Freedom struggle

Tibetan PM warns that India and China can't sidestep his country if they aim for peaceful ties

Dr Lobsang Sangay talks about Beijing’s repression of Tibet and Modi’s recent visit to China.

Prime Minister of the Tibetan government-in-exile Dr Lobsang Sangay was educated at Delhi University and Harvard Law School.  In an email interview, he speaks of how discussions about Tibet were absent in the media coverage of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s recent visit to China and Beijing’s policy of repression.

The issue of Tibet was largely missing from the Indian media both before and during Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s recent visit to China. What are your feelings about it?
Even though the Indian media remained largely silent on the issue of Tibet, the Chinese state media raised it a few days before the Indian prime minister’s visit there. They demanded from the prime minister that he should stop visiting Arunachal Pradesh and stop supporting His Holiness the Dalai Lama. So China realises that the core of the better India-China relations lies in Tibet.

Do you think the Indian media and the Indian foreign policy establishment have veered around to the view that raising the Tibet issue with the Chinese is inimical to India’s interests?
The Chinese government has been pressuring governments across the world in not meeting the Dalai Lama or speaking up on the issue of Tibet. It is however to be noted that there is no going around Tibet if India and China want to have a peaceful and amicable relationship.

During Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to India last year, there were protests by Tibetans in Delhi. Why were the Tibetans themselves so quiet before Modi’s recent visit?
The Tibetan community has urged the Indian government time and again to put Tibet as the core issue on the negotiation table just as the Chinese are putting Tibet as one of the core issues. The Tibetans hoped that Prime Minister Modi would discuss the issue of Tibet with President Xi Jinping.

So were the hopes of Tibetans realised during Modi’s recent visit to China? Was the visit a boost for the Tibetan cause in any way?
Prime Minister Modi’s visit was mainly centred on business. It will be a bit premature to say that Tibetan hopes were realised during the visit. However, India’s gain is Tibet’s gain. I continue to urge the government and people of India to make Tibet a core issue in Indo-China relations.

Both Beijing and New Delhi have been harping on Buddhism being the shared link between India and China. Would you say it is a hypocritical hyperbole on the part of Beijing considering its repressive methods of governance and denial of rights to the Tibetans?
India and China share a common cultural bond based on Buddhism. Tibet also has a similar link with India when centuries ago, Indian masters and Tibetan students crossed the Himalayas. As His Holiness the Dalai Lama always says, India is the guru and Tibet the chela. Since India is one of the forerunners in South Asia and also in the world, it has the moral duty to uplift the human rights situation of other countries, including the rights of the Tibetans. On the other hand, India has been most gracious to the Tibetan refugees in these last 56 years.

Self-immolations in protest against the Chinese government began in the Tibetan Autonomous Region in February 2009 and claimed 100 lives by February 3, 2013. Has this form of protest stopped?
Till now, 139 Tibetans have self-immolated. The Chinese government pinpoints the Tibetan leadership for orchestrating this. The Central Tibetan Administration (that is, the Tibetan government-in-exile) has persistently appealed to all Tibetans to desist from self-immolations but sadly Tibetans have not ceased in setting themselves ablaze. The self immolators have called for the return of His Holiness the Dalai Lama to his homeland and freedom for Tibet.

The provocation that drove Tibetans to self-immolation is the deepening anguish and resentment at the conditions prevailing in their homeland. China’s policies have failed miserably, leading to Tibetans being politically repressed, culturally assimilated, socially discriminated, and economically marginalised, as also to the destruction of the environment. Therefore, the solution lies solely with Beijing.

What is the degree of cultural and religious freedom people in Tibet enjoy currently?
The Chinese government is demographically swamping Tibetans by encouraging Chinese migrant workers to settle in Tibet. They are culturally assimilated with the Chinese migrants flocking to Tibetan cities. Tibetans are becoming second-class citizens in their own homeland. Buddhist temples and monasteries in Tibet are forced to become propaganda centres for the ruling Communist Party. Tibetans are denied their basic human rights.

During Xi’s visit to India last year, the Dalai Lama reminded Indians that 'Tibet’s problem is also India’s problem'. Could you elaborate upon what the Dalai Lama meant?
I absolutely agree with His Holiness when he said Tibet’s problem is also India’s problem. There was no common border between India and China before 1959. Tibet was a buffer between the two Asian giants. Therefore, Tibet cannot be overstepped and avoided if India and China want a peaceful border and an amicable bilateral relationship.

In your speech on the 53rd Anniversary of the Tibetan National Uprising Day, you quoted a Chinese scholar saying that there are 'more Chinese than Tibetans, more police than monks, more surveillance cameras than windows' in Lhasa. Could you give us a sense of the repression in Tibet?
Tibet is under virtual lockdown since the eruption of the 2008 peaceful protests, and the ongoing self-immolation protests. Restrictions on people moving around have greatly intensified with multiple checkpoints in major urban centres. Tibetans must swipe their identity cards that are embedded with sophisticated second generation chips, [and they are] under constant surveillance cameras. One Tibetan has described this indignity: “Your identity card is like your shadow. Without it you cannot move.” Even Chinese tourists comment that the present conditions in Tibet are like that of a war zone.

What has been the Chinese government’s response to the Middle Way policy, which the Tibetan government-in-exile offered?
The middle way policy was envisioned by His Holiness the Dalai Lama but democratically adopted by the Central Tibetan Administration. The middle way policy straddles the middle path between the status quo and independence – one that categorically rejects the present repressive and colonial policies of the Chinese government towards the Tibetan people while not seeking separation from the People’s Republic of China. The genuine autonomy that we are seeking is within the framework of the constitution of the People’s Republic of China. It is a win-win proposition for everyone involved. The world has acknowledged its reasonableness.

It’s said Beijing has been stalling negotiations with the Tibetans because it is waiting for the Dalai Lama to die, appointing its own nominee in his place, and scripting a solution to its liking. Do you think such a game plan is tenable?
The reincarnation of the Dalai Lama is a purely religious affair, which also pertains only to the Tibetans. Therefore, it is ludicrous that the communist Chinese wants to appoint their Dalai Lama. His Holiness the Dalai Lama always says that the cause of Tibet is the cause of six million Tibetan people and it will remain so till the rights and dignity of the Tibetan people are restored.

Ajaz Ashraf is a journalist from Delhi. His novel, The Hour Before Dawn, published by HarperCollins, is available in bookstores.

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