IT is pertinent to ask therefore, what purpose is served by these ‘negotiations that never were’ and still are not? Initially and understandably the exile Tibetans hoped that with signs of change inside China or with the recent Tibetan protests, some accommodation might be possible. The lure of visiting their homeland would have been irresistible, as any displaced refugee knows. But to the outside world, and to some of their youth, continuation in the face of recurrent snubs is senseless – even spineless.
There are at least two reasons for why they continue. One, the Tibetans have virtually no backers for their legitimate political aspirations although some international voices are raised for human rights violations. Neighbour India despite her magnificent refugee rehabilitation job has failed to lift even a little diplomatic finger on their behalf on either of these issues in the international arena (in contrast to what she has done for South Africa or even China!) and the Tibetans themselves have paid the price for their past isolation. The CIA’s early interest in the refugees was primarily driven by a quest for information on China, and once Nixon made up with Beijing, it abruptly withdrew. The Soviets, despite their deep history of interactions and knowledge of Tibet played a cautious game and finally acknowledged China’s sovereignty over Tibet. Britain, signatory to the Shimla Pact, followed suit in 2008. Mongolia which had signed a Treaty with independent Tibet in 1935 (and recently celebrated its 75th anniversary) was for decades silenced within the USSR. Hence with no political backing, no sanctuary, the Tibetans, unlike the Arab-backed Palestinians, could not mobilise international support or conduct protracted guerrilla or terrorist warfare, even had they wanted to. And today, despite their remarkable international visibility, their sympathisers are constrained by the compulsions of their economic engagement with China.
Two, as Buddhists a non-violent and dialogic approach is a natural option. Sceptics might argue there is no other, but such as it is, it has been fine-tuned into a kind of attenuated diplomacy of transparently approaching the negotiating table again and again in the face of constant rebuffs. Should the Chinese respond one day, it will be a landmark ‘velvet’ triumph.
The Tibetan envoys also say that talking is a diplomatic end in itself. Arpi puts this down to Buddhist ‘compassion’ without further explanation. Special Envoy Lodi Gyari has described his visits as a ‘spiritual practice’, thereby conceding the absence of any diplomatic leverage. Had Dharamsala managed to direct non-violent protest in Tibet that would have more resembled Gandhian satyagraha but this is a remote possibility given China’s brutal responses to any challenge.
The Chinese find themselves in a bind of their own making: with 56 minorities constituting less than 10 per cent of the Han majority and occupying more than two-thirds of the territory of the Republic, they cannot, as a non-political bureaucratic dictatorship allow ‘genuine autonomy’ to one minority without destabilising two-thirds of their imperial state. Indians are not so paranoid: more enlightened linguistic policies allow for protection of regional/minority identity, the building of national identity and for global interactions. Similarly, devolution of power through smaller states, panchayati raj etc, helps India to deal with many of its problems.
The Chinese, however, reap huge advantages from the charade. The apparent ‘dialogue’ salves the conscience of the western world and enables continuing economic engagement with China. For example the Canadian and British governments have welcomed the 9th round as a possibility of solving problems through ‘peaceful dialogue’. Thus China is encouraged to play a waiting game – stretch out the ‘talks’ to manage civil unrest and international criticism till the inevitable passing of the14th Dalai Lama – after which she looks forward to unchallenged supremacy.
However the last words should be those quoted by Arpi from Bapa Phuntsok Wangyal, a pro-Chinese early member of the CCP later imprisoned, tortured and eventually freed by the government. In 2004 he wrote to Hu Jintao pointing out that other Tibetan leaders like the 17th Karmapa and Agya Rimpoche (abbot of the Kumbum monastery) were also driven to flee the country. It has been noted that there is active interaction between the high lamas of the different monasteries residing in India and their followers in Tibet. “Any notion of delaying the problem until after the 14th Dalai Lama dies a natural death is not only naïve, it is also unwise and especially tactically wrong”. He warned that “playing for time, and intending to produce ‘two Dalais’ will create greater trouble in the future at home and abroad.” The current Dalai Lama’s death will only radicalise young Tibetans. As a theoretical Marxist he added that if the majority oppresses a minority in a socialist state, the minority has a right to fight for true autonomy.