By Jamyang Norbu

Like the Children of Israel wandering through the desert to the promised land, we Tibetans have often been diverted from our goal by "Golden Calves" and "False Gods" of one kind or another: genuine autonomy, truth insistence, zone of peace, constructive engagement, associate status etc., etc., etc.,. None of these much vaunted, dazzling solutions to the Tibetan problem ever came close to approaching realization. They failed (or to be more accurate, they never got started) because they were not based on even a minimal appreciation of Chinese history or politics, or understanding of modern totalitarian systems - or just hard-ball politics. Looking back, these proposals leave a definite impression that they were devised primarily to appeal to the West, as non-nationalistic, world-peace oriented, environmentally friendly, and most important of all, non-disruptive of the West's economic interests in China.

The latest of such false gods doing the rounds within the Tibet Support Community is the "referendum proposal" that made its debut appearance as a WTN article some months ago, and is being promoted vigorously by the Committee of 100 for Tibet. On close inspection this proposal seems to be a reworking of an earlier referendum scheme that the Tibetan government launched some years ago. That earlier scheme called for a referendum throughout the Tibetan world to make a choice between, essentially, "independence", and the Dalai Lama's "Middle Way Approach" which required the giving up of Tibetan independence and living in an autonomous Tibet under Chinese sovereignty. In order to downplay the stark contrast between these two choices - and muddy the waters as it were - two other quite irrelevant options were added. These were "self-determination" and Samdong Rinpoche's recondite doctrine of "Truth Insistence".

After the first announcement of the referendum scheme it may have dawned on the authorities that such an exercise could not be conducted inside occupied Tibet, for a further announcement was made that the referendum would be confined to the exile world. Right from the start it was clear that the whole point of the exercise was to whip up public support for the Dalai Lama's Middle Way Approach. A gesture of impartiality was demonstrated in a debate organized in Dharamshala. But when the teams of Tibetan members of Parliament and government officials toured the Tibetan settlements and communities-in-exile to announce the terms of the referendum, it was made clear to the public, in not so subtle ways, that failure to vote for the "Middle Way" would be tantamount to showing disloyalty to the Dalai Lama.

The Tibetan community was thrown into controversy and confusion. The Tibetan Youth Congress was the only organization that came out clearly and unequivocally for independence and started a campaign, with posters etc to voice their conviction. The Congress was vilified by nearly all the corrupt, reactionary organizations that dominate Tibetan politics, and whose stock-in-trade are noisy, hysterical and aggressive (but also calculatedly self-serving) displays of loyalty to the Dalai Lama. A community already divided by a fierce and violent religious controversy was now being politically divided in much the same fashion. The general public was, without question, strongly attached to the cause of independence but at the same time did not want to disappoint the Dalai Lama, or at least be seen in opposition to His wishes. It was a traumatic, confusing and extremely divisive period for Tibetans. Even within families the referendum caused much bitterness and discord. Finally a plebiscite of sorts was conducted, but the results were never made public. Instead the government-in-exile issued a statement declaring that it was not quite the right time for a referendum yet, and the whole sorry debacle was brushed under the already lumpy carpet of our recent history.

The present call for a referendum does give the impression of being an attempt to reintroduce the former scheme in a fresh way, this time by roping in the Tibet Support groups around the world to accomplish what the Tibetan public failed to do. That the object of the exercise is still to promote the Dalai Lama's "Middle Way Approach" can be gauged in the statement of his special envoy, Lodi Gyari in an article in the latest Tibetan Bulletin (May-June 2000) where in a tacit endorsement of the Referendum Proposal as a lever to persuade the Chinese to have a dialogue with the Dalai Lama, Gyari writes, "If the result of such a referendum affirms China's claim that the Tibetans are happy and contented, then His Holiness the Dalai will be the happiest person of all."

Even if this present referendum proposal were completely sincere and did not contain a hidden agenda, I feel that its promotion would further divide the Tibetan community and divert effort and resources from the real goal of struggling for Tibetan freedom.

The revival of the Referendum scheme was probably inspired by events in East Timor last year, with the UN supervised plebiscite bringing about the freedom of the Timorese people. Yet however uplifting this historic event it is important to note some major differences in the circumstances that led to the referendum in East Timor, and the current situation in Tibet:

Indonesia was in a state of economic collapse and near anarchy. The old repressive regime had been thrown out and totally discredited. China's economy hasn't collapsed. Party control is total and absolutely repressive. This is not to say that events won't change, but it clearly hasn't yet. The United Nations had never recognized Indonesia's takeover of East Timor and had condemned the Indonesian government for its repression of the East Timorese people. The UN does not question China's sovereignty over Tibet. In fact the UN is so submissive to China that it regularly objects to the presence of the Dalai Lama or any other Tibetan in events organized under its auspices, and further goes out of its way to ensure that references to Tibet and the Dalai Lama do not appear in its publications - or anything related to it.

We must bear in mind that even with the advantages mentioned above, East Timor paid a terrible price in terms of its people massacred (in the many tens of thousands) tortured and raped. I should also mention the looting and destruction of thousands of buildings and homes, and the near-complete leveling of East Timor's capital city, Dilli. All these outrages took place after the referendum. The UN displayed an unfortunate and bewildering disinclination (or inability) to protect the people of East Timor from the wrath of militant groups loyal to Indonesia, until quite late into events.

If we take the figures issued by the Tibetan government-in-exile of Chinese population transfer into Tibet, holding a referendum inside Tibet now would be fraught with uncertainties, even if we were absolutely sure that every Tibetan voted for independence. Furthermore pressure from the UN or the World Community for referendum in Tibet (if it ever did come) could easily provoke the Chinese to accelerate their population transfer timetable in order to present a fait accompli.

But let us look on the bright side of things. Let us suppose that we could be sure that a referendum in Tibet would reveal to the world that Tibetans did not want to live under Chinese rule. Would the Chinese allow such a referendum if there was even a remote chance of such an outcome? This is where the logic of the referendum walas completely escapes me. I just don't understand why the Chinese, who have made it absolutely and brutally plain that they are not in the least interested in the Dalai Lama's surrender of Tibetan sovereignty and his proposal for "genuine autonomy", should want to consider a more dangerous option like referendum where independence would have to be a choice. (Or maybe we are talking here of a referendum where no reference to independence or "Free Tibet" is contemplated). Furthermore I don't see how world leaders and governments who are unwilling or unable (even in the slightest way) to persuade China to accept the Dalai Lama's proposal, could persuade China to accept a more dangerous and uncertain option.

I am certainly not against the idea of referendums per se, and it is quite possible that in the eventuality of a collapse of Chinese power in Tibet and the presence of even a limited Tibetan control over the country we might be able conduct a genuinely free and fair referendum under the supervision of the UN or a respected international agency, and also protect ourselves against a Chinese backlash. But clearly we should only call for a referendum when we have the wherewithal to ensure its success and not to have it backfire on us and become the final nail driven into the coffin of Tibetan sovereignty.

For those who feel that a referendum is important in order to ascertain what the people inside Tibet want, I would ask them to spare a little time to listen directly to the voices of the Tibetan people inside Tibet and not to those interpreting them in the West. The word "Rangzen" is the most constant and powerful refrain in nearly all protest documents that have come out from Tibet in the last twenty odd years, whether it be lengthy petitions to the United Nations, humble scraps of paper surreptitiously passed on to tourists, or wall posters hurriedly pasted up in the night (sometimes upside down) on the walls of Lhasa city. The cry of the suicide bomber in Lhasa last year was also "Rangzen". In fact, every political demonstration and protest has had as its fundamental demand, independence for Tibet; followed by a demand for human rights, and expressions of loyalty to the Dalai Lama as the sovereign of Tibet. Hundreds of such posters, leaflets, pamphlets and manifestos have made their way out of Tibet and in not a single one of them have I ever seen a demand for autonomy, dialogue, or for that matter, referendum.

More than by casting paper ballots, Tibetans inside Tibet have declared their choice in a far more demanding referendum. Braving incarceration, torture and execution they have, in the streets, monasteries and prison-cells of Tibet, raised their voices for "Rangzen". The direction is clear. It is up to us to take our own first steps on that hard road and not try to persuade oneself and others to adopt easier routes, which may be fun and profitable in the beginning but will only lead us to darkness and extinction.

Furthering the Tibetan Cause

Response to "Return of the Referendum"

by Fred Shepardson

As one of the proponents of the Hear Tibet! campaign for a United Nations referendum in Tibet, I feel a need to respond to Jamyang Norbu's article, "Return of the Referendum", WTN 8/9/00.

Some time ago we wrote to Jamyang-la about the referendum because his is one of the most articulate and insistent voices in support of Rangzen (independence). We looked forward to receiving his advice and his views, and now we are glad to have them. We welcome him to the discussion, for it is immensely valuable to have all sides to an argument well considered before making a decision that may have a momentous impact on the lives of millions of Tibetans.

Unfortunately, there are some factual errors in the article that we feel obliged to correct.

Jamyang-la states that the current Hear Tibet! campaign "seems to be a reworking of an earlier referendum scheme that the Tibetan government launched some years ago." This is not the intent. As we have tried to make clear on our Web site (, there are some very important distinctions. Perhaps the most important is that the current referendum is intended to hear from the Tibetan people their own wishes for their own political future; whereas the 1995 referendum was intended to poll the Tibetans (primarily those outside Tibet) in order to set the course of the Tibet movement. The distinction is that the 1995 referendum was intended to decide the strategy or path that was to be followed in the Tibet movement; the current referendum is to let the Tibetan people determine the destination, or the goal, or the outcome of the movement. The earlier referendum was to determine how do we get there; the current referendum is to determine where the Tibetan people want to go. The referendum of 1995 provided a choice between means of reaching accommodation or confrontation with the Chinese: Satyagraha ("truth insistence"), Middle Path, negotiations, self-determination, or Rangzen; and the current referendum provides a choice of ultimate political outcome: independence, autonomy, or integration.

Jamyang-la states, concerning the 1995 referendum, that "a plebiscite of sorts was conducted, but the results were never made public." We are not aware that any referendum was ever carried out. If it was, we would be very interested in learning more about the execution and the results.

Jamyang-la implies that the Tibet government-in-exile is behind the current Hear Tibet! campaign ("the object of the exercise is still to promote the Dalai Lama's "Middle Way Approach"). This is not the case. We have tried to keep a few people associated with the exile government apprised of our thinking (just as we have tried to keep the Tibet support groups apprised) so they would not be caught off guard, and we have indicated that we would welcome any support they might want to give. At the same time we have tried to make it clear that we were not asking the government to take a stand at this time. We have made no formal presentation or overture to the government-in-exile. And certainly, the government has made no overture to us. They have been conspicuously quiet to this time.

Jamyang-la does quote Kasur Lodi Gyari in what he says is a display of support:

"That the object of the exercise is still to promote the Dalai Lama's 'Middle Way Approach' can be gauged in the statement of his special envoy, Lodi Gyari in an article in the latest Tibetan Bulletin (May-June 2000) where in a tacit endorsement of the Referendum Proposal as a lever to persuade the Chinese to have a dialogue with the Dalai Lama, Gyari writes, 'If the result of such a referendum affirms China's claim that the Tibetans are happy and contented, then His Holiness the Dalai will be the happiest person of all.'"

However, that quote was taken out of context, and if we put it back into context, it becomes clear that expressing support for the referendum at this time was not Lodi Gyari's intent. The Tibetan Bulletin article is an excerpt of Kasur Lodi Gyari's testimony before the House Committee on International Relations of the U.S. Congress. These are the final two paragraphs of a 28-paragraph article:

"If the Chinese continue to stonewall all efforts of His Holiness the Dalai Lama to find a negotiated settlement for Tibet within the framework of the People's Republic of China and continue to insist that the Tibetans in Tibet are happy and contented - a view which the Tibetan people and the international community contest - then the only solution may be to have a fair and free referendum to ascertain the true wishes of the Tibetan people. If the result of such a referendum affirms China's claim that the Tibetans are happy and contented, then His Holiness the Dalai Lama will be the happiest person of all. His fight is not for the restoration of his privileges and powers. He has made it repeatedly clear in a very categorical manner that he will neither seek nor hold any official position once the Tibet issue is resolved.

"While I am not, at this stage, calling for such a referendum, rationally I see such a path as the only alternative if there is no movement on the issue in the near future."

We hope this has clarified some of the issues Jamyang-la has raised. Otherwise, we are grateful to have Jamyang-la's contribution to the discussion. We look forward to more people weighing in with their thoughts.

We would like to say that the Hear Tibet! campaign is offered with the hope and expectation that it could be supported by all Tibetans and their supporters. We feel that a referendum campaign is completely compatible with campaigns for independence, autonomy, negotiations, self-determination and Satyagraha; and completely compatible with campaigns against human rights abuses, religious oppression, cultural subjugation, economic exploitation, etc. We are not asking any organization to give up its current work, for we feel such campaigns are absolutely necessary and tremendously worthwhile. Such campaigns help immensely to mitigate the ongoing abuses inside Tibet. We are asking that as we conduct these campaigns against the symptoms of Tibet's suffering, we simultaneously carry out an ongoing campaign against the cause of those maladies.

We are suggesting that the Tibetan movement might benefit by a unifying theme throughout all of its efforts (just as the Clinton campaign kept harping on "It's the economy, stupid!"). We are suggesting as a possible unifying theme "Hear Tibet!" - i.e. keep reminding the public that the underlying problem is that the people of Tibet are oppressed and not allowed to speak out for themselves or to determine their own lives and futures. If the Tibetans were in control of Tibet, the Panchen Lama would not be under house arrest today. If the Tibetans were in control of Tibet, the World Bank would not have gotten a proposal to relocate thousands of non-Tibetans into Tibet. If the Tibetans were in control of Tibet, the Karmapa would not have had to flee his homeland. We send many disparate messages to the public; we might benefit by concentrating on a unifying message. We feel that the call for a referendum is completely consistent with a preferred outcome of independence. Jamyang Norbu has roundly condemned the referendum and insisted on nothing less than independence, but he has not proposed how he would achieve independence in the absence of a democratic process like a referendum. We argue that a referendum may be the Tibetans' best possible vehicle for attaining independence. At the same time, we have always insisted that a referendum for the Tibetan people should include an inclusive range of options to choose from, including independence, autonomy and integration (see our Web site for a mock referendum). For each Tibetan to have a true choice, his or her preferred outcome must be presented as an option.

Some supporters of independence have objected to a referendum on the grounds that the Tibetan people might vote for autonomy. We reject this line of thinking. It is not up to us to impose freedom and independence upon the Tibetan people. It is for us to make sure they have the option for freedom and independence. If a well-informed electorate chooses in an open and free and fairly contested election, with a broad range of choices and without intimidation, for something other than independence; we may feel it is regrettable, but it is not wrong. It is their choice to make; and if freely made, we should respect it.

Finally, we would like to say that Hear Tibet! is intended to be a campaign to be adopted by existing organizations and individuals. To this end we urge you to endorse the referendum campaign. It is not our intent to start another Tibet support organization. We urge you to support the ones we already have, and to support their ongoing campaigns. We simply offer the referendum as a long-term goal we can all work for in parallel with our current campaigns. We believe that the referendum can bring us all together with a unifying message and a common goal - the chance for the Tibetans to determine their own political future; and we believe that goal is eminently attainable.

WTN-L World Tibet Network News