January 30, 2002


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The Rediff Interview/Samdhong Rinpoche Lobsang Tenzin
'A non-violent movement is the only option for Tibetans'
In July 2001, the Dalai Lama, temporal and spiritual head of the Tibetans, pushed through a very significant reform -- hereafter, his people would directly elect their political leader.

Thus it was that on July 29 eligible Tibetans thronged makeshift polling booths across the world to elect the kalon tripa, or chairman of the cabinet, of their government-in-exile.

Their overwhelming choice: 62-year-old Samdhong Rinpoche Lobsang Tenzin.

The logic behind the decision of the 66-year-old Dalai Lama, who was admitted to Mumbai's Lilavati Hospital on Sunday after he complained of abdominal pain and exhaustion, is, "offer a smooth transition and remove any possible confusion over the issue of leadership while I am alive".

In an interview with Senior Associate Editor Ramananda Sengupta, his elected political heir explains the working of his government-in-exile and provides an overview of the Tibetan movement for freedom. Excerpts:

Would you like to tell us a little bit about yourself?

I was born in a remote village in the southeastern part of Tibet. It was a very poor village and I belonged to a poor farmer's family. At the age of four, I entered a monastery and my life improved slightly. At five, I was recognized as a Samdhong [a reincarnation of the fourth Samdhong Rinpoche] and was given all the facilities. Then I had a good life and also found a good opportunity for education.

At the age of 12, I left my native place and came to central Tibet for higher education. But at 20 [in 1959] I had to run away from Tibet because of Chinese repression and took refuge in India. After coming to India, I spent a free life of a monk for about a year.

In July 1960 I was commissioned by His Holiness the Dalai Lama to come to Dharamsala and since then I have worked for Tibetans in exile in various capacities. I became a professor at the Central Institute of Higher Tibetan Studies in Varanasi in 1971 and remained there till 2001.

Before you were recognised as a reincarnation, what kind of a life do you remember?

I do not recall much, but my parents used to work in the fields. They used to carry me on their back and leave me under a tree while they worked, feeding me occasionally with milk. Food was not really scarce, but clothing and toys were difficult to get...

You are the first elected chairman of the kashag, or cabinet. What was the system like before, and what was the thinking behind this election?

I can't say what exactly was in the background of His Holiness the Dalai Lama's mind, but he was not happy with the system of him nominating the candidates for the kashag. The Tibetan parliament-in-exile had to choose from the people nominated by His Holiness and did not have freedom to choose from outside.

His Holiness felt that there was a lack of clear public-minded thought, so while the legislature is elected, they have a full public mandate, but the executive had a very limited public mandate. He wanted to enlarge this public mandate, and also wanted to empower the executive to have more courage to make policies and programmes. At the same time if the kalon tripa, or chairman of the cabinet, was given the power to choose his own team, it would be more like-minded and consolidated.

These were the considerations His Holiness had in mind for the changes he implemented in March 2001. At that time I was in the process of retiring from public life. The new system was introduced just at the end of my presidency of parliament. And then, according to His Holiness's advice, parliament amended the charter and a new system was introduced to elect the chief kalon [directly]. And then, fortunately or unfortunately, I was the man nominated by the people.

So only you are elected, while you can pick the rest of your team?

Yes, but then I have to get my team endorsed by parliament. And if someone objects, it is put to vote. If the candidate gets more than 50 per cent, he or she can continue, otherwise I have to nominate a new member. It is almost like the American system.

So now you have a parliament, a cabinet, a full-fledged political system... but what does it do for the people who are still in Tibet? How much influence does it have on the people who are still there?

The Tibetan government-in-exile as a whole does not have much opportunity or capacity to work within Tibet or make any difference there. But the Tibetans in Tibet believe that the government-in-exile in India, under the leadership of His Holiness, is their legitimate government, while the government in Tibet, controlled by China, is illegal and illegitimate.

So whatever improvement or reformation takes place in the exiled government, it gives a lot of encouragement and inspiration to the people there. And they always think that when Tibet becomes free or autonomous, this government, or the system developed here, will be planted inside Tibet. At that time it will have the experience and the expertise to go through the democratic process.

Therefore, the people living inside Tibet are sometimes more concerned about these things than the people outside. The people outside are not too concerned about the administration in Dharamsala, because they are living in a free country, but the people inside [Tibet] keep a keen eye and have a very high level of awareness of the developments here.

During the election, I was trying to withdraw my name, but I got a lot of emotional messages from inside Tibet against that, which influenced my decision to continue with the candidature and accept this election. These were emotional messages, not votes. They can't vote, of course.

Which means only the Tibetans outside Tibet voted in this election... would you like to put a number to that?

Approximately 52 per cent of the registered voters cast their ballot. There are around 60,000 registered voters.

There is increasing impatience among the younger generation of Tibetans about the non-violent movement. How would you justify it to them?

A non-violent movement is the only option for Tibetans. There are two considerations here -- one, His Holiness and his followers see this as a faith, or a morally justifiable position. Non-violence is the only process that can bring a sustainable result, and while violence may bring some result, it will not be sustainable.

The second view is that even if you look at it as a strategy, and not a faith, even then non-violence is more effective, less expensive, and has less adverse reactions.

Even if you believe in violence, if you take the Chinese might into consideration against a handful of Tibetans, practically it is impossible... So this path of non-violence has given us a great deal of satisfaction, and we have achieved a lot more than what we expected.

But what tangible achievements can you show the youngsters?

If you look at the history of any occupied country in the world, no one got freedom within 40 or 50 years, or even a hundred years. For example, even India had to fight for over 300 years to regain independence. Though it may seem long for an individual, in the history of nations, 50 years or 42 years is a very short spell of time.

But even in this very short spell of time, we have brought the issue of Tibet on the priority list -- to very high levels of the international community, and also at the grassroot level.

There is almost no country where Tibetan support groups are not working actively -- in North and South America, Africa, Europe. They work voluntarily, using their own money. This was only possible because Tibetans remained non-violent. Otherwise, there may be a certain section of people who might help us with arms and ammunition, who may train our youngsters for guerrilla warfare, but it would not get the large support and sympathy that we now have in the world.

But while the struggle continues, the Chinese are said to be changing the demographic structure of Tibet, and Tibetans could soon become a minority in Tibet.

They are already a minority. China is doing its best to outnumber the Tibetans in Tibet, but this population transfer done under force is not sustainable. Whenever there is a change in the political scenario, the Chinese would like to go back to their own homeland. They are unwilling to stay on in Tibet. They are unable to adjust to the Tibetan climate. Then, when the political scenario changes, they will be uncomfortable -- socially and emotionally -- about staying on.

Besides, even today, the Chinese have been able to change the demography only in towns, not in the rural areas of Tibet. Particularly in nomadic societies, the Chinese have not been able to make any demographic change.

My understanding is that the Dalai Lama is not allowed political activity on Indian soil. Doesn't this election amount to political activity?

In 1959, the Government of India advised His Holiness that any political activity against the Chinese could not be carried out in India. And that is very carefully observed up to now. For the last 42 years we have never done anything.

I don't think even the Chinese can say something about it [the election]. If they recognise this as a valid election, then they have a right to call it a political activity. But they do not recognise the existence of a government-in-exile, so whatever we do is negligible. But if they say it is the activity of the government-in-exile then they are indirectly recognising it.

It had happened sometime back. They [China] had objected to the display of the Tibetan national flag. Then somebody asked them: 'Do you recognize this as a national flag?' They said 'no'. Then they were asked: 'If it is just a piece of cloth then what is your objection?'

What kind of documentation is issued to Tibetans who escape to India and then want to travel abroad?

We have an identity certificate issued by the Government of India under the international law of stateless people. Under this law, the host government has the authority to issue these certificates, and most of our people get this. We call it a yellow passport. It is similar to other passports, except that under nationality it says 'stateless Tibetan refugee in India'. On that document we get visas from various countries.

Also on that certificate, we get something we call NORI or no objection to return to India, but whenever we travel abroad, we lose our residential permit, so we have to apply for another Indian visa from wherever we are. This is very easy, we can get it within one hour in European countries.

So you don't have Indian citizenship...

No, we have the right to become Indian citizens, because we have been residing here for so long.

Has anyone taken that up?

Few, those who have jobs in the Indian government, otherwise it is not necessary.

Does taking the citizenship of another country in any way dilute commitment to the cause?

Not necessarily. We have made a provision in our charter that those who have compulsions to become citizens of other nations, but still have faith in the Tibetan cause, can retain their Tibetan citizenship if they continue to pay voluntary tax to the Tibetan government-in-exile. In Western countries, it is about $80 a year. In India, Bhutan, and Nepal, about Rs 80 a year. Those who pay get a green handbook. As long as you have that, you retain your Tibetan nationality. But if you don't have that, you will not get any facilities as a Tibetan.

This was started in 1971. More than 90 per cent of the refugees have this card. The number of registered voters is much less, but to get registration you must have this book to begin with.

And what happens to the money?

It comes to Dharamsala and that is the basic source of our annual budget.

What about other money from other sources... donations and gifts?

They are all put into the consolidated fund of the Tibetan government-in-exile. We cannot spend money that is not first put into the consolidated fund -- this budget has to be approved by the parliament-in-exile.

Other than India, where else is the movement strong at the moment?

As a movement, at the government and administration level, it is the US that is leading. The American Congress has adopted several resolutions under which the administration has to care for the Tibetan cause. They have appointed a special coordinator for Tibet. They bring up Tibet whenever they discuss the human rights issues and environmental issues.

The American government is also pleading with China to start unconditional talks with the Dalai Lama. This has been happening for some time. The Clinton administration had urged the Chinese government several times.

Then, there is the European Union: many nations have adopted resolutions in parliament in favour of Tibet -- the UK, Norway, Italy, Germany. Canada always raises the Tibet issue whenever they hold talks with the Chinese.

Yes, but has any nation officially recognised the government-in-exile?

No. Recognition is not an easy thing. Because most of the nations and governments in the world have diplomatic relations with China, and the first condition imposed by the People's Republic of China is that the other government must concede Tibet to be a part of China.

But would recognition help your cause?

At the moment I don't think it will make much difference. It will put some political pressure on China, but that will not be enough for China to change. I don't think the international community can really do much other than to pressurise or persuade the Chinese people to negotiate with His Holiness to find a genuine solution to the problem. That is the only way.

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