l h a s a n g   t s e r i n g

The Issue Is Independence

The Issue is Independence. The very first thing we must understand about independence is that it is not an item of trade in a business deal. The basic motive for business being profit, it is understandable to expect that there would be a change in business if and when there is no profit. The struggle for independence is different. Here the basic motive and purpose being one of justice - of right and wrong - there cannot and must not be any change of purpose merely because there is no profit or personal gain, or even because victory does not seem to be within sight. People of honesty and moral courage do not surrender just causes when faced with obstacles or because they feel they are going to lose.

I am convinced that the only guarantee to the survival of our people, our religion and culture and even our land, is independence. I am quite aware of the achievements of the last three decades and I can see that our culture is alive in exile at the moment. But I believe this is so only because of the hope of returning to a free and independent Tibet. When that hope dies, then the disintegration will begin. Today we stay together only because of the hope that one day, if not we ourselves, then at least our children will return to a free Tibet. When that hope no longer holds true then the bond that has thus far kept us together will be broken and each will go his or her separate way to seek individual well-being. Any hope for the survival of our nation and our culture will be lost.

Apart from the question of justice, there are other reasons why we must not change our goal:

It is a matter of practical reasoning that the goal should remain clear and consistent. How can you expect to mobilize the people, the vast majority of whom are beyond your means of communication, if the goal keeps changing?

Just as a journey cannot take place without one's first deciding on the destination, so also in life one must first want something, a fixed goal, before one can achieve anything.

Similarly, for any cause it is a pre-condition that there be a clear understanding about the goal before there can be any struggle.

Independence is a goal worthy of any amount of suffering and sacrifice. As a people we have already suffered a great deal and I have no doubt in my mind that our people, even for generations to come, will continue to struggle, to suffer and sacrifice so long as independence remains the goal. However, I cannot expect people to make similar sacrifices for a lesser goal. I, for one, cannot struggle to be in association with China.

Looking at it from another point of view, so long as we do not recognize China's rule and so long as our goal remains independence, then China's intrusion into Tibet can be seen as foreign aggression under international law and our struggle will be one of international dimension. But if we change our goal to seeking some form of accommodation within China, then the issue is entirely different. And, as China always claims, ours would be an "internal" affair and we would have no right to seek international involvement and support.

Also, for my generation, to surrender the running of our country and with it the lives of all future generations to China, is like handing over my children to the very people who killed my parents. I know this sounds melodramatic, but the similarity is too strong for me to consider such an option.

Above all, how can we let our fellow Tibetans struggle and suffer and die for independence inside Tibet while we continue a debate here about the goal and purpose of our struggle? How can we justify this to the memory of the more than 1.2 million of our people who laid down their lives in the struggle for independence? And, what will future generations think of us - that this generation, and not the Chinese, were ultimately responsible for the demise of Tibet?

As I write this, I can almost hear the sniveling cries of the critics eager to point out that we must be "realistic" and that we cannot afford to be idealistic because the massive influx of Chinese immigrants into Tibet is reducing our people to an insignificant minority in our own country; that we cannot consider using violence to check this demographic aggression since that would give the Chinese an excuse to use more force to suppress our people and to bring in even more Chinese settlers.

We are at least agreed on one point - that the most immediate threat to our survival is posed by the policy of population transfer. But when I first pointed out this danger in 1980, after returning from a three-and-half month tour of Tibet, no one would even listen to me. Also, it was I, as Acting Editor of the Tibetan Review in 1986, who first coined the now much used term "China's Final Solution" in relation to the policy of population transfer. So it is hardly necessary to remind me about the issue.

What I fail to understand is how we can ever hope to halt and reverse this demographic aggression by compromising on independence and accepting some form of association with China. If we accept that we are in some way a "part" of China - does that not provide the legal basis for other Chinese to settle in Tibet? It is true that there are many Chinese settlers in Tibet today and more are entering every day. But so long as we do not recognize the legitimacy of Chinese rule in Tibet and so long as we do not reach some compromise with China, under international law these settlers will be seen as illegal colonists and we shall always have a just and legal basis to call for their withdrawal.

As for giving China an "excuse" to send in more immigrants and to use more force - this can be dismissed by the single argument that China does not need any "excuse". They have many reasons - political, economic and strategic. And, so long as they can, they will always do what they consider to be in their interest to do. Who gave them the "excuse" to invade Tibet in 1949? What "excuse" did they have to devastate our religious and social institutions in the name of "democratic reforms" in the 1950s? And who gave them the "excuse" to massacre our people, to destroy our temples, our monasteries and libraries, to burn our books and to ravage our land? NO ONE! And yet they did all this and more? Why?

It may be correct to say that we should not be idealistic, but it is important that we should not be naive and simplistic either. I have always been of the view that China has no need to sign any agreement with us. Tibet is effectively under their control. No government in the world has found the courage to question this. And we are not even a threat to them. What good reason is there to expect that they will voluntarily surrender to us a part of their control over Tibet? On occasion they may raise the hope of negotiations. But we must not be deceived by this. They are only playing for time - knowing that time is on their side. It is nothing more than a bait to keep us waiting and wishing for the impossible to happen. And we, not realizing that time is running out on us, have played into their hands by concentrating all our time, energy and resources in presenting proposal after proposal for negotiations with China, as though it is only a matter of getting the right kind of proposal to bring China to the negotiating table.

To get some idea of the enormity of this problem it is important to understand that the preoccupation with negotiations with China started in 1978. For fifteen long years, unknown to the public, the basic efforts of the government have been in this direction. When we know this, only then will we begin to understand why people who have written against this preoccupation or have generally been vocal in calling only for independence have been treated so vindictively.

But even if the impossible should happen and China does agree to sign an agreement with us, what grounds are there to believe that once His Holiness the Dalai Lama returns, they will abide by the terms of the agreement? NONE WHATSOEVER! Our bitter experience has been that once the immediate purpose has been achieved, China will not stick to the agreement. What is more, in our case they will feel no obligation and no accountability to uphold any agreement.

Remember what happened to us in Nepal. To achieve the peaceful surrender of our resistance forces the then government of Nepal made numerous promises. But once our troops surrendered, as a result of a taped message from His Holiness, what did they do? The Commander and some of his immediate staff were ambushed and killed; other top leaders were imprisoned for eight long years. The rest of the troops were humiliated and left to fend for themselves. Why did Nepal behave this way? Not because it was evil but because as an independent country with international recognition and representation and the backing of China, it felt no accountability to a bunch of helpless refugees. I see no reason to believe that a major power such as China will give us a better deal.

Every Tibetan must come to grips with the stark reality that without independence we have no hope. Today our struggle is not only for independence, it is also a struggle for survival - survival as a nation and as a distinct culture. I know there are those who shrink from all political responsibility and involvement by pretending that they are so "objective," so "unbiased," and so "liberated" as to be concerned only with culture - as though the threat to religion and culture has nothing to do with our political problem. Have these people ever stopped to ask why we are in exile? Why our temples and monasteries were destroyed? Why our language and culture were suppressed for so long in our own country? And why cultural preservation has become such an important task for us today?

Regardless of what these people want to believe, the reality is that the root cause of all these problems is the loss of our independence. Without a permanent solution to this political problem there can be no lasting solution to the problem of preserving our culture and national identity. Even our halfhearted experiment at democracy has no meaning unless our goal is the independence of Tibet.

The very fact that we now have a debate on independence - which is to say, we have a debate as to what our goal is or should be - is not only strange and incomprehensible, but painful to me. If we are still not sure about our goal then what have we been doing all these years? Why all the schools, settlements and monasteries? Why do we have a Government-in-exile and why have we been surrendering a part of our hard earned income to support this Administration? If we have no hope and intention of returning to a free and independent Tibet, then why do we continue as a stateless people, scattered across the world in a state of constant uncertainty and without the rights and privileges of citizenship anywhere?

Is it because the rich and the powerful have long since secured for themselves and their children the citizenship of other countries while they continue to call on the ordinary people to remain true to the cause? And what cause? The cause of statelessness?

We need to settle the debate about our goal once and for all. But it is not enough merely to bring an end to this debate. We need to realize that it was wrong to have had the debate in the first place. It was wrong on the part of those who drafted the new Charter not to have recognized what is the unalterable goal of the Tibetan people. It was wrong on the part of the new Assembly to have failed to rectify this grave error and to have added to the confusion by raising questions about the goal, then subsequently passing a resolution about independence but again failing to amend the Charter. Our voters must take note of those who did not support independence and make sure that these people never come back to the Assembly.

Though we have no administrative instruments to determine public opinion inside Tibet, for anyone who wishes to see the truth, it is more than obvious that our people inside Tibet long only for independence and wish to have nothing to do with China. In fact, there is no need whatsoever to try to determine their feelings - time and again they have voted for independence with their lives. There is no other more powerful and sure way of expressing one's wishes.

Independence is not only our natural and legal right - it is the express wish of the Tibetan people at large. Accordingly, the entire exile community does not have the mandate to alter the goal of independence, let alone the exile government. And, as for our friends and supporters, while we greatly appreciate their sympathy and support, it is not for them to determine what the goal should be. Voluntary help and support is always gratefully accepted from those who believe in or approve of a cause from a pure motivation. But it is only natural to expect that the goal be determined by those whose lives, future, and very survival are at stake.

Lhasang Tsering was born in Tadun, Tibet. He was a member of the Tibetan resistance force in Mustang, Nepal. Lhasang Tsering was twice the President of the Tibetan Youth Congress (TYC). He helped to develop the TYC into the largest Tibetan group in exile and has been the inspiration for many Tibetan activists. Lhasang Tsering is one of the founding directors of the Amnye Machen Institute, Tibetan Centre for Advanced Studies in Dharamsala, India.

This article was originally published in Tibet: The Issue Is Independence, by Edward Lazar, ed., Parallax Press, Berkeley California 1994

[ photo | nancy jo johnson ]

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