Thursday, 3 July 2014

Government in Exile Seeks Tibetan Autonomy, Not Independence

DHARMSALA, India—The head of Tibet's government-in-exile on Thursday called for an end to what he called Chinese "repression" in the Himalayan region but said his administration wasn't seeking independence from Beijing.

Lobsang Sangay, prime minister of the self-proclaimed Tibetan government based in India, said the group is seeking a middle way between that repression and separation from China.

In an interview, he spoke about a wide range of issues: the 130 Tibetan self-immolations he says have occurred in recent years, the challenge presented by a growing generation gap and the difficulties of trying to divine China's intentions toward Tibet.

Mr. Sangay also criticized Beijing for making a "deliberate effort to mislead" the world about the stance of Tibet's pre-eminent spiritual leader saying the Dalai Lama supports autonomy for Tibet, not independence.

On Thursday, Mr. Sangay launched a new effort to repackage his group's proposal, dubbed the "Middle Way Approach," which would provide autonomy for Tibet in a system modeled on China's rule of Hong Kong and Macau.

This proposal, which has been the policy of Tibet's government-in-exile for years, has made little headway with China.

Mr. Sangay said one reason for that may be that his group hasn't been good enough at explaining its position to the world. Many leaders to whom he speaks, Mr. Sangay said, "still think that we are seeking independence," and that his group wants to "split the motherland."

"We are trying to clarify that," he said. "There is repression going on in Tibet, which ought to end," Mr. Sangay said in the interview.

The Chinese foreign ministry and the Communist Party office that handles Tibetan affairs didn't immediately respond to requests for comment.

Talks between Beijing and Mr. Sangay's organization broke off in 2010, and he said he sees no immediate plans to restart them.

This month, China's foreign minister is expected to visit India, and Mr. Sangay said he hopes India will tell the Chinese that "Tibet is one of its core issues." India and China share a long border with Tibet. "I hope they will learn a lesson from India," a country that grants freedoms to its various ethnic groups. "India's greatness is unity in diversity," he said.

Mr. Sanjay noted that "very strong signals" have been sent by China's new leadership that the country's policies toward Tibet aren't likely to change. Still, he pointed to indications there is a discussion within China about policy toward minorities in general and whether China should shift toward more of a "melting-pot policy."

He also said the Chinese government has begun collecting views from scholars and researchers "on minority issues in general and Tibet" specifically. Said Mr. Sangay: "This is a bit of a change."

Nevertheless, "One cannot say for sure which way they lean," he said. "Fifty years of experience isn't that optimistic."

One significant challenge for the Tibetan community, he said, is whether its members can unify around a "cultural affinity, a sense of who we are," as the generations change and the diaspora spreads around the globe. If Tibetans in Tibet are watching Chinese opera, he said, India's Tibetans are watching Bollywood and cricket, "and in the U.S. they watch more Hollywood and basketball." Imagine the conversation, he said, when "these three meet in one room."

Meanwhile, within Tibet, the situation remains "the same, unfortunately, if not worse," he said, in part because of the self-immolations by monks and others. "The form of protest inside Tibet has changed in a very dramatic way."

He pointed out that it is his organization's long-standing policy is to discourage protest of any sort, including self-immolation. "Life is the most precious thing," he said.

Greater freedoms, Mr. Sangay said, would be the appropriate step toward addressing the deep discontent within Tibet. "Until then, there can be no stability and peace in Tibet," he said.


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