Time to speak up on Tibet

Time to speak up on Tibet

Srikanth Kondapalli

The intention of the Communist Party of China to control the transmigration of the soul of the next Dalai Lama has been blocked by the United States last week. After the US Congress passed the Tibet Policy and Support Act (TPSA), President Donald Trump signed it into law on December 27.

The TPSA is comprehensive and has retaliatory sanctions on China. However, China has weathered the storm on human rights issues by softening up both the US and European Union through lucrative business contracts. It remains to be seen whether it can do the same against the TPSA pressure.

The TPSA is critical of China’s efforts to control and command the soul of Tibetan Buddhism. China’s 2007 enactment of a law to manage the reincarnation of the Dalai Lama was criticised by the US as violation of religious rights and practices and it has, through the TPSA, provided for sanctions on Chinese officials and others involved in such efforts.

The TPSA also notes the water diversion projects undertaken by China and its drastic impact on 1.8 billion people downstream. The TPSA commended the delegation of political responsibilities by the Dalai Lama to the elected representatives in 2011 and authorised over $26 million in support of various Tibetan activities.

All US Administrations since 1943 have recognised Tibet as a part of China but have raised question of human rights violations there. The US has for years appointed a coordinator for Tibetan affairs. Currently, it is Robert Destro. But during the US-China Strategic and Economic Dialogues, such officials were eased out under Chinese pressure.

The TPSA comes in the wake of Chinese policies that are intended at gobbling up the whole of the Tibetan plateau and its resources, including the waters in its fold. China-Tibet talks conducted between China’s United Front Work Department and the Dalai Lama’s office – between 2002 and 2010, there were nine rounds of these talks – were not successful and have led to a decade-long stalemate.

China also began accusing the Dalai Lama of being a “wolf in monk’s robes” and indicated that there was a threat to the “personal safety” of the Dalai Lama if he returned to Tibet. These were rejected by the Tibetans. Meanwhile, as the 14th Dalai Lama is advancing in age, the re-incarnation issue has come to the fore.

China has stated that it will revive an old tradition of choosing the next Dalai Lama through chits placed in a golden urn. Since the Chinese-appointed Panchem Lama was not recognised by the Tibetans, any Chinese-appointed Dalai Lama will also face a similar fate among Tibetans.

To broadbase the institution of Dalai Lama and to accommodate growing popular aspirations, in 2011 the Dalai Lama decided to give up one of his two powers (spiritual and temporal) to the popularly elected Sikyong, investing him with temporal powers. However, at the August 29 Tibet Forum meeting led by Chinese President Xi Jinping, he declared the decision to “sinicize” Tibet along with the rest of China. This has further complicated the Tibet issue, and this is where the TPSA may provide some guarantees and penalties.

The Dalai Lama succession issue and the TPSA has major consequences for India at four levels -- the territorial dispute (as most land was between India and Tibet historically), trans-Himalayan security (with the rapid build-up of military logistics by China and thus the elimination of buffer zones), problems related to the environment (sustained through socio-religious ethos in the region for centuries), and trans-boundary water issues (with China building 26 dams and diverting rivers).

In this context, the TPSA provides an opportunity for India to re-articulate its position on the subject. This is in the background of China violating all agreements (such as 1993, 1996, 2005 and 2013 agreements) on the borders and the resultant military stalemate since May 2020. As China itself has been raising the Kashmir issue at the United Nations (four times in the last one year), India must seriously reconsider its Tibet policy.

First, India needs to send, in a synchronous manner, signals of its displeasure to China and insist on reciprocity on Tibet and Kashmir issues. Second, India must coordinate with the US on Tibet issues. Third, on trans-boundary water issues, India must seek Tibetans’ support as well as organise multilateral pressure along with Bangladesh and affected Southeast Asian countries. Fourth, India must organise international Buddhist conventions, with the participation of the Dalai Lama and the head monks of the trans-Himalayan region, Mongolia and Southeast Asia.