Articles‎ > ‎

The Great Middle Way Referendum Swindle

posted Sep 15, 2014, 7:35 PM by The Tibetan Political Review
By Jamyang Norbu (September 3, 2014)

 This is probably the last article I am going to write on the subject of the Middle Way Approach (MWA). I have posted about a dozen pieces on various aspects of this policy: from its crafty (but dishonest) name, its simpleminded political and diplomatic justifications, its screwball economic rationale and its grovelling, too-clever-by-half, modi operandi – the leading one being “outreach to our Chinese brothers and sisters.”

But one cannot go on flogging a dead horse forever. And MWA is a dead. Beijing murdered it on twenty-five or twenty-seven (I just can’t keep track) different “negotiations”. But the Central Tibetan Administration (CTA) cannot bring itself to accept this. Like Norman Bates in Hitchcock’s Psycho it preserves the hideously dessicated corpse of MWA in a metaphorical cellar in Gangkyi somewhere, desperately trying to reanimate it with videos, websites, workshops, campaigns and so forth, and dealing with those who deny its viability with a large but metaphorical (?) kitchen knife. Dead as it is, there remains one last item of MWA business to be settled. It is this assertion that keeps appearing again and again in many CTA statements:

The Middle-Way Approach was Adopted Democratically

The mutually beneficial Middle-Way policy… adopted democratically by the overwhelming majority of the Tibetans…

His Holiness the Dalai Lama has proposed the Middle Way Approach and has been adopted democratically by Tibetans.

The Middle-Way policy was adopted democratically — through unanimous agreement

Every one of these statements are bald-faced lies. There is no other way to express it. If I tried to put it any more diplomatically I am afraid I might end up telling a lie myself.

Background to the Referendum

On 15 June 1988, His Holiness the Dalai Lama in his address to the European Parliament in Strasbourg surrendered the sovereignty of the Tibetan nation and in return requested China to allow Tibet to become an autonomous and democratic political entity within the PRC. Near the conclusion of his address the Dalai Lama said “… most Tibetans will be disappointed”, but he also gave this assurance “… the Tibetan people themselves must be the ultimate deciding authority… in a nationwide referendum.”

On September 23,1988 China issued a statement saying it was prepared to negotiate. The exile government made its first mistake by including Michael Van Walt, the self-styled “Dalai Lama’s lawyer” in its negotiating team. Beijing objected to the presence of a foreigner. It also objected to the team being “only young people”, and suggested the inclusion of the Dalai Lama’s older brother. Gyalo Thondup had already met Deng Xiaoping in 1979, Hu Yaobang in 1981, Yang Mingfu on October 17 1987 and other Chinese leaders on different occasions. Beijing further rejected Dharamshala’s proposal of Geneva as a neutral venue and insisted on Beijing or Hong Kong. Once Dharamshala had agreed to all the changes, Beijing refused to communicate with it any further.

In April 1993, following a performance at the Tibetan Institute of Performing Arts (at which I was present) His Holiness made an unexpected political statement which hit the exile-community like a bombshell. He stated that “..the many efforts made by him and the Tibetan government to negotiate with China had made no headway. He also expressed his fears that Chinese overtures concealed a darkly insidious and long term plan for ensuring the end of Tibetans as a nation and people. He concluded that Tibet now faced its greatest danger in the ever-increasing migration of Chinese settlers.”[1]

My first story on this appeared in the September 15 ’93 issue of  MANGTSO (Democracy) the independent Tibetan language newspaper. I reported that earlier on 5th August “Gyalo Thondup had admitted to the Tibetan Parliament that all his discussion with the Chinese for the past fourteen years had achieved nothing. Furthermore, he added that he had been constantly browbeaten by Chinese officials, who never listened to anything he had to say.”

Later that year at the conference of the Cholkha Sum (Three Provinces) organization held at Dharamshala, His Holiness again spoke of the failure of his initiative. Somewhat unexpectedly and to the discomfiture of all present, he also publicly reprimanded his own brother Gyalo Thondup for telling him that Beijing was not only ready to negotiate but even prepared to settle all issues through discussion except for the issue of independence.

The kashag released all the documents and letters between it and China since 1979, and MANGTSO printed a special issue with a ten page supplement on October 31 1993. Other Tibetan journals as Tibetan Review and Sheja published these letters and also articles and commentaries. That same year “The Dalai Lama also released a statement, where in no uncertain terms, he stated that all the efforts by him and his government to negotiate with China had failed”[2] He repeated this in his 1994 March 10th statement. Then in his 10th March statement of 1995 the Dalai Lama declared:

Many Tibetans have voiced unprecedented criticism of my suggestion that we should compromise on the issue of total independence. Moreover, the failure of the Chinese government to respond positively to my conciliatory proposals has deepened the sense of impatience and frustration among my people. Therefore, I proposed last year that this issue be submitted to a referendum.

But vested interests within the administration and certain outside organization that funded the CTA (one being the Friedrich Naumann Foundation in Germany) were determined to ensure that the Dalai Lama never raised the issue of independence again.

Planning the Referendum

A preliminary meeting was convened in Dharamsala on August 21, 1995, chaired by the speaker of the exile Parliament, Samdong Rinpoche, and attended by members of the Kashag, members of parliament and Secretaries of the Central Tibetan Administration (CTA) to discuss the parameters and organization of the referendum.  The first two choices in the proposed referendum were Rangzen and MWA.  These were obviously the only two choices there were, and by any common-sense standard should have been the only ones. Even now, twenty years later, we only talk of the MWA/Rangzen debate. There is no other issue or party in this dispute.

But two other absolutely irrelevant options were added, almost certainly to downplay the stark and disquieting contrast between the two main choices, and muddy the waters of what now was evolving into a disquieting swindle. Samdong Rimpoche offered his own recondite pseudo-Gandhian doctrine of “Truth Insistence” (denpae utsu) as one further choice. If that weren’t bizarre enough someone else proposed “Self-determination” as a choice for the referendum.  “If you are holding a referendum, you do not include ‘do we have the right to hold a referendum’ as one of the choices” as someone on TSG-List observed. Self-determination is a right granted to all peoples in the Charter of the United Nations, and explicitly recognized in the case of the Tibetan people by the UN General Assembly in Resolution – 2079 (XX) in 1965. Chosing Rangzen or MWA in a referendum is exercising your right to Self-Determination, even if you do not choose the “Self-Determination” option.

On September 2, 1995 the Kashag issued a 12-page instruction to the heads of Tibetan Settlements outlining the four options: Rangzen, MWA, Truth Insistence and Self-Determination to be considered for the referendum. In August 1996 small teams of MPs traveled to various settlements to explain the four options to the Tibetan people and to conduct the actual referendum. They immediately ran into a minefield of controversy.

Conducting the Referendum

One of the first referendum meetings was held at Rajpur,  a settlement relatively close to Dharamshala. That same evening at the Amnye Machen Institute we received a phone call from a former reporter for MANGTSO who had attended the meeting. He told us that in their presentation, the MPs had dropped not very subtle hints that failure to vote for MWA would be tantamount to disloyalty to the Dalai Lama. The public became confused but also very angry. A former (very) senior Kashag minister, Mr. W.G. Kundeling [3], who had retired to Rajpur was the first to speak after the MPs. He flat out declared that he found the whole idea of giving up the goal of independence unacceptable but that he also had no desire to go against the wishes of His Holiness. He would therefore not take part in such a referendum. Others spoke up, saying much the same thing. A few also pointed out that since the Dalai Lama had openly declared that his MWA policy had failed in his last two 10th March statements how could he now be asking the public to vote for MWA?

It must be remembered that Rangzen or independence had been till recently the single sacred goal of every exile Tibetan, repeated ad infinitum in all the Dalai Lama’s 10th March speeches, in TIPA songs and performances, and in children’s education from kindergarten till college. Since Taiwan did not recognize Tibet’s independence and claimed Tibet to be an autonomous part of China, those Tibetans who took financial support from Taiwan were regarded as traitors. The fact that Taiwan was anti-Communist and actively anti-PRC did not matter. Entire exile communities were ostracized and a number of violent clashes, even a few murders happened because of this issue. It was devastating to Tibetans to be told they had to give up independence.

In Rajpur nearly everyone declared that they would not participate in the referendum. Some added that if the parliament and CTA wanted the Dalai Lama to continue with MWA, they should tell him so themselves and not “wipe their hands on the public” (mimang la lakpa chig). Words of the Rajpur meeting spread quickly throughout the exile world and in communities like the one in New York angry words were exchanged with CTA officials. Nearly everywhere people refused to participate in the referendum.

Spinning the Referendum

Back in Dharamshala this whole debacle was misrepresented and reinvented by the exile Parliament under Samdong Rinpoche, in a breathtakingly deceitful manner. An initial statement was issued claiming that the earlier public meetings organized by the MPs had not been to hold referendums but only conduct polls to collect “…suggestions and public opinions on whether the referendum was to be held …(also) many asked to extend the date for further discussion on the options. There are many suggestions that asked to add one more option ‘His Holiness the Dalai Lama to decide according to the prevailing situation and changing political environment from time to time’.” Then on September 18, 1997 during the fourth session of the 12th exile parliament, a unanimous resolution was passed.

Among the views received from the Tibetan public, following a preliminary poll, the majority expressed preference for dispensing with the referendum, leaving it to His Holiness the Dalai Lama to take decisions from time to time in accordance with the prevailing political situation and circumstance. Altogether 64.60 percent of the opinions received demanded that the referendum be not held and favoured for His Holiness and the Central Tibetan Administration to decide.

The “preliminary poll” referred to was the failed effort in August 1996 to conduct the referendum in Tibetan settlements and communities. The 64.60% is a complete invention. No one is certain whether the public refusal to participate in the referendum was expressed by a show of hands, paper ballots or walk-outs. Nearly all the meetings had ended chaotically. To expose the lie of the 64.60% claim I recall that my friend Lhasang Tsering la formally requested the Parliament to reveal what the remaining 35.40% of the opinions were for. No answer was forthcoming.

The Tibetan public had refused to take part in the referendum and had not said they were “… leaving it to His Holiness the Dalai Lama to take decisions from time to time.” Everyone, especially MPs, were aware of how counter-productive and unfair it was to His Holiness to force him to make purely political decisions like this on his own. About a decade earlier, in 1981, elections were canceled and it was decided to have the Dalai Lama select MPs through a kind of divinatory process called yeshe emche.[4] His Holiness’s choice of new MPs proved even worse than the earlier elected MPs. In 1987 a hitch developed in this novel system when everyone selected by the Dalai Lama for a new Parliament declined to serve. Tibetan democracy hit an all-time low.

The phrase “from time to time” in both the statements is a complete invention and also a case of what Shakespeare might call “gilding the lily”. The Parliament not only wanted to permanently establish MWA as CTA’s signature policy but also wanted to ensure that whatever changes developed in the future, they would have enough cover through the phraseology “from time to time” to make the necessary adjustments to perpetuate the status quo. It was low cunning but also prescient. No matter how much one may disagree with His Holiness on MWA it must be admitted that he does have the moral courage and honesty to accept and act on a truth, even one unpalatable to him, when those sycophants and time-servers surrounding him have not had the time to hide it from him or distort it to their advantage.

The Second Referendum Swindle

On October 25th 2008, following the brutal crackdown on the massive anti-Chinese protests in Tibet, His Holiness, speaking at the Tibetan Children’s Village declared that the lack of any sincerity from the Chinese government in the dialogue process and the worsening state of affairs within Tibet following the widespread anti-China protests had made it impossible for him to continue with his current policy. “I have now asked the Tibetan government-in-exile, as a true democracy-in-exile, to decide in consultation with the Tibetan people how to take the dialogue forward”, the Dalai Lama said. An “Emergency Meeting” was called for that November.

A news report from the Dalai Lama’s private secretariat quickly followed. “The future course of the Tibetan movement, including the possibility of a historic switch from demanding autonomy to a demand for full independence, will be the focus of a special meeting next month of around 300 delegates representing the worldwide exiled Tibetan community. ‘The only non-negotiable aspect is that the movement will still be non-violent. Everyone is agreed on that,” the Dalai Lama’s spokesman Tenzin Taklha told AFP.’”

Tibetans everywhere became tremendously excited and galvanized, far more than in ’95. In 2008 large-scale revolutionary protests had not only erupted throughout the Tibetan plateau, but the exile public and supporters had conducted what seemed like a never ending series of well-publicized demonstrations, actions and peace marches everywhere around the globe. Dharamshala became full to bursting with international TV crews and journalists for the Emergency Meeting.

But in spite of His Holiness clear call for a transformation of our fundamental policy. Samdong Rimpoche (now prime-minister) in an interview on Voice of Tibet said “We are committed to our Middle Way Approach and we will continue our efforts for a genuine autonomy within China’s framework, and that will not change.” Under Rinpoche’s aegis the Tibetan People’s Movement for MWA was organized and Samdhong Rimpoche delivered the principal address at its first conference in February 2008,

As prime-minister, Rinpoche made sure only MWA Movement leaders, officials, settlement heads and MPs, serving and retired, were invited and paid full travel expenses, including full airfare from USA, Europe and elsewhere. No one else received expenses or even invitations. The largest political organization in the exile world, The Tibetan Youth Congress (TYC), was only allocated two seats. All other Rangzen based organizations and individuals did not receive invitations. A number of us went anyway – on our own dime. We were a very small minority at the Meeting.

Members of Rinpoche’s MWA Movement – essentially the same mahjong playing, religious-right, yahoo politicians responsible for mob-attacking Tibetan journalists and scholars who disagreed with the establishment – had in previous months held public meetings in Tibetan settlements where they set about poisoning the minds of the older generation against the TYC and Students For Free Tibet (SFT)  whom they claimed had gone against the Dalai Lama’s wishes with their mass protests and peace marches earlier that year. They also exploited the ignorance and fears of the common people with scare stories, one being that the Government of India would deport all Tibetan refugees to China if they gave up MWA and adopted Rangzen.

On the second day of the Emergency Meeting it became clear what the strategy of Samdong Rinpoche and his followers was going to be. MWA Movement members and representatives of Tibetan settlements and centers in India and Nepal insisted that the written proceedings and resolutions of the public meetings they had earlier organized back in their communities, be included in the records and resolutions of the Emergency Meeting. These documents (completely unverified or unattested) overwhelmed whatever discussions had taken place in the Emergency Meeting itself. Practically no mention was made in the final resolution of alternative policy ideas and strategies that had been raised at the meeting by the few Rangzen advocates.

The concluding session of the Emergency Meeting created the distinct impression of near unanimous support for MWA. In his concluding speech Samdong Rinpoche’s declared victory claiming that over 90 percent of Tibetans clearly supported MWA.

This is a very brief overview of what happened at the Emergency Meeting and the events leading up to it. For those of you who want a more detailed account check out my two blog posts: Making The November Meeting Work and A Not So Special Meeting.

Another Minor Swindle

Getting back to his Holiness’s original Strasburg Proposal of 1988, it is clear that he had not consulted the Tibetan people or even the exile-parliament before making his proposal. In the original Proposal the Dalai Lama mentions that he and his cabinet had only solicited the advice of friends and concerned persons, and just the name of former US president Jimmy Carter is mentioned in the document. Even CTA brochures and publications made no claims that the Strasburg Proposal itself was adopted democratically. But recently I came across a statement in an official website where on Section D: Middle Way Approach was Adopted Democratically, this claim was made:

Before His Holiness the Dalai Lama issued a statement in the European parliament in Strasbourg on 15 June 1988-a four-day special conference was organised in Dharamsala from 6 June 1988. This conference was attended by the members of the Assembly of Tibetan People’s Deputies and the Kashag, public servants, all the Tibetan settlement officers and the members of the local Tibetan Assemblies, representatives from the Tibetan NGOs, newly-arrived Tibetans and special invitees. They held extensive discussions on the text of the proposal and finally endorsed it unanimously.

I was rather taken aback by this Stalinist style rewriting of political history and telephoned former MPs, and officials and asked about this meeting. One former MP who had actually attended the meeting did not remember any four-day confab. He claimed that a day or two before the Dalai Lama’s announcement, officials in Dharamshala including directors of TCV, TIPA, the Medical Center and MP’s were told to gather at the Kashag auditorium. They were told in strictest confidence that the Dalai Lama would be making the Strasburg proposal, and that Tibet’s independence was being given up for “genuine autonomy”. All the officials gathered were not asked for their opinions, but were told that after the Dalai Lama’s announcement there would most likely be anger and confusion within the community and they were to make sure that criticisms and negative talk did not spread. They were briefed on how to answer questions from the public. This was not a conference for democratic dialogue but a damage control briefing. The meeting was held in great secrecy and for just one afternoon. No representative of the Dalai Lama from Europe, USA, Japan or Nepal, nor the heads of the settlements, schools, monasteries and organizations outside of Dharamshala attended the meeting.

Tibetans have a nice saying about anyone overdoing something or gilding the lily as I mentioned earlier.”If the caretaker is too skillful with his polishing he might turn the gold (-plated) statue into brass.”

Ku-nyer chigda kheyna, serku rak la tang yong.


The Middle Way was not adopted democratically. Far from it. Instead the lies and swindles of officials and MPs led by Samdong Rinpoche, to foist a phony referendum on the exile public have undoubtedly undermined Tibetan democracy. They also effectively sabotaged His Holiness’s genuine attempts, in 1995 and 2008, to democratically consult with the Tibetan people and find a workable alternative to the Middle Way Approach.



[1] Edward Lazar, Tibet:The Issue is Independence, Parallax Press, Berkeley California, 1994 pp 26-27.

[2] Jamyang Norbu, Shadow Tibet: Selected Writing 1989 to 2004, High Asia Press, New York, 2004, pp 110-111

[3] Woeser Gyaltsen Kundeling along with Dronyer-chenmo Phala was instrumental in the Dalai Lama’s escape in 1959. In the PRC’s first proclamation on the Lhasa Uprising issued by Premier Zhou Enlai on March 28, 1959, Kundeling is prominently named – “Weisegeltsang (Kundelinchasa)”– as one the eighteen leading traitors. Some time after the meeting Kundeling was violently attacked at his home by masked intruders. He fortunately survived. Some have suggested that the attack might have resulted from his opposition to MWA. But that is conjecture.

[4] Jamyang Norbu, “Opening of the Political Eye”, Tibetan Review, November 30th, 1990

Originally published at

Email to a friend or share on Facebook, Twitter, etc.: Bookmark and Share