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The Tibetan Card and the Tibetan Issue

After San Francisco, the Olympic flame is likely to have anxious moments at Islamabad (April 16), New Delhi (April 17) and Tokyo. AtIslamabad, the problem, if any, could be from the survivors of thePakistan Army’s commando action in the Lal Masjid last year and anti-Chinese elements in the Uighur diaspora. The Tibetan issue will not pose a problem there.

2. The students of the Lal Masjid madrasas hold Beijing responsible for forcing President Pervez Musharraf to order the commando action,during which about 300 tribal students were allegedly killed. The support of Mrs.Benazir Bhutto for the commando action allegedly cost her life at the hands of jihadi terrorists. The anger over the commando action remains strong and is directed against the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), the leader of the present ruling coalition,which had also supported the commando raid.Musharraf ordered the commando action after the madrasa students kidnapped some Chinese women working in beauty parlours and accused them of being prostitutes. The anger of the Uighurs is due to the alleged suppression of their ethnic members in Xinjiang and over the successful Chinese pressure on Saudi Arabia during the last two years not to issue pilgrimage visas to the Uighurs in Pakistan.

3. There will be very anxious moments in New Delhi because of the activism of the highly-motivated Tibetan Youth Congress (TYC), but they may not have the same kind of street support from sections of the Indian civil society as the Tibetan residents had in London, Paris and San Francisco. The Dalai Lama’s departure to the US—though ostensibly in pursuit of long-scheduled programmes—is also meant to cool the temperature so that the Government of India is not embarrassed. Another possible reason is that he doesn’t want to give the Chinese an opportunity to make further allegations against him should something go wrong on April 17.

4. In Tokyo, one could again see a mix of Tibetan activism and sections of the local civil society in action.Both the Chinese and Japanese authorities are prepared for it.

5. Unfortunately, in India and the rest of the world, the debate, which started after the violent incidents of March 10 to 18,2008, has failed to make a distinction between the “Tibetan card” and the ‘Tibetan issue”. Many of the so-called hawks, including some retired officers of the Indian Foreign Service and leaders of the Hindutva group, as well as anti-China elements in the West look upon the post-March 10 developments as providing a “Tibetan card”, which can be exploited against China for different strategic objectives.

6. In the case of the Indian hawks, they want the Government to use the Tibetan card to correct the past policy mistakes relating to the totally unwise Indian action in recognising Tibet as an integral part of China without a quid pro quo from Beijing in the form of a recognition of Arunachal Pradesh as an integral part of India.

7. I was myself tempted to join this hawks’ brigade, but refrained from doing so after careful thinking. I have come to the conclusion that this will be a cynical approach which could prove counter-productive. We should not give the impression that we are exploiting the spilling of Tibetan blood and the justified emotional outburst of Tibetan youth not for getting a better future for the Tibetans, but to serve our own national interest. Nothing can be more unfortunate than such an impression among the Tibetans.

8. In the West also, many look upon the shocking mishandling of the Tibetan people by the neo Red Guards of the Chinese Government and Communist Party as providing a welcome stick to beat the Chinese with in this year of the Beijing Olympics. The respect for the human rights of the Tibetans is not the primary issue. Needling Beijing is the primary issue.

9. We need policies and an approach in India as well as the West based on the conviction that the long-neglected Tibetan issue—meaning the observance of human rights and giving the Tibetans a genuine voice and genuine political opportunities and religious freedom in their own homeland– has led to the present situation and that unless the grievances and anger of the Tibetan people are addressed in a disinterested manner the problem is likely to continue. Our policies should be based on a genuine interest in the Tibetan people, their plight and their future and not on exploiting their uprising for serving our own national interest.Let us keep the spotlight on the TIBETAN ISSUE and resist the temptation to use the Tibetan anger as a card for narrow purposes.

10. Despite the widespread adverse reaction against China all over the world, the Chinese have not blinked and are unlikely to blink even if there are more violent incidents as the flame is taken to the top of the Everest and across Tibetan-inhabited areas of China. In their apprehension, any weakening of their stand on Tibet could mark the beginning of their losing control over China’s sensitive periphery consisting of Tibet, Xinjiang and Inner Mongolia.

11. At the same time, once the Olympics are over there would be hopefully re-thinking in the Chinese Government and Party over the mess created for them by the mishandling of the Tibetan issue by the neo Red Guards and other hawks. This could result in policy and management correctives meant to address the widespread alienation.We in India should not lose our ability for discreetly promoting such re-thinking and policy correctives by taking an unbridled hawkish approach. His Holiness the Dalai Lama should be in the centre of any debate on such correctives.

(The writer, Mr.B.Raman, is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt.of India, New Delhi, and, presently, Director, the Institute ForTopical Studies, Chennai. He is also associated with the Chennai Centre For China Studies. E-mail: )

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