Editorials are the opinion of the members of the Editorial Board. Editorials are by their nature opinionated, and are not intended to be "neutral." The Editors attempt to be fair in their analyses, but they are expressing their own opinions. The Editors invite responses from readers, especially if they disagree with an opinion expressed in an editorial.
Lobsang Sangay Walks the Middle Way in Washington
Autonomy, Ethnicity, and Self-Immolation. [READ MORE]
Nepal explicitly recognized Tibet as an independent country. [READ MORE]
Important questions about the revisions to the TIbetan Charter. [READ MORE]
The significance of the 2011 Kalon Tripa election results. [READ MORE]
The candidates' views on Tibetan autonomy within the PRC [READ MORE]
We compare the candidates' positions on strengthening the Tibetan government-in-exile, where the Kalon Tripa has an important role. [READ MORE]
We compare the candidates' positions on strengthening ties between Tibetans inside and outside of Tibet. [READ MORE]
Fortunately, both major Kalon Tripa candidates have clearly stated their policies on this important issue. [READ MORE]
Unfortunately, Tibetan voters are in the dark on the sources of campaign funds. [READ MORE]
We are troubled by the personal attacks emerging in the 2011 Tibetan election. [READ MORE]
In this editorial, we examine key aspects of Tethong's policy on possibly the most important issue facing the electorate: the future course of the Tibetan struggle. [READ MORE]
While it is still too early to project with certainty the person who will win in March, it has become clear that he is the frontrunner. [READ MORE]
The Kalon Tripa race has its first Sarah Palin incident; Norbu asserted that Sangay stated he wants to be the "Obama of China." [READ MORE]
Kalsang Phuntsok Godrukpa
and the Problem With Proxy Websites
Widespread campaigning through the internet is generally a positive development, but the website for Kalsang Phuntsok Godrukpa perfectly illustrates some drawbacks as well. [READ MORE]
It is our hope that clarity on these offices' responsibilities will help voters better evaluate the candidates. [READ MORE]
Lobsang Jinpa clearly set out some of his policy positions, which is a step that we hope other candidates will emulate. [READ MORE]
Youth v. Experience
Personality v. Policy
Of all the candidates, little is yet known about what they actually stand for. That is because, so far, their statements have been largely about the candidates themselves, rather than what policies they would implement if elected. [READ MORE]
The Zurich debate between Lobsang Sangay and Tenzin Namgyal Tethong shows stark differences. [READ MORE...]
The essence of Lobsang-la’s article is that the Tibetan voting process should be made easier. Some of his suggestions are good, but some seem politically naïve. [READ MORE...]
By the editorial board of The Tibetan Political Review
One of the hallmarks of inspired leadership is having the vision to proactively turn events into opportunities. Another hallmark is being secure enough to give credit where it is due. In this respect, developments over past month indicate that the leadership of the Central Tibetan Administration (CTA) still has room to grow.
Certainly the CTA has undertaken praiseworthy action recently. In a recent editorial, we applauded the CTA’s Ume Lam campaign, calling it a “breath of fresh air”. Also, the Kashag’s Democracy Day statement on September 2 had a newly-declared focus on “civility” – something desperately needed in Tibetan exile polity.
But while these welcome CTA initiatives have focused on internal public opinion in the Tibetan community, it is impossible not to notice a certain passivity by the CTA recently when it comes to the outside world, including China. The leadership’s inaction has been especially notable in the cases of Hong Kong, Ilham Tohti, the Scottish referendum, and the Nobel Summit.
Hong Kong Democracy Protests
As unprecedented pro-democracy protests shake Hong Kong and the Beijing government, it’s natural that Tibetans might wonder what the CTA's position is. This is especially so when the global press is condemning the Chinese government for the “fiction” of Hong Kong’s autonomy. Yet the CTA has been silent.
Umbrella Revolution - Photo on right courtesy of tibet.net.
By contrast, the International Tibet Network issued a compelling statement of solidarity with the people of Hong Kong, as did ICT. The current CTA leadership cannot be expected to take a similarly strong stance. But the White House managed a diplomatically-worded statement of support for the "aspirations" of the Hong Kong people. And even Taiwanese president Ma Ying-jeou, usually one to seek good relations with Beijing, criticized the actions in Hong Kong and urged China to embrace democracy.
Some may wonder why the CTA should bother making its position on Hong Kong known. The answer is simple: the success of Hong Kong’s "one country, two systems" model has direct implications for the CTA's Middle Way policy. Events in Hong Kong are testing how an entity under Beijing's control can exercise internal autonomy. There is a tug-of-war between Beijing's emphasis on "one country" and the protestors' emphasis on "two systems". The outcome will shape hopes for the Middle Way, since Hong Kong’s advantages make a best-case scenario for successful autonomy in China.
Equally relevant for the Middle Way, according to the New York Times, “the talks [between the Hong Kong government and the protesters] provide a useful delay for the government, helping to sap the energy of the protests without promising a meaningful compromise.” Observing what the New York Times calls a “conscious element of the government’s strategy” in Hong Kong, the Tibet movement should consider how to avoid a similar trap.
There are of course some important differences between the demands of the Middle Way and the Hong Kong protesters. The Sikyong has made it clear that he seeks autonomy under the weaker Article 4 of the Chinese constitution, not the stronger Article 31 that is the basis for the Hong Kong system. Also, the current CTA leadership has now modified the Middle Way to exclude democracy (the "Partial Middle Way"), whereas the protestors in Hong Kong are demanding genuine democracy.
It is hard to understand the conspicuous silence coming from Dharamsala. Surely the CTA's silence does not stem from any discomfort over supporting democracy for Hong Kong, when the Partial Middle Way has renounced democracy for Tibet.
No one expects the CTA to do everything with limited resources. But we believe that the CTA had a missed opportunity to make statements of support for Hong Kong which are still in line with CTA's existing policies. CTA could have:
- expressed support for the people of Hong Kong as they seek the autonomy already promised in China’s Basic Law for Hong Kong
Even if the CTA happens to be engaged in back-channel dialogue with China (which occurs occasionally, usually when China wants to deflect pressure on itself), it’s hard to argue that the CTA’s silence benefits anyone. On principle alone, CTA should have welcomed the Hong Kong people's desire for democracy and autonomy. Strategically, this would have shown CTA's strength and confidence in the principles driving the Tibet movement, which would have been a good thing, even in a putative dialogue with China. It would also have earned allies. After all, the Tibetan people are a stakeholder in this issue, and keeping silent on the issue has meant giving a pass to the Chinese government on whether it lives up to its promises of autonomy.
How does China’s apparent refusal to abide by its own promises to the people of Hong Kong (with eerie echoes of Tibet in the 1950s), and its use in Hong Kong of talks as a stalling tactic, impact the CTA’s decision to commit all its efforts to its current strategy? It's an important question to consider, and perhaps a question that our elected representatives could have put to the Chinese leaders.
As with the situation in Hong Kong, China's unjust lifetime imprisonment of Ilham Tohti goes directly to the key principles of the Middle Way. Tohti is a moderate Uyghur scholar who devoted his life to increasing understanding between Uyghurs and Han Chinese. Far from being a separatist, Tohthi was perhaps the leading advocate of the sort of sensible ethnicity policies that might improve Chinese-Uyghur relations.
While other respected Uyghur leaders like Rebiya Kadeer say that only independence can protect the Uyghur people, Tohti’s scholarship sought a way for the Uyghurs and Han Chinese to live together. It was therefore an especially major blow for the prospect of Chinese-Uyghur coexistence when the Chinese authorities imprisoned him.
The International Tibet Network and others issued strong statements. But this is not the same as the Tibetan government-in-exile taking action.
So, given how closely Tohti’s policies mesh with the Middle Way, it is baffling why the CTA has been silent on his imprisonment. It is hard to think of anyone else in China who is a more prominent advocate of the sort of ethnic autonomy provisions sought by the Middle Way. Unless we are missing something, the CTA’s passivity seems like a strategic mistake and an unprincipled abandonment of an ally.
Additionally, it would have been helpful if the CTA had explained to the Tibetan people what China’s mistreatment of Tohti (together with its actions in Hong Kong) might mean for the Middle Way. Do these developments impact the strategy or likelihood of success? Why or why not? The Tibetan people deserve to know the thinking of their elected representatives.
Scotland Independence Referendum
We previously wrote about the Scottish independence referendum and why it was good for Tibet. But while prominent prominent Tibet groups were using the Scottish referendum to push the Tibetan cause (here and here), the CTA was notably silent.
Obviously one would not expect the current CTA leadership to have advocated Scottish independence. But it would have been smart to try to insert the question of Tibet into the conversation, as many other groups did.
Even under its current policy toward China, the CTA could have praised the British government’s democratic and rational approach to resolving the question of whether (and how) two peoples stay together. It’s a shame this opportunity was lost.
Additionally, when the Scottish pro-independence forces seemed to be on the verge of victory, the British government became nervous and decided to offer Scotland new autonomous powers if it stayed. It would be helpful to hear the CTA’s thoughts on this strategic dynamic, where pro-independence advocates actually helped the pro-autonomy camp as well.
The CTA’s passivity has been especially pronounced on the World Summit of Nobel Laureates. When the South African government refused to issue a visa to His Holiness, the issue was simply one of standing up for His Holiness and the principles He represents. Although the Chinese government had pressured the South African government, the issue was safer since Beijing was not directly involved. Yet the CTA missed the chance to stand up for His Holiness.
Instead, the charge was led by the Tibetan National Congress (TNC), which mobilized 10,000 people through a petition to the Nobel laureates to “relocate or boycott” the summit. Signatories on this petition included notable politicians, intellectuals, and artists. The F.W. de Klerk Foundation, one of the Summit organizers in South Africa, wrote that the TNC campaign “may lead to the cancellation of the Summit”.
A few days later, the Summit was in fact cancelled when six Nobel laureates decided to boycott it (TNC called for relocation to Rome, and as of the date of this editorial, this looks likely). This was a major embarrassment for China, and a significant victory for the Tibet movement. It is especially significant that this was the third time that South Africa denied His Holiness a visa, but this was the first time the South African and Chinese governments received such dramatic blow-back.
Unfortunately, the CTA leadership was silent on this entire issue until the day when the Summit cancellation was announced. That day, two Nobel laureates happened to be in Dharamsala on a long-scheduled visit timed with Mahatma Gandhi’s birthday.
In fairness, the CTA leadership cannot be expected to do everything, and it must pick and choose what to prioritize. But it was disappointing that the CTA leadership thanked only the Nobel laureates for their boycott and for standing with His Holiness.
While these Nobel laureates indeed deserve the Tibetan people’s deepest gratitude, the de Klerk Foundation made clear that TNC’s campaign was directly responsible for the Summit cancellation. Even if the CTA leadership was uncomfortable recognizing TNC’s role for some unknown reason, at the very least there should have been recognition of the petition’s prominent supporters, who put their names on the line to stand with His Holiness. The Kashag’s declared emphasis on “civility” should include a simple “thank you” when appropriate and give credit where credit is due.
The Sikyong wrote in his doctoral dissertation on Tibetan democracy in 2004, “the most public and even transparent support of the people demonstrated through democratic processes of election, free speech, and various other forms of participation strengthen and sustain the government in exile.”
We agree fully with the Sikyong’s statement. Our observations of some missed opportunities by the CTA leadership stem from our fervent wish to see the Tibetan government-in-exile succeed. Like the Sikyong, we believe that a vital part of democracy is the people expressing their views about the performance of their elected government, and this editorial aims to play a small part in that.
By the editorial board of The Tibetan Political Review
Like many other Tibetans, we were grateful that Kasur Lodi Gyari decided to share his rich knowledge of the Tibetan struggle in his recent article. Gyari Rinpoche has decades of service and sacrifice, and few individuals can compare with his experience or involvement with some key defining events in recent Tibetan history.
We hope that our editorial will further the conversation that Gyari Rinpoche’s article initiated and encourage Tibetans and Tibet supporters to join the debate in a civil and constructive manner. With this motivation in mind, we also did not want to repeat points made elsewhere. Migmar Dolma and Tenzin Kelden have already written a response to Gyari Rinpoche’s piece. We highly recommend reading both the original article and their thoughtful response.
Based on all this, we would like to offer a few thoughts Gyari Rinpoche’s recent article.
Unity of Cholka-Sum (the Three Provinces of Tibet)
Gyari Rinpoche’s article has this to say about the unity of Tibet's territory:
“The geographical boundary of Tibet under the erstwhile Gaden Phodrang government was not as the same the one we have created in our imagination. Some even believe, including many of our supporters, that prior to the 1940s all the three regions of Tibet were under a united independent nation. However, this is not really the case. […] For example, I have heard this explanation by advocates of independence. Why are we not seeking independence since the United Nations has passed three resolutions on Tibet in which there is reference to right to self-determination. […] However, if they argue independence based on that resolution, then it naturally creates suspicion and doubts; one, whether they are aware of the historical boundary of Tibet; secondly by using such an explanation, could the objective of struggle be a different one.”There is a critical factor that Gyari Rinpoche’s article appears to overlook, which would eliminate the need for asserting such "suspicions and doubts". U.N. General Assembly Resolution 1723 (XVI) does not refer to self-determination for Tibet (which might or might not be argued to mean the jurisdiction of the Lhasa government in 1951). The resolution refers to self-determination for "the Tibetan people", which means the entire Tibetan people.
In making a case for independence, for example, the Tibetan National Congress writes, “the legitimacy of independence is based on the Tibetan people’s right to self-determination under international law. Self-determination is a right held by peoples, not territory.… An independent Tibet can extend to the entire Cholka Sum.”
Under international law, the Tibetan people have the right to self-determination. At face value, this means all Tibetans, but where should the territorial boundary be drawn? Here, Gyari Rinpoche’s article touches upon a legitimate issue – though not one requiring any “suspicion and doubts”. One has to look at the specific circumstances to see how self-determination is applied in drawing a boundary. Will it include every single Tibetan regardless of where they live? Obviously not the Tibetan neighborhood in Chengdu or Haidian (in Beijing). But it should for the Tibetan Plateau. Unlike for example in Scotland, Tibet’s recent history involves fluctuating borders and the ebb and flow of political control. Fortunately, though, even the Chinese government considers basically the entire Cholka-Sum that is outside the T.A.R. to be Tibetan autonomous prefectures and counties, strengthening the Tibetan case for self-determination using the boundaries of Cholka-Sum. Certainly there is no reason to categorically state, as Gyari Rinpoche’s article does, that self-determination would not include all Tibetans in Cholka-Sum. As Tibetans, we need to put forth the strongest case under international law for implementing self-determination in relation to the boundaries of Cholka-Sum (which even China implicitly recognizes). It does not make sense to conclude at the outset that this is impossible, when the case is actually fairly strong.
Tibet (Cholka-Sum) as divided into the T.A.R. and Tibetan autonomous
counties and prefectures. Click to enlarge.
As an experienced diplomat, Gyari Rinpoche may have a different view of this argument and if so the Tibetan people would benefit from his perspective. But at the very least, it should be made clear that the U.N. resolution called for self-determination for the entire Tibetan people, not for some truncated territorial administration. *
We are also confused why Gyari Rinpoche’s article makes a categorical statement that it was “not really the case” that Tibet was historically united. His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s March 10th address in 1973 contains a detailed discussion of times when Tibet was unified under the Dharma Kings, Sakya lamas, Fifth Dalai Lama’s Ganden Phodrang government, etc. There was likely a reason His Holiness chose to discuss this history. This history was not “created in our imagination.”
Gyari Rinpoche’s dismissal of the historical unity of Tibet as a country also appears to contradict the 1991 U.S. Congressional resolution declaring that “Tibet, including those areas incorporated into the Chinese provinces of Sichuan, Yunnan, Gansu, and Quinghai, is an occupied country under the established principles of international law.” When the U.S. Congress condemned “the illegality of China's occupation of Tibet,” it was clearly referring to the entire Cholka-Sum. **
Notably, when this Congressional resolution was passed, Gyari Rinpoche was the head of the International Campaign for Tibet (ICT). ICT was instrumental in lobbying for this resolution’s adoption, and for a long time rightfully celebrated it as one of its more important legislative victories. If this accomplishment were backed away from now, it would be a very sad self-inflicted wound on the Tibet movement.
Personally, we have never met an independence supporter who is only seeking independence for western Tibet. Gyari Rinpoche may have something concrete in mind when he warns of this possibility by “some people”, and if so we sincerely hope he shares these facts. Otherwise the risk is that others may seek to distort Gyari Rinpoche’s words to engage in baseless scare tactics.
Unity of the Tibetan cause
Gyari Rinpoche eloquently writes that losing the moral basis of the overall Tibetan cause is “more grave than the argument between the Middle Way Approach and independence”.
He also notes that “irresponsibly criticizing others [is] the misuse of democratic rights.” This argument is not unique to Tibetan society, and in fact is part of the debate in international human rights. In the U.S., the typical example is that yelling “fire!” in a crowded theater is not a valid exercise of free speech. Generally the right of free speech should be balanced against the rights and safety of others.
Yet, universal human rights do not recognize the right of others to escape unwanted criticism, or words they do not like. It can be legitimate to sometimes restrict free speech to achieve a compelling societal interest through the least-restrictive means possible, but this is otherwise a very dangerous slippery slope. Simply referring to concepts like “responsibility” without more, and without defining who decides what is “responsible”, seems like an injustice to the universal human rights we all hope for in Tibet. But we might be missing Gyari Rinpoche’s point.
Likewise, universal human rights do not recognize a test of worthiness for a speaker. So we were troubled when Gyari Rinpoche’s article referred to “some people who can hardly utter a single word against [China] but has the capacity to criticize His Holiness the Dalai Lama and the Central Tibetan Administration in volumes.” If a point is valid about the CTA, then it is valid regardless of whether the speaker also criticizes China. And if the most vociferous critic of China makes an unfair criticism about the CTA, that does not thereby make it valid.
With these points in mind, we believe that Tibetan society would take a step towards greater unity. It would allow the open, respectful discussion between Middle Way and independence that Gyari Rinpoche’s article describes so poignantly.
Gyari Rinpoche states the Tibetan struggle is not for democratic rights but for preservation of Tibetan culture and identity. While we do not disagree that Tibetan culture and identity are part of the struggle, the statement about democracy is surprising and seems at odds with the historical record. For example, in 1963 the CTA, under the leadership of His Holiness, promulgated a proposed Constitution for a free and independent Tibet. In the Foreword, His Holiness stated that this Constitution was “intended to secure for the people of Tibet a system of democracy based on justice and equality and ensure their cultural, religious and economic advancement.” Even earlier, in His 1961 March 10 Speech, His Holiness stated that “[n]ew Tibet will need thousands of trained and skilled men and women, necessary to bring Tibet in consonance with the spirit of democracy without losing our cultural and religious heritage or our soul.”
Moreover, democratic rights were clearly a part of His Holiness’ original Middle Way Policy. In 1987, His Holiness proposed a Five Point Peace Plan which included respect for democratic freedoms in Tibet. In His (now-withdrawn) 1988 Strasbourg Proposal, His Holiness stated that the “Government [of Tibet] should be comprised of a popularly elected Chief Executive, a bi-cameral legislative branch, and an independent judicial system.” And in His 1989 March 10 Speech, His Holiness made clear that “[t]he struggle of the Tibetan people is a struggle for our inalienable right to determine our own destiny in freedom [and] is a struggle for democracy, human rights and peace.” Although the Middle Way Policy was changed by the CTA in 2008 and 2010, it was only in 2013 that Sikyong Sangay explicitly stated that the CTA was not seeking democracy for Tibet, a statement that surprised many Tibetans and Tibet supporters.
A few final thoughts
Gyari Rinpoche is one of the “Founding Fathers” of TYC so his views of why the organization was founded are of course important. And he eloquently writes about TYC’s goal of promoting unity. Yet when he argues that TYC was not founded “solely” to promote independence, this seems an unnecessary point. TYC’s founding resolution has four points, including not just “independence” but also “national unity” etc.
Logically one could equally say that TYC was not founded “solely” to promote national unity. We say this not to argue but rather to agree that both goals exist in TYC’s founding resolution. In any case, this is a debate that should be up to TYC.
We think it is worth noting that of the three other TYC co-founders, one has come out in favor of self-determination, and another joined the pro-independence Tibetan National Congress before he passed away. Gyari Rinpoche himself resigned his role in dialogue with China as His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s Special Envoy in 2012 out of “utter frustration” with the lack of any progress. Given the interest generated by Gyari Rinpoche’s article, the Tibetan people could have benefited from an enlightening public debate among these three Founding Fathers about these topics.
Clearly, Gyari Rinpoche is part of a generation that has a great deal of experience and perspective to share. As the Tibetan people – and especially the younger generation – grapple with the important choices ahead, the Tibetan cause benefits by having a strong historical perspective. We look forward to these constructive discussions continuing.
* NOTE: Gyari Rinpoche mentions that some seek MWA, some seek independence, and some seek self-determination. However, self-determination is an international right the Tibetan people have. MWA, independence or some other form of self-rule are goals that Tibetans may seek based on that right. Self-determination is not a goal or choice itself. There really is not a debate whether Tibetans have the right of self-determination. The debate within the Tibetan community is whether Tibetans should exercise that right to seek some form of autonomy or independence.
** NOTE: This resolution is a non-binding "sense of Congress" resolution that lays out the Congressional position but does not set policy for the Executive Branch.
By the editorial board of The Tibetan Political Review
Many Tibetans eagerly followed the Scottish independence referendum. Now the results are in and 55% of voters chose to stay with the U.K. We believe that this entire referendum process is a positive development for Tibet.
The many parallels between Scotland and Tibet are striking. The Scots are a proud highland nation with a long history, like Tibetans. The Scots number 5.3 million, to 6 million Tibetans. The U.K. depends on Scotland for many of its natural resources like oil, while China exploits Tibet’s minerals and hydro resources. The British military stations all its nuclear weapons in Scotland, while the Chinese military considers Tibet an important strategic base. Many English have an emotional attachment to the idea of their country including Scotland, while many Han Chinese currently cannot conceive of their country without Tibet.
The differences between Scotland and Tibet do not need stating: the Scots live in a democracy that respects human rights, Scotland has its own parliament and some autonomous powers, and no Scot has been sent to prison or tortured for nonviolently advocating independence or autonomy this century.
There are several reasons why the outcome of the Scottish referendum has been good for Tibet.
The very fact that the British government ever agreed to respect the outcome of the Scottish referendum is a stunning example of the very best in democracy and self-determination. Simply put: the British government was prepared to let Scotland go, if the Scottish people wanted to. And the democratic decision-making process over this monumental question did not lead to instability; ultimately it may have even strengthened the British union.
This is a shining example of how a civilized country respects the right to self-determination. Ultimately, it didn’t matter if “losing” Scotland would be economically, militarily, or emotionally hard for the U.K. That is because Scotland was not Britain’s to “lose” – Scotland belongs to the Scots, and it is their right to decide whether to stay or go. The rest of the U.K. can only try to convince the Scots to stay.
A few Chinese are apparently noticing this example. According to Foreign Policy:
Seemingly addressing the referendum -- and perhaps Beijing's propensity to quiet alleged separatists in western regions Tibet and Xinjiang with force -- one wrote pointedly, "there's nothing wrong with undertaking a referendum, without outside interference, to determine the future of a people." He applauded U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron's reliance on "persuasion, not mobilizing troops" as the only "civilized and respectable way" to maintain unity. Another user wondered aloud "why every time I hear about dissolution, it's outrageous, heinous, the end of the world. What's so wrong with splitting up?" One was indifferent to the vote's outcome, writing, "The fact that a people comprising one-third of the land mass of the existing country can vote on their own independence is already amazing."
However, Chinese government’s outlook on issue is clear as Premier Li Keqiang told British Prime Minister David Cameron that China wanted to see a "strong, prosperous and united United Kingdom". Dali Yang, professor of political science at the University of Chicago, is quoted in South China Morning Post as saying: "From the Chinese official perspective, the People's Republic of China has never been kind to the idea of such referendums for Taiwan or anywhere else within what's considered Chinese territory."
The Scottish referendum embodies the principle that the political ties that bind one people to another must be made through consent.
The corollary to this is that a civilized country knows it is not the end of the world if a people under its rule wants to secede. Life goes on, and maybe even better in the long run. (Think: even from China’s perspective, it “gave up” Mongolia and China is fine. Chinese nationalists gripe about a few Pacific islands but not about Mongolia. China has moved on.)
Internally among the Scottish people, it was exciting to see the impassioned debate between those supporting independence and those who wanted to remain within the U.K. While some anti-independence politicians were accused of fear-mongering, on the whole the debate was carried out with democratic vigor. It was especially interesting to see the Scottish National Party’s detailed blueprints on its vision for what an independent Scotland would actually look like.
Interestingly, the referendum only had one question: “should Scotland be an independent country?” Prime Minister Cameron took a calculated risk in not allowing a choice for greater Scottish autonomy. At the last minute as it looked like “yes” might prevail, London promised Scotland greater autonomy if “no” won. This meant that a “no” vote could have either supported the status quo or greater autonomy. From a democratic perspective, this muddied the water a bit, and shows the importance of having any referendum’s questions be set out with integrity.
The Scottish referendum also proves that a civilized country uses persuasion and incentives to convince a people to stay, rather than threats or military force. The three major U.K. political parties’ last-minute pledge promising greater devolution of power to the Scottish parliament very well could have decisively swung the tide of the vote to “no”. But this would not have happened if it didn’t look like “yes” was about to win.
That is why Time Magazine declared that the Scottish “independence movement has lost the vote but won the argument.” Thanks to the independence movement, led by the Scottish National Party, the status quo will change. London will have to carry through on its desperate, last-minute promise to devolve greater powers to Scotland.
The real winner in the Scottish referendum has not been the “yes” or “no” campaigns. The real winner has been the Scottish people. In exercising their right to self-determination, they (and they alone) have made their choice based on their own wishes and interests. One day surely the Tibetan people will do the same.
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By the editorial board of The Tibetan Political Review
The editorial board of The Tibetan Political Review is deeply honored to receive the 2014 Lhakar Award for Journalism. Since its founding in 2010, TPR has strived to provide a constructive discussion of the important political issues facing the Tibetan nation, and especially to provide a forum open to all viewpoints. We would also like to congratulate the other Lhakar Award recipients this year: Kenpo Kartse, Chungdak Koren, Jigme Ugyen, Lhamo Tso, Alan Cantos, and Jose Esteve.
By the editorial board of The Tibetan Political Review
Last week, U.S. President Barack Obama followed all his predecessors since Harry Truman and officially proclaimed the commemoration of “Captive Nations Week”. Interestingly, based on the original 1959 Congressional resolution, one of the captive nations being commemorated was Tibet.
According to Slate, Captive Nations Week is an “artifact of the Cold War”. The original Congressional resolution establishing this commemoration declared that the “liberation and independence” of communist-occupied nations was “vital to the national security of the United States.”
The resolution denounced Communist Russia’s direct or indirect role in the “subjugation of the national independence” of countries including: Poland, Hungary, Lithuania, Ukraine, Estonia, Romania, mainland China, North Korea, and Tibet. While clearly understood through the lens of anti-communism, this resolution also expressed powerful moral support for the aspirations of these captive nations. It also showed that the U.S. Congress considered Tibet to be separate from China.
Even more, the resolution linked the “desire for liberty and independence” to the cause of peace. It declared that the fulfilment of these goals is a “powerful deterrent to war and one of the best hopes for a just and lasting peace.
Last week, President Obama declared that the United States stands “with all who still seek to throw off their oppressors and embrace a brighter day…. America extends our support to all peoples seeking to build true democracy, real prosperity, and lasting security. While the road to self-determination is long and treacherous, history proves it is passable.”
Clearly President Obama’s declaration has no more than symbolic significance for Tibet, and even that comes largely indirectly through the original Congressional resolution that mentioned Tibet. U.S. policy does not change based on this declaration.
However, the continued commemoration of the subject of the original 1959 resolution does deserve attention. In addition to its historical significance, it illustrates some of the enduring principles, arguments, and ideals that continue to have resonance for any captive nations still seeking their freedom.
By the editorial board of The Tibetan Political Review
On June 10, 2014, China released a White Paper on Hong Kong’s regional autonomy known as “one country, two systems.”<FN1> Much of the White Paper was filled with economic statistics of the region and self-congratulating statements about how much China has helped the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (HKSAR) since Britain handed it back to China in 1997. As with many Chinese white papers, this document contained glowing hyperbole like “‘one country, two systems’ policy enjoys growing popularity in Hong Kong, winning the wholehearted support from Hong Kong compatriots as well as people in all other parts of China [and] is also thought highly by the international community.” However, the White Paper also made some startling and troubling statements about the limits of the HKSAR’s autonomy and democracy. Indeed, the White Paper even notes that some Hong Kong residents are “confused and lopsided in the understanding of ‘one country, two systems’.” This editorial focuses on some of these statements that sent shockwaves throughout Hong Kong, and the brave reaction of some Hong Kong residents.<FN2>
Hong Kong’s autonomy is limited
The HKSAR’s autonomy was promulgated pursuant to Article 31 of the Chinese Constitution which states that China “may establish special administrative regions when necessary.”<FN3> Although the White Paper describes the HKSAR as enjoying a “high degree of autonomy,” it also points out that this does not mean full autonomy nor decentralized power. The autonomy is also limited in time to 50 years from 1997, as we pointed out in a previous editorial, which suggests that China is merely using autonomy as a temporary tactic to ease Hong Kong back into the “motherland”.<FN4>
China views “one country, two systems” as a limited concept in which Hong Kong’s autonomy is delegated by Beijing and not an inherent power. This means, of course, that China can expand or restrict Hong Kong’s autonomous powers and freedoms as it wishes because Hong Kong does not have an inherent right to autonomy. Autonomy is a privilege granted by Beijing, and like all privileges, it can be revoked or modified. Moreover, an investigation by Reuters revealed that the Chinese government quietly operates a “Shadow Cabinet” in Hong Kong (the Liaison Office), without which the Hong Kong government cannot take any major action, and which exerts its power in a myriad of hidden ways.<FN5>
China’s White Paper points out that the most important thing in “one country, two systems” is upholding China’s sovereignty. The White Paper explicitly states that “two systems” is subordinate to the “one country” principle. This means that China will allow the HKSAR to have capitalism, limited democracy and autonomy (for 50 years) but Beijing reserves the right to take action to protect China’s sovereignty and the “unity” of the nation wherever and whenever China feels it threatened.
Such actions could be directed at perceived threats from Hong Kong residents who protest against China or the Communist Party. Official Chinese commentators have noted that the People’s Liberation Army garrison in Hong Kong could be mobilized if necessary. In a conflict between China’s “sovereignty” and Hong Kong’s “autonomy,” Beijing makes clear the winner will always be China’s sovereign rights and powers.
Beijing is the court of final appeal
The Basic Law is the HKSAR’s mini-constitution and governs the administration of the HKSAR.<FN6> Under the Basic Law, Hong Kong’s courts have jurisdiction over all local civil and criminal laws (except as to defense and foreign affairs) and the right of final adjudication. China allowed Hong Kong to retain the common law system that Britain had used in its former colony, including the concept of judicial independence. However, the White Paper reiterates the Standing Committee of China’s National People’s Congress (NPC) has the right of interpret and amend the Basic Law and this includes the right to review judicial decisions by Hong Kong courts that may interpret the Basic Law. The White Paper calls upon Hong Kong courts to consult the NPC Standing Committee before making any decisions on interpretation of the Basic Law.
Essentially, this means that Hong Kong’s highest court, the Court of Final Appeal, does not have the final word on cases that interpret the Basic Law. Instead, the NPC, or its Standing Committee, can overturn decisions by Hong Kong’s courts. Since the NPC is a rubber-stamp parliament that is subordinate to the Party, ultimately the final decision on the Basic Law governing Hong Kong rests with the Chinese Communist Party. Beijing will effectively interpret and decide any cases concerning the Basic law and Hong Kong judges are being told to take that into account. The White Paper called into question the judicial independence of Hong Kong judges, which sparked protests by Hong Kong lawyers.<FN7>
Only “patriotic” citizens need apply
Perhaps the most troubling provision of China’s White Paper is the section which states that above all else, the people who govern Hong Kong should be “patriotic” and “love the country.” In fact, the White Paper explicitly states “loving the country is the basic political requirement for Hong Kong’s administrators.” If they are not patriotic or cannot be loyal to China, then the HKSAR will deviate from the right direction and put Hong Kong in jeopardy, according to the White Paper. This is a clear signal that Beijing will only tolerate “loyal” subjects to rule Hong Kong and, of course, China means loyal to the Party.
Beijing has promised Hong Kong full universal suffrage by 2017 (20 years after China took over Hong Kong). While the White Paper states that Hong Kong citizens will be allowed to directly elect their Chief Executive in 2017, it also states that the chief executive “must be a person who loves the country and Hong Kong.” This means that Beijing will control the roster of candidates and must pre-approve the list of candidates for chief executive. If Beijing does not approve a candidate for chief executive, or if Beijing decides Hong Kong’s chief executive is not “patriotic” enough, Beijing could nullify his/her election or remove him/her from office.
But Hong Kong Residents Fight Back, For Democracy
How have Hong Kong citizens reacted? An estimated 800,000 Hong Kong residents participated in an unofficial vote on a more democratic process in choosing the city’s top officials. On July 1, a half-million Hong Kongers calling for democracy blocked streets in the central business district. Demonstrators invoked the French Revolution by chanting “Do You Hear the People Sing”, and their banners read “We don’t want communism in Hong Kong” and “Say No to Communist China”.<FN8>
According to Time Magazine, these protesters are “politically sophisticated and well-educated citizens [who are] are outraged that they still have to agitate for these issues to be addressed, instead of being allowed to resolve them through a genuinely democratic legislature and through a leader who has a popular mandate.”<FN9>
The New York Times quoted one young protest leader as saying, “We believe to change society, we need not our words to appeal to politicians, but to use activism to pressure them.” Another leader was quoted as saying, “If the government refused to seriously consider the demand, this group of people, more of them will change from sympathetic to active support, and the sympathetic people may also start all kinds of noncooperative actions. And just think about, how can a government govern if the whole society refuses to cooperate with you.”
The people of Hong Kong are struggling with important issues: democracy versus communist party rule, their identity as Hong Kongers versus Chinese citizens, and how to protect their way of life from an authoritarian government in Beijing that is intent on eroding as many basic freedoms as it can get away with. Fortunately, it appears that many Hong Kong residents are becoming inspired to stand up for what they believe in, regardless of the demands and threats from Beijing.
What does this mean for Tibet?
China does not offer Tibet the “high degree of autonomy” given Hong Kong, which is based on Article 31 of the PRC Constitution. Tibet’s nominal autonomy is based on Article 4 of the PRC Constitution<FN10> and China’s Regional Ethnic Autonomy Law (REAL).<FN11> Under the REAL, Tibet is given far less autonomy than Hong Kong. For example, China has never promised Tibetans they could one day elect their regional leaders and clearly Tibetans enjoy far fewer freedoms than Hong Kong residents. So China’s White Paper on Hong Kong may have limited relevance to Tibet because China is disinclined to give Tibet the expanded autonomy and freedoms that Hong Kong currently enjoys.
Additionally, as we noted in our recent editorial, the current Central Tibetan Administration (CTA) leadership is not actually seeking the substance of Hong Kong-type autonomy because the CTA renounces democracy for Tibet and accepts the current structure of Communist Party rule in Tibet (the Partial Middle Way).<FN12>
Interestingly, one unintended benefit of the Partial Middle Way being so vastly short of the autonomy practiced by Hong Kong is that it gives a perfect rebuttal to China's claim that it represents "covert independence." If China accepts Hong Kong's relatively greater "high degree of autonomy" (in China's own words), then it is hard for China to have a principled objection to Tibet seeking far less. Or at least, China might reject it on other grounds, but it is impossible to seriously consider the Partial Middle Way as "covert independence" if Hong Kong remains part of China with far more freedoms.
Although the Partial Middle Way asks for less than the substance of Hong Kong’s autonomy, the current CTA leadership has at times stated that Article 31 of the PRC Constitution could apply to Tibet (although China has expressly rejected this proposal).<FN13> If Article 31 is relevant, then naturally China’s views on Hong Kong’s autonomy are extremely relevant. China’s White Paper on Hong Kong’s autonomy sheds light on how China views this form of autonomy and the “one country, two systems” formula.
Assuming for the sake of discussion that China were to give Tibet a “high degree of autonomy” similar to Hong Kong, it would surely be with the same limitations. Such autonomy could be revoked or constrained at any time, and there would be no independent enforcement mechanism. Tibet would likely have no more ability to enforce the deal than it did in the 1950s under the Seventeen Point Agreement. China would have the right of final review on any cases concerning Tibet’s autonomy, and the Communist Party would make sure only “patriotic” and “loyal” Tibetans could govern Tibet.
Regardless of what form of autonomy the CTA is seeking for Tibet, China’s White Paper on Hong Kong should give Tibetans some concern. A realistic look at this issue presents an opportunity for those who care about Tibet’s future to be clear about the hard choices that various approaches involve. If the dialogue between China and the CTA resumes, the Tibetan side should take care to address these issues in detail. Such an honest, pragmatic conversation about the practical challenges of various policy options would greatly improve the democratic culture in Tibetan exile society, and would likely lead to better decision-making as well.
1. http://news.xinhuanet.com/english/china/2014-06/10/c_133396891.htm. Alarm in Hong Kong at Chinese white paper affirming Beijing control, http://www.cnn.com/2014/06/11/world/asia/hong-kong-beijing-two-systems-paper/.
6. Hong Kong Lawyers in Mass Silent Protest over China’s White Paper, http://www.rfa.org/english/news/china/silent-06272014145550.html
7. http://www.washingtonpost.com/world/hong-kong-marches-holds-referendum-in-protest-of-chinese-control/2014/07/01/dc933f8c-00fb-11e4-8572-4b1b969b6322_story.html and http://www.nytimes.com/2014/07/02/world/asia/hong-kong-china-democracy-march.html?_r=0
12. http://tibet.net/2013/08/25/lobsang-sangay-tibets-prime-minister-in-exile-rallies-tibetans-in-portland-2/. See also the Sikyong’s comments to the Council on Foreign Relations “That is -- that is what we seek. Now, you raised a very important question, whether Hong Kong be a solution. As per Article 31, a specially administrated region is allowed in the Chinese constitution based on that -- basic law was drafted, and one country, two system was allowed. And that is allowed for Macau. Hence, what I say is that Tibet is not a constitutional challenge for China, because there is already a constitutional provision -- Article 31. . ..” http://www.cfr.org/tibet/conversation-sikyong-lobsang-sangay/p30679.
By the editorial board of The Tibetan Political Review
In early January 2014, a TPR editorial called for a more level-headed debate on independence/autonomy for Tibet. That editorial called for the debate to be de-mystified, and instead treated like any other policy discussion whose facts, assumptions, and arguments should be clearly laid out by both sides. On June 5, 2014, the Central Tibetan Administration (CTA) leadership took a major step toward this goal, launching a new public campaign to promote its “Middle Way Approach”. This MWA Campaign should be applauded, especially as it advances exactly the type of level-headed discussion needed over Tibet’s future.
This is not the first time the CTA has launched such a campaign, but it is different in form and content. With form, it uses modern multimedia technology. With content, this is the first campaign to promote the current administration’s re-interpretation of the Middle Way, which differs from the Middle Way of His Holiness the Dalai Lama in several important ways (as discussed below).
In August 2005, then-Kalon Tripa Samdhong Rinpoche launched what the CTA called “a massive public awareness campaign on the Middle-Way Approach of His Holiness the Dalai Lama”. This campaign used traditional media: a documentary film, Q&A sessions in the Tibetan refugee settlements, and print materials.
This new MWA Campaign, by contrast, uses modern tools of the 21st century: it has a well-designed website, a YouTube video, and downloadable PDFs in multiple languages. It also uses social media like Facebook to spread the message far more widely than the 2005 campaign could have hoped for. It was kicked off with a press conference that gained media attention in major outlets around the world.
These are all signs that the CTA is modernizing its approach to messaging and publicizing the Tibetan struggle, and should make all Tibetans feel proud. Significant credit surely goes to the Sikyong, Lobsang Sangay, and the minister of Information and International Relations, Dickyi Chhoyang, as well as the CTA employees who worked on the multimedia materials.
The first thing that must be applauded about the new content is that it is a breath of fresh air. The campaign promotes the CTA’s policies on their own merits. Gone are last year’s official threats to “spare no efforts” to “deal” with criticism of the Middle Way. Gone are the official insinuations that criticism of the Middle Way somehow “denigrates” His Holiness. Happily, the leadership seems to have discarded these inappropriate tactics -- and perhaps even embraced Samdhong Rinpoche’s view that the real aim of both independence and Middle Way supporters is the welfare of the Tibetan people.<FN1>
The MWA Campaign website sets out a list of achievements attributed to the Middle Way, lists of supporters, and also a briefing note and FAQ. Essentially, the CTA is laying out in one place all its arguments as to why its policy is the best one for the future of Tibet. This is exactly the sort of level-headed advocacy that TPR hoped for back in January 2014, and it now falls to independence supporters to step up and do the same to advocate their views.
There are a few areas, however, where the content of the MWA Campaign is problematic. The MWA Campaign’s generally helpful “Timeline” has a tendency to gloss over or even distort some inconvenient facts. For example:
1) The Timeline says that His Holiness and the CTA made an “internal decision” in favor of the Middle Way back in 1974; the reality is more complicated, and the policy did not fall into place until later. In His Holiness’s March 10 address in 1977, he still spoke of “our struggle for the independence of Tibet.” Even as late as 1986 (a year before the Five Point Peace Plan, which was the public start of the Middle Way), His Holiness declared in his March 10 address that “Tibetans do not want to live under alien occupation.” By incorrectly portraying the Middle Way as having been firmly in place back in 1974, the Timeline overstates the link to the 1979-1985 fact finding delegations (which are incorrectly listed as major achievements of the Middle Way).The main deficiency of the MWA Campaign content is, quite simply, that it does not accurately describe what the CTA leadership now means by the term “Middle Way”. It fails to show that the meaning of that term has been changed significantly from the vision once outlined by His Holiness. This is a problem, since the premise of the campaign is to advocate for a policy that the campaign does not accurately describe.
Sikyong Sangay’s new interpretation of the Middle Way abandons the goal of democracy, allows China full discretion in militarization, and accepts Communist Party rule in Tibet in its “present structure” (for more detail see here and here ). At the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), the Sikyong made it clear that his vision of the Middle Way does not call for real political reform, and would essentially be satisfied if Tibet were geographically unified and there were more ethnic Tibetans in the Communist leadership in Tibet.
It must be emphasized what a major policy change this is. The CFR moderator, noted China legal scholar Jerry Cohen, seemed incredulous (“how do you maintain autonomy if you have continuing party control of the government”).
Later at the National Endowment for Democracy, the Sikyong defended his policy by claiming that his re-interpretation of the Middle Way is no different than the policy laid out by His Holiness or in the last administration’s Memorandum and Note. This is demonstrably inaccurate. His Holiness has called for Tibet to be a democratic and demilitarized self-governing entity. The Memorandum calls for “the right of Tibetans to create their own regional government and government institutions and processes.” Even this month, His Holiness called on China to “enter the mainstream of global democracy” in His statement on the 25th Anniversary of the Tiananmen Massacre (the Sikyong made no statement on this occasion).
His Holiness’s Middle Way can be thought of as a proposed compromise between occupation and independence. The idea is, by is very nature, relative; it depends on independence as one of the two end points to be in the “middle” of. Sikyong Sangay’s policy is, by contrast, a proposed compromise between occupation and the Middle Way. By moving the end-points, it has become the Partial-Middle Way.
During His Holiness’s eight-sentence long remarks upon being presented with materials for the MWA Campaign following His teachings at Tibetan Children’s Village, His Holiness referred all questions about it to the Sikyong. Clearly, this means the Partial-Middle Way belongs to the Sikyong. The CTA leadership must therefore be clearer with its audience about exactly what is (and is not) encompassed in the Partial-Middle Way.
• What would a future Tibet look like without democracy, and without restrictions on militarization or Communist party control? How is this genuine autonomy?
By honestly addressing the differences between the original Middle Way and the new Partial-Middle Way, the MWA Campaign can become more effective in laying out the arguments for where the CTA leadership wants to take the future of Tibet.
Footnote 1: The previous CTA administration issued a 2010 document entitled Middle Way Policy and all Recent Related Documents, which stated that “if any of those organisations and individuals who support the Middle-Way policy try to propagate this policy by saying that it is the expressed wish of His Holiness the Dalai Lama and so all should accept it, then they are simply spreading disinformation. We consider this as absolutely inappropriate and undesirable.” While this 2010 document is silent on whether autonomous Tibet should be a democratic or socialist state, it included a 2008 speech by His Holiness to the European Parliament where He stated “I am a staunch believer in democracy.”
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By the editorial board of The Tibetan Political Review
The classic negotiation book “Getting to Yes”, by Harvard law professor Roger Fisher and anthropologist William Ury, describes how a successful negotiator uses the concept of BATNA: Best Alternative to Negotiated Agreement. BATNA is a tool to understand the interests and options of two negotiating parties, and can be used as a strategic point of leverage. In the Tibetan context, BATNA is also a way to understand that the official Tibetan policy of seeking autonomy is actually helped – not harmed – by calls for independence.
A party’s BATNA is the best course of action if a negotiated agreement cannot be reached. There are many examples of this, from international diplomacy to a shopkeeper deciding how aggressively to bargain with a customer. For example, if a shopkeeper sees that a customer desperately wants an item and cannot get it elsewhere, then the shopkeeper will not bargain down the price. The customer has no good BATNA, and is basically at the shopkeeper’s mercy.
This is a simplistic explanation. There are ways to change BATNA, and to play a weak hand well. A short editorial cannot do justice to the concept.
The Taiwan-China Talks
BATNA is driving the first direct Taiwan-China talks since 1949. On February 11, 2014, the top officials for cross-Strait relations of both Taiwan and China began historic confidence-building talks in Nanjing.
According to the BBC, China “sees these talks as a useful opportunity to forge closer ties with Taiwan while a relatively pro-Beijing president remains in power on the island.” The Washington Post adds, “Taiwan’s people remain firmly opposed to the idea of reunification with China, with about 80 percent supporting the status quo of de-facto independence”.
From China’s perspective, the BATNA here is simple. China knows that Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou favors eventual reunification, but faces a strong domestic pro-independence movement. Ma is currently deeply unpopular for several reasons, and he may well lose re-election in 2016. Therefore, if China doesn’t try to reach a solution with Ma in power, then China’s BATNA – best alternative option – is unappealing.
China’s BATNA alternative is to deal with a more hostile, pro-independence Taiwanese president in 2016, probably from the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). Because China sees dealing with Ma as the better option, according to the BBC analysis, China is willing to hold these historic talks.
This suggests that the strength of the pro-independence DPP is actually helping propel the Taiwan-China talks, since China cannot take Taiwanese willingness to compromise for granted. Ironically, when the KMT tried to suppress pro-independence voices before Li Teng-hui’s presidency, it may have actually been hurting its negotiating strength with Beijing.
The Meaning for Tibet
The relevance of these Taiwan-China talks to the case of Tibet is clear, and even the Tibetan government-in-exile has prominently posted the BBC article mentioned above on its website. But China is not talking with President Ma because it is morally right to resolve disputes through dialogue rather than force. China is talking with Ma because it prefers that to the very real prospect of dealing with a Taiwan led by a pro-independence president later.
This BATNA analysis suggests that the Tibetan government-in-exile’s official Middle Way policy of seeking autonomy is actually helped by strong pro-independence sentiment in Tibetan society. In fact, BATNA suggests that the only reason Beijing would ever consider any type of Tibetan autonomy is that it considers the alternative – Tibetan independence – even worse.
So, counterintuitively, any possible success of the Middle Way actually depends on independence as a viable alternative course. Otherwise China has no BATNA reason to talk with Dharamsala.
Obviously, both His Holiness and Samdhong Rinpoche support the Middle Way (at least as it was originally defined, not necessarily the recent re-interpretation to exclude democracy, embrace the structures of communist rule, and accept unlimited Chinese militarization). Even so, His Holiness declared in his Second Strasbourg Address in 2008, “we certainly have the right to explore all other political options available to us.” Samdhong Rinpoche recently stated that the “real aim of both [the Middle Way and independence supporters] is the welfare of the Tibetan people.”
Even by the Middle Way’s own terms, it is relative. It can only exist relative to a viable alternative of independence. Without that, there is nothing for the Middle Way to be in the “middle” of.
Given all this, it becomes clear just how counterproductive and even dangerous it is to try to impose an official orthodoxy in the Middle Way/Independence debate. In fact, doing so plays into China’s hands by eliminating probably the only BATNA situation that might force Beijing to negotiate at all.
Therefore, is the current leadership of the Tibetan government-in-exile ready to revise its statements that criticism of the Middle Way is “immoral” and “baseless”? Is Tibetan exile society ready to accept that a strong pro-independence loyal-opposition party (like the fledgling Tibetan National Congress) may actually help drive Beijing to real negotiations, if they happen at all? Hopefully we are getting to yes.
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By the editorial board of The Tibetan Political Review
Many Tibet supporters know that Tibet was an independent country prior to the 1949-50 invasion by the People’s Republic of China. Less well-known is that Tibet was one of the great empires in Central Asia from the Seventh to Ninth Centuries, had diplomatic relations and signed treaties with several neighboring kingdoms and empires, and even briefly occupied the ancient Chinese capital of Xi’an. From this period Tibetans remember the three great Dharma Kings.
The first of these Dharma Kings and perhaps the most famous was Songtsen Gampo (617-649/50), believed to be the thirty-third king of the Yarlung Dynasty, who founded the Tibetan Empire. Songtsen Gampo united various Tibetan tribes and established a matrimonial alliance with a Tibetan wife from the kingdom of Zhangzhung near Mt. Kailash.
In 637, Songtsen Gampo married Nepalese Princess Bhrikuti. He also desired a Chinese wife, which the Tang Chinese Emperor was reluctant to provide. But under threat of invasion, the Tang Emperor ultimately gave his daughter, Princess Wen Cheng, as a bride to Songtsen Gampo in 641. (Songtsen Gampo eventually had five wives.)
Both the Chinese and Nepalese princesses were Buddhist and it is said that the Chinese princess founded the Ramoche Temple in Lhasa (whose entrance faces east toward China) while the Nepalese princess founded the Jokhang (whose entrance faces west toward Nepal).
Tibetan armies under Songtsen Gampo were known as strong and powerful warriors to the Chinese and the Tang Annals note their fine weapons, armor and bravery.
The second great Dharma King was Trisong Detsen who ruled from 755 to c. 797 and is known for formally establishing Buddhism as the state religion in Tibet. Trisong Detsen invited both Indian and Chinese Buddhist scholars to a great debate in Samye, located between Lhasa and the historic Yarlung seat in Lhoka. Under Trisong Detsen’s reign, Indian scholars were invited to translate Buddhist canon into Tibetan, historic Samye Monastery was founded, and the Boudhanath Stupa in Kathmandu Valley was constructed.
In 763, Tibetan armies under Trisong Detsen defeated Chinese armies and briefly occupied the ancient Tang Dynasty capital of Xi’an. With the Chinese emperor having fled, the Tibetans installed Li Chenghong as a puppet emperor for about a month. In 783 a treaty with China was concluded giving the entire Kokonor region to Tibet. In 778, Trisong Detsen formed an alliance with the King of Siam (modern Thailand) and they joined forces to fight Chinese armies in Sichuan. During the latter period of Trisong Detsen’s reign, he was preoccupied fighting the armies of the great Arab Caliph, Haroun Al-Rashid (of 1,001 Arabian Nights fame), as Tibetan armies expanded west.
The last of the great Dharma Kings was Tri Ralpachen (reign c. 815-838). Under Ralpachen’s reign the Tibetan Empire reached its greatest extent and included parts of China, India, Nepal, and almost all of what is now called East Turkestan/Xinjiang. Ralpachen promoted Buddhism throughout Tibet and ordered translation of Buddhists texts into Tibetan. Ralpachen built a nine-story temple at U-shang-do, near the Tsangpo river, which contained Buddhist scriptures, chortens and images.
In 821, Ralpachen and Tang Emperor Mu Zong concluded a treaty, the text of which was inscribed on three stone pillars. One pillar was erected in the Chinese capital of Xi’an, one on the border between China and Tibet, and one (the only remaining pillar) in Lhasa known as the Doring Pillar. The treaty established that the “whole region to the east” was “Great China” and the “whole region to the west” was “Great Tibet.” The treaty declared that “Tibetans shall be happy in Tibet and Chinese shall be happy in China…”
China’s official White Paper on “Ownership of Tibet” describes very little of this period. The only references are to alliances between Tibetans and the Tang Dynasty and the marriage of Princess Wen Cheng to Songtsen Gampo. The White Paper mentions the Tang-Tibet treaty pillar in Lhasa but only references a section about the two empires being akin to uncle and nephew. There is no mention in the White Paper about the many military conflicts between Tibet and China during this period, the Tibetan occupation of Xi’an (under Trisong Detsen), or that the Tang Emperor had no choice but to give his daughter in order to placate the powerful Tibetan king Songsten Gampo.
This is not to say that the Chinese Government has ignored this period. In July 2013, China built a multi-million dollar fake Potala Palace opposite the Kyichu River from the real Potala to be used as a stage for a lavish play about Princess Wen Cheng. This play is designed to reinforce Chinese propaganda that Wen Cheng brought Buddhism to Tibet (ignoring Nepalese Princess Bhrikuti’s contributions) and civilized the “barbaric” and “warlike” Tibetans. It also reinforces the stereotype, widely believed in China, that China has always been a benevolent neighbor and later ruler to Tibetans and introduced Tibetans to “advanced” Chinese culture and later “socialism with Chinese characteristics.”
Tibetan writer Woeser has blogged about the Communist Party’s attempts to create a new myth around Princes Wen Cheng that reinforces China’s narrative of Sino-Tibetan history and relations. TPR also wrote last year how China was using this narrative to twist Tibetan history, quoting Faulkner that “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
This may seem like ancient history but it is very relevant to Tibetans today. Last year Tibetans in exile (but not the Central Tibetan Administration (CTA)) celebrated the 100th anniversary of the 13th Dalai Lama’s declaration of independence from the Manchu Qing Dynasty in 1913. The 13th Dalai Lama issued the “The Proclamation of Independence,” a five-point public document reasserting Tibetan independence and ending the priest-patron relationship. The subsequent invasion and occupation of Tibet by the Chinese from 1949-1959 in no way diminishes the achievement of the 13th Dalai Lama in architecting Tibet’s emergence as a modern nation. February 13 is now being informally celebrated as Tibetan Independence Day by many Tibetans. This year, Tibetans and Tibet groups (though not the CTA) are commemorating the ancient Tibetan empire, including the treaty signed between Tibet and China in 821.
We hope the Central Tibetan Administration will officially recognize the importance of February 13 with some form of formal acknowledgment. February 13 has become a day when Tibetans and supporters remember that Tibet is a great civilization with a proud and long history of independence.
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By the editorial board of The Tibetan Political Review
As part of TPR’s effort to contribute toward a more level-headed discussion on the independence/autonomy debate, we believe a good place to start is greater accuracy in distinguishing between “freedom” (rangwang), “independence” (rangzen), and “autonomy” (rangkyong).
FREEDOM: Freedom is a subjective term. There is no single definition of what all people would consider freedom. Fundamentally, freedom means that one feels free and acts freely (which is a bit of a tautology). It includes the absence of coercion or constraint, and liberation from the power of another.
For a slave, freedom can mean the removal of shackles. For an oppressed minority, freedom can mean achieving the same civil rights as the majority population. For a subjugated nation (think William Wallace as depicted in Braveheart), freedom can mean breaking the political ties to a colonizer.
Basically, freedom is feeling free.
INDEPENDENCE: Independence is an objective term, as defined in political science. Independence refers to sovereign statehood. When the World Court looked at Kosovo’s declaration of “independence”, it was understood by all that this meant its claim to be a sovereign state.
One can debate whether any state is truly “independent” when impacted by forces like great-power politics and global trade. But this is not the same as challenging the global system of formally sovereign states. The idea of sovereign statehood has been a fundamental principle of international law since at least 1648.
Basically, independence is having a separate country.
AUTONOMY: Interestingly, autonomy does not have a settled definition in law or political science. One legal definition perhaps comes closest: autonomous areas are “regions of a State, usually possessing some ethnic or cultural distinctiveness, which have been granted separate powers of internal administration, to whatever degree, without being detached from the State of which they are part.”
The very wide range of global forms of autonomy are summarized in a 2004 study of Tibetan autonomy, authored by the late Ted Sorensen and the law firm Paul Weiss Rifkind Wharton & Garrison, and published by the Belfer Center at Harvard.
Basically, autonomy is having some type of self-rule, but as part of a larger country.
A Little More Accuracy, Please
From the brief description above, it should be obvious that there is a big difference between the subjective term “freedom” and the objective terms “independence” and “autonomy”. Or in Tibetan: rangwang (freedom), rangzen (indepdendence), and rangkyong (autonomy).
In the Tibetan exile political discourse, however, there seems to be a blurring of lines between these three ideas.
For example, supporters of both independence and autonomy have muddled the message of the self-immolators. Wang Lixiong performed an analysis of self-immolators’ last words in December 2012 (so now it is obviously outdated) that found that 38% prayed for His Holiness the Dalai Lama, 35% expressed courage or responsibility, 19% called for Tibet’s independence, etc. Many of these categories also included a call for freedom. Importantly, not a single self-immolator called for autonomy.
At least one prominent pro-independence writer has suggested that a self-immolator calling for the return of His Holiness necessarily implies a demand for Tibetan independence. We believe this goes too far. It could in theory be true, or it could simply mean the return of their religious leader: the point is that we cannot know for certain unless they say it.
On the other hand (and perhaps there are more ready examples since promoting autonomy is the official position), the Kashag (cabinet) goes to the opposite extreme. The Kashag effectively edits out even crystal-clear voices for independence. According to the Kashag, the self-immolators’ demands are “freedom for the Tibetan people and the return of His Holiness the Dalai Lama to Tibet.” While not technically inaccurate (since freedom could include independence or autonomy), it is misleading for two reasons:
- First, some self-immolators have expressly called for independence, while none have called for autonomy.
- Second, the Kashag and Sikyong often use the word “freedom” to promote their specific Middle Way policy of autonomy, implying that the goals are either “freedom” (really meaning “autonomy”) or “independence”.
Furthermore, it is a conspicuous omission when the Kashag argues that self-immolation is caused by “political repression, economic marginalization, cultural assimilation and environmental destruction”. This list prominently ignores that many self-immolators demanded independence. So it seems this list should also include not just “repression” (which is a human rights issue) but also “a demand for Tibet’s independence”. That would make it far more complete.
Chitue Jamyang Soepa, Takna Jigme Sangpo, and Sikyong Lobsang Sangay (photo: tibet.net)
In another recent example, at a book-launch about Takna Jigme Sangpo, the Sikyong discussed the former political prisoner’s “activism”, “various political activities”, and “slogans of Tibetan freedom” while in prison. This was a painful omission: the core motivation of Sangpo’s heroism was, quite simply, Tibetan independence. This should not be edited out even if one supports autonomy.
In fact, Sangpo was originally sentenced for “seeking ‘Tibetan independence’ among other reactionary propaganda”, according to Chinese documents. However the Sikyong merely referred to Sangpo’s “opposition against harsh policies”, implying that Sangpo merely disagreed with certain Chinese policies. It is truly regrettable that, in this case, Chinese sentencing documents are more accurate than the Sikyong’s remarks.
A Modest Proposal
We believe that it would help set a better tone in the independence/autonomy debate if everyone used the correct terms, and did not attempt to edit out views of other Tibetans. It is especially important not to edit out or improperly co-opt the words and sacrifices of the self-immolators and political prisoners.
The fact is, freedom is subjective and could mean several things. Independence and autonomy are basically objective and have clear meanings (even if autonomy has almost infinite variations).
Probably every single Tibetan wants “freedom”. It is something we can all rally behind. But what is freedom? Some might define it as independence, some might mean a type of autonomy, and some have even talked about settling for basic civil rights as Chinese citizens. If we all use the correct terms, and acknowledge and respect that there are differing views of “freedom”, this will go a long way toward promoting a more productive discussion.
(Note: please see also TPR's editorial "Stumbling Toward a More Level-Headed Debate on Independence v. Autonomy in 2014?")
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