My Talk in Minnesota on Understanding the Reality in Tibet
March 31, 2013
A shortsighted and meaningless effort by the Chinese Consulate in Chicago to propagandize about Tibet at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis led to an opportunity for me to go there and share my views on Tibet. The Tibetan American Foundation of Minnesota, the Students for a Free Tibet, Tibetan Youth Congress and the Tibetan Women’s Association in Minnesota asked me to come and be a part of the activities to present the Tibetan viewpoint so that we could challenge the Chinese exhibition on Tibet that was being organized in the University.
So, I spoke on March 27, 2013 at the venue of the Tibetan people’s exhibition on Tibet at the University, which was next door to the one organized by the Chinese students and funded by the Chinese consulate (the story of how the Chinese had to cancel/withdraw their activities in the light of this Tibetan onslaught is a different story, some of which have appeared in the local newspaper, Star-Tribune). I titled my talk “Reality in Tibet Today.”
In my talk, I talked about the different aspects of the Tibetan issue, including political, environmental, human rights angle, and how His Holiness the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan side had responded positively to Deng Xiaoping’s message that “other than the issue of independence everything else can be discussed and resolved.” I said His Holiness had not only presented his Middle Way Approach as a response but that he had also prepared the Tibetan people to accept that this was in the best interest of both the sides. I told of my own experience of interacting with ordinary Chinese and how we Tibetans have been educated by His Holiness to differentiate between Chinese Government and people and how we should be reaching out to the people. I said, however, the Chinese side had not fulfilled their part of the commitment made by Deng Xiaoping about everything else could be discussed and resolved. The Chinese side has also not prepared the Chinese people and instead is projecting the Tibetans as being against the Chinese people.
But this blog is about another talk that the organizers had arranged for me, which was to the Tibetan community. This took place on March 26, 2013. Despite it being a weekday and people had to go to work, there was a reasonable turnout of Tibetans, old and young.
I took the opportunity to share my thoughts on a different kind of “Reality in Tibet” with my fellow Tibetans.
I prefaced my remarks with two points: to play a meaningful role in the Tibetan movement we need to understand the deeper aspect of the reality in Tibet and accordingly undertake a deeper level of activism. Also, some of what I say might strike one as questionable, but that people needed to think over them before reaching on a conclusion.
Then, I laid out four points.
First, we need to comprehend the reality of Tibetan history. When we talk about Tibet being independent before the Chinese occupation, what is it that we are really saying? Were the three provinces of Tibet part of the Tibet that the Chinese had occupied in 1949? How did the other regions separate from Tibet in the course of history?
Similarly, if we go back to ancient history, we also need to take the right perspective on an assertion that the Tibetan people descended from a monkey and an ogress. I said there is a scientific version of the origin of people and compared this issue to a debate that is taking place in the United States in which Christian proponents want creationism to be included in the school curriculum because evolutionism is something that goes against the religious precepts. I asked the Tibetans to think over this as also the conventional viewpoint about the history of King Lang Dharma.
Secondly, we need to understand the reality of religion in Tibet. I said we have no qualms in claiming that the Chinese authorities are denying religious freedom to the Tibetan people. I said while this is true, we really need to understand what we mean by religious freedom. Today, China permits ritualistic aspects like circumambulation of monasteries, monks and nuns to perform prayers, etc. and if we think only of these as religious freedom, then the Chinese may be already doing that. But the real issue of Tibetan religion is the relationship between the teacher and the disciple, the monks and the laity and the transfer of Buddhist philosophy from the lama to the students. I said the Chinese authorities have interfered in these aspects. They have also changed their policy on religion, from one of suppression in the initial years to control now.
Thirdly, I talked about the reality of Tibetan culture in Tibet today. Again, unless one really understands what is meant by Tibetan culture we might face challenges in supporting our contention that the Chinese authorities are destroying Tibetan culture. For example, if we feel that wearing of Tibetan Chuba alone is a symbol of Tibetan culture, I said today the reality in Tibet is that a majority of Tibetans reside in rural areas and a majority of them might be wearing chubas.
Similarly, it would not be right for us to assert that the Chinese authorities are not allowing Tibetan language to be taught in schools. Tibetan is being taught in schools but the Chinese authorities have created a society that is dependent on Chinese and so the Tibetans have more incentive to learn Chinese than Tibetan.
I said when we talk about culture, we need to understand how His Holiness the Dalai Lama talks about Tibetan Buddhist culture as well as Buddhist science. I said it is these that are facing threat in Tibet today.
Fourthly, I said the reality in Tibet has also to do with ethnicity. We need to understand the reality of how the Chinese authorities are developing their ethnic policy. I said the Middle Way Approach of His Holiness and the Tibetan leadership is based on the foundation of rights for the ethnic minorities that are enshrined in the Chinese Constitution and the Law on Regional Ethnic Autonomy. But there is now a discussion called the Second Generation Ethnic Policy among Chinese that wants the government to treat the minorities similar to Chinese and to do away with the laws that allow for special treatment for them. I said if this happens then the basis on which the Tibetan side wants a solution for the issue of Tibet will no longer exist.
So, given this situation I suggested that the Tibetans could act in two ways to meet the challenges.
First, people in the Tibet movement should not fall into the danger of being engrossed in our own small world and miss the bigger picture. I gave the example of how many in the Tibet movement feel they have done much in terms of political activism if reports of their activities appear in Tibetan-only media, whether the radios or some websites.
Secondly, if we need to strengthen the Tibetan movement and make it stable no matter how long the struggle is then we need to find a way under today’s reality. I said one thing that the Tibetans in the United States could do is to embrace their Tibetan American identity and use the American political system to make the Tibetan issue a part of the domestic issue here. I gave the example of the Jewish people in the United States who have embraced their American identity and transformed the cause of Israel into that of a domestic issue here. I said the Chinese will find this more difficult to challenge.
In this context I talked about the Tibet Lobby Day in Washington, D.C. as a good way in which Tibetan Americans could demand of their representatives (compared with the conventional Tibetan mentality of supplicating governments) to do something on Tibet.
My talk was followed by questions from the audience. A young Tibetan spoke emotionally about the impact of the self-immolations on her saying she and her parents have come from Tibet. She said despite such a situation she was unable to understand why we were continuing to stick to the Middle Way Approach and not go the independence way.
In my response, I reminded her about my opening remarks that Tibetans needed to think deeper into the Tibetan issue and this was one such situation where we needed to do it. I said it is unfortunate that some politicians are putting the Middle Way Approach against the Independence Movement. I said it was wrong to have this approach as both are aiming for the wellbeing of the Tibetan people. I said His Holiness the Dalai Lama has talked about historical reason and practical politics that makes the Middle Way Approach more suited to help the Tibetan people in concrete terms. I said when we talk about the independence of Tibet then we are talking about only those areas under the rule of the Lhasa Government when the Chinese Communist occupied it while the Middle Way Approach covers all Tibetans. Therefore, if people still wanted to follow the independence path, they ought to do that and act accordingly with the Chinese instead of seeing the Middle Way as an adversary. I referred to the Indian freedom struggle where in the approaches of Gandhi and Subash Chandra Bose co-existed.
I hope some of these views will provoke my fellow Tibetans to think deeply about issues affecting the future of the Tibetan people.