October has been a stressful month. First there was the news of His Holiness being taken to Ganga Ram hospital. I overheard it when my mother-in-law was listening to Radio Free Asia (RFA) in the kitchen. The newsreader reported that an unnamed source, a doctor at the hospital, said that His Holiness was suffering from acute abdominal pains and was going to be operated on. A sinking feeling came over me. In the Tibetan world any mention of abdominal pain or disorder is usually bad news — namtok. To make matters worse the newsreader mentioned an official statement from the Private Office claiming that His Holiness was going to the hospital for a routine matter or something like that, and that there was nothing wrong with him. I immediately became suspicious. “They’re covering something up”, I thought. The sinking feeling got worse.
I’m sure all Tibetans, especially those who were close to him in a spiritual way — those who had taken religious teachings from Him — were absolutely shattered. I felt awful but my concern was perhaps a shade more political. “What’s going to happen to the Tibetan society?” I thought, “What’s going to happen to the exile government? What’s going to happen to the struggle?”
It’s not that I hadn’t considered such an eventuality before. I had discussed post Dalai Lama scenarios in a number of articles including a commentary for Newsweek International. But hearing on radio that His Holiness was being rushed to hospital made it all so immediate and real. The recent death of His brother Taktser Rimpoche added to the sense of inevitability.
The government-in-exile and Tibetan society is, of course, completely unprepared for the time when His Holiness will not be with us. One can assume with near certainty that the exile-government has no contingency plan for that eventuality. Burying its collective head in the sand is almost reflex-action in the leadership in Dharamshala, when faced with a crisis.
But such gloomy thoughts were dispelled somewhat when I recalled that, about a month earlier, an announcement had come from Dharamshala for “a special emergency meeting” to be convened in November. The timing seemed almost serendipitous. His Holiness had called the meeting in light of “the serious situation inside Tibet”, and in the hope of getting some ideas and suggestions on what the Tibetan government could do about it. But considering that the future of the exile government, the institution of the Dalai Lama and in fact the history of our nation was inextricably tied up to “the serious situation inside Tibet”, I was sure there would be room for discussion of fundamentals, rather than just minor quibbles over who should head the next delegation to Beijing, and stuff like that. Or that was what I thought.
On going over the news reports of this November meeting in Phayul.com I came across this transcript of a Voice of Tibet radio interview with Prime Minister Samdong Rimpoche. On being asked if the “emergency meeting” could change the course of the official position of genuine autonomy, Rimpoche replied, “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.” Rimpoche conceded that various opinions and views within the Tibetan community would be discussed.” What Rimpoche appeared to be saying was that opinions could be expressed but they would change nothing. This was going to be a high school debate.
I telephoned a friend of mine in Dharamshala. He told me he had also been troubled by Samdong Rimpoche’s statement and had attempted to convey his concerns to the Dalai Lama. He did not get an audience but was able to pass on a message through an official. He received a reply that His Holiness was genuinely seeking new ideas on what could be done about “the crisis inside Tibet”, and that participants should not feel that their contributions would not be noted or considered.
I became convinced that the uprisings in Tibet this year, the brutal Chinese crackdown and the complete failure of the negotiation talks have now convinced the Dalai Lama that he must seek new solutions. His calling for an emergency meeting was heartfelt and, possibly, a cry for help. Although I hadn’t been invited I immediately wrote to the Tibetan Parliament about my intention to participate in the meeting.
Then on October 25 His Holiness, speaking at the Tibetan Children’s Village (TCV), made it absolutely clear that though he had been sincerely pursuing a Middle-Way policy in dealing with China, 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.
A news report from Dharamshala stated that “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 moment will still be non-violent. Everyone is agreed on that,” the Dalai Lama’s spokesman Tenzin Taklha told AFP.’”
As encouraging as his Holinesses words were, I knew I would be well advised to temper my optimism with an appreciation of the ground realities of exile politics. One could not ignore the entrenched vested interests in the Tibetan political world that wanted no rethinking, much less a relinquishing of the Middle way policy.
It was on the radio, RFA again, I think it was, where I heard a leader or spokesman for the Tibetan People’s Movement for “Middle Way”, being interviewed about the November Meeting. (I am not sure if the Tibetan People’s Movement for “Middle Way” has anything to do with the “The First Conference on Mass Movement of the Middle Path” which was held at Dharamshala in February this year. Samdhong Rimpoche delivered the principal address at this conference).
The spokesman for the Tibetan People’s Movement for “Middle Way”, declared in the interview that even a discussion about changing or reviewing the Dalai Lama’s Middle Way policy was unacceptable and disloyal to His Holiness. The spokesman, Bhu Yonten, spoke about an effort made some years earlier by a few Tibetan parliamentarians to table a motion to “review’ the Middle Path Policy and how that had been stopped by the “people”. (In point of fact the MPs withdrew their motion because of intense harassment, intimidation and threats of mob violence.) Bhu Yonten said that in the November meeting there should be no criticism or discussion of the Middle Path Policy of the Dalai Lama. The spokesman did acknowledge people had the right to express their views in a democracy. He also mentioned that his Middle Way Movement was organizing workshops (zap-jong) to educate the public about the Middle Way.
I am very familiar with Dharamshala street politics and such terms as “people” and “mass movement” and zap-jong are largely euphemisms for rabble-rousing and mob violence. From some of the reports I later received from Dharamshala it appears that such “workshops” are already beginning to poison the mind of the older generation, the simple palas and amalas you see walking around the Lingkor, against those younger activists who organized and participated in mass protests and marches for Tibetan independence this year, and who are now being represented as opposing the Dalai Lama’s wishes.
As I mentioned earlier there are entrenched vested interests in the Tibetan political world who want no rethinking, much less a relinquishing of the Middle way policy — even when the Dalai Lama himself, the author of this policy, wants a review and reassessment of the policy, and has clearly called for this.
The Tibetan People’s Movement for “Middle Way” appears to be linked to other organizations in Dharamshala, like the Cholka Sum (Three Provinces) and the Chigdri Tsokpa (Cholsum United Association) which are generally behind the ultra-partisan politics, the hate campaigns and mob violence that typifies Dharamshala politics. The leaders of these organizations are mostly mediocrities (petty traders, habitual mahjong players and the like) incapable of organizing or leading any real political movement or campaign.
I remember in 1995 interviewing Bhu Yonten, the Middle Way spokesman, for the newspaper Mangtso (Democracy). He was then one of the leaders of a Peace March to Tibet called for by the Cholkha Sum organizations. A lot of money was raised from the public for this project. Just as the march commenced it was announced that the goal of the Peace March (initially Tibet) had now been changed to Delhi. Halfway to Delhi, at Ambala, the march-leaders hustled everyone on buses claiming that they had to meet the Dalai Lama (on his return from a foreign trip) in New Delhi.
It is might be noted that such yahoo politicians do not seem to be the only ones with a vested interest in misrepresenting the Dalai Lama’s statements or promoting the “Middle Way Policy” for self serving reasons. A report in Phayul.com on a recent Tibetology conference in Paris (Nov 4), provides a few examples how even experts and academics (both Tibetan and inji) might be possibly heading in the same direction. Some excerpts:
Robbie Barnett from Columbia University “pointing at the ever present photos of His Holiness amongst the protesters said a conclusion that they supported the Middle Way policy of the Dalai Lama can be made.”
“Dr. Lobsang Sangay talked about the history of negotiations between China and the Tibetans said that ‘he still has not lost hope in a negotiated settlement provided Tibetans can be more flexible and the Chinese side less suspicious.’”
Though on the surface it appears absolutely antithetical, a more careful assessment reveals that Beijing unmistakably supports the prolongation of the Dalai Lama’s Middle Way Policy. Though China’s leaders are clearly unwilling to make even the tiniest of concessions to His Holiness, it absolutely wants the Dalai Lama to cling to the hope of negotiations. We have all been aware for sometime now that the Chinese leadership have come the official conclusion that the issue of Tibet would be over once the Dalai Lama died. They appear to have further decided that their policy should be to keep the Dalai Lama hopeful of some kind of resolution on the Tibetan question, thus frustrating the efforts of Tibetan nationalists, till his Holiness died. The whole issue of Tibet would then be definitely finished.
Wang Lixiong, one of those Chinese intellectuals that the Dalai Lama in His TCV speech mentioned as supportive of the Middle Way policy, wrote in a recent article “Tibet-China Talks Dead-End” that “Beijing sees the talks as an end in themselves. They do not need any resolution, and do not want any resolution, just the process is enough. From the start, their objective was to prolong the process as long as possible.”
Of course, the overwhelming majority of people subscribing to the Middle Way Policy are not tools of Beijing’s conspiracies nor self-serving politicians. They are just ordinary Tibetans completely devoted to the Dalai Lama who genuinely want to support a policy they believe His Holiness has implemented for the happiness and welfare of the Tibetan people.
It is therefore imperative that in this November meeting, such honest and loyal Tibetans be made to clearly understand that the Dalai Lama is not calling for people to choose between Rangzen and the Middle Way. He is not conducting a loyalty test. As His Holiness himself declared at TCV, he has become disillusioned with the Chinese leadership and feels that they have been consistently lying and deceiving him; all the while the people inside Tibet are being subjected to unimaginable fear, suffering, violence and oppression.
The crisis the Dalai Lama is now confronting is strangely similar to the situation he faced before March 1959. After making genuine attempts to cooperate with the Chinese occupation authorities, and repeatedly calling on the Tibetan people not to oppose or fight the Chinese, he realized that the Chinese had been systematically deceiving him. That realization made him change his thinking completely, as he has done in the last few months. The only people then who wanted him to continue cooperating with the Chinese and work towards the establishment of the Tibetan Autonomous Region, were officials and lamas like Ngabo, Phakpala Khenchung and Phakpala Gelek Namgyal.
Andru Gompo Tashi, Amdo Jimpa Gyatso, Pamo Kunsang, Tsarong Dasang Dadul and all the others fighting for Tibetan freedom in March ‘59 could be accused of trying to stop the Dalai Lama from cooperating with the Chinese, and even more of physically preventing him from attending the cultural show at the Chinese military headquarters, that he wanted to attend. But, of course, their courage and sacrifice clearly saved the life of the Dalai Lama. And though Tibetan independence might not have been realized then or in the following years, they created the conditions for us to set up an exile government and carry on our struggle even now, fifty years later, not just inside Tibet but all over the world.
If we had not fought the Chinese occupation army and had instead chosen the path of cooperation, I think it can be said with near certainty that His Holiness would not be here with us today. Most of us, or our parents, would have died of starvation, disease, exhaustion or a bullet in some wretched laogai camp. There would be no Tibet issue in the world, and our culture and religion would only survive, perhaps, in Ladakh and Bhutan, and some remote parts of the Himalayas.
It is important for people to realize how truly fortunate it is that we can have this critical meeting in Dharamshala, at a time when His Holiness is still with us. After the death of Taktser Rimpoche and His Holiness’s own recent medical emergency in October, no one should take it for granted that such a moment would be there for us in the future when we need it most.