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By Christophe Besuchet
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The sort of political sentence pronounced on the Tibetan people resembles the terrible “death by a thousand cuts”. This was a form of execution practiced in China until the early twentieth century, in which the condemned person was killed by using a knife to methodically remove portions of the body over an extended period of time. The punishment is said to work on three levels: as a form of public humiliation, as a slow and lingering death, and as a punishment after death.
In referring to this form of capital punishment I am not talking about the harsh treatment meted out by Communist China to those living in occupied Tibet.
No, today what I’m concerned by is not China. It is the recent retirement of the Dalai Lama and the fatal amendments consequently made to the Tibetan Constitution and ratified last Saturday by the Tibetan Parliament. What is happening is actually a tragedy for the Tibetan people, and by any means the end of Tibet as a nation. A slow death, where portions of its sovereignty have been methodically cut off over time.
The first shock came on 21 November 2010. The Dalai Lama, much to the general surprise, announced during an interview on CNN-IBN that he would completely retire from politics “within six months”. Three-and-half months later, on 10 March 2011, he announced that his retirement was definitely decided and that it was to be ratified by the present Parliament. Although a great deal of emotions was expressed after these announcements, I was not among those who feared that Tibet’s struggle would not survive without the charismatic leader. I was, however, seriously alarmed that such decision would deprive Tibet of its head of state, with no replacement, no public consultation and, I must add, in a rather undemocratic manner.
Jamyang Norbu first raised this question of head of state and the subsequent legitimacy of the Tibetan Government on 28 March in his article “Resolving the Dalai Lama Resignation Crisis“. He called attention to a fact that most journalists, bloggers and commentators had until then failed to grasp in their respective judgments of the Dalai Lama’s announcement. Jamyang Norbu’s piece definitely inspired and influenced the debates that took place since then on this issue. Unfortunately, we know now that despite every advices and appeals the Dalai Lama “categorically” rejected the role of a symbolic head of state.
The second shock came along with the announcement of his retirement: in an address on the opening day of the Parliament session, on 14 March, the Dalai Lama declared “ineffective” two important documents passed by the Parliament in 1963 and 1992, calling explicitly for the restoration of Tibet’s independence. Here again, the issue was overlooked by most commentators and did not seem to steer much debate. It is surprisingly Robert Barnett of Columbia University, a controversial expert on Tibet, that underlined first this important issue in a Foreign Policy‘s article, followed recently by Wangpo Tethong who wrote:
“It is disturbing that His Holiness has now made a very strong linkage between his political retirement and the revocation of these two documents that have provided to the Tibetans a visionary guidance for their struggle for freedom. Why is it not possible to adjust these documents and edit only those parts that are related to the future role of the Dalai Lamas?”
The third shock — and indeed the final blow — came when the Dalai Lama gave further details on his decision. During a public speech at the Tsuglagkhang on 19 March, he clearly insisted that there were no such things as a “government in exile” or a Tibetan “prime minister”, and that in English one should use “administration” instead of “government”. This was nothing new, of course, but his remarks just made a shiver run down my spine… If the Dalai Lama was to insist on that point at such a particular time, it could only mean that he had programmed the termination of the Tibetan nation and was envisaging Tibet’s future solely through the narrow lens of his Middle Way Approach. The recent change in the government’s name, very unfortunately, proved me correct.
Obviously, if we take the Middle Way Approach to its logical — and suicidal — conclusion, a head of state is no longer relevant under PRC’s administration. It would be thus logic to abolish this function as a further concession to the Chinese regime. But in this case, it would also require doing away with the prime minister and the cabinet; in Communist China, provinces are ruled by governors, not by ministers. Why then such a masquerade? Why not to call a spade a spade?
The most alarming in all these events is the time factor. Indeed, there is much to wonder as to why everything had to be so hastily settled, with no public consideration of any kind excepted for submissively acquiescing to the Dalai Lama’s decisions and “suggested” amendments. Among others, one could seriously question the Dalai Lama’s insistence for an “immediate” amendment to the Charter as he called in a letter issued to the Parliament on 27 May, when most of the concerned people had agreed to give it more consideration and time.
All this haste is even more difficult to understand if we consider that four months before his original announcement on CNN-IBN, the Dalai Lama had not yet planned a date for his retirement. In July 2010, asked in an interview on NDTV if he had set a time frame for this retirement, the Dalai Lama answered “No.” In fact, even during the November interview, the Dalai Lama was hesitant about the date, and it’s interesting to see how he answered Karan Thapar’s questions:
Karan Thapar: Do you have a date when you want to retire?
Dalai Lama: No. Firstly I have to discuss with our exile Parliament. I want to inform them [of] my intention, although I briefly mentioned [them] already.
Karan Thapar: So only after you discuss you will decide a date?
Dalai Lama: That’s right.
Karan Thapar: But it is not something that is going to happen soon?
Dalai Lama: Oh, I think… [hesitating] I think within… within a few, within next…, I think six months… I think. I think it will be.
Karan Thapar: Within six months you will retire? [Thapar baffled]
Dalai Lama: Oh yeah. No, I have to discuss.
Karan Thapar: And then when do you think the retirement will happen?
Dalai Lama: I don’t know. Perhaps…, I think…, next…, a few months. I think, maybe, OK.
The sudden timing imposed by the Dalai Lama as well as the real scope of his decision seem to have surprised even someone as close to him as the Special Envoy Lodi Gyari. In an interview on Kunleng, a few days after His Holiness’ original November announcement, Gyari was personally confident that the Dalai Lama would retire from his role of head of government, but not as head of state. Three months later, after the Dalai Lama had given more precision on his retirement, he however acknowledged that the Dalai Lama has devolved both his roles.
In regards to such a curious and unwise timing, one should definitely question the legitimacy of the constitutional amendments ratified last Saturday, particularly in regards to the government’s new name. If we are to understand the conclusion of the recent Special Meeting held in Dharamshala, the Parliament did not pay any consideration to the fact that the 418 delegates were “unanimous on not changing the name of the Tibetan government.” This gives much thought about the democratic process of this whole affair.
Finally, looking back in 1992, one should not forget that the Dalai Lama had written a quite different scenario for the day he would resign from his leadership. In his “Guidelines for Future Tibet’s Polity and Basic Features of Its Constitution” (one of the two documents he declared “ineffective”, originally written for an eventual return in Tibet), he had carefully mentioned the need of an elected president to be Tibet’s head of state. Why then such a sudden change? Why the Dalai Lama didn’t even propose an alternative to his retirement, such as a presidential election as originally planned?
It is sad to admit it, but the only logical conclusion I see to the Dalai Lama’s refusal to be Tibet’s symbolic head of state seems to have nothing to do with the duties required by this function — he will definitely continues to travel and meet foreign dignitaries —, nor with the democratic emancipation of his people — he would have proposed them a choice —, but with his refusal to enshrine a Tibetan state in any form. I sincerely hope to be proven wrong, but if not, 29 May should be marked in Tibetan calendars as the Capitulation Day.