The Fear of Getting Nothing

After a week of meetings, many Tibetans still support the Middle Way. Others seek independence.

Samdong-phil-305.jpg Tibetan exile prime minister Samdong Rinpoche greets musician and Tibet supporter Phil Void, Nov. 17, 2008.
Photo: Sonam Tsering
By Maura Moynihan

DHARAMSALA—As the first rays of the morning sun fall upon the lanes of McLeod Ganj, a Khampa elder in a distinctive hat settles into a corner niche where the Tipa and Bangsu Roads connect. Here, he displays the bags of bread and cheese he sells each day. A Kashmiri porter dodges an ancient hippie sharing a bidi with a dreadlocked youth in a Free Tibet tee shirt, as dialects from Kham, Amdo, and Utsang—Tibet’s three provinces—mingle with Hindi film songs.

You are in a Tibetan universe, but you are in India, near the mountain passes where Tibet and India have intersected for centuries, and where discussions on the fate and future of the imperiled Himalayan nation are under way.

Throughout this past week, 25 discussion groups have gathered to assess the efficacy of the Dalai Lama’s Middle Way approach, which concedes Tibetan sovereignty to China in return for measurable regional and cultural autonomy. On Friday morning Nov. 21, delegates convened at the Tibetan Children's Village for a collective review. Among the participants, opinions were varied; many retain faith in the Middle Way strategy, while some are unsure.

A growing faction contends that without independence, Tibet will die.

"The Middle Way is our only option," says Tenzin Gyaltsen, a Tibetan businessman from Bangalore. "China will use the global economic crisis to consolidate more power. The Tibetans don't have many cards to play; we're refugees in India. We must trust in the Dalai Lama's leadership."

"I fully support the Middle Way," says Lobsang Wangyal, a Dharamsala filmmaker and Internet entrepreneur. "Tibetans should have genuine autonomy within a developing economy. I don't think Tibetans are ready to run a modern country; we've been fractured after 50 years of Chinese domination."

Phurbu Tsering of New York City has changed his mind. "The Chinese Communist Party has violated every pledge to respect the rights of all their minority citizens, Tibetans, Uyghurs, Mongols. I supported the Middle Way for years, but look what's happening in Tibet now. With so much repression, it’s a second Cultural Revolution. Now I feel we must demand full independence or we will get nothing from China."

For two decades, the Dalai Lama has offered the People's Republic of China an opportunity to broker a peaceful solution to the Tibet quandary.

Anger and dismay

This week, many Tibetan exile government officials expressed anger and dismay over China's evident refusal to bargain in good faith.

"The Chinese are so stubborn, they don't want an honest discussion of anything about Tibet," said a senior Tibetan diplomat. "We can't pin any hopes on Hu Jintao; he is a hardliner. In our discussion group, we talked a lot about working with the Chinese Democracy activists to challenge the communist system. We have to stay engaged with the Chinese people, not be sidelined by the officials."

While many participants feel the meeting has enlarged the debate about the exiled government's policies, it is assumed that the current prime minister Samdong Rinpoche will keep the autonomy principle firmly in place. For many in the independence faction, this constitutes appeasement and surrender.

Lhasang Tsering, former president of Tibetan Youth Congress and an esteemed poet and Rangzen (independence) spokesman, is therefore boycotting the Special Meeting.

"People living in freedom do not have the right to speak for people living under repression," he says. "The wishes of the Tibetan people inside Tibet have never been more clear. They have time and again, by the tens and thousands, voted with their lives for freedom. No one votes more clearly than when he is facing certain death. Here, we vote with a ballot box and a piece of paper. If the exile government doesn't know what the people want, what are they doing?"

As night falls upon the lanes of Dharamsala, bars and cafes fill and swell with music and talk. Some McLeod Ganj first-timers in the press corps say they had never fully understood the Tibet story before, the trauma of invasion and exile, the attempts to break through the Chinese leadership's totalitarian mindset, the struggle to survive under a military occupation.

"It takes two to shake hands and only one to throw a punch. China has blatantly showed us they will not shake our hands," observes Lhasang Tsering, "The Dalai Lama believed the Middle Way would end the suffering of the people inside Tibet. We waited 20 years for China to tell us that they won't change anything. If we wait another 20 to 200 years, there will be no Tibetans to speak of, and we will be finished as a nation."

Maura Moynihan, a writer and musician, has been a consultant to the Rubin Museum of Art in New York City, America's largest Himalayan and Tibetan cultural institution. She worked for many years as a refugee consultant in India and Nepal and recently completed a master's degree in political science at the New School.


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