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A gold medal for the Tibetan cause?

October 17, 2007 23:55 IST

As the 17th National Congress of the Communist Party of China gears up to its grand finale, another show, in another Congress, is being enacted, on Capitol Hill in Washington DC.

The Dalai Lama is being awarded the Congressional Gold Medal by the House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. This is the highest civilian honour the legislature can bestow and the White House has already announced that President Bush and his wife will participate in the event.

Nancy Pelosi, who has never missed a chance to criticise China's human rights record explained: "He [the Dalai Lama] has used his position to promote wisdom, compassion, and non-violence as a solution -- not only in Tibet -- but to other world conflicts."

She was politically correct when she said: "The United States must continue to be committed to meeting the challenge that Tibet makes to the conscience of the world."

The question, however, remains: will this new award help the people of Tibet to find a way out of the tragic situation in which they were plunged in October 1950 when the Roof of the World was invaded?

It seems doubtful, though it will be the first time that President Bush agrees to appear in public with the Dalai Lama (he has been 'privately' received in the White House in the past). Lodi Gyari, the Dalai Lama's special envoy for the negotiations between Dharamsala and Beijing put up a brave face: "More than ever before, the leadership in Beijing will have an unfiltered, undiluted opportunity to hear the message of His Holiness."

The point is that today the 'negotiations' between the Dalai Lama and Beijing (it would be more correct to call them 'contacts' as there is no question of negotiations for the time being) are at a standstill. Though Gyari had declared that they had reached a 'very crucial stage' after the last round in July, in fact they have reached a blind end and the function on Capitol Hill can only be a consolation for the Dalai Lama.

Interestingly, the Chinese reaction was rather belated. Though a few days ago Liu Jianchao, the ministry spokesman, had declared: "The Chinese government strongly opposes the US Congress giving the Dalai Lama a so-called award," it is only on the eve of the event that Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi voiced his "strong discontent and firm opposition" against the function. The Chinese government urged the US to cancel such "extremely erroneous arrangements."

One of the reasons for this late reaction might be the unusually good relations between the Bush Administration and the People's Republic of China.

One proof of this can be found in the recently updated Congressional Research Service report entitled -- China-US Relations: Current Issues and Implications for US Policy. The author states: 'US-China relations have been remarkably smooth since late 2001, although there are signs that US China policy now is subject to competing reassessments. State Department officials in 2005 unveiled what they said was a new framework for the relationship -- with the United States willing to work cooperatively with a non-democratic China while encouraging Beijing to become a 'responsible stakeholder'.'

The fact that the Bush Administration is willing to work with 'a non-democratic China' should be read with the proposal that the Dalai Lama made in front of the same US Congress in September 1987.

The Tibetan leader presented a Five-Point Peace Plan. The third point read:

'Fundamental human rights and democratic freedoms must be respected in Tibet. The Tibetan people must once again be free to develop culturally, intellectually, economically and spiritually, and to exercise basic democratic freedoms.'

This is one of the two basic unbridgeable differences between Dharamsala and Beijing. The Dalai Lama asks for a 'genuine autonomy' for Tibet within a democratic set-up, while the leaders in China only mention 'intra-party democracy.'

The only democratic progress during the present National Congress might be that the 2,217 Congress delegates will get slightly more leeway when they choose the 200 new Central Committee members. During the 16th Party Congress in 2002, the delegates had a 10 per cent "margin of elimination" (the Central Committee candidates nominated by the Standing Committee outnumbered the available seats by 10 per cent). During the 17th Congress, the margin will be increased to 15 per cent. That is all!

Therefore, there is nothing to discuss between a democratically elected Tibetan government-in-exile and the Beijing Communist Party leadership, unless drastic changes occur in China.

The second reason why the 'negotiations' cannot succeed is that both parties hold a diametrically different geographical definition of Tibet. While the Dalai Lama speaks of 'historical Tibet' including all areas where ethic Tibetans live, an article published on October 3 by China Today states 'there is no historical basis for an administrative division such as 'Greater Tibet' area... such an idea is totally absurd.'

The writer adds: 'Then why does the Dalai Lama insist on this groundless and impossible concept of 'Greater Tibet area?' There are at least two reasons. One is that many of the Tibetan people exiled with the Dalai Lama in 1959 are from Tibetan areas outside the Tibet Autonomous Region. The Dalai Lama needs to set a common illusion of "a united, independent and free Tibet" to buy these people's support. The other reason is that the claim was designed by their foreign bosses and they, as their flunkies, dare not disobey it.'

It concluded: 'The Chinese government will not be fooled!'

Flunkies or not, there is an insurmountable abyss between the two parties. The point is that US administration knows that no solution can be found on the present basis, but what the status quo does is probably in their interest.

Recently declassified US archive documents bring some light on the US view on the Tibetan issue. A memorandum dated January 1971 for a committee headed by National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger gave the background of the US support: 'CIA Tibetan activities, utilizing followers of the Dalai Lama, have included in addition to guerrilla support a program of political, propaganda, and intelligence operations. These activities are designed to impair the international influence of Communist China by support to the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan exiles in maintaining the concept of an autonomous Tibet, [4 lines still not declassified].'

It proves that the CIA was only 'utilising the followers of the Dalai Lama;' whatever activities undertaken by the US administration were for the benefit of the US and the fate of the Tibetans was only a collateral.

Another report stated that the total expenditure for the programme was $ 2,500,000 'only' (for the fiscal year 1969). The same programme continued during the fiscal year 1970 (it would be reduced during the following years).

The funding was divided in different categories: one was 'to pay a [dollar amount not declassified] yearly direct subsidy to the Dalai Lama and his entourage to maintain him in India where he strives to keep alive the will, the culture, and the religious traditions of his people in exile.'

Then, 'in addition to the Dalai Lama's subsidy, we have funded political and propaganda activities of the Tibetans. [3 1⁄2 lines not yet declassified].' Further, the studies of some young Tibetans who later graduated from a training course in administration had been sponsored. The New York Office of Tibet also received some help to continue 'to keep the Tibetan cause before international leaders, and to treat with organisations interested in refugees and relief.'

Most of the funding went to 'intelligence collection on the Chinese presence in Tibet'. For this, the CIA worked in collaboration with the Tibetan guerillas based in Nepal.

An interesting handwritten note on the first page mentions that Kissinger asked, 'Does this have any direct benefit to us?' One of the assistants, Alexis Johnson replied, 'It keeps him [the Dalai Lama] alive.'

During this meeting it was agreed to reduce the Tibetan forces in Nepal from 1,800 to 300 over the next three years: it was more than enough for intelligence collection and Kissinger was in the process of befriending China.

Just by curiosity, I went through the declassified US archives regarding Tibet from 1947 (Truman Administration) till 1974 (Nixon Administration). The common denominator seems to be that all Administrations have looked at the 'Tibetan cause' only for their own interest, and not because 'Tibet is the conscience of the world'.

In the meanwhile, repression has worsened in Tibet. The Congressional-Executive Commission on China pointed out that: 'Tibetan Buddhists faced greater repression in recent months, said the report, as authorities continued to detain and imprison Tibetans for peaceful expression and nonviolent action -- at least 100 such cases were identified.'

The recent disturbances in Lithang in Eastern Tibet (Sichuan province) have been labelled as a 'major political incident'. Oh Irony, the few Tibetan cadres of the Lithang County of Kandze Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture have been replaced by Chinese. Autonomy has a different meaning for Beijing!

The award of the gold medal to the Dalai Lama is good 'for the conscience of the US,' but it does not help the Tibetans in their aspiration for freedom.

Claude Arpi