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Stumbling Toward a More Level-Headed Debate on Independence v. Autonomy in 2014?

posted Jan 9, 2014, 5:01 PM by The Tibetan Political Review   [ updated Jan 9, 2014, 5:59 PM ]
By the editorial board of The Tibetan Political Review 

For those interested in the development of the Tibetan people’s young democracy in exile, 2013 saw some dramatic internal developments.  It is perhaps no coincidence that these developments all relate to the key political question facing Tibetan society today: whether to pursue independence or autonomy.

To recap, these developments included:

1. A Member (Chitue) of the Tibetan Parliament-in-Exile was the subject of day-long criticism in a parliamentary session;

2. Chitue Dhardon Sharling was a lone voice speaking out against this finger pointing, calling on her fellow parliamentarians to focus on concrete action instead.

3. Rumors were spread that prominent individuals supporting independence were thereby harming the life of His Holiness the Dalai Lama (a charge that turned out to be false, as clarified by His Holiness on September 22, 2013);

4. A Chitue leveled bizarre charges against The Tibetan Political Review (TPR), and when challenged on this he was unable to provide any substantiation;

5. An organization of ex-political prisoners, named after the dates of pro-independence demonstrations in Lhasa, suddenly changed its position to support autonomy at an annual meeting where the topic was not previously announced on the agenda;

6. The largest pro-independence youth organization revoked its resolution on lobbying the Tibetan government-in-exile, agreeing not to act as an opposition party;

7. The Sikyong surprised many by stating that his interpretation of “genuine autonomy” excludes democracy, and accepts continued Communist Party control, militarization at China’s discretion, and a limited duration;

8. A new exile Tibetan political party was formed to promote the voice of independence, and about one-third of the sitting Chitues attended its inaugural meeting in Dharamsala (and were reportedly officially chastised for this).

To be blunt, some of these developments have been troubling.

We believe that Tibetan society must develop a better way to constructively discuss the independence/autonomy issue.  This is one of the most important existential issues Tibet faces.  There must be a way to have a passionate debate without resorting to personal attacks, emotional outbursts, or insinuations of disloyalty.  It is not an exaggeration to say that the success of the Tibetan cause may depend on it.

So, how to stumble toward a more level-headed debate in 2014?  This requires a few things.

First it requires a simple acknowledgement that, on the whole, supporters of both sides are patriotic Tibetans who act with good motivations.  No one should be accused of disloyalty to His Holiness or selling out his/her nation to the Chinese just because they support one position or the other – this should be obvious.  Unity should be paramount, and this means real unity: the active recognition that, regardless of any given policy differences, we all remain part of the same Tibetan nation.

Secondly, it requires a more inclusionary mindset toward competing viewpoints.  Chitue Chungdak Koren said it perfectly: “instead of excluding critics, we should be including them and inviting them to air and exchange views.  These people might have constructive suggestions and their inputs could be of great value.  We always need to retain an open mind when it comes to criticism.”<FN1>

Thirdly, it is time to de-mystify the independence/autonomy debate.  It is time to stop treating it as a litmus test of one kind or other.  It is time to simply treat it as the policy problem that it is, with facts, assumptions, and arguments that should be tested and evaluated.  After all, Tibetan civilization has a deep tradition of reasoned debate.

A future TPR editorial will lay out some concrete suggestions in this direction.  But first, we would like to offer some preliminary observations.

Dueling Messages Out of Dharamsala

Some voices in Dharamsala have threatened to spare no effort in dealing with criticism of the Middle Way.  While acknowledging a right to have political stands in a free and democratic society, these voices also maintain that what they call unrealistic criticism of the Middle Way somehow denigrates or misconstrues His Holiness the Dalai Lama.<FN2>

It is confusing how this apparent threat can be reconciled with the democratic right to have political stands.  Any genuine debate inherently requires arguing why one position is better than the other, and it is difficult to do that while avoiding criticism.  And to some degree, “unrealistic” is in the eye of the beholder – certainly it is problematic if a single person seeks the power to be the arbiter of such a highly subjective concept.

These voices also do not explain why they feel it is proper to associate criticism of the Middle Way with somehow denigrating His Holiness, given the normal response to anything perceived as “anti-Dalai Lama”.  On the contrary, His Holiness has made it quite clear that the fate of Tibet is for the Tibetan people to decide, and that they are free to make up their own minds.  These statements were therefore very regrettable, and do not reflect well on the Tibetan commitment to democracy and free speech.  It could also make His Holiness look bad, by improperly associating His Holiness with all this.

A much more healthy approach was taken recently by former Kalon Tripa Samdhong Rinpoche.  Rinpoche made it clear that it is “wrong to construe that those who don’t support the Middle-Way Policy are against His Holiness the Dalai Lama.”  He endorsed “the need and importance of divergent views and lively debates in a healthy democracy and added that whether it is independence or the Middle Way, the real aim of both of these ideologies is the welfare of the Tibetan people.”<FN3>

It would be pure speculation as to why Rinpoche decided to make this statement now.  Certainly, some people (including us) have been concerned that disagreements surrounding the Middle Way recently may be getting out of hand.  Regardless, this statement is welcome.  Hopefully everyone will remember Rinpoche’s wise observation that supporting independence is not anti-Dalai Lama, and that “the real aim of both of these ideologies is the welfare of the Tibetan people”.

Hopefully everyone will also recall that on October 14, 2001, His Holiness made a “Second Strasbourg Address” to the European Parliament.  There, His Holiness stated that he “always maintained that ultimately the Tibetan people must be able to decide about the future of Tibet”.  His Holiness added, “While I firmly reject the use of violence as a means in our freedom struggle we certainly have the right to explore all other political options available to us.  I am a staunch believer in freedom and democracy and have therefore been encouraging the Tibetans in exile to follow the democratic process.”

Obviously, even among supporters of the Middle Way Policy there is a debate about its meaning (witness the disagreement between the Sikyong and Speaker of Parliament on the question of democracy in a future Tibet).  His Holiness has made it clear that the Tibetan people should be encouraged to debate the future of their nation.  Now is the time to do so, recalling Samdhong Rinpoche’s reminder that both sides of this debate are motivated by the same good cause.

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[1]  http://chungdak.wordpress.com/2013/09/27/questions-and-suggestions-for-parliament/

[2]   http://tibet.net/2013/09/19/middle-way-approach-shapes-growing-world-support-for-tibet-issue-kashag/

[3]  http://tibet.net/2013/09/10/former-kalon-tripa-talk-on-middle-way-policy/

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