibilities on its own.

In his retirement speech, the Dalai Lama noted, “Since the fifth Dalai Lama, Ngawang Lobsang Gyatso, the Dalai Lamas have assumed both spiritual and temporal rule over Tibet. As I am the fourteenth in line of that institution, it is most appropriate if I on own initiative, happily and with pride, end the dual authority of the Dalai Lama. Nobody except me can make this decision and I have made the final decision. The leadership democratically elected by the Tibetan people should take over the complete political responsibilities of Tibet. Some kind of a vestige of the dual system will remain if I am vested with the political authority in the Charter.”

The Dalai Lama clarified that he would continue to lead the Tibetans in spiritual matters, and discharge his role as the spiritual leader of the Tibetans. The Dalai Lama has emphasized that his retirement from political position does not mean that he is giving up the cause of Tibet. In the same speech, the Dalai Lama explained,

“You all should understand and realize that I am not discouraged and I have not given up on the cause of Tibet. I am a native of the land of snows. All the six million Tibetans from the land of snows carry the common responsibility of the Tibetan cause. As for me, I am also one Tibetan from the Amdo region of Tibet, so until my death I have the responsibility of the Tibetan cause.”

The Dalai Lama has not only been the proponent of the Tibetan cause, he has also articulated the Tibetan Question. In the next section, the Dalai Lama’s espousal of the Tibetan Question has been discussed, which places in perspective the critical role of the Dalai Lama in shaping the Tibetan Question.

The Dalai Lama and the Tibetan Question

From Independence to Autonomy: 1959-1987


Post exile, till the late 1980s, the Dalai Lama espoused the cause of an independent Tibet. The beginning was made in 1959, when the Dalai Lama repudiated the 17 Point Agreement on 20 June 1959. In his annual statement issued on the eve of the March 10 Uprising in 1961, His Holiness referred to the United Nations resolution on grant of independence to colonial possessions and stated that Tibet “which was till recently independent has been reduced to the status of a colonial possession”.

The Chinese, on their part, established the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR) in 1965. The TAR comprises the geographical area that in 1959 was Central Tibet, known as U-Tsang. The eastern provinces of Kham and Amdo were made parts of the Chinese provinces of Qinghai, Sichuan, Gangsu and Yunan. The boundaries of the TAR has continued to remain a contentious issues since then; the Greater Tibet that is referred to by the Dalai Lama (and Tibetan exiles) is the territory comprising the above three regions (known as Cholka Sum), while for the Chinese government, Tibet refers only to the TAR.

At the end of Mao’s Cultural Revolution in 1978 and after Deng Xiaoping came to power, there was for the first time, sign of a new initiative towards resolving the Tibetan issue. In 1982, talks between the Dalai Lama’s envoys and Chinese representatives took place for the first time after coming to exile. But these talks, which were also attempted in 1984, ended in an impasse as China refused to consider any change in Tibet’s status. Moreover, China insisted that the Dalai Lama return to Tibet in the existing conditions. The result was the cessation of dialogue between the Dalai Lama’s envoys and Chinese government in 1984.

The turning point in the Dalai Lama’s position on Tibet came about in 1987. In his address to the U.S Congress in Washington, the Dalai Lama announced the Five Point Peace plan, which included the transformation of the whole of Tibet into a zone of peace; abandonment of China’s population transfer policy to Tibet; respect for the Tibetan people’s fundamental human rights and democratic freedoms; restoration and protection of Tibet’s natural environment and abandonment of China’s use of production of nuclear weapons and dumping of nuclear waste. In the same speech, he also reiterated that under international law, ‘Tibet today is still an independent state under illegal occupation.’ However, to resolve the Tibetan issue, the aspirations and interests of both parties needed to be considered. This plan was further expanded and restated in the Strasbourg Proposal addressed to the Members of the European Parliament at Strasbourg on June 15, 1988.

The Strasbourg Proposal was a fundamental shift from independence to autonomy within the PRC. The highlight of the proposal was the Dalai Lama’s proposal for Tibet’s status as a self-governing entity in association with the People’s Republic of China (PRC):

“The whole of Tibet known as Cholka-Sum (U-Tsang, Kham and Amdo) should become a self-governing democratic political entity founded on law by agreement of the people for the common good and the protection of themselves and their environment, in association with the People's Republic of China.

The Government of the People's Republic of China could remain responsible for Tibet's foreign policy. The Government of Tibet should, however, develop and maintain relations, through its own Foreign Affairs Bureau, in the fields of religion, commerce, education, culture, tourism, science, sports and other non-political activities. Tibet should join international organizations concerned with such activities...”

The PRC rejected the Strasbourg Proposal as a disguised claim for independence. Apart from the issue of political autonomy, issues such as the borders of proposed autonomous Tibet, demilitarization of the area, the role of CCP, the kind of political system proposed, were unacceptable to the Chinese.

The Middle Way Approach:

The Dalai Lama in 1991 announced that the Strasbourg Proposal stood cancelled, since no positive response came form the Chinese side. However, the Dalai Lama has still continued to refer to the Middle Way Approach whenever discussing the future course of action with regard to Tibet. Middle Way approach, gleaned from various statements and interviews of the Dalai Lama has meant ‘genuine autonomy’ within the PRC. But it has not been clear what kind of political autonomy was sought.

In 1990s, several changes took place in the international scenario, the prominent one being the rise of China as an economic powerhouse in Asia. U.S and Britain both acknowledge Tibet as a part of China. Moreover, in 2003, during Prime Minister Vajpayee’s visit to China, India signed a formal declaration that Tibet was a part of China in return for Chinese recognition of Sikkim as a part of India (Chellaney, 2008).

New Initiatives for Autonomy: 2002 -2008

Within this changed international scenario, the Dalai Lama has shown more flexibility in his approach to the question of autonomy. According to He and Sautman (2006:613), the Dalai Lama is now stressing the aspects of religious and cultural autonomy rather than economic and political aspects. Also, the Dalai Lama has stated that a Hong Kong model of ‘one country two systems’ be applied to Tibet (Abraham, 2008). This means an autonomy under the PRC’s executive dominance, and substantially differs from the Western style democracy that was earlier demanded.

In 2002, there was resumption of talks between the government-in-exile officials and the Chinese government on the Tibetan issue, possibly due to pressure from the European Parliament. But the six rounds of talks between 2002 and 2008 have yielded no substantive progress. On the contrary, the Chinese insisted that the Dalai Lama make a statement to the effect that Tibet was and is an inalienable part of China and continue to label him as a ‘splittist’ (He and Sautman, 2006: 615-620).

The Protests of 2008 and present concerns, (2008 -2010):

In 2008, China hosted the Olympics amidst widespread protests held by Tibetans and Tibetan supporters all over the world. Within China, the protests, which were held not only in Lhasa, but also in south west China (comprising of erstwhile province of Amdo), were different from the earlier form of protests, as some of the protests were violent and not monk-led (Miles, 2008:39). The Chinese response was to send in the tanks, and clamp down the media.

Since 2008, there have been some striking statements issued by the Dalai Lama with regard to the future course of action to be taken. In November 2008, the Dalai Lama, in a special message to the Tibetans in and outside Tibet, noted that the Chinese have failed to respond positively to resolve the Tibetan issue, and asked for a Special Meeting to be convened by the government-in-exile to discuss the course of action for Tibet’s future. The unanimous decision reached was that the Tibetan exiles supported the Middle Way approach. Since 2008, two more rounds of talks have taken place, but made no progress. In a politically significant statement on March 10, 2010, the Dalai Lama noted that though he was committed to the Middle Way Approach to resolve the Tibetan issue, there was no positive response from the Chinese side so far, and ‘there is little hope that a result will be achieved soon.’

New Ambiguities in the old ‘Tibet Question’?

In the early 1960s till the Strasbourg Proposal, the goal of Tibetan movement was clear. The concept of autonomy, as stated in the Strasbourg Proposal was also not ambiguous. However, later statements on ‘genuine autonomy’ and the stress on cultural factors rather than on political autonomy create an amount of confusion. The problematic area from the perspective of a political solution for the Tibetan issue then is, what exactly does ‘genuine autonomy’ mean? The Memorandum on Genuine Autonomy primarily stresses on language, religion, regulation of migration, environment. One concrete important demand is bringing all Tibetan ethnic areas in one single administrative division. This would entail changing the current administrative boundaries. Regarding the nature and structure of autonomy (outlined in Part VI), it puts forth the right of Tibetans to create their own regional government and institutions and processes of suited to the Tibetan needs and aspirations.

What form of political system is suggested? Given the fact that the Tibetan government-in-exile is structured and functioning as a democracy, it is difficult to understand how this kind of system can be transposed within a communist state. The Note on Memorandum meant for clarification doesn’t say much except assuaging the Chinese that all the demands will ultimately neither conflict with the PRC Constitution nor challenge the supremacy of the Communist Party.

The dialogues on one hand have not yielded much. It has been suggested that such pronouncements would ultimately result in making further concessions, as suggested by He and Sautman (2006) and limiting genuine autonomy to cultural and religious affairs alone. A more controversial statement that the Dalai Lama has made in recent times is the acceptance of the de facto status of Tibet as a part of PRC. “Although I have clearly articulated Tibetan aspirations, which are in accordance with the constitution of the People's Republic of China and the laws on national regional autonomy, we have not obtained any concrete result.”

This has profound implications for the Tibet movement among the refugees in exile, as generations of exiles have kept the flame of Tibet movement alive by envisioning and nurturing the dream of a Free Tibet and their (or their children’s) eventual return to their homeland.

Middle Way or Independence?

We now shift our attention from the Dalai Lama’s perspective of the Tibetan question to the exile community. How have the Tibetan refugees responded to the change of stance? First, the Tibetan people were not consulted before the Strasbourg proposal was announced. Then, in 1997, it was suggested that a referendum be held, but which never took place (Ardley, 2002), One main reason was the stand of the Tibetan Youth Congress, an organization dedicated to promoting the cause of Tibet’s independence, asked people to boycott on the grounds that the Tibetan exiles in India had no right to take a decision on Tibet’s status without the consent of the six million people residing inside Tibet.

The TYC’s stand for struggle total independence does not subscribe to the Dalai Lama’s Middle Way Approach. Though the TYC has never challenged the authority of the Dalai Lama as the leader of the Tibetan peoples’, yet right from its inception, it has stuck to its goal of seeking total independence for Cholka Sum. Its members have frequently organized peace marches, agitations, hunger strikes and demonstrated in front of the Chinese embassy in New Delhi.

In my field work, it was observed that many Tibetans aspire for independence, though out of deference for His Holiness, they might support the Middle Way. But it is also fair to say that most humble Tibetans living in the settlements are in fact not sure of what Middle Way Approach means as observed in my fieldwork in Bylakuppe in 2006. Middle Way was equated with non-violence, with Cholka Sum, and people also referred to it as ‘Dalai Lama’s way’.

It is important to make a distinction between ‘Middle Way approach’ as a strategy and the same as an ideology. The Dalai Lama’s statement seems to border on espousing ‘Middle Way approach’ as an ideology that seeks to resolve the Tibetan issue by accommodating interests of both China and Tibet. This accommodation of interests is the primary reason why the demand of autonomy has been watered down from that of a claim for political autonomy seeking a democratic government in Greater Tibet to the recent version asking for a Hong Kong set up, where the dominance of CCP would remain intact.

But the interviews with the Tibetans in Bylakuppe revealed that the Tibetans believe that independence is their right. The Middle Way- for those who subscribe to it –is seen as a strategy to resolve the issue, since China is very powerful, and it would be almost impossible to engage in a war with them. It is seen as practical approach which might yield some concessions from the Chinese or at the least, bring them to the negotiating table. The other prominent reason, for the older and middle generation, is that it is His Holiness’ Way, who is wiser, and hence they would go with his decision.

Non-violence or Non-Action?

The Dalai Lama also has categorically stated that non-violent peaceful means should be employed in the Tibet struggle. But the non-violence espoused by the Dalai Lama has no room for hunger strikes, which has been an important part of the TYC’s strategy to draw attention to the Tibet cause. The tensions between the Dalai Lama’s advocacy of ‘non-violence’ and the TYC’s methods came to the fore in the ‘fast unto death’ hunger strike that the TYC organized in 1998. Ardley (2002) provides a detailed description and analysis of the TYC’s stand, the response of the government-in-exile and the Dalai Lama’s response. According to the TYC, hunger strike is a form of ‘peaceful and democratic means of protest, the method which Mahatma Gandhi taught to the world.’

The Dalai Lama’s response was as that this was a kind of violence towards the self, and hence against Buddhist principles of non-violence. But what was important was that the Dalai Lama also stated that he could not offer them alternative methods and was in a state of dilemma (Ardley, 2002:48). The TYC’s action and the Dalai Lama’s response are revealing. On one hand, they reflect that the Dalai Lama has interpreted a political action in religious terms (ibid 48). On the other hand the TYC’s understanding on non-violence diverges from that of the Dalai Lama, and they do not see non-violence as the only means to address the Tibetan question. There are numerous examples in Tibet’s history where arms have been used. The Tibetan army had defeated the Chinese army during the time of the XIII Dalai Lama. The Khampas, from eastern part of Tibet, the Kham region, were known as warrior tribes, and the armed resistance put up the Tibetan guerrillas with the aid of the American CIA continued till 1975.

The Tibetan issue has thus seen many turns and oscillated from independence, to autonomy and independence (2008 protests). The Dalai Lama has, on the strength of his charisma, been able to make a fundamental change in the goal of Tibetan movement, from independence to autonomy. Even if the Tibetan refugees do not wholly subscribe to his views, yet, out of deference and faith, very few voices have actually questioned the Dalai Lama’s change of stance.

Added to this is the Dalai Lama’s concept of non-violence, tied to Buddhist principles, and being used in a political cause. The ‘Tibetan Question’ is now beginning to resemble a nebulous assemblage of meanings, which are related to different issues such as human rights, justice and environment, but the critical component of political autonomy is becoming dimmer as the Dalai Lama is getting older. In this context, the Dalai Lama’s retirement marks a significant event – it leaves quite a wide room open regarding the interpretation of ‘genuine autonomy’, to the Tibetan-government-in Exile, in the future.

It also leaves ample discretion in the hands of Tibetan exile government, to reinterpret the term as they see fit, and the recent comments and controversy over the Sikyong’s remarks over democracy are an indication in the direction.

The Dalai Lama’s stance matters. It is the personal charisma of His Holiness which is mainly responsible for catapulting the Tibetan issue on the international scene. The Dalai Lama is the fulcrum which has kept the multiplicity of regional identities, generational differences and diverse political opinions united as Tibetans. Hence, a legacy of a precise political direction from the Dalai Lama is critical for sustaining the Tibetan cause in the future, and save it from fragmenting into divisive political factions.

To conclude, here is a snippet from an interview with a 68 year old Tibetan woman, Dolma. She revealed that the only relative she had left in Tibet was her sister, who was left behind during their flight to India. Dolma’s sister was seriously ill, and wrote to her requesting her to come to Tibet to meet her once. Dolma told me, “I don’t want to go back on a Chinese passport. If I do so, it will be like throwing water on all our years of sacrifice of living as refugees in India.” It is essential then, that the principal elements of autonomy that is envisioned and the limits of Chinese political and executive presence and power in Tibet is clarified by His Holiness. This would give the much needed focus and clarity to the issue, and save the contours of Tibetan Question and political autonomy from being interpreted in myriad ways that are inconsonant with the cause of Tibet.




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