Today, the 10th of March 2011, the Fourteenth Dalai Lama announced that he will transfer his formal authority to the leader that the exile-Tibetans chose in the upcoming elections for a Tibetan Prime Minister-in-Exile.
The exile-Tibetans have established a state-like polity in India and have since the sixties made efforts to democratise it. The dual role of the Dalai Lama, being both a religious and a political authority, may be seen, however, as an obstacle to democracy. He is a non-elected leader and his semi-divine position in Tibetan society is a source of democratic deficiencies. Some Tibetans also view the exalted position of the Dalai Lama as an obstacle to the emergence of new political leadership and sincere public debate in which people may oppose the guidelines of the Dalai Lama-two problems that the Fourteenth Dalai Lama himself has tried to mend by disentangling religion and politics.
Exile-Tibetans have overall been reluctant to get more political influence at the expense of the Dalai Lama’s power. For instance, the Eleventh Tibetan Parliament-in-Exile, when it discussed the Charter of Tibetans-in-Exile in 1991, democratically decided that the Dalai Lama should hold a prominent position within exile-Tibetan governance. Several of the charter’s articles confirm this. In the democratic set-up, executive power is vested in the Dalai Lama according to article 19 of the Charter of Tibetans-in-Exile. He approves bills passed by the parliament, he can promulgate acts that have the force of law, and he can dissolve the parliament. Furthermore, article 36 on legislative power and article 55 on promulgation of ordinances state that legislation requires the Dalai Lama’s assent before it can become law.
The Dalai Lama has nevertheless insisted on reforms and compelled the exile-Tibetans to assume more responsibility and relieve him of political burdens, for instance, when the exile-Tibetans directly elected a prime minister-in-exile for the first time in 2001. Thus, the Dalai Lama’s own democratising efforts have led him into a paradoxical temporary position that he himself calls ‘semi-retirement’ now that the Tibetans hold democratic elections of their political leader, the prime minister. The idea of semi-retirement aptly captures the Dalai Lama’s efforts to separate his own political say from his religious authority, in that retirement from the political sphere allows him to dedicate his time to religious matters.
The Dalai Lama has increasingly distinguished between the religious and the political aspects of his authority as captured in the notion of semi-retirement. Now, in his March 10 speech this year, the Dalai Lama has stated that he will suggest changes to the charter that will allow him to completely withdraw from politics. He stated: “During the forthcoming eleventh session of the fourteenth Tibetan Parliament in Exile, which begins on 14th March, I will formally propose that the necessary amendments be made to the Charter for Tibetans in Exile, reflecting my decision to devolve my formal authority to the elected leader.” Let us see whether the new leadership emerging from the March 2011 elections will press for such changes or if the exile-Tibetans again will vote against the Dalai Lama’s wish of retirement from politics.
PhD, Assistant Professor in Tibetology and China Studies
Asian Studies Section
ToRS – Department of Cross-Cultural and Regional Studies
University of Copenhagen
Office phone: +45 35 32 88 32
Ph.D. Candidate, Tibetology
Nordic Institute of Asian Studies
When the Dalai Lama now has called the Tibetans in exile to deliberate on the future course of their freedom struggle, is he surrendering to the impatient Tibetans who want to discontinue his “Middle-Way” approach of dialogue with Beijing authorities? If so, a peaceful and negotiated solution to the issue of Tibet might very well be impossible.
The time has come for the Tibetans in exile to evaluate the current situation of Tibet and rethink the strategies of the Tibetan freedom movement. This was the message of the Dalai Lama when he in October summoned the representatives of the Tibetans for a week-long emergency assembly commencing on 17th November 2008 in Dharamsala, the North Indian town in the Himalayan foothills that is the political and cultural capital of the exile-Tibetans. The Dalai Lama has admitted that his own strategy called the “Middle-Way,” seeking a demilitarised, autonomous and democratic Tibet under China, had been unsuccessful. The conditions inside Tibet, he pointed out, had not improved, and furthermore, his dialogue with Beijing authorities had not resulted in any agreement. By facing the failure of his strategy and asking the Tibetan people to take charge of the future course, the Dalai Lama also showed himself as an upholder of the democratic values that he has persistently communicated to his Tibetan followers. Yet, if it now becomes the impatient Tibetans who guide their fellow exiles, what Beijing authorities will face is a withdrawal from the compromise seeking Middle-Way, a hardening of Tibetan rhetoric, and a return to the original goal of complete independence in Tibet. Then a peaceful and negotiated settlement on the issue of Tibet seems impossible.
The Middle-Way Approach
Since the Dalai Lama’s flight from Tibet in 1959 and the establishment of a Tibetan Government-in-Exile in India, the Tibetan freedom movement in exile has struggled to return to a free and democratic Tibet. The Tibetan Government-in-Exile claims to have a historical, legal and moral right to represent all Tibetans, whether residing in Tibet or abroad. It sees itself as the continuation of the traditional Tibetan government that ruled Tibet in pre-1951 Lhasa as a de facto independent country since 1912. The Dalai Lama and the Government-in-Exile does not acknowledge the existing territorial boundaries of Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) under China, but claims the historical boundaries of Tibet that includes the three provinces of Utsang, Kham and Amdo presently part of the Chinese provinces of Gansu, Qinghai, Sichuan and Yunnan. The Dalai Lama is presented as the disposed leader of a Tibet that once consisted of these three provinces.
Since the beginning of exile, the purpose of the Tibetan freedom movement was to restore independence in Tibet. After the Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping in 1979 apparently told the Dalai Lama’s brother, Gyalo Thondup, that Tibetan independence was not for negotiation, but that other issues relating to Tibet were possible to resolve, the Dalai Lama began to moderate his demands. In the so-called Strasbourg Proposal addressed to the European Parliament in 1988, the Dalai Lama publicly stated that he gave up upon independence. He reached out to Beijing and sought compromises with the Chinese government by not demanding independence in Tibet but merely autonomy. The strategy adopted by the Dalai Lama became known as the Middle-Way approach.
The Tibetan leadership in exile perceives the Middle-Way approach as the moderate position of not accepting the present status of Tibet under Chinese rule on the one hand, and not seeking independence of Tibet on the other hand. By taking the position between these two options, the Tibetan leadership presents the Middle-Way as a compromise that is mutually beneficial to both parties: It secures the unity, territorial integrity and stability of China, which is of outmost importance to Beijing authorities, and it also secures the cultural integrity of Tibet since the Tibetans’ self-governance will protect and preserve Tibetan national identity, religion and culture that are destroyed under Chinese rule.
The Middle-Way forms the basis for negotiations that the Dalai Lama has presented to the government of China. As the official stance of the exile-Tibetan freedom movement, the Middle-Way means that the Dalai Lama has the responsibility to negotiate a solution regarding the Tibet issue on the basis of the following:
- The political entity of Tibet is comprised of the three traditional provinces that shall enjoy autonomy within the framework of the Chinese constitution. By calling this “meaningful autonomy,” the Dalai Lama makes it a point that although there already exists a Tibet Autonomous Region under the People’s Republic of China, he does not agree with its territorial boundaries or the way it is governed.
- Tibet shall be democratic. This means that leadership in Tibet is legitimate if democratically elected, and that there shall be institutionalised separation and balance of powers by distinguishing between the executive, legislative and judiciary.
- Tibet shall be a zone of peace, i.e. a completely demilitarized and nuclear-free zone serving as a neutral buffer between China and India. This means that China will have to withdraw its troops from Tibet.
- China shall be in charge of Tibet’s external affairs. Internal affairs such as education, religion, culture, health, environment protection and so forth shall be governed by the Tibetans themselves.
- Finally, the Chinese government must cease human rights violations in Tibet and mass-migration of non-Tibetans into Tibet.
The Dalai Lama has been firmly committed to the non-violent means of diplomacy, cooperation, and dialogue with Beijing authorities to reach a solution on the issue of Tibet. Such dialogues were initiated in 2002. The purpose of these meetings was from the Tibetan side to re-establish direct contact with Beijing, to explain the Middle-Way, and to produce mutual understanding and trust between the two parties. It is the representatives of the Dalai Lama and not the Tibetan Government-in-Exile who have entered the dialogue, since the Chinese government does not recognise the Government-in-Exile as a legitimate representative of the Tibetans. Six rounds of Sino-Tibetan bilateral talks did not bring about any concessions or commitment from the Chinese side and no solution on the issue of Tibet.
A seventh round of talks occurred in July 2008, and on 4th and 5th November 2008, the Dalai Lama’s envoys Kasur Lodi Gyaltsen Gyari and Kelsang Gyaltsen again attended an eight round of talks in Beijing. The Tibetan envoys have yet to disclose their assessment of the latest talk, but according to several news reports, one Communist Party official had conveyed the message to the envoys that any type of “semi-independence” or “independence in disguise” was out of the question. China did not give in to demands and blamed the Tibetans for the failed talks. The negotiations have reached an impasse, and the reconciliation gestures from the Dalai Lama’s side have had little or no effect on Beijing. Some Tibetan critics perceive these talks as an “imaginary dialogue” arguing that Beijing hides behind the image of dialogue in order to appease an international audience and stall the issue of T
ibet-as if the issue of Tibet will disappear with the demise of the present Dalai Lama.
The Emergency Assembly
The Dalai Lama has recently admitted that although he has tried to cooperate with Beijing, his faith in the Chinese government is diminishing and he expects little from the Sino-Tibetan dialogue. Furthermore, the wave of protests inside Tibet since March 2008, and the many calls for independence emerging from the Tibetan diaspora, had made the international media question if the Dalai Lama’s Middle-Way was out of synch with the dreams and opinions of the people for whom he is a spokesperson. It seemed necessary to review the situation. The Dalai Lama called for an emergency assembly to be held on 17th to 22nd November.[*] Among the more than 500 participants are former and present parliamentarians and cabinet ministers, and representatives of non-governmental organisations, schools, religious traditions, and communities in exile. The delegates attending the assembly are supposed to represent the Tibetans and have been ordered to solicit opinions and suggestions from the people to present at the assembly.
The Dalai Lama has compelled the Tibetan people to take the collective responsibility of discussing the future course of their freedom movement. The purpose of the emergency assembly is to be a forum for Tibetan citizens to voice their aspirations and views through “free and frank discussions.” Though no final decision will be taken at the emergency assembly, it will probably propose resolutions to the Tibetan Parliament-in-Exile regarding their freedom struggle. It is the Tibetans’ democratic right to vote for change and they have to decide which role for instance the Sino-Tibetan dialogue should play in a future strategy and what the goal of the movement itself should be. It is only the commitment to a non-violent struggle that is non-negotiable. Taking up arms is not at all a solution that will be contemplated at the emergency assembly.
Resuming the Original Goal of Independence?
Some see the current stalemate in the Sino-Tibetan dialogue as a legitimate reason to review the Middle-Way and change the objective of the Tibetan struggle from “meaningful autonomy” to “complete independence.” Many Tibetans have lost their patience and want to turn their backs to the “imaginary dialogue.” They feel that they are running out of time. The Dalai Lama’s recent hospitalisation was a shocking wake-up call for the Tibetans. The Dalai Lama will not lead their freedom movement forever.
Forces within the Tibetan Parliament-in-Exile and non-governmental organisations have for long pushed the issue of reviewing the Middle-Way strategy. At the emergency assembly commencing this week, that issue will certainly be on the agenda. The issue of the Middle-Way, however, is a source of tension in the Tibetan diaspora. Since the Middle-Way approach originated from and is upheld by the Dalai Lama, the foremost religious and political authority among Tibetans, many impatient and frustrated exiles, who want complete independence and not merely autonomy, are muted. Radical exile-Tibetan activists have lamented that the Government-in-Exile limits their freedom to voice alternatives to the Middle-Way by binding them to their duty of being loyal towards the Dalai Lama. The Dalai Lama is aware of this dilemma that many Tibetans personally feel. Therefore he will not attend the emergency assembly and he has publicly stated that unless he withdraws to the background, Tibetans will not speak freely. It seems that the Dalai Lama welcomes alternatives to his Middle-Way and that he believes the time has come to think anew. It has nonetheless been questioned whether the assembly will result in any radical policy changes. The apprehensive prediction of some Tibetan critics is that although the assembly calls for alternative voices and opinions, it will change nothing. They are afraid that that innovative thinking and alternative voices will be curbed by leaders of the Tibetan Government-in-Exile who stubbornly hold on to the Middle-Way believing that they prove their loyalty towards the Dalai Lama.
Not all Tibetans see the assembly as the appropriate time to change the goal of their struggle from autonomy to independence, since that, according to them, will alienate the Dalai Lama from the freedom movement. They deem this unwise since the Dalai Lama is the unifying force of the Tibetans in and outside Tibet. Tibetans fearfully relate to a future freedom struggle that is not led by the Dalai Lama, and so should Beijing authorities as well: When there is no uniting leader like the Dalai Lama, the force uniting the Tibetans could be the dream of an independent Tibet. Behind this banner they can re-enchant their freedom struggle and work in common effort.
The issue of Tibet may not be resolved during the lifetime of their leader, the Fourteenth Dalai Lama. Thus the emergency assembly can be seen as an opportune time to make policy changes in order to be better equipped to face the challenge of continuing a Tibetan freedom struggle that is not guided by the Dalai Lama. If the exile-Tibetan freedom movement adopt a more hardline approach, cut the dialogue to Beijing, and resume the original goal of independence in Tibet that many Tibetans feel strongly for, Beijing might have lost its chance of a peacefully negotiated solution to the issue of Tibet. Furthermore, when the Dalai Lama is no longer there to restrain the Tibetans, the freedom struggle will undoubtedly be radicalised. A negotiated settlement will, however, be accepted by many of the approximately 122,000 Tibetans living in exile if the Dalai Lama consolidates it. And many Tibetans residing inside Tibet just want the Dalai Lama to return to Tibet, no matter status of autonomy or independence. If China acceded to “meaningful autonomy,” and the Dalai Lama were to return to Tibet, then many Tibetans would in fact accept that. Therefore, Beijing needs the Dalai Lama. His Middle-Way is Beijing’s best option.
[*] The opening and closing sessions of the emergency assembly, taking place daily from 9:30 a.m. until 5:00 p.m. Indian time from 17th until 22nd November, are telecasted live on the Tibetan Government-in-Exile’s website www.tibetonline.tv
The Fourteenth Dalai Lama and Tibetan Freedom Fight
Trine Brox Ph.D. Fellow, Tibetan Studies Department of Cross-Cultural and Regional Studies University of Copenhagen
As the Tibetan exiles and their supporters commemorated the “Tibetan Uprising Day” on March 10, as every year since 1959, unusual news tickled out of Tibet: Hundreds of monks from the Drepung Monastery in the vicinity of Lhasa had marched downtown shouting slogans like “free Tibet” and “long live the Dalai Lama.” The monks had staged a peaceful demonstration demanding independence from China and the return of their exiled leader the Fourteenth Dalai Lama. It was 19 years since anyone had witnessed protests of this scale in Tibet. In 1989, the demonstrations were brutally suppressed and martial law was declared in Lhasa. Last week’s demonstrations were staged by monks, and although they where effectively stopped by the police, it had a contagious effect. Lhasa experienced a series of peaceful demonstrations the following days. By the fifth day, lay people had joined in the protests, and their anger and frustration transformed peaceful demonstrations into riots. Moreover, footage and reports released by the Tibetan Centre for Human Rights and Democracy, an NGO with reporters inside Tibet monitoring the situation, showed that the protests had spread to the eastern parts of Tibet as well.
At the time of writing—ten days after the initial protests broke out in Lhasa—there is no news about what is currently happening inside Tibet. The silence is disturbing. Lacking first hand reports, the Media has turned to the Dalai Lama. Now the headlines are questioning the role of the Dalai Lama and his leadership within and outside the Tibetan borders.
On the one hand headlines in the vein of “Wen Jiabao accuses Dalai Lama of organising riots” (Reuters, 18.03.08) tell us that China’s Premier blames the Dalai Lama of instigating the troubles, charging the exiled leader with the steering of his Tibetan marionettes. On the other hand, with headlines such as “Young Tibetans reject Dalai Lama’s lead” (CNN, 18.03.08) or “Younger generation rejects non-violent tradition” (The Guardian, 18.03.08) the press reports that there is a new generation of Tibetans who abrogates the Dalai Lama’s leadership and policies. Headlines such as these beg the questions on the extent of the Dalai Lama’s authority.
The Dalai Lama, holding the traditionally highest political and religious authority among Tibetans, may indeed exert enormous influence. Until now, however, he has used his enormous prestige strictly to bind the impatient to his creed of non-violence. Nonetheless, attempts become visible among the exiles to distinguish between the Dalai Lama as a religious leader and the Dalai Lama as a political leader of the freedom struggle. In that way some Tibetans try to advance alternative political strategies—or even oppose the policies of the Dalai Lama directly—while concurrently maintaining him as their religious leader and national progenitor.
The authority of the Dalai Lama The Fourteenth Dalai Lama is the foremost religious and political authority in the Tibetan society and has become the epitome of the Tibetan nation. He is Yizhin Norbu—”the wish-fulfilling jewel.” He is not a god, but he is worshipped as an incarnation of the Bodhisattva Avaloketisvara. Tibetans listen to him as a source for both spiritual advice and worldly guidance. Moreover, when he speaks in public, his words serve as political guidelines for the Tibetan people’s freedom movement. In the eyes of the majority of Tibetan exiles, the Dalai Lama has been, and still is, the undisputed political leader of Tibet. The Dalai Lama’s special authority means that the majority of the Tibetans are deeply devoted to him. During many talks that I have had, every time the Dalai Lama’s name was mentioned, Tibetans humbly lowered their heads with hands collected in front of them as in prayer and worship. It is also evident that the Fourteenth Dalai Lama enjoys enormous popular support in Tibet. When he spoke against wearing fur in a speech in Amaravati, India, in 2006, Tibetans inside Tibet demonstrated their loyalty to the Dalai Lama by throwing their fur lined coats on bonfires.
Thus, when the Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao accuses the Dalai Lama of orchestrating riots in Tibet, he is painfully aware that the Dalai Lama after forty-nine years in exile still has authority among the Tibetans. Nevertheless, nothing indicates that the Dalai Lama used this authority to incite riots. On the contrary, the Dalai Lama is against such riots.
The violence and vandalism carried out by mainly lay Tibetans in the wake of peaceful marches led by monks, are expressions of anger and frustration going against the clear and well-known guidelines outlined by the Dalai Lama. He has repeatedly spoken against a violent freedom struggle. Instead he has sought compromises with the Chinese government through his so-called middle way approach. With this policy, the Dalai Lama has been calling for negotiation and cooperation between the Tibetans and the Chinese to find a solution for what he calls “meaningful autonomy” in Tibet—not independence. Acts of violence, whether against others or oneself, are acts defying the stand of the Dalai Lama. That Tibetans now appear to disobey the Dalai Lama—their wish-fulfilling jewel—during acts of violence reveals the level of their frustration.
A new generation freedom fighters? The older generation generally obeys the Dalai Lama as a religious and political leader. Among the young Tibetans, however, there is more polyvocality: they express alternative political stands and at times are outright ‘disobedient.’ To prevent misunderstanding: Young Tibetans are not a homogeneous group speaking with a single voice. Although they do fight together under the banner of “Free Tibet,” some interpret this as “complete independence” while others follow the “meaningful autonomy” line of the Dalai Lama. Yet this is not tantamount to a generational divide, but rather a disagreement across generations. As for the methods to “free Tibet,” an overwhelming majority seem to support the Dalai Lama’s creed of non-violence, but the definition of non-violence varies: some believe that violence against oneself is not really violence. Therefore we have seen attempts of self-immolation as witnessed in Mumbai when twenty-four year old Lhagpa Tsering set him self on fire as a protest during the Chinese President Hu Jintao’s India visit on November 23, 2006. (This form of protest has also a long tradition, especially in East Asian Buddhism, visible, for example, during the Vietnam War.) Another example is the current hunger strikes of the hundred Tibetan exiles who were jailed in northern India on the fourth day of their march to Tibet that started on March 10. Such acts are ‘disobedient’ political acts by Tibetan exiles who concurrently venerate the Dalai Lama as their leader and as a father of the Tibetan nation. One activist, Thupten Tsering, once told me that Tibetans like himself, who fight for independence, have not denounced the Dalai Lama in any way. In fact, all Tibetans that I have interviewed made this same point. Thupten Tsering explains how it is possible to have deep religious faith in the Dalai Lama and see him as the highest authority while simultaneously disagreeing or opposing his political guidelines:
We respect him. He is a great teacher. I regard him as my father. I look at him like my parent and even with parents we have trouble sometimes, right? We don’t agree at some point. Then we make up. So I look at His Holiness that way. Sometimes I get upset, angry at him, but at the end of the day, he’s like my dad, you know.
The Dalai Lama is “His Holiness” also for those who have an alternative political stand. While the Dalai Lama as an exalted authority is a uniting force for the pan-Tibetan freedom struggle,
he is not able to unite all Tibetans under one single policy. As a political figure, he is like the parent that you respect and, at times, disagree with.
When the Fourteenth Dalai Lama began to focus on human rights and the protection of Tibetan culture, religion, and ecology, his move to replace “independence” with “meaningful autonomy” was partly a diplomatic gesture to show Beijing that he was willing to negotiate. The Dalai Lama claims that he is being “realistic.” Many bewildered Tibetans saw this as abandoning the Tibetan cause and taking a step backwards. Hence, while the Dalai Lama officially changed his stand from independence to autonomy, not everybody followed him: for example the most influent exile-Tibetan organisation, the Tibetan Youth Congress, but also parts of the older generation, some of whom had once taken part in the 1959 uprising in Lhasa and had even joined the Tibetan guerrilla to defend their faith and the Dalai Lama. Yet when the Tibetans inside Tibet today are shouting slogans and waving their national flag calling for freedom or independence, it is not because they are against the Dalai Lama’s leadership. On the contrary, they most certainly want him to return as their leader.
For those who still fight for independence, the dilemma they are facing is that while they remain loyal to the Dalai Lama’s exalted religious position, they do not always agree with him as a political strategist. As a result of this personal dilemma, they have begun to distinguish between the political and the religious aspects of the Dalai Lama’s authority. This is not so much a symptom of a split neither between generations, between the clergy and the lay people, nor between the exiles and those left behind in Tibet. Whether freedom is defined as independence or meaningful autonomy, when it comes to freedom struggle, as we saw on March 10, the Tibetans unite behind the image of the Dalai Lama and under the banner of “free Tibet.” The Tibetan-Chinese Dilemma “Dalai Lama Threatens to Resign” (New York Times, 19.03.08) was the latest headline phrased by the media as a warning from the Dalai Lama to the Tibetans that he will withdraw from his position if they do not abstain from using violence. His warning must be seen in line with the aforementioned attempts to separate the Dalai Lama’s dual position as a religious and political authority.
One aspect has apparently been overlooked by Western analysts. While this latest statement must be seen as the Dalai Lama’s stern warning to the Tibetans, the Chinese authorities would do good in taking notice of it. For a peaceful solution, they need the Dalai Lama’s authority among the Tibetans. But if they continue to put him in the tight spot of being behind the latest riots, forcing him to withdraw from the public, those Tibetans who have grown so impatient in recent years might then be the ones to be in command. The result will be disastrous for both sides. Yet the Chinese authorities are also facing a dilemma of their own: If they accept the Dalai Lama as a speaker for the Tibetans, they would give up the Party’s claim to sole representation, thus encouraging the many minority groups of their empire to intensify their struggle. The Chinese are facing either a Tibetan disaster now or a slow farewell to single party rule in the future. They cannot, however, invite the world to their “Journey of Harmony” (their motto for the Olympic Games 2008) and not enter into some sort of a dialogue about the Tibetan question.
Trine Brox is writing her Ph.D. dissertation on the contesting imaginations of democracy and democratisation in the Tibetan diaspora.
Also by Trine Brox: Brox, Trine 2003: Tibetansk kulturdiskurs: En undersøgelse og analyse af Dalai Lamas og de tibetanske eksilmyndigheders tibetansksprogede diskurs om kultur i årene 1979-2002, MA thesis, University of Copenhagen. —— 2006: “Tibetan Culture as the Battlefield: How the Term ‘Tibetan Culture’ is Utilized as a Political Strategy”, L. Schmithausen (ed.): Buddhismus in Geschichte und Gegenwart: Gewalt und Gewaltlosigkeit im Buddhismus. Weiterbildendes Studium (X), Hamburg: Universität Hamburg. Abt. für Kultur und Geschichte Indiens und Tibets, 85-105. —— [forthcoming]: “Changing the Tibetan Way? Contesting Secularisms in the Tibetan Diaspora”, P. Schwieger (ed.): Proceedings of the 11th Seminar of the International Association for Tibetan Studies: Bonn 2006. Bonn.