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The end of the Dalai Lama's Middle Way?

By Claude Arpi
November 12, 2008 14:17 IST
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For the first time since the Tibetans took refuge in India in 1959, the Dalai Lama has called a special meeting to decide the future course of action over the Tibetans' relation with China.

Considering the 'serious situation inside Tibet', the Dalai Lama used article 59 of the Tibetan Charter that empowers him to call a 'Special Meeting.' Kalons (cabinet ministers), current and former members of the Tibetan Parliament in Exile, government officials, Tibetan NGOs, and intellectuals will participate in the meeting be held from November 17 to 22 in Dharamsala.

A few weeks earlier, addressing a large audience at the annual foundation day of the Tibetan Children's Village in Dharamsala, the Dalai Lama surprised many when he declared that he had 'given up' on China.

'It's difficult to talk to those who don't believe in truth [the Chinese]. I have clearly mentioned that I still have faith in the Chinese people, but my faith in the Chinese government is thinning.'

He added that despite sincerely pursuing the mutually beneficial Middle Way policy in dealing with China, there was no positive response from Beijing.

A few days later, four of his representatives visited China for the eighth round of talks since 2002. On their return, the envoys were mum, citing the general meeting to be held.

But the Chinese spoke.

Zhu Weiqun, a vice minister of the United Front went public to declare that though the talks 'were frank and sincere, the two sides had great divergence over China's policy over Tibet.'

Lodi Gyari and his colleagues had also met Du Qinglin, vice chairman of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference who told Xinhua News Agency that no 'Tibet independence', 'half independence' or 'covert independence' would be tolerated.

Strangely, the same words were used by the Chinese when the Dalai Lama presented his Strasbourg Proposal in June 1988. To the consternation of many, he decided to surrender the independence of his country and resign himself to obtaining a genuine autonomy.

To understand the Dalai Lama's recent change of mind, one should go further back into history.

The Dalai Lama followed by 85,000 of his countrymen fled the Roof of the World in March 1959. He was immediately given asylum by the Nehru government with the condition that he would not indulge 'in politics' on Indian soil. His hands were tightly bound.

In 1973, in his annual March 10 statement, he outlined his prime aspiration, the happiness of six million Tibetans: 'If the Tibetans in Tibet are truly happy under Chinese rule then there is no reason for us here in exile to argue otherwise.'

Thirty-five years later, he reiterated in Dharamsala: 'The issue at hand is the welfare of the Tibetan people and is not about my personal status and affairs.' This has remained the Tibetan leader's main consideration and has constantly guided his Beijing policy.

His efforts to reach out to the Chinese leadership started in April 1973, when Kundeling, one of his ministers returning from Japan, met with one Chinese representative in Hong Kong.

George Patterson, a Scottish missionary who lived in Tibet before the invasion and was working in Hong Kong as a journalist, was instrumental in brokering a meeting with Chinese officials. Nothing came of the encounter.

A month later, Gyalo Thondup, one of the Dalai Lama's brothers, met a US embassy official in Delhi to discuss the possibility of approaching Beijing to start a dialogue. Patrick Moynihan, the US ambassador, reported the meeting to the US Secretary of State in Washington. Gyalo Thondup told the US official that the Tibetans 'might be flexible if talks with China got underway.'

The US ambassador informed his boss that 'the embassy officer gave Thondup no encouragement.' Nixon had visited Beijing a year earlier, but Tibet was then not on the US agenda.

The death of Mao Zedong in September 1976 heralded a new era for China and Tibet. The Dalai Lama saw a ray of hope for his countrymen. On March 10, 1978, he announced that he was keen that Tibetans living in exile should be allowed to visit Tibet and vice-versa.

This declaration, probably read by the Chinese leadership in Beijing, prompted a new opening.

At the end of 1978, Gyalo Thondup met Li Ju-sheng, designated as Xinhua Director No. 2, in Hong Kong. Both had several encounters which lasted five or six weeks. Li relayed his conversations to the leadership in Beijing and recommended to Deng Xiaoping to invite Thondup to discuss the situation in Tibet.

The meeting between the new Chinese leader maximo and the Dalai Lama's brother took place in Beijing in February 1979. Was it a coincidence that Atal Bihari Vajpayee, India's external affairs minister, visited China around that time?

Immediately, Deng told Thondup that he would like to invite the refugees in India and abroad to return to Tibet: 'It is better [for them] to see once than to hear a hundred times.'

During his encounter with Gyalo Thondup, Deng stated: 'The door is opened for negotiations as long as we don't speak about independence. Everything else is negotiable.'

Ten years later, this statement became the foundation of the Dalai Lama's 'Middle Way' approach. Soon after the Deng-Thondup meeting, three 'fact-finding' delegations were sent by the Dalai Lama to visit Tibet.

From Beijing's side, the leadership was under the impression that the 'backward Tibetans' had finally been 'liberated'. They had, however, completely misread the people's feelings. Wherever the Dalai Lama's envoys went, they were mobbed by crowds of Tibetans.

One delegate remembered: 'The Tibetans tried even to tear our chubas (Tibetan dress) to have them as relics.' The entire Lhasa population was in the streets; everybody wanting a darshan of the Dalai Lama's envoys.

Hu Yaobang, the party general secretary, decided to see for himself what was going on in Tibet. On reaching Lhasa, he was shocked to see the level of poverty in Tibet. During a meeting with the party cadres, he asked 'whether all the money Beijing had poured into Tibet over the previous years had been thrown into the Yarlung Tsangpo [Brahmaputra] river.'

In March 1981, the Dalai Lama wrote to Deng Xiaoping: 'With truth and equality as our foundations, we must try to develop friendship between Tibetans and Chinese through better understanding in the future. The time has come to apply, with a sense of urgency, our common wisdom in a spirit of tolerance and broad‑mindedness in order to achieve genuine happiness for the Tibetans.'

The answer of the Chinese government came indirectly in July 1981 through their embassy in Delhi. Unfortunately, it only mentioned the status of the Dalai Lama and his future role, in case he came back to the 'motherland': 'The Dalai Lama could enjoy the same political status and living conditions as he had before 1959.'

This was not acceptable to the Dalai Lama and his exiled countrymen. The Tibetan leader wanted to 'negotiate' the happiness and fate of his six million countrymen, not his own future.

In contradiction to Deng's statement, the Chinese leadership has, till today, kept this approach: talks are about the Dalai Lama's status and role, not about Tibet's status, which according to them had been fixed in 1951, when Tibet was 'liberated.' This has always been objected to by the Dalai Lama, for whom the happiness of his people is the main issue to be settled.

In April 1982, a delegation left for Beijing for preliminary talks with the Chinese authorities. The Chinese stuck to their guns. Nothing came out of the talks.

In October 1984, the same Tibetan delegation returned to Beijing. In the meantime the Dalai Lama had expressed his wish to visit Tibet in 1985.

Though the 1984 talks were the follow-up of the 1982 visit, the main subject of the discussions was the proposed visit of the Dalai Lama to his native land. Here again the Chinese used delaying tactics: they were 'busy' with developmental works in Tibet (sic); they could not receive him.

At the end of the 1980s, the Dalai Lama decided to change his policy and internationalise the Tibet issue. What triggered this change was what he himself called the 'vast seas' of Chinese migrants who 'threaten the very existence of the Tibetans as a distinct people.'

On June 18, 1988, he crossed the Rubicon. While addressing the members of the European Parliament in Strasbourg, he explained: 'I thought a long time on how to achieve a realistic solution to my nation's plight.' He elucidated: 'The whole of Tibet should become a self-governing democratic political entity founded on law by agreement of the people for common good and the protection of themselves and their environment, in association with the People's Republic of China.'

When he officially renounced 'independence', a dream cherished by millions, his countrymen, especially the younger generation, reacted strongly. Torn apart between their aspiration for freedom and their love for their leader, they however followed for a time their leader.

Why was the Dalai Lama forced to cross the Rubicon in 1988?

The main urgency was the colonisation of Tibet by Chinese settlers, putting in peril Tibet as a nation. The same threat still looms large today. Many other factors were involved: the lukewarmness of the Government of India to support any initiative; the failure of the 1982 and 1984 'talks'; and the purge of some of the most progressive Chinese leaders at the end of the '80s.

An alarming situation inside Tibet and the pressure from some of the Western nations to give up 'independence' made him choose the 'Middle Way' policy. He also probably believed in the genuine sincerity of some of the Chinese leaders! But had he any other choice?

For the Tibetan leader, perhaps even harder than the lack of understanding from his people, was the fact that Beijing immediately rejected his historic compromise. On June 23, 1988, a communiqué of the foreign ministry in Beijing stated that there was no question for the People's Republic to accept 'independence, semi-independence or independence in disguise.'

Retrospectively, little was achieved during the past 30 years. No solution was in sight and the future seemed rather bleak for the Tibetans. After their 'successful' Olympics, it was doubtful if Beijing would suddenly become more flexible. All this probably has weighed in the Dalai Lama's mind before he decided to announce that he had 'given up on the Chinese' and that he would request his people to take their own destiny in their hands.

But it does not mean that the Dalai Lama has dropped his dream to see one day the Tibetan people happy in the Land of Tibet. It may only take more time and other paths.

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Claude Arpi