Have you noticed? The gun-toting Osama bin Laden has pushed the peaceable Dalai Lama into deep background. The ‘Tibet cause’ is presently in the doldrums as, next door, Afghanistan hogs the public’s post-11 September attention. The entire gamut of geopolitics of South Asia (which by Himal’s definition includes Tibet) has been turned upside down, as we can see in In ha’s rush to embrace the United States’ geopolitical agenda and Islamabad’s crack down on those who would do jihad across Paidstarti frontiers.
Over the course of this unsettled autumn and winter, the voice for Tibet has receded almost completely from the international arena. Since it is just a hop and a jump (Kashmir Valley and Ladakh) away from Afghanistan, you would have thought that some commentator might have drawn some conclusions for Tibet. Not so. Apparently, the perennial ahimsa of the Dalai Lama and the docility of the Tibetan refugeedom – not to mention Beijing’s tight grip on Lhasa – are just not the stuff of headlines when newer and sexier issues like Islamic radicalism and ‘global terrorism’ engage policymakers from New York to New Delhi.
Of course, a reassessment by the policywallahs of the Tibetan Government-in-Exile in Dharamshala, Himachal Pradesh, of their world strategy was long overdue. Relying almost exclusively on the charisma ar.-1 personality of Tenzin Gyatsho is not the way to win back independence, self-determination, autonomy, or even to manage a ‘return’, which we presume is what the Government-in-Exile wants. Perhaps the reality of refugeedom has become a little too comfortable for the kalons (ministers) of Dharamsala. After all, when one is the toast of Western capitals, one tends to forget that the Tibet cause is now almost entirely cultural rather than political. Organising the Dalai Lama’s appointment book and travel itinerary (and traveling with him) is what the Government-in-Exile functionaries seem to love to do.
The Dalai Lama is ailing and in a hospital in Bombay, and we wish His Holiness a speedy recovery. Those in the exile community may wish to use this sobering moment to consider whether they want to have a political movement to wrest back some amount of control over Tibet’s fate from the big men in Beijing. Is it worth considering the lives of the four to six million Tibetans within Tibet (depending on how you define the region) rather than the interests of the three lakhs or so in exile? If indeed the interests of the Tibetans within Tibet were to be considered the foremost concern of the Dalai Lama and the exile government, what would it have to do?
We have no ready answers, but do respectfully suggest that unsettled times are conducive to pushing through to a new reality. Clearly, Beijing is where Dharamshala needs to try to bring about some changes, given that: a) it is the PRC’s intransigence that has kept everything on hold till now; and b) the only way ahead seems to be to try and whittle away at that intransigence. Clearly, there are limits to Western adulation, and those limits have probably been reached. The weak flame of Tibetan freedom or autonomy holds no political strength against the xenophobic windstorm of Han China, and informal chats at the White House, or addressing the Australian Parliament have limited value when Beijing is so unwilling to listen.
Beijing is rattled enough that it may be worth approaching at this time. The very government which went into extended rage when the Americans accidentally bombed the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade or when an American AWAC strayed too close to Chinese territory, did not utter a peep recently when the Chinese presidential Boeing jet was wired for sound by the CIA before delivery. This inaction indicates a radical reversal in the geopolitical worldview at the topmost echelons in Beijing, something that should interest Tibetan strategists. Beijing is also increasingly concerned about the rising economic and political prowess of India, and this would have a bearing on the Tibet equation that could go either way.
More directly related to Tibet is the release by China, on 20 January, of the music scholar Ngawang Choephel, who had served six and a half years of an 18-year prison term on spying charges. “The Chinese have been looking for areas where they can improve relations (with the US),” says a San Fransisco-based human rights activist who had been lobbying for Choephel’s release. The fact that China sees the release of Choephel as a friendly gesture towards Wash-ington in the midst of its antiterrorism campaign and a month before George W Bush visits Beijing reveals one secret: despite its repeated public rejection of the ’cause’, Beijing does keep the Tibet agenda relatively high on its policy rack.
The Tibetan scholar’s release is indeed a case for the effectiveness of lobbying in powerful Western capitals. Choephel was a prisoner of conscience on whose account the Chinese authorities received the largest number of letters from members of the US Congress. It is unlikely, however, that much more can be attained by using the tack of continu-ously courting the West to pressure Beijing. Under the changed post- 9 / 11 circumstances, the Dalai Lama and the Khashag, the executive branch of the Government-in-Exile, may again try to develop a direct line to Beijing. Dharamsala may also want to reassess what level of compromise is required to see the Dalai Lama back at the Potala, as a leader of the Tibetan flock within Tibet. We may find the Chinese as intransigent as ever. Then again, we may be surprised.