|All images Ashwini Bhatia|
Nearly 600 delegates of exile Tibetans decided to follow the Dalai Lama’s long-held moderate approach of the Middle Way after a week-long ‘special meeting’ that concluded in Dharamsala on 22 November. “There was a unanimous decision of the 15 committees that we should follow the Middle Path,” said the speaker of the Tibetan parliament-in-exile, Karma Chophel, during the concluding session of the meeting. Despite the potential anticlimax inherent in this decision, however, the reaffirmation did come with a caveat. “We have also decided not to send our envoys for further talks with China,” added Deputy Speaker Dolma Gyari. The meeting thus concluded that the Dalai Lama’s envoys, which have conducted eight rounds of talks with China since 2002, would not go for further talks until there is an attitude shift in Beijing. It was the failure of these talks that had prompted the Dalai Lama to call for this special meeting in the first place – only the third such event ever to take place.
The meeting had been called to collect opinions of the Tibetan exiles on what future course should be adopted on the Tibetan issue. The meeting provided a platform for exiles to put forward dissenting views, which are rarely stated very loudly in the staid hill station of Dharamsala, the headquarters of the Tibetan government-in-exile and home to the Dalai Lama. A week earlier, high on a ridge overlooking the town, at the auditorium of the Tibetan Children’s Village school, Prime Minister-in-exile Samdhong Rinpoche carried incense as monks blew horns in a small ceremonial procession marking the beginning of the meeting, during which a portrait of the Dalai Lama was carried to a throne on the stage (see pic). The meeting began with a band playing the Tibetan national anthem, followed by a subsequent one-minute silence to pay homage to those Tibetans who had lost their lives since this past spring. It was, after all, in March of this year that the massive uprising in Tibet refocused international attention not only on the exile community around the world, but more particularly on that community for which the exile community continues to fight – Tibetans within Tibet.
One way or another, this meeting was an extension of the emotion-laden spring, and the focus seems to still be focused on that time. Karma Chophel said that, in the run-up to the special meeting, thousands of opinions had been collected from within Tibet. “Our Tibetan administration has been successful in collecting information inside Tibet, from all over Tibet,” he reported. “Out of the 17,000 people who were consulted in Tibet, about 8000 people have said that they would follow whatever decision is made by the Dalai Lama for a future solution to the Tibetan issue.” That leaves some 9000 people, however, and it was, essentially, this majority for whom the special meeting had been called. Chophel continued: “About 5000 have given the opinion that the present Middle Way policy should be changed, and that the Tibetan government-in-exile and the Tibetan people should work towards complete independence. About 2000 people said that the Middle Way approach should continue.” (The remaining 2000, perhaps, had no strong feelings one way or the other.)
Bearing in mind this spread of opinion, for the next five days the delegates, broken into groups of 30 to 50 individuals, brainstormed on the question of Tibet. The ultimate goal was to create a report that would be presented to the Tibetan Parliament-in-exile, which was to review the data and, if the majority opinions were different from the official government policy – that of the Middle Way – a referendum could be called. Ostensibly, this could have included a reversal of longstanding policy to call for outright rangzen, or independence, an issue that has gained an increasing number of adherents as the negotiations with Beijing have dragged on, with little to show. “Any change in our policy would require a clear mandate of the Tibetan people,” said Prime Minister Rinpoche, who confirmed that that his government was indeed willing to discuss independence in the Parliament, if the majority so dictated.
Either way, for a community quite used to biding its time, the stakes prior to the special meeting seemed suddenly extremely high. “People are quite emotional, putting forward their opinions,” said Tenzin Tsundue, a Tibetan political activist and poet who attended the meeting.
For over two decades, the government-in-exile and the Dalai Lama have followed the Middle Way approach, which seeks genuine autonomy within China, but specifically does not demand independence. Since 2002, when a re-establishment of ties was first possible, personal envoys of the Dalai Lama have been engaged in round after round of negotiations with Beijing, which have led to no progress. This included three rounds this year alone, two of which took place in the aftermath of the unprecedented unrest in Tibet during the spring. But by the time the last of these talks took place, in late October, the Chinese stance had, if anything, hardened, with Beijing officials publicly excoriating the envoys and the Dalai Lama himself. “We are very disappointed that China has been unwilling to take a step forward,” Lodi Gyari, one of the lead envoys, said simply.
Evidently, so too had the Dalai Lama, despite his longstanding patience with the process and the Chinese. Since he made his first surprise public address on the issue, on 25 October, he has made his own frustration with the process very clear, ultimately calling upon the Tibetan people themselves to choose a future course of action. But the Tibetan community is divided on the issue; after all, the upper leadership are not the only ones to have lost a good deal of patience with the Beijing negotiations. At the same time, however, for most exiles, choosing a course of action other than the Middle Way would mean going against the wishes of the Dalai Lama, who continues to engender almost complete fealty throughout the Tibetan community, in and out of Tibet.
At the same time, following the Middle Way approach also means continuing to play relatively nice with the Chinese, a fact that has recently been emphasised by the Dalai Lama and others. “I think we should keep on pleading our case with the Chinese through a dialogue. I have genuine faith in the Chinese people,” Gyalo Thondup, the Dalai Lama’s older brother who met with Deng Xiaoping in 1979, reiterated at the Dharamsala meeting. “Deng Xiaoping personally told me that ‘Except for independence for Tibet, all other issues may be negotiated.’” Technically this is still the line that the Chinese authorities adhere to, though in practice many point to a lack of sincerity on this stance.
The delegates clapped as the result of the discussions was read out by Prime Minister-in-exile Rinpoche. But although the results were unanimous amongst the participants, they will not be enthusiastically received by some sections of the exile community. “While I do not favour a drastic change immediately,” said writer and political commentator Jamyang Norbu, “I do think we should take it step by step, and review both the Middle Way and independence in the coming weeks.” Indeed, some younger Tibetans seem to be beginning to accept the idea that they could think differently from the Dalai Lama. “The Dalai Lama is a spiritual leader. He cannot ask people to resort to violence,” said one young Tibetan who did not want to be named. “But the choice is ours, as he has given us democracy.” Indeed, the Dalai Lama has repeatedly stated his intention to step away from politics, in order to focus solely on being a spiritual leader. In the meantime, the question facing the delegates – and their vastly interested onlookers, in Dharamsala, Tibet and elsewhere – is not about the means to solve the Tibetan issue, but rather about the goal: between the Middle Way, which seeks autonomy, and independence. “Support cannot replace action. We have to first determine our goal,” said Lhasang Tsering, the former president of the Tibetan Youth Congress and an outspoken critic of the Middle Way approach.
Yet, for the moment, both the goal and the method have indeed been reaffirmed, with consensus among the delegates in Dharamsala. The ball is thus currently in the Chinese court. If Beijing wants to continue the negotiations – which it has regularly maintained that it does – the Tibetans have now publicly stated that some sort of change in attitude is necessary. The extent of that change of attitude, one assumes, will need to be weighed and decided upon by Dharamsala itself. And as such, the space should be available in which people like Tsering and Norbu – not to mention the seemingly large number in Tibet who say they are willing to support another approach – could continue to make their voices heard.
Although he did not take part directly in the proceedings in Dharamsala, it was also made clear that another voice that would continue to be heard was the Dalai Lama’s own. Following the end of the meeting, the Dalai Lama spoke at the Kalachakra temple in Dharamsala. There, he echoed his brother, reaffirming his faith in the Chinese people, and said that he was ready to take part in any initiative of the pro-democracy Chinese groups. “I will attend any programme planned by the Chinese who want to restore democracy within China. But we will have to be ready for more condemnation by China.” He also reiterated his commitment to democracy in exile. “We have an elected prime minister in exile,” the 73-year-old monk said. “In that way, I am semi-retired. But as far as the Tibetan issue is considered, I am committed – no idea of retirement.”
~ Ashwini Bhatia is a Dharamsala-based writer.
~ Carey L Biron is desk editor at Himal Southasian.