Leading a land in limbo

Campaigners for Tibet insist that China continues to occupy the region against the will of the majority of its people. They still hope it will be granted autonomy and seek support in Asia and the West. But they face an uphill struggle as China’s international influence grows.

The spiritual leader of Tibet, the current Dalai Lama, fled to India in 1959, following a Chinese crackdown on an uprising by Tibetans. India granted him political asylum and the Tibetan government-in-exile has been based in northern India’s Dharamshala region since then. Its elected political leader is Dr Lobsang Sangay, President of the Tibetan Administration. Asian Affairs’ Duncan Bartlett interviewed him during a recent trip to London

Duncan Bartlett: His Holiness, the Dalai Lama, recently told a reporter that he feels Donald Trump ‘lacks moral principle’. Do you think that was a reference to President Trump’s attitude towards the People’s Republic of China? Was it something in connection with Tibet?

Lobsang Sangay: I think he was talking in [terms of] general world affairs. His Holiness believes in the European Union. Similarly, he believes in America playing a leading role in the world, in promoting democracy, in promoting human rights and in offering help where it’s needed. So, the Dalai Lama is taking a global view. He would like to see the world as one, humanity as one. He says we have one home, this earth, and we cannot keep destroying the environment without consequences. In that context, he said America should be playing a leading role in the world and not withdrawing from the battle against climate change and other issues.

DB: When it comes to America setting the tone for democracy and human rights, how did you feel when you saw Donald Trump shaking hands with China’s leader Xi Jinping in Osaka at the G20 meeting recently?

LS: The US government has been very supportive on the Tibetan issue. For example, Vice President Mike Pence made a strong speech on religious freedom last year in which he referenced Tibet several times. And Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has also mentioned Tibet in his speeches several times. So, all in all, President Trump and US government have been very supportive.

DB: But what about the US trade war with China – how do you see that affecting the Tibet issue?

LS: We are not against any country or community or person engaging with China. The United States and China have an important and complex relationship, so shaking hands and holding meetings and engaging with China is the right thing to do. But we always say that, while you engage with China on business matters, you should also raise the issue of human rights. That’s what we hope the American president will be doing.

DB: In London, you had a meeting in Parliament. Do you feel that your voice is being heard and recognised by politicians here in the UK?

LS: Yes, particularly by the Honorable Speaker who acknowledged me in the House of Commons in the presence of the Prime Minister and other cabinet ministers. There is support amongst parliamentarians for the Tibetan cause.

DB: But there’s also division, isn’t there? Within the Conservative Party, we know that there are different perspectives on China. Some people are more in favour of greater engagement with the PRC through business relationships and closer diplomatic ties, and others are more hawkish. Where does Tibet fit into that picture?

LS: Whether you’re hawkish or you’re pro-engagement, what we say is that you must stand up for human rights and democracy. You can’t say, let’s do business only and give a clean sheet on human rights.

DB: What would be the implications of a democracy which signs a free trade agreement with China?

LS: From my experience, when a country signs a free trade agreement with China, there is sometimes an unwritten understanding that the issue of human rights is not addressed. After signing a free trade deal, few countries speak out on human rights in China in general and Tibet in particular. So, we say, you can have a free trade deal but keep speaking up and if necessary keep criticising China on human rights issues as well.

DB: I want to turn to Asian matters. Narendra Modi in India recently won a landslide election victory. When he was signed in as Prime Minister, many diplomats from around the world attended the ceremony. You weren’t invited, presumably under pressure from China. How did you feel about that?

LS: India has done more for the Tibetans than any other country. The Tibet administration is based in India and a large number of exiled Tibetans live in India. Yet from time to time the Chinese government puts enormous pressure on India and demands specific things and under such circumstances, sometimes the Indian government obliges.

His Holiness, the Dalai Lama, with Dr Lobsang Sangay (seated)
His Holiness, the Dalai Lama, with Dr Lobsang Sangay (seated)

DB: There’s another aspect to this as well, isn’t there? Which is that one of Narendra Modi’s defining characteristics has been to emphasise Hindu nationalism. Do you think that that is putting pressure on followers of other faiths such as Buddhism?

LS: If you go back to the sacred texts, the scriptures of Buddhism and Hinduism are very similar in many ways. There are some differences but in spirit they are quite similar. Mr Modi was welcomed to the Mahabodhi Temple at Bodh Gaya where Buddha was enlightened for the first time.He shows respect to Buddhism and quotes Buddha quite regularly in his speeches.

DB: But you’d like to see a change in approach by India towards the Tibetan government in exile, wouldn’t you? You’d like official recognition by the Indians?

LS: The official recognition of the Tibetan government in exile has never been our priority. Our priority has always been the six million Tibetans inside Tibet. We believe genuine autonomy should be granted to Tibet. When that happens, the Tibetan administration will be dissolved and I will become an ordinary person. So, we have made it very clear: our administration’s goal is never to return to Tibet to take power.

DB: Let me ask you about Nepal, because recently some leaders of the Tibetan diaspora were prevented from entering Nepal. All the indications are that the Nepalese are following instructions that are being given to them from the Chinese embassy in Kathmandu.

The Dalai Lama and Lobsang Sangay in Tibet
The Dalai Lama and Lobsang Sangay in Tibet

LS: Nepal is under tremendous pressure. If I arrive at the airport, I will be deported, even if I have a valid visa. The list is maintained by the Chinese embassy in Nepal with the blessing of the Chinese government. It’s unfortunate because Nepal and Tibet have historically had a deep relationship. If you listen to songs even today by Nepalese singers, they sing about Tibet all the time. But sometimes they deport Tibetans who come through Nepal back to Tibet; they are imprisoned and go through prolonged suffering. It’s very unfortunate.

DB: His Holiness the Dalai Lama has said that his enduring hope is to return to Tibet. In what circumstances could Tibet achieve a degree of autonomy which you would regard as satisfactory?

LS: Things change all the time. So, we hope that the Chinese leadership has the will and wisdom to look at the Tibet issue and say: after 60 years this matter has still not been resolved. In fact, things are going from bad to worse and it’s neither helping the Chinese nor helping Tibetans. So we need to find a solution to the Tibet issue. From our side, we have been willing to meet and have dialogue anytime, anywhere. The envoy to the Dalai Lama should meet with the representative of the Chinese government and solve this issue as soon as possible.

DB: His Holiness said in the interview, ‘China is changing.’ That seems to be true in many ways, but it’s not changing in a way which is necessarily encouraging for the Tibetans in exile. If you look at the situation of Uighurs in Xinjiang, if you look at the attitude of the current leadership of the PRC towards Taiwan, there seems to be a more hardline centrist approach.

LS: Yes, unfortunately, the Chinese government has been taking a hardline attitude towards everybody, including Chinese citizens and it’s far worse in the case of Tibet. Some Tibetans have committed self-immolation, as a protest It’s very difficult to gather detailed information about the situation the people face but my view is that the situation in China as a whole has gone from bad to worse and Tibetans are paying a huge price under the present repressive system of China.


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