By the Editorial Board of The Tibetan Political Review
On July 13, 2011, a member of the TPR editorial board sat down for an interview with Samdhong Rinpoche at his hotel in Washington, DC. What follows is a transcript of this interview:
Tibetan Political Review: Rinpoche, thank you very much for taking time out of your busy schedule. I’m not a professional journalist; I’m not even an amateur journalist. I’m just a lawyer, so I’m going to do my best to ask your opinion on some questions that are important ones facing the Tibetan administration and the Tibetan people.
Given the short time that we have, please do not consider it impolite if we jump right into the issues.
INDIAN CITIZENSHIP FOR TIBETAN REFUGEES
Firstly, regarding the long-term status of Tibetan refugees in India. Recently there have been problems relating to benami landholdings, registration under the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act, and the Indian government’s prohibition on non-Indian citizens carrying out “anti-Chinese” activities on Indian soil. Therefore it may not be accurate to say that Tibetan refugees in India enjoy all rights except the right to vote in Indian elections. Given the Delhi High Court’s recent decision that Tibetans born on Indian soil between January 26, 1950 and July 1, 1987 -- and their children -- automatically have the right to Indian citizenship, how do you feel about Tibetans in India asserting this right?
Samdhong Rinpoche: So it is a very long question. Tibetan refugees in particular, and all refugees in India in particular, I think they have all civil rights, human rights, except the political right to stand for election or vote for elections. Otherwise, the rights are almost equal with that of Indian citizens. And that is applicable to Tibetan refugees as well.
Regarding benami landholdings in India, there’s no central role applicable to all states. All far as landed properties are concerned, it differs from state to state. And there are many states where the Tibetan refugees can purchase, sell or own landed property as well. But there are a number of states such as Jammu and Kashmir, Uttarakand, Himachal Pradesh, and a few others, the people outside the state, even Indian citizens, cannot purchase or sell or own landed property. Then Tibetan refugees do own some benami lands in Himachal Pradesh which are not entirely the fault of Tibetan refugees because for example, District Dharamshala, initially when we arrived there, the district belonged to Punjab not Himachal Pradesh. And it was in Punjab, anyone can purchase land in Dharamshala District. Later on, it merged into Himachal Pradesh.
TPR: And with regard to the question about your position on Tibetans in India asserting their right to Indian citizenship?
SR: Yes of course, yes my position is very [clear]. Except political, they are quite equal with the Indians.
TPR: So does that mean you do not see a need for them to take Indian citizenship?
And as far as foreign money holding is concerned, every Indian citizen shall have to apply for FCR permission, without which no Indian organization, no Indian individual, can bring in or can deal with foreign currency. That law is universal to everyone. Indian citizen or non-Indian citizen, there’s no difference. And for that also there’s a proper way to get this permission, and a large number of Tibetan people and Tibetan organizations do possess that permission and there’s no problem. So someone deliberately not abiding by law, then of course whether he or she is Indian citizen or not Indian citizen, there will be problems according to the law.
So as far as the right to Indian citizenship is concerned, there is no need for any high court order. It is well-known to everyone: people who were born from 1959 to 1987 or ’77, the Indian citizenship law says whosoever is born on the soil of India they automatically become Indian citizen. But Tibetan refugees opt not to be Indian citizens when they attain the age of 16 they apply for residential permit, RC, residential certificate. And once you apply for RC, then you become foreigner. And it is one’s own choice, it is not by law.
But after the amendment of citizen law in India, in 1987, as far as I remember it is 1977, after that amendment of the law, then even the people born on Indian soil would have to apply for adoption of Indian citizenship. And there is a procedure they would have to go through, affadavit in a court of law, and after that anybody born in India and who also lived in India for long enough and knowing Indian languages, anyone can apply for that and adopt Indian citizenship. Among the Tibetan refugees there are a number of people who adopted Indian citizenship. Once they adopted Indian citizenship they are no longer Tibetan citizen nor do they hold refugee status; then he or she becomes an Indian citizen. And after that then that person cannot pretend to be a refugee or pretend to be a Tibetan citizen. That is quite clear.
TPR: In the eyes of Dharamsala, or in the eyes of…
SR: In the eyes of Indian law, yes.
TPR: But in the eyes of Dharamsala?
In the future, they might have some new law for NRIs, non-resident Indians, to hold dual citizenship but that law is not [passed] as yet. So therefore in the eyes of the Charter for the Tibetans in Exile, they still can consider as Tibetan citizens, but in the eyes of the Indian law they cannot be dual citizenship.
HIS HOLINESS'S DEVOLUTION OF POWER
TPR: With regard to the devolution of power, which everyone is talking about, the General Meeting of course proposed a solution whereby His Holiness would devolve his powers but remain as the ceremonial head of state. Rinpoche, could you please clarify if you can how exactly this proposal was presented to His Holiness? When he was presented with it, my understanding is that the example of constitutional monarchy and the British Crown may have been raised.
And if you have any insight as to why His Holiness rejected the proposal to remain as ceremonial head of state, I’d really appreciate that.
SR: The people should understand the status of the General Meeting and the legislative body of the Tibetans in exile [Parliament]. The General Body Meeting can only make recommendations and suggestions. But as far as lawmaking powers are concerned, they are only restricted to the Chitue Lentsok, the Assembly of Tibetan People’s Deputies. And the General Body discussed about the ceremonial head. I think most of the groups recommended that His Holiness should remain as ceremonial head.
And accordingly, the Speaker and Deputy Speaker, while representing that recommendation, I also accompanied them. And the request to His Holiness was "constitutional head of state", just a ceremonial one, as like the British. They did not mention Crown; they mentioned the Queen. [They said] "like the Queen".
And therefore His Holiness outrightly said this is not the intention of my message to the Parliament for devolving the powers to the elected leadership. There’s no need for any ceremonial head. And there’s no need for any kind of constitutional institution on which some kind of ceremonial functions should be assigned.
TPR: From a legal perspective, I’m not sure if you saw the memorandum from the Tibet Justice Center looking at the issue of international law and the continuity and legitimacy of the Tibetan government-in-exile as the legitimate representative of the Tibetan people. The memorandum noted that the position of a government-in-exile is more precarious in international law than a government that actually is in the home territory, and of course in the Tibetan situation when we talk about democratization we have to of course recognize that only about 3% of total citizens are able to participate in our democratization.
So the Tibet Justice Center’s recommendation was that the ceremonial head of state position for His Holiness would help ensure the continuity and legitimacy of the government-in-exile in the eyes of international law. Do you know to what degree those concerns were considered?
SR: I think the memorandum from the Tibet Justice Center arrived during the process of the General Meeting, and some short memorandum arrived before that and another memorandum was received. I do not remember exactly. But I took note of that, a copy was sent to me also. And I glanced at the contents of that memorandum. And I don’t know how much in-depth discussion had taken place in the General Body meeting, but we took note of that. And perhaps I also responded to the Tibet Justice Center thanking them for taking interest and sending the valuable note.
But we were particularly, the Kashag, from the opinion on these suggestions in two, three different categories. First of all, the so-called international law is not a practical law. It is just like the so-called UNO [United Nations]. The international law can never be enforced internationally, at least on the People’s Republic of China. There may be so-called law but it is not practical as far as the People’s Republic of China is concerned; they never bother with any declaration of UNO or they never bother any kind of what you call international law, whatever that may be. So therefore this is, in Chinese metaphor, a “paper tiger.” There might be an image, but it is a useless image.
And secondly, the legitimacy of the Tibetan government-in-exile is not provided by international law, nor is it provided by the recognition of any other nation. But it is provided by the will of the people of Tibet, where the Tibetan sovereignty resides. So by the Tibetan people’s will, they recognize that wherever His Holiness and his Kashag reside, there is the legitimate government of Tibet. So this is the legitimacy. And the legitimate government of Tibet, which was established in 1642, exactly 369 years ago, and which continued and which became the local government after accepting the 17 Point Agreement in 1951, and later on again was restored when this government renounced the 17 Point Agreement on the basis of concluding it under duress, and also willful violation by the other party, the PRC, then again the local government become the sole government of Tibet, and which resides outside Tibet.
And for that matter, legitimacy comes from the successive Dalai Lamas. The Fifth Dalai Lama founded this government and successive Dalai Lamas come down continuously. And His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama has the sole authority to hand over the legitimacy, to hand over, to empower, to anyone. And with this legitimate authority he devolved his powers, handed down to democratically elected leadership, and that continued the legitimacy in the eyes of the Tibetan people.
And as far as the participation is concerned, it is not the fault of the exile government. They never barred the 97% of the Tibetan population from participating in our democratization process, but it was due to the Chinese occupation they were not allowed to participate. There is no possibility for Tibetans residing in Tibet to physically take part in the democratization process. But in spite of that, mentally they are with us for the process of the elections; the people inside of Tibet are very enthusiastically looking to the process of the elections. And they also make comments and they also make suggestions wherever it is possible. So therefore we consider that the 3% Tibetan people outside in a free country had the right and responsibility to represent the larger Tibetans inside Tibet. By this way we do not consider that there is any lacking of legitimacy.
NAME CHANGE OF TIBETAN GOVERNMENT-IN-EXILE
TPR: Of course the other major change that happened with the Charter revision was the name change. I wonder, Rinpoche, if you could please explain two things.
One, what were the factors that necessitated the name change, because you had stated that it was not done due to pressure but to avoid pressure in the future if I’m not mistaken.
Second if you could please explain specifically why the name was changed to Bod Meyi Driktsuk rather than to another name? For instance there was an outside suggestion of Bod Meyi Wangzin, as just an example, but why other names or proposals were not considered if that was the case?
SR: I do not consider this is exactly a change of name. I consider it making the two different languages [English and Tibetan] compatible and an exact translation. In 1959 when the Tibetan government-in-exile was established in India, as all know that no country including host India recognized any [Tibetan] government-in-exile, and without recognition as a government-in-exile by any nation including the host, it is impossible to function as a government. We have to function differently, very intelligently, to remain intact as the body of government, but at the same time there should be different names which is acceptable to other nations including the host.
So therefore 1959 when His Holiness arrived in India it was agreed that the organization which in our eyes was the government-in-exile is named as "Central Tibetan Administration of His Holiness the Dalai Lama". And that name is used for the last 52 years in all practical purposes while interacting with other nations as well as interacting with the host, so that name was well-established.
But in 1991 during the formulation of the Charter for the Tibetans in Exile, we chose in Tibetan language Tsenjol Bod Zhung. Tsenjol Bod Zhung is used in English language as Central Tibetan Administration and in Tibetan language as Tsenjol Bod Zhung. So in this way we functioned for the last 20 years and there were not many big problems. Because our host country they did not bother how and what we are functioning, and what the Tibetan people consider government-in-exile. As well as for them, they address us as Central Tibetan Administration.
But since year 2008, the People’s Republic of China had a new strategy, new tactics, to bother the other countries including the USA. Whenever there is some question about His Holiness and about Tibetans in exile, they carry a copy of the Charter for the Tibetans in Exile, and are telling the Western nations that “you are saying that His Holiness is religious head and spiritual head, nothing to do with politics, but you look in this document and it says there is a separate country, there is a nation, and His Holiness is head of state and head of nation, there is a government and therefore your accepting or receiving His Holiness is a violation to the recognition of China as a sovereign and one China and so on and so forth.”
TPR: Rinpoche, if His Holiness is no longer head of state and involved in the government…
SR: Now. We are talking about the past.
TPR: But then, so that necessitated the devolution, but then His Holiness is no longer linked to the government…
SR: Until now, His Holiness’s charisma, His Holiness’s influence, we were able to survive without changing the name in Tibetan language. And having no official translation of Charter, we are able to survive. But now His Holiness has disassociated himself from the political process of the Tibetans in exile. And now we are very much vulnerable to any kind of pressure and any kind of influence; politically, socially, legally as well. So there is no protection for our organization. If we need this organization to survive until the Tibetan issue is resolved, then we have to take care by ourselves.
One day there is [might be] a legal judgment, court judgment, that calling Tibetan government-in-exile is illegal and it should be stopped. Then it will not be limited only to the name; then all the functions shall have to be stopped. Function of executive and function of legislative and function of judiciary. If these are stopped under the law of the land then we will land nowhere.
TPR: But if one accepts the need to change from Tsenjol Bod Zhung to another option, why did the administration go so far as to use the word Driktsuk, which most people would translate as “organization” or “institution”, which sounds more like an NGO, rather than a more ambiguous word like “authority” for example?
SR: That you have to ask the legislative body. I was not the person to choose the substitute name or to fix what is now put into the Charter. We are on the executive and we have even no right to vote when the legislation is enacted.
But we know the necessity of changing the name is very important. And as I mentioned, there’s lot of pressure to various nations and governments who are friendly with us and also find it difficult to answer to the PRC’s pressure. And particularly, a written petition is under process in Himachal High Court by some Himachal citizens saying that there are two governments in one nation, and that the Tibetans are calling themselves government-in-exile, nirvasit sarkar, and they are also flying their national flags and they are singing their anthem and so on and so forth. And we do not know how will land that case when it comes to a decision. So therefore we need to take precaution before anything goes wrong, so therefore if the Tibetan government-in-exile is banned by Indian law court, then I think that would be most disastrous in the process of our struggle for resolving the Tibetan issue, to achieve some resolution to our cause. And we seek to protect that legitimate administration as long as possible and perhaps it must go on until the achievement of the resolution of the Tibet issue.
Then as far as naming is concerned, His Holiness also suggested a number of alternatives, and other people also suggested a number of alternatives. Finally the legislative body chose the Bod Meyi Driktsuk. And that may be best know to the legislature and I cannot comment on that.
Anyhow I think the process of amending the Charter is endless and if there is a more appropriate name suggested by the public or the legislature it can amend in the future as well, there is no binding to any amendment.
But my opinion is very clear that if we insist to preserve the name “Tibetan government-in-exile” then it would be suicidal. One day sooner or later it may create a lot of trouble.
MIDDLE WAY POLICY
TPR: Do you foresee any impact of either the name change or the devolution on the Middle Way, whether or not it was an intentional impact?
SR: His Holiness’s statement to the Parliament was aimed only for the devolution of power and the amendment of the Charter. And in his emphasis for the amendment of the Charter, he particularly mentioned that the provisions of regent must be deleted, otherwise His Holiness can devolve the power but Charter provides that in the absence of His Holiness ruling there is a provision of regency. He explicitly mentioned that that provision should also be deleted, which was aimed for the devolution of power once and for all. It is not for a certain period of time or for the lifetime of 14th Dalai Lama and 15th Dalai Lama may come again back to as head of state. To avoid all this possibility, His Holiness mentioned that the provision of regency should also be removed.
And then by that way, since he devolved all power and functions, then his statements as head of state or as head of government, he promulgated the future polity and the ’63 future constitution, these are also -- he didn’t say "withdrawn" -- they become "ineffective" by nature of the devolution of power.
So at that time His Holiness never considered what the PRC’s reaction would be. And anything in this process, PRC was no actor in any way. Whether PRC would be happy or unhappy, that was not a consideration of His Holiness, even the remotest. And PRC may be happy or PRC may not be happy, at this moment there is no relevance. We are looking for a long-term strategy. The long-term strategy is to continue the struggle of Tibet in foreign soil, and this struggle must be survived until the resolution of Tibet issue is achieved. And for that purpose we need certain modification and amendments of Charter. That is one thing.
The other thing is that the successive Dalai Lamas should not be involved into politics. And that was again thing.
And thirdly, a way will come when the 14th Dalai Lama will no more lead the Tibetan people. And if that day comes all of a sudden then people may be confused and they will not find a proper way. That he explicitly mentioned in his message. And if we practice to govern by people alone, during his lifetime if there comes any problem he may be able to help.
So these are the three very explicit objects, and for that purpose all this amendment has been done. And therefore we never considered, and His Holiness never considered, what the Chinese reaction would be. And we also never considered what the reaction of the Tibetan Support Groups or the Tibetan friendly nations, these are not a point of consideration.
TPR: This may be too large of an issue given the short time that we have left, but what do you see as the next steps for the Middle Way policy, given what you just said? And of course in the Kashag’s statement on His Holiness’s 76th birthday also said that the Tibetan side has nothing new to add and the Chinese side has no desire to give any meaningful consideration to Tibetan proposals. To most people, this would seem like an impasse. So what is there for the Middle Way going forward beyond hoping that there will be a change in China down the road?
SR: Middle Way policy is a realistic policy, and the best alternative policy, and most sensible policy which has overwhelming support of the Tibetan people. Tibetan people inside Tibet and outside. So therefore this policy will remain until it achieves its goal. It will remain because this is the best policy. And also it will remain because no one will [be] able to, no one was able to, and no one will [be] able to come up with better alternatives. And [if] there is a better alternative, everybody would be ready to accept it. There is no any better alternative because 150,000 Tibetans in diaspora, they have every chance to come up with better alternatives and proposals and no one has any proposal. Even the opponents of the Middle Way policy have no practical proposal. Number one.
TPR: But Rinpoche, with respect, the question wasn’t “Is there an alternative policy”. Rather, accepting that as the policy, what next given the apparent impasse between the Tibetan position and the Chinese position?
SR: Our policy is a reasonable policy. Therefore, sooner or later a sensible leadership of PRC shall have to accept and find resolution to the Tibet issue. Tibet issue cannot remain unresolved [?] as of today. China is changing very fast, and China will change. But the changing China will come smoothly and peacefully or the changing China will come with a lot of problems and bloodshed, that nobody can predict. But change is inevitable because the present situation is not going with the nature of humanity and the Chinese people. Therefore the Chinese people are suffered much more, if not much more equally with that of minorities, so therefore this situation cannot remain forever. This is a simple matter of fact.
DEMOCRACY AND FREE SPEECH
TPR: Rinpoche, I don’t want to take up too much more of your time. I just have one more question. The Kashag’s statement again on His Holiness’ 76th birthday stated in the context of the devolution of power, quote:
With the greatest possible respect, Rinpoche, do you have any concerns that this statement by your Kashag may have a chilling effect on free speech in the evolving Tibetan democratic political culture?
SR: Tibetan democratic political culture is, I think, very well evolved. And His Holiness has the confidence that now it is time to devolve the full power and to empower the people. And the Kashag [was] referring to those few people who, when His Holiness was in power, they always criticize, “he is not giving up the power.” When he devolved the power, then they say “it is untimely and he should not have done this and he should not have done that.” So that appears to us that it is undemocratic and irresponsible way of expression, because they are not contributing anything positively. Either the evolution of the political democratic culture nor the welfare of the society, just a kind of armchair revolutionary, only using the tongue and the language, nothing more than that.
So that is democratically unacceptable, because in a democracy, people have every right, and each right is attached to a responsibility. When exercising the right, the responsibility shall also have to be shouldered. So anyone had a concern for the process of democratization, are they not satisfied with the process, then the people should participate in the process and take responsibilities in the process. That was the intention of the Kashag.
TPR: I’m confused though. In a democracy, one key way of participating is through speech. What do you mean when you say that people should not be armchair revolutionaries but rather should participate?
SR: Speech alone is not participating in democracy. Speech must be combined by action. By action means, if you are not satisfied [with] the ongoing process, then one must come up with alternative processes, with alternative suggestions, and with alternative legislations. And everyone has the right to come up with those suggestions and with those actions. Without action, just enjoying one’s own comforts and only criticizing the other, criticizing alone is not participating in a democratic process. This is our view.
TPR: Thank you very much for your time. And may I congratulate you on ten years of service as our Kalon Tripa.
SR: [Laughs.] Thank you.