Following his untimely passing on December 13, 2010, it is a testament to veteran diplomat Richard Holbrooke’s relationship-building skills that people from all corners of the world and all walks of life are talking about their personal connections with him.
I, too, had the privilege of meeting him quite a few times when I accompanied Mr. Lodi Gyari, the Special Envoy of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, who consulted him regularly on matters relating to China and Tibet.
During these meetings I could sense that he had a very personal attachment to the issue of Tibet and His Holiness the Dalai Lama. This is also indicated by his involvement in Tibet-related issues, both conspicuously (as in the case of public events organized by the International Campaign for Tibet) and also behind the scenes. He would voice his feelings on Tibet at every available opportunity, including in non-Tibetan fora. While he strongly supported His Holiness’ policy of negotiations with the Chinese leadership, at the same time I have seen him give straight forward advice without any hesitation to Mr. Lodi Gyari when he felt there was a need to do so. I remember him participating in a “Conversation” with the Dalai Lama in Washington, D.C in October 2007 along with Mr. Richard Armitage and Mr. Strobe Talbott during which he did not shy from posing very frank questions to His Holiness on Tibet.
Ambassador Holbrooke was very detailed in his approach, whether it was on the negotiations strategy with the Chinese leaders that he met or the food that he consumed. (I am basing the latter observation on a working lunch that Mr. Lodi Gyari had with Mr. Holbrooke one time in New York. Mr. Holbrooke had ordered sandwiches and while the rest of us picked up a sandwich, mine being vegetarian, I saw him deftly taking the sandwich apart and eating just the meat filling.)
Holbrooke’s attitude towards the Tibetan issue gave me a new insight into how it is seen by international policy makers as one that has geopolitical and strategic dimensions. While I have grown up in India where Tibetans voice the familiar slogan “Tibet’s independence is India’s security,” seeing a political strategist like Holbrooke explain it from his perspective is an altogether different thing.
In an address at a conference on “Ethnic Conflict Through International Diplomacy” at the Texas A&M University in 2005, he compared the situations in the former Yugoslavia and the Kurds in Iraq with that of the Tibetans. According to media reports, Holbrooke told the conference that Tibet had all the characteristics of a separate nation with “its own language, its own cosmology and its own leader, the Dalai Lama,” adding, however, that “…there are only 4-6 million of them. If they were to try to do what Kosovo did to Yugoslavia in the heart of Europe, the Chinese would crush them.”
Holbrooke’s suggestions under such a situation were that separation was not possible, ethnicities must learn to peacefully coexist and protect their nationalities. The report quotes him as saying, “This is why we have to find ways that people can live in countries where they’re not ethnically dominant, in a way that all their rights – religious, political, cultural, educational – are protected.”
(This was first posted on the blog of the International Campaign for Tibet)