The Tibetan tightrope

The recent swearing-in of Dr Lobsang Sangay as the Prime Minister of the government-in-exile marks the beginning of a new stage in the political struggle of the Tibetan émigré community.
The 43-year-old legal academic from Harvard was elected to the post earlier this year. Although he is the third elected Prime Minister of the government-in-exile, he is the first one to assume the position after the Dalai Lama formally relinquished his political role.

In consequence, Dr Sangay could be much more influential than any of his predecessors. But he also assumes office at a time when the external and internal challenges confronting the Tibetan exile community are much greater.
The Dalai Lama’s decision to step down as political leader was a reflection of these challenges.
His adoption of the “Middle Way” as a negotiating stance has cut no ice with two generations of Chinese leaders. The “Middle Way” aims to secure autonomy for Tibet under the Constitution of the People’s Republic of China. The Dalai Lama sees this as the only feasible way of preventing the erosion of Tibetan identity and culture. The Chinese, however, regard the Dalai Lama’s demand for an autonomous “Greater Tibet” as a veiled attempt at secession. China’s suspicion of the Dalai Lama has deepened since the unrest in Tibet and elsewhere in the run-up to the 2008 Olympics. Although the Chinese government resumed contacts with the Dalai Lama’s representatives there is little doubt that they were uninterested in any serious negotiations.
Beijing was merely marking time and hoping that when the current Dalai Lama passes on the Tibetan exile movement will come to juddering halt.
This is precisely why the Dalai Lama has paved the way for an elected Prime Minister to assume political leadership. But Dr Sangay may be no more acceptable to the Chinese as a political interlocutor than the Dalai Lama himself. Dr Sangay has repeatedly stated that he will persist with the Middle Way approach. In his speeches and writings, he has also rejected a key precondition advanced by Beijing: that the Tibetans should acknowledge that Tibet has historically always been a part of China. The Tibetans have been unwilling to do so, for it might further undercut their case for autonomy.
Further, Dr Sangay has insisted that the Dalai Lama remains the paramount leader of the Tibetans. Finally, and perhaps most problematic, is the new Prime Minister’s past membership of the Tibetan Youth Congress (TYC), the more militant faction of the exile community.
Ironically, this may also be the trickiest aspect of the internal challenges confronting him. The TYC’s political stance has diverged from that of the Dalai Lama for the past few years. The youth groups call for the independence of Tibet and oppose the notion of autonomy under Chinese Constitution. Some of them are also averse to ruling out armed struggle against the Chinese administration in Tibet. The TYC’s militancy has fed on the obduracy of the Chinese government. It sees the Dalai Lama’s diplomatic stance as hardly effectual.
The political faultline in the exile community came to the fore in the aftermath of the 2008 uprising in Tibet. Later that year, the Dalai Lama brought together different voices from the community to discuss the way forward. The final statement of the meeting expressed support for the Middle Way, but it also conceded that if there was no progress towards autonomy, the goal could be shifted to independence.
Notwithstanding his previous association with the TYC, Dr Sangay has already had some run-ins with the radicals. His purported remarks at a conference in Washington D.C. in October 2008 have come in for sharp criticism. The radicals claim that Dr Sangay spoke in favour of civil rights and political representation for Tibetans under the Chinese Constitution. In particular, he drew a parallel between Tibetans and African-Americans in the United States. Such a position, they argue, is a step back even from the Middle Way — which envisages an internally autonomous Tibet capable of maintaining its cultural identity — and is tantamount to political “integration” of Tibet with China. Whether or not this accurately captures Dr Sangay’s views, such criticism reflects the sharpening political divide in the exile community. And it may well circumscribe the new Prime Minister’s room for manoeuvre. Dr Sangay has been involved in numerous Track II dialogues with Chinese scholars over the past decade-and-a-half. He is an acknowledged academic expert in conflict resolution. But his first challenge will be consensus building among his own people.
Dr Sangay has called on India to play a more active role in the resolution of the Tibetan problem. He has gone so far as to request the Indian government to “consider Tibet as one of the core issues between India and China”. Such a stance is unlikely to be adopted by New Delhi. Since 1954, India has consistently maintained that Tibet is a region of China. It does not accord political recognition to the government-in-exile. But it does keep its links with the exile leadership in good repair. This is important for a variety of reasons — not least because the Tibetan issue could potentially cast a major shadow on India-China relations. The delicate balancing act performed by India could become more difficult in the future. Issues such as the selection of the next Dalai Lama will be fraught. It is important, therefore, that New Delhi begins considering ways of mitigating the mistrust between the Chinese government and the Tibetan exile community. India’s ability to do anything on this front will depend on how the new Prime Minister-in-exile squares up to the multiple challenges confronting him.

Srinath Raghavan is a senior fellow at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi

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