March 8, 2009

A Response to Time Magazine’s “Pain of Tibet” Article.

In the most recent issue of Time Magazine, Beijing-based writer Simon Elegant reflects on His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s flagging attempts to negotiate with China in a piece entitled “The Pain of Tibet”.  The author notes that “hardening attitudes” on both sides of the Tibet issue portend “no relief ahead” for those on the roof of the world. 

Elegant believes, as many do, that the Chinese government’s “strategy of oppression at home and stonewalling overseas” is scotching the possibility of finding common ground and “will one day backfire.”  He also believes that His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s “Middle Way” approach for resolving the issue–a moderate policy proposed by His Holiness and adopted democratically by the Central Tibetan Administration and the Tibetan people which stresses equality, nonviolence, and mutual cooperation among all concerned parties–has “hit a brick wall.”  He elaborates: 

 …It may be time for the Dalai Lama to acknowledge that he has failed. For all his success in keeping the issue of Tibet on the world stage, this has not made and will not make one iota of difference to Beijing. His government-in-exile has always insisted on discussions about such matters as self-rule. Now it is time for one final, bold stroke: an announcement that the Dalai Lama is willing to return without any preconditions. Though Beijing has said it would accept him back on those terms, it is possible that the Chinese leadership–mindful of the return of exiles like the Ayatullah Khomeini to Iran–will try to block his path or refuse to live up to its promise to allow the Dalai Lama to go back to Tibet. But such a result would only broaden support and sympathy for the Tibetan cause.

It bears mentioning that His Holiness doesn’t have any illusions about how the “Middle Way” policy seems to be working:  last year, he called a special meeting of Tibetan leaders and others to discuss the situation after his office issued a statement saying, “His Holiness feels he cannot afford to pretend that his persistent efforts to find a mutually satisfactory solution to the Tibetan problem are bearing fruit.”  Of course, that said, the outcome of that special meeting was that the hundreds of Tibetans assembled agreed to continue the “Middle Way” approach!

What accounts for such a decision?  Why stay the course of the “Middle Way”?

First, we would do well to clarify the terms of the Tibetan Government-in-Exile. While the higher-ups in the Chinese government would like us to believe that His Holiness is “a jackal clad in Buddhist monk’s robes” inciting splittist activities, this is simply not accurate. Nor are claims that he is seeking complete independence. In fact, His Holiness has modified his position significantly over the last twenty-five years. Early on he said that nothing less than complete independence–including control of the Tibetan economy and environmental resources, but excluding defense and foreign affairs–would be acceptable. Since then he has gradually revised his initiative to what it is today:  achieving some small measure of autonomy. He’s on the record as early as 2003, saying, “We accept Tibet as part of the People’s Republic of China.” And last year, he reiterated this in a press release, saying, “For the future of Tibet, I have decided to find a solution within the framework of the People’s Republic of China.” His goal today is for what Thubten Samphel, the Tibetan Government-in-Exile’s spokesman, refers to as “genuine spiritual and cultural autonomy, and a degree of political space.”

The “Middle Way” approach is often derided by independence-seeking Tibetans and others as too conciliatory or otherwise ineffectual. Cynical politicos also suggest that His Holiness’ advocacy of such a position has more to do with his concern for the soteriological well-being of his Buddhist people than with working the problem.  And yet, there are a few reasons to see the “Middle Way” approach as wise and pragmatic:

  1. To quote Salil Tripathi, nonviolence “gives the Tibetan movement its moral appeal.” Much of the sympathy shown by the rest of the world to the Tibet movement is the result of the example of nonviolence set by His Holiness and emulated by his fellow Tibetans. His Holiness knows this. And if the Tibetans have to settle on cultural preservation in exile, they will need the attention and support of the rest of the world.
  2. As Tripathi also says, “there is no reason to believe that a violent uprising [in Tibet] will succeed.” As mentioned above, the Tibetans are grossly outnumbered and have limited resources for armed combat. Also, as we have seen with the furor leading up to the Beijing Olympics, China has an appalling human rights record, particularly in Tibet. An insurrection would give the Chinese government incentive to crack down with a vengeance. There is no way Tibetans would win a violent conflict against the largest army in the world–period. It would result only in further loss of life and culture, and His Holiness knows that.
  3. Tibet is too materially precious to the Chinese for them to think about sharing or leaving. They will hang on to it tenaciously, and can (see above). China needs Tibet for repopulation and expansion. The land itself is also resource-rich. While the Dalai Lama is concerned about both environmental protection in the region and the material prosperity of Tibetans, the Chinese will never concede control of resources that include valuable mineral deposits, and he knows that. The best hope for Tibetans to benefit from their land and resources is to remain part of China.
  4. The inordinately powerful and influential China’s various diplomatic and trade relationships seem to have dissuaded other world nations from doing much beyond wringing their hands and expressing disapproval about the Tibet situation and other human rights issues.  Nobody wants to make China too angry, and for reasons with far-reaching implications.  With the P.R.C. poised to play significant role in addressing the world economic crisis, some have even gone as far as to state outright that they have de-prioritized their concerns about rights violations altogether, as the Obama Administration did just a couple of weeks ago:  speaking to reporters during her recent trip to Asia, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said, “We have to continue to press [China] but our pressing on [issues of human rights] can’t interfere with the global economic crisis, the global climate change crisis and the security crises.”  The interests are too great and problems too many for any bloc of nations to dare apply pressure beyond strong language and the heaping of accolades upon His Holiness. (This is why NGOs and non-profits have tended to take the lead on action around the Tibet issue.)  His Holiness knows this too.

The situation is indeed unsatisfying. Very unsatisfying.  Like a lot of people, I think Tibet is a sovereign nation and that it should be free. I don’t think Tibetans should have to beg for scraps of their home. I don’t think their request “Please don’t actively destroy our heritage, rewrite our history, and violate our human rights” should be thought of as “pre-conditions” that need to be set aside for productive dialogue to be possible. But I do believe in Tibet’s leader and his policy. I think it’s saving lives–Tibetan and Chinese lives. I really and truly believe he has everyone’s best interests at heart, and that he practices what he preaches in the “Middle Way” approach.  (Obviously, a few folks in Sweden do too.)

Furthermore, I find his level of honesty about his own actions and the history of his country to be unusual for a politician with his level of responsibility. Indeed, it’s kind of incredible. He’s unafraid of bursting popular stereotypes about his country and his people by talking openly and honestly about things like Tibet’s history with the CIA or the divide right now over the “Middle Way” approach. He’s willing to talk about it and hear other perspectives. And his progressivism is really quite astonishing. To quote Pankaj Mishra:

    He speaks remorsefully about Tibet’s retrograde and self-serving ruling élite in the pre-Communist period, and the country’s fatal lack of preparation for the twentieth century. For the Tibetan community in exile, he has introduced a democratic constitution and legislative elections. Recently, he offered his most radical idea yet, one that overturns nearly half a millennium of tradition: that the next Dalai Lama be chosen by popular vote.

I think that in addition to the joy and compassion he shares, he shows a lot of courage, class, dignity, and real leadership in these troubled times. His friend Robert Thurman says it best:

It is a very remarkable thing that a world leader [is facing] severe repression–even genocidal repression–and yet he is not preaching terrorism or violence. This is an amazing example to the world, and, really, people should listen to him.

[This piece includes material from a post that appeared at my blog on 08.03.08.]

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