Free Tibet is Dead


According to the bumper stickers and t-shirts, victory is imminent, “TIBET WILL BE FREE,” they proclaim undeterred by the conspicuous absence of progress since China occupied Tibet in 1959. After spending six months in Dharamsala, India, home to the exile government, I don’t believe it. I support Tibet, but at some point we are going to have to acknowledge that the Free Tibet movement is performing CPR on a cold body. The cause has progressively diminished its definition of victory so much, it no longer stands for anything resembling freedom. Free Tibet is dead and a positive spin on failure won’t bring it back. The way forward requires rethinking what helping Tibetans really means.

A Great Idea That Doesn’t Work

The Middle Way Approach was introduced by the Dalai Lama, Tibet’s spiritual leader, and former political head, as part of his address to members of the European Parliament in France in 1998, known as the Strasbourg Proposal. The policy was designed to establish dialogue with Beijing to reach a compromise: “genuine autonomy” within China. Since the Dalai Lama renounced his political powers in 2011, the Middle Way Approach, referred to as the MWA, remains closely associated with him, and is the official policy of the administration in Dharamsala.

Photo by Sonam Zoksang/CC BY

Jamyang Norbu leads a rally for independence at the Chinese embassy in Washington DC, 2011. A writer and former guerilla, last year Norbu denounced the Middle Way as a “ragged fig leaf of a policy.” (Sonam Zoksang/CC BY)

A vocal minority supports rangzen, or independence, but not the Tibetan government or major NGOs; and by leveraging the connection with Dalai Lama, Middle Way adherents have isolated their opponents. Aside from the Tibetan Youth Congress and activist Jamyang Norbu, there is little support for rangzen within the community. Gu Chu Sum, an ex-political prisoners association, recently reversed its secessionist stance, mindful of the controversy directed at Karma Choepel, a Chitue (the Tibetan title for a member of parliament), who this past September, expressed his opinion the Dalai Lama has independence at heart. The Speaker of Parliament, Penpa Tsering, called a special session at which other MPs were granted unlimited time for speeches, unleashing an onslaught of condemnation. Choepel later withdrew his statements and submitted a letter to the Dalai Lama, asking forgiveness.

The non-violent orientation of the MWA earned it international acclaim, and in 1989 the Dalai Lama won the Nobel Peace Prize for his pacifist ideology. Optimism was built upon a 1979 statement attributed to former Chinese President Deng Xiaoping, “except for independence, all other issues can be settled through discussion.” However, the MWA can claim few concrete victories; its accomplishments limited to endorsements from a handful of Chinese intellectuals. While Tibetan authorities are intent on entering dialogue with China, Beijing consistently rejects the government-in-exile, dismissing them as a confederation of malcontents, irrelevant holdovers from a deposed aristocracy. Chinese officials have denied the quote attributed to Xiaoping, who died in 1997, and have never acted on it.

Picture by Wonderlane/CC BY

The Dalai Lama throws petals in a ceremony for peace, in Washington, months before Norbu’s protest. Within Tibetan Buddhism, the Dalai Lama is believed to be the reincarnation of a Bodhisattva, an enlightened being who saves others. His support for the Middle Way grants it unparalleled prestige. After the ceremony, he met with Pres. Obama. (CC BY)

Talks between Tibetan and Chinese policymakers have not made any progress in part because China has consistently declined to discuss Tibet’s political future. In 2008, China agreed to meet with a Tibetan delegation, in their capacity as the Dalai Lama’s personal representatives only, refusing to consider the political points they presented. A response to documents submitted by the Tibetans at that meeting stated the door is open for the Dalai Lama to return, as an individual, but closed to all other negotiations. There has been no further dialogue

Top Picture: In London, men lead chants at a protest for Tibet’s freedom, held every March. Nevertheless, the Government-in-Exile no longer seeks independence (Students for a Free Tibet/ CC BY)

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