There’s no denying that I walked into the thing with my “eyes wide shut” – to borrow the title phrase of Stanley Kubrick’s last film. I saw the warning flares that went up following the announcement for the November Special Meeting, one of which I mentioned in an earlier article. This would be Prime Minister Samdong Rimpoche’s rejection of the general anticipation that the meeting might contribute to a rethinking of our failed China policy. Rimpoche was quoted on Phayul.com as declaring “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.”
Then there was the composition of the gathering itself. Most of the 600 expected participants were near exclusively made up of former and serving Tibetan government officials, former members of Parliament, settlement officers, leaders of the narrow regional-based political organizations and subsidized pressure groups masquerading as political organizations. The Tibetan Youth Congress, the largest political organization in the Tibetan exile world, and one committed to Tibetan independence, was only allotted two seats. Such organizations as the Students for a Free Tibet were not even asked to attend.
In the initial announcement of the meeting it was mentioned that Tibetan intellectuals, scholars, experts and Tibetan youth would participate. There was a caveat though, that while all officials (retired and otherwise) would have their travel and living expenses reimbursed, everyone else would have to pay their own way. It also appears that though officials had received invitations (or instructions) to attend the Special Meeting, no Tibetan scholar or expert had received an invitation, nor been informed. Not surprisingly, none showed up at the meeting.
I can think of a few scholars, even offhand, who would have greatly contributed to the discussions. For instance Professor Namkhai Norbu the unique authority on the proto-history of Tibet (author of Drung, Diu and Bon, The Necklace of Gzi, A Cultural History of Tibet and other works) should definitely have been invited. Then there is Tarthang Tulku, author of the remarkably scientific resource compilation, Ancient Tibet, and Khetsun Sangpo, author of the analytical 13-volume history of Tibetan Buddhism. The contribution of Drikung Rimpoche would have also been valuable. Rimpoche has single-handedly created an invaluable Tibetan history archives (The Songtsen Library) housing, among other things, reproductions of nearly every existing Tibetan text and art from Central Asia (the so called Tunhuang documents) discovered by archeologists in the early 20th century in Central Asia.
We also have such eminent lay Tibetan scholars as Tsering Shakya, our leading historian on modern Tibet (author of Dragon in the Land of Snows) and world-renowned scholar of Tibetan history and culture, Samten Karmay (author of The Arrow and the Spindle and many other profound works on Tibetan history). Samten Karmay who is also the president of the International Association of Tibetan Studies, recently published an article which has a direct bearing on the Special Meeting. In “Tibetan Religion and Politics” which appeared in Phayul.com on September 13, 2008, a reasoned and compelling case is made for the secularization of Tibetan government and politics.
Living in Dharamshala we have Tashi Tsering, director of the Amnye Machen Institute who without exaggeration can be described as a one-man think-tank on Tibet. He is regularly sought after by scholars, lamas, foreign Tibetologues, the Tibetan government and even by His Holiness himself (on a number of occasions) for his encyclopedic knowledge of Tibetan history, culture and politics. Tashi Tsering is not an ivory tower pedant but someone with wide knowledge of Tibetan society and politics. He was an active member of the editorial board of Mangtso the largest Tibetan language newspaper-in-exile, and for a number of years co-edited and published the in-depth political review (Da-sar).
There will be those who will ask why these people needed invitations in the first place? Why didn’t they just come uninvited if they cared about what was happening in Tibet? But then you could also ask right back what the problem was about mailing a dozen odd invitations to Tibetan scholars and intellectuals if you were sending out invitations to five or six hundred officials and politicians in the first place? Unless, of course you didn’t want any free-thinking intellectuals to come in the first place.
The first day of the meeting was at the Tibetan Children’s Village. The auditorium was packed with officials of every kind. Those who had come on their own steam were seated in the back rows. The speaker of the Parliament, Karma Chomphel, gave the opening speech. He restated some of the points about the reasons for calling the Special Meeting: That the Dalai Lama had called for this gathering because of his concerns about the desperate situation inside Tibet. That the meeting was not being held to seek any kind of vindication or support for the Middle Way policy but was rather a forum where various ideas and strategy alternatives would hopefully be forthcoming which would help the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan government cope with the crisis. He added that the Tibetan government was also considering holding subsequent follow-up meetings with other select groups of participants.
Prime Minister Samdong Rimpoche’s talk was conspicuous for its disclaimers. He spent most of the time informing the audience what the meeting was not about. There was a laundry list of denials: The meeting was “not a political strategy or tactic to pressure the PRC”. It was not a ploy by the CTA “to shirk responsibility for the failed talks or pass the blame to others”. It was not a means to change CTA’s current policy or “stance”. Not a means to seek popular backing for current policy. And so on. Towards the end of his talk the defensiveness became overpowering. “This must be stressed that the CTA has no hidden agenda and plan behind this Meeting. The Kashag will not make a statement about the work and programs of the CTA thus far. The Kashag will neither say a single world about what is right or wrong on the agendas of this meeting.”
“The lama doth protest too much, methinks” (I thought).
Then the participants were divided into committees which met that same afternoon in different locations throughout Gangchen Kyishong. I was in committee sixteen with about thirty other people and we met at a classroom at Nechung monastery. Our committee opened its deliberations with a senior retired kalon holding forth for about two and half hours. By the time he finished there were only about fifteen minutes left for the meeting to end. I managed to squeeze in an opinion that considering Beijing’s press conference of November 10th , where it was made humiliatingly clear that China would never accept the Dalai Lamas request for ‘meaningful’ autonomy, the first thing Tibetan government should do was announce that it was discontinuing further negotiations with China. I added that the government should not specify whether its action was provisional or permanent, but should leave it up in the air.
The next day it became clear what the strategy of the Middle Way campaigners was going to be. The representatives of Tibetan settlements and centers in India and Nepal insisted on reading the written proceedings and resolution of the public meeting that had earlier been held in all these communities – probably on Dharamshala’s instruction. They also insisted that the complete documentations be included in the record of the committee meeting as expressing the near unanimous support received for the Middle Way Policy by the Tibetan public. I tried to argue that the Special Meeting had been convened for the presentation and discussion of new ideas and strategies, specifically from the participants of the Special Meeting, and that a broad public expression of support for the Middle Way and His Holiness should be presented to the government or His Holiness in a different forum or on a separate occasion.
The senior retired minister I mentioned earlier, also spoke out against the inclusion of the resolutions of the public meeting in this Special Meeting. He had an interesting take on this issue. He maintained that the Beijing Press conference of November 10th and the Dalai Lama’s important statement at the Tibetan Children’s Village on October 28 (about losing faith in the Chinese government) had fundamentally altered the basis of the Tibetan government’s Middle Path Policy. Therefore the proceedings and resolutions of the public meetings, which had been held before these two critical events, were now outdated and irrelevant, no matter how well meant and patriotic the intentions of the public had been. He concluded that what was needed now were new ideas and strategies that took into account His Holiness’s latest statement and the events of November 10th, and that this Special Meeting was the right venue for this fresh discussion to take place, without any previous arguments, debates and resolutions getting in the way. But the Middle Way adherents insisted on reading out the documents in their entirety.
These public meetings had been held in most Tibetan centres and settlements shortly after the initial announcement of the Special Meeting in September. From reports I received, they seem to have been conducted in a way so that an appearance was created of enthusiastic public endorsement for the Middle Way Policy. In some cases the impression was given that the Tibetan people did not want any discussion on the issue of the Middle Path but were putting their complete faith in the Dalai Lama’s all-knowing (thamchekyenpa) powers to make the right decision on all such matters. Of course for many Tibetans such faith would be completely natural and would require no manipulation by politicians for their expression. On the other hand, because of the successive failure of the negotiation efforts for the last many years and the scale and extent of the uprisings that had taken place throughout Tibet from March 2008, an increasing number of Tibetans had begun to question the Middle Way Approach. It was probably to forestall such thinking in Tibetan society that the public meetings had been undertaken.
The Tibetan People’s Movement for Middle Way made an open declaration about organizing “workshops” and meetings to educate the Tibetan people about the Middle Way Policy. Other political groups, regional organizations and even the settlement leadership appear to have joined in this well-coordinated campaign. From the reports I received it appears that the whole tone of the campaign was negative, and the arguments put forward to promote or justify the Middle Way Policy consisted near exclusively of scare tactics.
The fundamental fear exploited was, of course, the one that we have all been subjected to in every discussion about Rangzen and Middle Path: that Tibetan religion, culture and even identity would be completely wiped out because of the rapidity of the Chinese population transfer into Tibet. Therefore we did not have the time to keep up the independence struggle but had to accept “meaningful autonomy” under China. The fact that China had never even remotely offered to halt population transfer or cultural genocide if we gave up the goal of independence, was somehow always overlooked.
Instead, what is invariably brought up is the “assurance” that Deng Xiaoping had supposedly given to Gyalo Thondup in 1979 that if Tibetans gave up independence then everything else would be open to discussion. The fact that Deng might not have offered such a guarantee, or more probably, not expressed it in exactly the hopeful way as Gyalo Thondup interpreted it, is never considered. Even in the aftermath of the Beijing press conference of November 10th, when Chinese officials flatly (and contemptuously) denied that Deng Xiaoping had ever made such a statement, there appears to be no loss of faith in Deng’s “assurance”, which, for die-hard Middle Way devotees, has now taken on the inviolability of a spiritual truth.
When this matter of Deng’s “assurance” came up in my committee I mentioned that the former governor of Hong Kong, Chris Patten in his book (East and West) about the handover of the Crown Colony to China, had stressed that when negotiating with Beijing it was crucial for Western negotiators not to take at face value any assurance or promise made by important Chinese leaders. I added that other books and publications on negotiating with China also mentioned this problem. But I was talking to a brick wall.
Another scare was that the Tibetan cause would lose the support of the nations of the world if we gave up the Middle Way policy and went for Rangzen. The warm reception that the Dalai Lama receives on his travels in the West and statements by heads of states and political leaders calling on China to talk to the Dalai Lama, have been naively construed by simple Tibetans (and sometimes spun by Tibetan officialdom) as evidence of Western support for the Middle Way Policy. Of course, no western leader has ever come out and expressed support for the specifics of the Middle Way policy such as the unification of the three ancient provinces of Tibet (which would include the whole of Qinghai and large parts of Gansu, Sichuan and Yunan provinces) and the establishment of a democratic autonomous entity within the PRC. What Western leaders and heads of states have occasionally “urged” China’s leaders to do is to talk to the Dalai Lama, often for no other stated objective than for “the Dalai Lama’s peaceful return to Tibet”. If one listens to the speeches made by American leaders on the occasion of the Dalai Lama’s Gold Medal ceremony (there is a DVD available) one hears far too many instances of American leaders appealing to Chinese leaders to allow the Dalai Lama “to return to Tibet” and even “to return to China.”
Most world leaders are well aware that China won’t make any meaningful concessions to the Dalai Lama, but the gesture of supporting dialogue makes these leaders look good to their constituencies, while enabling them to avoid taking a real position on the Tibetan issue that might anger China and adversely affect trade.”
Another very dishonest and potentially conflict-provoking assertion used by Middle Way propagandists to alarm the Tibetan public was that if Tibetans gave up the Middle Way and declared for Rangzen then the government of India would deport all refugees back to Tibet.
Perhaps I should also mention one other claim by Middle Way votaries that seems to have caused a great deal of anxiety with older Tibetans, especially those in institutions as the Old People’s Home in Dharamshala. This was that if Tibetans should demand political independence then Western aid (kyopso) for Tibetan refugees would be cut off and inji sponsors (jindak) would discontinue their support. I heard this from at least a couple of old Tibetans I talked to in Dharamshala. If readers have heard anything similar, I would appreciate an account.
Of course not all those campaigning for the Middle Way were so underhanded in their tactics. I met a young monk from Sera monastery who was a firm believer in the Dalai Lama’s Middle Way and who had traveled around the settlements and communities to educate the public on this issue. He and I participated in a panel discussion organized by a Voice Of America correspondent. The monk attempted, in a very friendly way, to explain to me what he perceived as the philosophical strong points of the Middle Way. When he was asked by the moderator, Namgyal Shastri, whether he had used scare tactics on the Tibetan public as other Middle Way campaigners had allegedly done, the monk denied it emphatically. I thought he might have been intellectually naïve but he was sincere and well meaning.
Nonetheless there is no doubt that the political organizations and officials advocating for the Middle Way policy had used arguments and methods that exploited the ignorance and fears of the uneducated Tibetan public. This became clear not only from the reports I received but were fairly obvious from the rhetoric of many of the Middle Way advocates at the Special Meeting. This extensive propaganda campaign was well organized and no doubt well funded, but it is not clear if Tibetan government or the Prime Minister Samdong Rimpoche were somehow involved. From some of the speeches at the committee meetings it also became apparent that a great deal of demonizing of Rangzen activists had taken place during the campaign.
The president of the U-Tsang society who was in my committee, spoke at length on how the failure of the negotiations talks with China was the fault of the Tibetan Youth Congress and others. He maintained that such activist organizations had, through their protests against the Beijing Olympics and the Torch relays, deliberately provoked the Chinese government and people. He stopped short of blaming the demonstrators inside Tibet. He added that the Dalai Lama’s distress and disappointment had come about because of the actions of the Tibetan Youth Congress. He also made the accusation that the organizations involved in the Peace March to Tibet in 2008 had expressly disobeyed the Dalai Lama and caused him much distress.
This was the big scare tactic. That if we caused the Dalai Lama any more distress he was going to step down from power and give up his leadership role – in effect abandon us all. The only way to prevent this terrible calamity was to demonstrate absolute and uncritical loyalty to him, and assure him that we absolutely supported all his policies, including the Middle Way. This was emotional, even spiritual, blackmail, no doubt, but it was effective.
I don’t want to give the impression that there was no dissent or original idea expressed in the Special Meeting. Although in the minority, Rangzen advocates were not reticent about presenting a variety of ideas, some of them quite radical. One retired paratrooper from Chakrata of gyakpon rank in our committee, spoke passionately about the need for Tibetans to able to conduct a guerilla campaign against the Chinese occupation force in Tibet. He also made it quite clear that he was ready to volunteer for the task.
The Middle Way crowd immediately pounced on him and tried to represent him as being disloyal to the Dalai Lama and His doctrine of non-violence. It appeared to me that this criticism was made in a jeering sort of way – to show up those Tibetans who had fought for their country as disloyal and also stupid.
It provoked me to respond at some length. I pointed out that the Dalai Lama had been rescued from the Chinese by fighting men and that His Holiness had not only approved of Tibetans fighting for their country but had even issued a special message to them, thousands of copies of which had been scattered by air in Sog, Naktsang and Pembar, where the people had risen up against the Chinese.
I also reminded everyone that the Tibetan government-in-exile had not only approved of Tibetans joining the Establishment 22, but had even made it compulsory (in the 70s and 80s) for Tibetan refugee students to serve a term in this military unit after twelfth grade. Also, the Dalai Lama had not objected the Indian government sending special frontier force in the 1971 Bangladesh war where many Tibetans died in action. His Holiness himself attended the victory parade of the force at their base at Chakrata, and reviewed the soldiers as they marched past. In conclusion I pointed out that if every Tibetan had to embrace the doctrine of non-violence to demonstrate loyalty to the Dalai Lama, then the Dalai Lama’s bodyguards could not be expected to pull out their weapons and shoot anyone who came to attack His Holiness.
I don’t think it is necessary for me to mention that the retired military officer I mentioned was a Rangzen man. Whether one agreed with him or not about the effectiveness of guerilla warfare in our current freedom struggle, one at least had to concede that his idea was his own. And this was something that fundamentally differentiated the Rangzen activist from the Middle Way devotee whose whole belief system was based on unquestioning faith in the Dalai Lama. Every argument that the Middle Path believer put forward in every discussion was invariably the official one.
Although Rangzen activists and advocates were in the obvious minority in the Special Meeting, the only ideas and suggestions that could be considered original or worthwhile seemed to come from that group of people. I offered a few which I need not go into here. But there was one I spent the greater part of a night working on.
Since I had earlier suggested that the Tibetan government should suspend negotiations with China, I proposed to my committee that there should be a logical next step, a follow up action, that could be implemented in the next few months. This would be the setting up of a Rangzen Review Commission of the Tibetan Parliament (rangzen thaplam ki kyarship tsokchung.) This select commission of senior parliamentary member (with maybe a member of the kashag sitting in) would hear testimonies from leaders, spokespersons and activists from Rangzen-based organization. The commission could ask questions to these people about why they thought Tibetan independence was possible, what were their plans and strategies, and so on. The commission could also solicit expert opinions from scholars, political scientists, legal experts, historians and writers on Tibet.
I stressed that the setting up of such a commission would not commit the Tibetan government to a Rangzen policy, but would demonstrate that the exile government did have alternatives to merely seeking negotiations with China. Furthermore the establishment of this commission would be an appropriate and dignified response to Beijing’s very insulting press conference of November 10th. Most important of all such a step could lead to a real national debate on the future direction of the Tibetan struggle.
Similar proposals for a policy review seem to have been made in other committees. There had also been a proposal in one committee that a review of the Middle Path policy itself should be conducted. No doubt all such suggestions had come from the minority of Rangzen activists and also from some of the more discerning retired officials alarmed by the complete failure of the negotiations and the total inability of the exile government to respond to the crisis in Tibet.
On the final day of the Special Meeting all the participants met at the TCV auditorium where the reports of the different committees were read out. The inclusion of the proceedings and resolutions of the earlier public meetings at Tibetan settlements and centres into the records of the Special Meeting, largely overwhelmed whatever discussions had taken place at the committee meetings. There was scant mention of alternative policy ideas and strategies that had been raised by Rangzen advocates. The concluding session of the Special Meeting created the distinct impression of near unanimous support for the Middle Way Policy and of unquestioning acceptance of anything the Dalai Lama had decided.
In his concluding speech Samdong Rimpoche’s declared victory for the Middle Way policy claiming that over 90 percent of Tibetans clearly supported the Dalai Lama’s Middle Way Approach. I did not attend the Tibet Support Group Meeting in New Delhi the following week, but was told that Rimpoche repeated the victory claim and the same statistic at this event.
There is no getting around this final and unpleasant question. Was the whole thing a setup from the outset? Had the Special Meeting been a ploy by the government-in-exile to coerce public support for a policy that had crashed and burned this March with the Rangzen Uprisings in Tibet and later ignominiously repudiated by Beijing at a press conference on the 10th of November? There is the other possibility (and a part of me still very much wants to believe this) that the Dalai Lama had come around to realize the flaws in His Middle Way Policy and had called for the Special Meeting in good faith, in a genuine desire to hear alternative ideas and strategies. It might then follow that underlings, official and otherwise, with a vested interest in maintaining the status quo had rigged the meeting to give His Holiness the impression that the Tibetan public enthusiastically and near unanimously supported His Middle Way policy and would never loose faith in Him or question any of His decisions.
But this begs the question why His Holiness wasn’t aware that most of the people who attended the meeting were those who invariably echoed his own thoughts and feelings and would never dare contradict him under any circumstance? Why hadn’t he just called a meeting of real experts, intellectuals and people of independent views and asked them all outright, (and not through the intervention of committees and the prime minister) what they thought of the present crisis. His Holiness has participated in, and even presided over international gatherings of physicists and cognitive scientists and is most probably aware that in any endeavor to seek the truth, the value of genuine expertise and independent and fearless thinking, is preferable to faith and devotion.
I think it can be said that the Special Meeting has raised more questions than it was supposedly intended to answer.
(My apologies for the long delay in this posting. I have not been well since my trip to India. My thanks to readers for their continuing interest and lively comments which have kept my website, but more importantly the rangzen discussion, alive and kicking – even without any input on my part.)