Dalai Lama: Taken for a ride

Crunch time for the Tibetan movement


The Dalai Lama failed to capitalize on the largest, most-powerful Tibetan uprising since he was forced to flee Tibet in 1959. By resuming talks with Beijing after the March uprising, he actually came to the succour of a regime vilifying him. Now, dejected and lost, he is asking Tibetans to decide the future course of action.


Brahma Chellaney

Asian Age, November 19, 2008

With the Tibetan movement at the crossroads as China tightens its vise on Tibet, the week-long conclave of exiles now in progress at the Dalai Lama’s initiative in Dharamsala offers an opportunity for a critical self-appraisal so as to find a more pragmatic and workable strategy for the coming years.


A good beginning has been provided by the Dalai Lama’s recent public admissions. He said this month that the path of negotiations with China has failed to yield any results even as the situation in Tibet deteriorates. And late last month, he said: “I have been sincerely pursuing the middle-way approach in dealing with China for a long time now, but there hasn’t been any positive response from the Chinese side”, adding: “As far as I’m concerned I have given up”.


Beijing has pursued the same negotiating strategy with the Dalai Lama that it has with India, which is to take the other side round and round the mulberry bush in never-ending talks aimed at changing the facts on the ground while projecting moderation. This approach also has been employed to try and wheedle out concessions by putting forth new demands at regular intervals and thereby placing the onus for progress on the other side — something China has skilfully practiced in its serial negotiations with India since 1981 on the border issue and with the Dalai Lama’s envoys since 2002.


As for the Dalai Lama’s “middle way”, the Tibetan leader admittedly has secured nothing from Beijing since he moved two decades ago from seeking Tibet’s independence to advocating its autonomy within China. In fact, no sooner had a lot of ballyhooing started about the “middle way” than Tibet witnessed a harsh martial-law crackdown in 1989 under the local communist party boss who today is China’s president.


The Dalai Lama, however, can hardly be faulted for seeking conciliation and accommodation with China. As the Tibetans are in no position to undo China’s conquest of their homeland, he has sagaciously sought a negotiated settlement to guarantee autonomy to Tibet within China, no more than what has been granted to Hong Kong and Macao. Had he not tested China’s sincerity for compromise, he would not have shown to the world that the autocrats in Beijing still prefer repression to reform in Tibet.


If the Dalai Lama has made any mistakes, they have not been strategic but tactical. This year, for example, he strikingly failed to capitalize on the largest, most-powerful Tibetan uprising since he was forced to flee Tibet in 1959. By resuming talks with Beijing after the March uprising, he actually came to the succour of a regime still vilifying him. The talks helped China to forestall a wide international boycott of the Beijing Olympics’ opening ceremony and to deflect criticism of the way it ruthlessly suppressed the Tibetan protests that flared in Lhasa and spread like wild fire even to the Tibetan areas merged in Han provinces.


Now, downcast and lost, the Dalai Lama is holding the conclave — the first of its kind since 1991 — and asking fellow Tibetans to decide the future course of action. He remains the greatest asset for the Tibetan cause — the iconic figure that internationally personifies the struggle against brutal Chinese rule over a vast, resource-rich plateau that historically served as the buffer between the Chinese and Indian civilizations. But he has also shown through some missteps that even a god-king is prone to human failings.


The Dalai Lama confronts a serious predicament. Buffeted by pressures from host India and weighed down by America’s reluctance to pay more than lip service to the Tibetan cause, the aging leader has seen his options crimp in the face of China’s emergence in one generation as a world power. America’s economic interlinks with China, including a growing reliance on Chinese capital inflows, have helped produce a succession of China-friendly US presidents. Barack Obama, saddled with the weakest US economy in 25 years, will be no different.


Other Western states have not been different. The biggest sinner, Britain, has only compounded its colonial-era machinations by its October 29 decision — on the eve of the last round of Chinese-Tibetan talks — to formally scrap the British Indian government’s recognition of China’s suzerainty relationship with Tibet embodied in the 1914 Simla Convention. This action, taken without consulting New Delhi, implies that London now recognizes China’s full sovereignty over Tibet.


India has a far greater stake in the future of Tibet than any other country. Yet its government leaders, far from playing India’s trump card against China — the Dalai Lama — are too shy to openly meet him, even as New Delhi continues to turn the other cheek to China’s provocations. Take the newest Chinese statement irately denouncing the Indian foreign minister’s sterile reassertion of a geographical fact for home audiences — that Arunachal Pradesh is an Indian state.


Beijing’s bizarre logic is that because it “has never recognized the illegal McMahon Line” — and “India knows this” — New Delhi has no business to say Arunachal is part of India. But how does a disputed boundary line justify China’s claim over an entire Indian state that is nearly three times the size of Taiwan — a state the Dalai Lama vouches was never part of Tibet? Tibet’s occupying power is silent on that issue. Yet, instead of summoning the Chinese ambassador the next day, New Delhi kept quiet over Beijing’s latest provocation.


Because China disputes with India the very 1914 boundary line it has accepted with Burma, should New Delhi also lay claim to large chunks of territory — to the north of the McMahon Line, on grounds of cultural links with Arunachal? New Delhi need not pay back Beijing in the same coin. But why has it retreated to a more and more defensive position by allowing Beijing to shift the focus from its annexation of Tibet to the supposed centrality of Arunachal’s future status?


If Beijing’s logic is wacky, New Delhi’s seems absent. Little surprise thus that the poor Dalai Lama appears at a loss to fathom India’s strategic thinking. He shouldn’t even try: As long as India continues to be governed by doddering old men whose only priority is survival in power, its policy will stay feckless. Nor should he ever take his cue from a host country that still mistakes stagecraft for statecraft. India has a track record of betraying friends but respecting enemies.

Clearly, this is crunch time for the Tibetan cause. Abandoning the path of non-violence cannot be a credible option. Violent means against a trigger-happy despotic regime will bring little more than misery to Tibetans. But staying put in a barren negotiating process only works to China’s strategic advantage.

It was overoptimistic to expect the “middle way” to sway rulers who have been proverbial extremists, lurching from one end of the pendulum (hardcore communists) to the other (unashamed capitalists). Whom they denounced as enemies earlier are the very states they zealously befriend today. Their policies have disregarded human costs in the past and environmental costs now.

Against such rulers, the Dalai Lama needs a more flexible, nuanced, reciprocity-tied and leverage-playing approach geared to finding and exploiting right opportunities. He also needs to clarify the rules for choosing his successor, lest a waiting Beijing anoint a puppet Dalai Lama.

(c) Asian Age, 2008.

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