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Tibet: 'Status Quo Plus' As An Option?

There is a note of increasing dejection in the post-Olympics statements and comments of His Holiness the Dalai Lama and his spokesmen regarding the future of Tibet. His hopes that in the wake of the protest demonstrations in Tibet in March,2008, the international community will step up pressure on Beijing to reach an accommodation with him have been belied. The restrained post-March 2008 reactions of the international community have shown that the economic links of the West with China have become so strong that the West is not prepared to risk this linkage by over-focussing on the Tibet issue to the annoyance of China. Apart from proforma expressions of reverence for His Holiness and of support for the improvement of human rights in Tibet, the West is disinclined to do anything more. It has come to the realisation that it won’t be desirable to exploit Tibet as a card against China.

2.This disinclination to exercise undue pressure on China on the Tibet issue is likely to increase further as the West’s dependence on Chinese co-operation for re-stabilising the global economy increases. Despite the spectre of large-scale unemployment due to decrease in exports to the West, the Chinese economy is still in a stable state. Its foreign exchange reserves ( touching US $ 2 trillion ) have not suffered any major depletion so far despite the decrease in export orders from the West. China has major worries over the possibility of social unrest in the southern coastal provinces, which would be the worst affected by any recession in the West, but in spite of this, its leaders realise that the global financial and economic crisis provides it with an opportunity to play a benign role in helping out the Western powers and thereby earning political and strategic dividends. At a time when the West is looking up to China to help it out in this hour of crisis, it is even more unlikely than in the past to exploit the Tibetan issue.

3. The coming to power of a Maoist-led Government in Nepal has already affected the political and operational manoeuvrability of the Tibetan exiles in that country, who were playing an important role in keeping the anti-Beijing forces alive and active in Tibet. It is likely to be further affected as the Maoists consolidate their position further.

4.It is this realisation which seems to be behind the note of increasing dejection in the comments and statements of His Holiness and his spokesmen. He continues to be critical of China and accuses it of bad faith by being not serious in its talks with his representatives on the future of Tibet. He has been saying that he does not expect any forward movement in the latest round of talks for which his representatives have gone to China.

4. He has realised that the time has come for a major re-think of the policies hitherto followed by his Government-in-exile based in Dharamshala in India in consultation with the representatives of the Tibetan diaspora and with the international well-wishers of the Tibetan movement. He has convened two meetings for this purpose.

5.Tenzin Taklha, a spokesman of His Holiness, was quoted as saying on October 27,2008, as follows: ” The Dalai Lama is considering a major policy shift towards China following a complete lack of progress in talks on Tibetan autonomy with Beijing.All options would be on the table at a meeting scheduled next month of exiled Tibetan leaders involved in the campaign for greater autonomy for their Himalayan homeland. The only non-negotiable aspect is that the movement will still be non-violent. Everyone is agreed on that.He (the Dalai Lama) has lost hope in trying to reach a solution with the present Chinese leadership which is simply not willing to address the issues.His Holiness feels that other options have to be considered, and this will be done at the meeting in November.There is no immediate prospect of the Dalai Lama going into retirement. Despite the current sense of frustration, an eighth round of talks with Beijing was expected to go ahead as scheduled this week. Whatever happens we have to keep the door to dialogue open.”

6.The Dalai Lama, who is currently on a week-long visit to Japan at the invitation of local Buddhist organisations, stated as follows at a press conference in Tokyo on November 3: “The drive for greater autonomy for Tibet has ended in failure. The Tibetans should be open to all options in negotiations with Beijing. My trust in the Chinese Government has become thinner, thinner, thinner. Suppression (in Tibet) is increasing and I cannot pretend that everything is OK.I have to accept failure. Meantime among Tibetans in recent years, our approach failed to bring positive change inside Tibet, so criticism has also increased. So there is no other alternative than to ask people.”

7.He said he would be calling a meeting later this month among Tibetans to decide on their future strategy towards the Chinese Government. The first meeting to be held in Dharamshala, on November 17, will involve exiled Tibetan communities. This will be followed by another in New Delhi that will convene international supporters including lawmakers and former foreign ministers. It is not clear whether this meeting will also be in November.

8.He added: “I don’t know what will happen.Their minds should be open to explore all different options… and not fixated on one issue.Hopefully their discussions will not be emotional, but intelligent and carefully thought out.”

9. The Dalai Lama has refused to indicate whether he would give any advice to the forthcoming meeting. His movement originally called for Tibetan independence. When it realised that independence was no longer a feasible option, he modified their objective as a middle path-meaning autonomy for Tibet on the lines of the status given to Hong Kong. The Chinese, who have already closely integrated Tibet with the rest of China and changed its demographic composition by settling a large number of Han Chinese in the region, are not prepared to discuss any change in the political and administrative status quo. From the stand taken by them at the seven rounds of talks with the Dalai Lama’s representatives till now, it is clear that , firstly, they are not prepared to allow any political role for His Holiness and, secondly, while they are prepared to give him a limited religious role over the Buddhists in Tibet, they are not prepared to recognise any successor to the Dalai Lama in whose selection the Chinese Government and the Communist administration in Lhasa had not played a leading role.

10. With the Dalai Lama now openly admitting the failure of his middle path policy, only two options remain:

Either revert to the previous option of independence. This is what the younger elements in the Tibetan Youth Congress (TYC) will want. They have always been critical of the Dalai Lama’s advocacy of a middle path.The independence option had not worked in the past and is unlikely to be feasible in future even if the TYC is prepared to take to violence for this purpose. Moreover, the international community is unlikely to support any violent upheaval in Tibet unless it starts viewing China as a major threat to international peace and security. Such a contingency is very remote.

Or come to terms with the status quo in Tibet with some concessions— that is, a kind of ‘status quo plus’ policy. Such concessions could be in respect of the restoration of the full religious authority of the Dalai Lama and his successor with no political role and a Chinese commitment that the successor to His Holiness would be chosen in accordance with the Tibetan Buddhist traditions with no interference by the Chinese Communist Party and State. It is doubtful whether either the TYC or China would accept this option. The Chinese might be prepared to accept the restoration of the religious role of the present Dalai Lama subject to some restrictions, but they are determined that the successor of His Holiness would be chosen by the Communist Party and the Tibetan Government with the co-operation of theTibetan Buddhists, but with no role for the diaspora.

11.The forthcoming meeting will have to take a painful decision on the future of the Tibetan movement. It is difficult to foresee at present what that decision will be. However, it is unfortunately clear that the options of His Holiness and his followers are getting narrowed down.

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

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