U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Oct. 14 named Robert A. Destro, a veteran human rights advocate and civil rights attorney, to serve as the department’s Special Coordinator for Tibetan Issues, a position that had gone unfilled since 2017. Destro, now Assistant Secretary of State in the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, will serve in both positions simultaneously. On Oct. 16, RFA Tibetan Service reporter Tashi Wangchuk spoke by phone with Destro to discuss his goals and plans for his new role:
RFA: What would be your most important focus on Tibet as the new US Special Coordinator for Tibetan Issues? What would be the first thing you’d want to do?
RD: I think there are two important things we have to do. First of all to engage with the Tibetan Community and like-minded governments and multilateral organizations to build support for the Tibetan cause and for the Dalai Lama. And so part of it is really networking to try and garner support for the Dalai Lama and for the religious, cultural, and linguistic identity of the Tibetan people. And secondarily, also to look at the humanitarian needs of all the refugees and to see if we can help them out in a more practical way.
RFA: On Oct.14, Secretary Pompeo said that you will take care of the dialogue between the Dalai Lama and the Chinese government. The informal direct talks between the Dalai Lama’s representatives and the Chinese government officials ended in 2009. How confident are you that this dialogue, which has been stalled for the past decade, can even start again?
RD: I think the short answer to the question is that trying to restart that dialogue is a major challenge. I am not optimistic that the dialogue will start anytime soon, but there are many ways to approach the issues. The dialogue doesn’t necessarily have to be directly through the State Department. In fact I think it's less likely that it would be directly through the State Department. The idea is really to have them, and the question is how do we get that done when the Chinese government or the [Chinese Communist Party] believes it has the right to pick the next Dalai Lama. That is a very difficult thing to do. So I am not optimistic that we can get it started, but it doesn’t mean I am not going to try.
RFA: What would be your steps to make it optimistic?
RD: This will depend on a very realistic situation on the ground. And I have no illusion about the Chinese Communist Party’s attitude towards Tibet and Tibetans. So a lot of it is going to be by way of consultation with the Tibetan Community, with the [exile government, the Central Tibetan Administration], with the Tibetan diaspora, and with like-minded governments who have an equal interest in the long-term survival of the Tibetan community both inside Tibet as well as in the diaspora.
RFA: As you are aware, the 2020 revised Tibet Policy Act is being held up in the Senate right now. Are you going to push to have this passed as soon as possible?
RD: Well, the State Department as part of the executive branch has not really taken a position on the Act yet. I suppose when the time gets a little closer we will be taking a harder look at it. But right now there are no plans to be involved other than to keep an eye on it and take a look at it more closely as it starts to move.
RFA: Would you consider visiting Dharamsala and meeting with the Dalai Lama?
RD: It would be the greatest honor of my life to do so.
RFA: China tells the world that the Communist Party has the upper hand in recognizing the reincarnation of the Dalai Lama. What’s your position on this?
RD: Well the idea that the CCP can tell a religious leader how and under what circumstances he can reincarnate is actually quite amazing. It is the height of arrogance to say that any leader of a government should be able to tell a religious leader what their religious obligations are.
RFA: As you know the U.S. Consulate in Chengdu, the main post overseeing issues in Tibet, is now closed. Can you tell us how the work on Tibet is now being carried out?
RD: That’s quite a big challenge. And because this is literally my first couple of days in the job, I have been doing a lot of reading about what we know about what’s going on in Tibet. We know the situation is very serious in terms of the work camps and the ways in which the CCP has cracked down on the Tibetan Buddhists. So we know lot of bad news already.. How we actively monitor what’s going on is very, very difficult, but I guarantee you that it is one of my priorities to find out what is happening now. Unfortunately when you have a closed society like that with such a tightened flow over information, it’s hard to get information quickly.
RFA: You met with [exile political leader] Sikyong Lobsang Sangay in the State Department yesterday. How did it go? What did you two talk about?
RD: Well, we talked about many of the same things you and I are talking about. He was very happy that we invited him to come here to the State Department. We talked about ways in which we can cooperate, we also talked about Dharamsala. We talked about the many issues that we are talking about right now. And it was a very cordial and a very effective meeting.
RFA: Finally, Do you have any messages for our listeners in Tibet?
RD: I suppose the most important message is that we are with you in spirit. We pray for you. We support you, and we will do all we can within the scope of our ability to encourage the dialogue that we would like to see happen between China and the Dalai Lama. We are deeply committed to the human rights and the fundamental freedoms of Tibetans. And I will try to do my best,and we'll just have to see what happens. But I know that the Dalai Lama is praying for the community, and I pray with him that we will succeed.