Sunday, April 30, 2006

Tibet: The Angst of Autonomy

Mcleodganj (Upper Dharamsala), India -- It's sometimes hard to separate the politics from the culture in this town which serves as the foreign home of the Tibetan government and thousands of exiled Tibetans.

Tibet through history had always been a separate sovereign nation, recognized and respected by the Chinese as such. But under Mao's rule the Chinese decided that this vast land, mineral rich and strategically valuable, really was a Chinese territory that needed to be brought back into the fold. So in 1949 they cranked up the Chairman's tanks and annexed Tibet militarily, destroying everything and everybody in their way.

Today, a hot topic in the struggle of the Tibetans to reclaim their homeland continues to be the Dalai Lama, and his views and actions. As both the spiritual and political leader of the Tibetan people, he is leading the campaign to regain their country from the Chinese.

But what does "regain" mean?

Rather than independence for Tibet (i.e., Tibet being its own nation), HHDL advocates a goal of autonomy for Tibet, envisioning it as an autonomous region within the People's Republic.

As of now, neither the independence or autonomy approaches is "on the table" with China, with whom attempts at negotiation have been frutiless. The Chinese (publicly) consider HHDL to be nothing more than a feudal lord who leads a band of superstitious backward people . . . and worse, he and his followers are noisy "splittists" out to destroy the People's Republic.

So in this real life drama there's the overwhelmingly mighty, militaristic world economy leader China vs. HHDL, armed with spiritual principles, trying to somehow get back what was taken from his people more than 50 years ago.

In Washington, D.C. last month, HHDL spoke to the issue of Tibetan autonomy: "Now, today, the common interest is more important than sovereignty. Tibet is a landlocked country, a large area, small population, very, very backward. We Tibetans want modernization. Therefore, in order to develop Tibet materially as a modern nation, Tibet must remain within the People's Republic of China. Provided Chinese give us a full guarantee of preservation of Tibetan culture, Tibetan environment, Tibetan spirituality, then it is of mutual benefit. [Besides] foreign affairs [and] defense [are] all the things which Tibetans can manage by themselves. Tibetans should have the full autonomy."

And so, wise and engaging, HHDL travels the world almost like a rock star, spreading his message to sold-out stadiums and university arenas, meeting with presidents, prime ministers and kings, hoping to elicit enough support that China will relax its chokehold grip.

He's working tirelessly, hoping that as China grows into an even more global ecomonic power, it may begin to listen to the "human rights" opinions of its trading partners (assuming they'd be brave enough to voice those opinions) as well as the voices of people around the world who understand that the very existence of the Tibetan people's unique, deeply beautiful traditions will disappear if the extermination of Tibetan religion and culture continues.

Yes, there has been some recent "rebuilding" of some of Tibet's Buddhist monasteries and temples destroyed by the Chinese, but these, along with the Tibetans' ancient-but-timely traditions, have been turned into little more than quaint "must-see" attractions along the government's mandated tourist routes.

HHDL's autonomy vision differs from that of many Tibetans, especially the youth, who point at HHDL's "middle view" goal of autonomy as falling way short of ensuring Tibet's preservation as a country, society and culture. It is independence they seek. And many of these hard-liners share the view that HHDL has been woefully ineffective in his dealings with China on their people's behalf.

Many pro-independence supporters believe the only way of achieving their goal is through violent insurrection. The outcome of that struggle, says HHDL, would be nothing more than the senseless and tragic death of all who follow that path, as well as renewed cruelty on the part of the People's Republic toward the Tibetan people.

And logic says he's right -- any number of Tibetan freedom fighters would be quickly crushed by the Chinese military and economic juggernaut.

Perhaps the hard-liners feel that violence, and resulting martyrdom, would somehow elicit a world response. But with worldwide economic purse-strings so dependent on China, how many countries would step up to aid the Tibetan fighters or the people they're fighting for? (Probably the same amount who have, to now, officially appealed to the Chinese goverment for Tibetan rights . . . none.)

Could there be independence without violence? Not likely. Does anyone really expect China to say, after 57 years of occupation, "ok, here's the strategically valuable, mineral-laden Tibetan plateau back, we're happy to reduce the geographic size of our country by almost 35%, sorry for the death and destruction . . . "?

So HHDL chooses the middle path between hard-line independence and complete capitualtion: negotiated autonomy. And in respect for his leadership the violent path has not yet been taken. But the rumblings, especially here in Dharamsala, remain consistent.

This is a sticky, heartbreaking situation and there's no easy solution for the Tibetan people. Time is not on their side. Everyday, occupied Tibet becomes less Tibetan and western influences move the Tibetan young away from the practices of their heritage.

For now, they look ahead to the Beijing Olympics, hoping that worldwide light will shine on their cause, and they count on HHDL to be around for many years to come, for without him they will be leaderless -- and worse, hopeless -- in their efforts.


The following was picked-up from a Tibetan news service and pretty much summarizes the reasons for shunning the "autonomy" approach. I've included it here (unedited) to foster better understanding of the issue(s).

By Tsoltim N. Shakabpa



1. Tibetans have no say nor any rights in the field of foreign affairs or
activities relating to Tibet, including all foreign military maneuvers.

2. Tibetans will have no U.N. representation nor any representation in
international bodies.

3. Tibetans cannot maintain a military force

4. If China goes to war with any country, Tibetans will be conscripted
to join the Chinese military. (In this event, Tibetans will be sent to the
forefront of the battlefield before China sends any Chinese soldiers).

5. Tibetans must use Chinese postage stamps for mailing purposes, and
parcels and letters going abroad will be subject to Chinese scrutiny
and controls.

6. All foreign travel by Tibetans will be controlled and restricted by
the Chinese.

7. Tibetans must carry Chinese passports when traveling abroad.

8. Tibetans will be restricted in carrying money abroad according to
Chinese regulations.

9. Visits from exile Tibetan relatives or friends living abroad will be
subject to Chinese control and regulations.

10. Foreign leaders and dignitaries of foreign countries can only be
invited to visit Tibet by China, not by Tibetans.

11. Tourists to Tibet will have to get Chinese visas, not Tibetan

12. Tibetan money will not be recognized by any nation.

13. Tibetans will never have direct use of foreign exchange nor access
to foreign exchange reserves as those will be controlled and managed by

14. Receipts of moneys or income from all foreign sources will be
subject to Chinese taxes and controls.

15. Dispatch of moneys and payment of any kind to foreign destinations
will be subject to Chinese control and restrictions.

16. Export of Tibetan goods and import of foreign goods into Tibet will
be managed and controlled by China.

17. Foreign investments in Tibet will be controlled by China.

18. If Tibet ever manufactures airplanes, those aircrafts will be
restricted from flying overseas.

19. Promotion of Tibetan culture and religion abroad will be subject to
Chinese scrutiny, control and regulations.

20. China will have full control over the flow of the Drichu and Machu
Rivers in Tibet, as China will claim they affect the Yangtse and Huang
Ho Rivers in China since the Drichu becomes the Yangtse in China and the
Machu becomes the Huang Ho in China. (Any such activity will affect the
Tibetan ecological and environmental system).

21. Most of the regions of Kham and Amdo of independent Tibet will
remain in China and not in autonomous Tibet.

22. China may use Tibetan land for military purposes and maneuvers as
they can claim it falls under protection against foreign enemies.

23. China will have the authority to impound or export from Tibet any
valuable Tibetan resources as they can claim it affects Tibet's foreign
welfare and affairs.

24. Tibetans may never plot against nor revolt against Chinese
authority as they will be considered traitorous activities and liable for execution.

25. Under the above circumstances, Tibetans will be prisoners in their
own land.

26. With "genuine" autonomy, unless the Tibetan Government-in-Exile's
negotiators can eliminate a good part of the above, Tibetans will still
be prisoners in their own land.

27. With independence, none of the above obstructions will exist and
Tibetans will be free to decide their own future.