Back-channel talks with China exist, but there is little progress: Tibetan leader

Elected leader of Tibetan diaspora backs ‘Middle Way’ for autonomy amid voices of unrest within ‘Parliament-in-Exile’

September 27, 2023 04:49 pm | Updated September 28, 2023 07:41 am IST - DHARAMSHALA

Leader of the Tibetan government-in-exile Penpa Tsering.

Leader of the Tibetan government-in-exile Penpa Tsering. | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

Confirming that a “back-channel” between Tibetan representatives of the Dalai Lama and Chinese representatives exists at present, the Central Tibetan Administration’s (CTA) Sikyong  (elected leader) said, however, that their talks had not progressed enough to be discussed publicly.

In an interview to The Hindu here at the headquarters of the CTA, Sikyong Penpa Tsering said that the CTA backs the Dalai Lama’s call for the “Middle Way” that demands more autonomy from China, but not independence, a statement that the spiritual leader had repeated to journalists on Monday. To questions about whether he faced challenges from younger members of the Tibetan community who are “restless” about the lack of progress in talks, he said this is something China should consider. While the CTA holds regular elections amongst Tibetan refugee voters in more than 25 countries, they are not recognised as a government-in-exile, and most countries worldwide recognise the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR) as a part of China. 

Also read | Tibetan community stages protests against Chinese participation at G-20 Summit

“We follow the Middle Way, and believe that a non-violent peaceful negotiated mutually beneficial lasting solution to Sino-Tibet conflict could contribute towards peace in South Asia. If Dalai Lama can return back with his followers to Tibet that would be one thorn removed, certainly for India and China as well,” Mr. Tsering said in the interview.

Namgyal Dolka.

Namgyal Dolka. | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

“I tell my people, if you have to resolve Sino-Tibet conflict through the Middle Way, then there is no alternative but to talk to the Chinese authorities. Right now the Chinese are very suspicious…. So all I can say is we do have back-channels, beyond that I can’t say anything, as [these talks] haven’t moved beyond a certain stage where we would be comfortable to speak about it,” Mr. Tsering said, adding that the community needs to prepare its younger generations for their struggle for rights to continue for possibly “30, 40, 50 years”. 

Speaking about the plans for the 88-year-old Dalai Lama’s spiritual successor, or what Tibetan Buddhists believe would be his “reincarnation or emanation”, Mr. Tsering said that while the Dalai Lama is expected to live for many decades, a decision could be announced in 2025, when the Dalai Lama turns 90. 

“The only document relating to [the Dalai Lama’s] reincarnation, or the next Dalai Lama is the September 2011 document, which says that when His Holiness reaches the age of 90, then he will consult and take some decisions [regarding succession],” he explained, adding that the question over the succession worries authorities in Beijing who, he said, “seem to be more worried about the [next] 15th Dalai Lama than the present one”.

The last phase of official talks between China and representatives of the Dalai Lama were held over nine rounds from 2002-2010, and ended with a stalemate. In 2011, the Dalai Lama’s special envoys resigned their positions, expressing “utter frustration over the lack of positive response from the Chinese side”, and the talks have not so far been raised to the official level since Chinese President Xi Jinping took office in 2013. China has since hardened its stand on Tibet, and calls the Dalai Lama an “anti-China separatist” who fled to India in 1959 after a “failed armed rebellion”.

As a result, several members of the so-called Tibetan Parliament in Exile (TPiE) and youth groups  in Dharamshala have been calling for a revision of the policy for talks with China from ‘Umay Lam’ (Middle Way) to ‘Rangzen’ (Independence). 

“We have heard these promises for dialogue before, but how can we trust Xi Jinping and the CCP? This push for Middle Way is killing the movement for Tibetan independence and suppressing voices in the community who are demanding independence for Tibetans,” 37-year-old Namgyel Dolka Lagyari, who was elected by the Tibetan diaspora to the TPiE in 2016, said. He adds that if independence is “impossible” then so is “genuine autonomy” for Tibet.

When asked by The Hindu about discordant voices within the refugee community, Sikyong Penpa Tsering said that he was more concerned about Tibetans living inside Tibet at present, particularly pointing to China’s new schools in the region, that seek to erase any Tibetan cultural and religious education from the curriculum. He added that Tibetans who are not brought up with spiritual ties to India were a concern for New Delhi amidst the current stand-off at the Line of Actual Control that separates the two.

“China’s policy of the ‘colonial’ style boarding schools, turning every Tibetan into Chinese, that could also change the equation of the Tibetans inside Tibet towards India,” Mr. Tsering said, pointing to China’s “border villages” and recruitment of Tibetan soldiers. He said it was positive that India had “stood firm” against China in the current stand-off since 2020, adding that the government’s recent policy to step up building border infrastructure, is a “tremendous” move by the government.

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