Furthering the Tibet Cause  

Furthering the Tibet Cause

by Tenzin N. Tethong

As we come to the close of this century, Tibet is going to be one of the last major political problems of the modern era without a resolution. While the Second World War and the end of the Cold War defined the latter half of this century, in recent years we have seen a new South Africa emerge, impressive strides made in Northern Ireland and the Middle East, and East Timor wrested from occupation. Today though, as we emerge from the madness of the Cold War, a new cold war threatens, and the issue of Tibet, neglected too long, looms as a major barrier between East and West, North and South.

Throughout the last two decades, beginning with Deng Xiaoping's return to power, promises of negotiations and the possibility of some kind of resolution to the Tibetan issue were dangled before the Tibetans by China. The Tibetans in exile responded with delegation visits and contact on many fronts, and most prominently through His Holiness' "middle way" proposal, which sought some form of genuine autonomy for all Tibetans within the existing framework of the People's Republic of China. And those within Tibet welcomed and supported these developments as well.

By forwarding the "middle way" policy, His Holiness and the Tibetan government had to bear the stinging criticism (from within and without) that they were exercising a historical and moral compromise which only the Tibetan people could make. These arguments only made what is already a complex issue even more difficult to tackle. Nevertheless, believing that it was the best option, His Holiness and the Tibetan government pursued it diligently until it was brought to a complete halt by the Chinese, earlier this year, when they rejected the Tibetan overtures and indicated no further desire to discuss the issue.

So, what next, and how do we advance the cause of Tibet? To begin with, in advancing the cause of Tibet, we should remind ourselves and be very clear that while Tibet stands for many things ranging from nationhood and history to culture and religion, fundamentally it must stand for the people who live on the plateau of Tibet, their well being and their interests.

We must find a new way to engage the Chinese, and we must find a way to do it without losing the worldwide support that has grown through the years. We must preserve the support that comes for conducting a struggle that is non-violent, and we must build on the endorsement from parliaments and governments who are able to support a "middle way" position. In essence we must find a way to further the cause of Tibet by juggling and engaging three separate entities; the Chinese, the worldwide community of grass roots supporters, and parliaments and governments.

In the forty years of our exile we have tried to advance the issue of Tibet through many avenues: appealing to the United Nations from the early 1950's to more recent efforts at the Human Rights Commission, making a legal case before the International Commission of Jurists and through international presentations of the legal status and rights of the Tibetan people and nation, and by seeking the outright support of governments throughout the world. At various stages we have called for independence, for the preservation of a people and a culture, and for the freedom and human rights of the Tibetan people. We have also from time to time, especially in the early 1960's talked about self-determination as a process, and we have even called for a referendum in Tibet to gauge the true wishes of the Tibetan people.

Assessing the present state of our struggle, it may be that now is the time to focus once again on a call for a referendum on the wishes of the Tibetan people. It may be the best possible way to advance the cause of Tibet, both for the moment and for the long haul. In all likelihood the Chinese will immediately reject this. But it will be different. We are not asking them to consider a proposal by His Holiness or by the exile Tibetans, and we need not get caught in the debate about the role and authority of the Dalai Lama, religious and political. And the Chinese cannot make excuses about sovereignty and external interference when a referendum can only be done under their aegis and authority.

The most important element of a referendum, however, is that we put the Tibetan people, the vast majority who are in Tibet, squarely back in the center of the issue. A referendum allows the Tibetan people to speak out for themselves. No movement can really succeed without leadership from within Tibet. A single word from the Tibetans within Tibet will galvanize world support as not even a thousand words from outside Tibet can. In a sense, a referendum will redefine the basic political nature of the Tibetan problem rather than the more religious and cultural shade it seems to reflect every now and again. There is no way that a call for a referendum can become a divisive issue among the Tibetans; in fact it may strengthen the unity among all Tibetans both inside and out of Tibet. By focusing on a referendum, we will be guiding the Chinese to address the issue directly and at its core. It will help us avoid the deliberately distracting debate about Tibet's historical and political status, and this should appeal to many more Chinese, especially democracy advocates, since a referendum is the essence of democracy. While the Chinese may initially reject the idea, it does offer them an opportunity; either to test their confidence in having brought about considerable progress in Tibet, or to gracefully and in an orderly manner submit to the wishes of the Tibetan people.

And any international support that is gained can appear to be less judgmental to the Chinese since it does not necessarily endorse a particular party or idea to the conflict, and it does not preclude the outcome. And the worldwide network of Tibet support groups and individual supporters can find this a concrete goal to work towards. East Timor is a good recent example of international involvement. While Indonesia and China may not yet embrace it, there is clearly an international trend developing. Human rights and democracy are moving from philosophy to reality all over the world.

The next steps will not be easy; there are many details to be thought through. But essentially, a call for a referendum in Tibet and an international campaign to support this, from NGOs to governments and parliaments, will salvage the Tibetan issue from its current stalemate. We will lose nothing in the process; and even if immediate progress is not apparent, we will not have compromised on the fundamental issue of Tibet and the basic interests of the Tibetan people.

WTN-L World Tibet Network News