Speaking to Karan Thapar on this week’s Devil’s Advocate, the new Prime Minister of the Tibetan government in exile Lobsang Sangay talks about the Tibetan struggle against China and discusses the international community’s need to take a moral stand on Tibet, even if it means compromising economic interests with China.
Karan Thapar: Hello and Welcome to Devil’s Advocate. With China emerging as the second most powerful country in the world, is Tibet today a lost cause? That’s the key issue I shall take up with the Prime Minister of the Tibetan government, in exile Lobsang Sangay. Dr Sangay, this week the Tibetan government has called upon the world to observe a day of peaceful protests and fast in solidarity with Tibetans in Tibet as well as to put pressure on the Chinese to resolve the Tibet situation. But is the world listening?
Lobsang Sangay: I do think the world is listening, more so now, because you are interviewing me.
Karan Thapar: Well that’s flattery, but let me put it like this. There’s no doubt that I personally understand and sympathise with your cause, but the truth is that more than 60 years have passed since Chinese soldiers walked into Tibet. More than 50 years have passed since His Holiness the Dalai Lama had to flee his country. Many people say that Tibet today is a lost cause.
Lobsang Sangay: Not at all. Till I got elected recently, it was widely covered by news media around the world and Tibetans in 30 countries participated on a single day. And some from Ladakh, where the temperature was below 40 degrees, and some in Bandra where temperature was 40 plus. The Tibetan spirit inside and outside is strong. That’s the key. As long as we have that, our issue is very much alive and His Holiness the Dalai Lama has lead brilliantly for all these years and the Tibetan people are still very much…
Karan Thapar: But the problem is that China today is so powerful, no one wants to annoy the Chinese. After all, you’re talking about a country that is the second biggest economy in the world. Chinese money today underwrites the US debt. European leaders are queuing to go to Beijing to solicit investment. With the west facing recession, who wants to annoy Hu Jintao or Wen Jiabao by raising Tibet?
Lobsang Sangay: I understand the consent of the world including India because they are not used to or familiar with China. We have been neighbours with China for the last 2000 plus years. So, Tibetans are genetically disposed in understanding and knowing China. We have seen China’s ups and downs. We have fought with them, invaded them, occupied them, they’ve occupied us, invaded us, we have had 2000 years of relationship. So, at this time, yes, we see China on the rise, But His Holiness the 13th Dalai Lama fled to India in 1910. We Tibetans worked hard and made his return possible in 1913. We will make this happen this time too.
Karan Thapar: Except that the problem you face is that today China is more powerful than it has been for perhaps 200 to 300 years, may be more than it has ever been. For example, earlier this month, the Dalai Lama wanted to visit South Africa, they denied him a visa, even though he was only going to attend Desmond Tutu 80th birthday and they did it because they didn’t want to offend China. That’s the sort of obstacle you run up against.
Lobsang Sangay: That’s why it’s called struggle. Tibetan struggle. There will be ups and downs. Sometimes visa will be issued, sometimes it will be denied, but we are persistent. We’ll find our way, we have kept alive. You’re right. Tibetans alone have stood up against the hardliners in China for the last 60 years. We’re alone doing it, it’s high time international community comes around, rallies around us.
Karan Thapar: You call it a struggle, but the truth is it could be a pyrrhic struggle because even when someone like Obama, arguably the most powerful political leader in the world, meets Dalai Lama, he won’t do it in the oval office, he does it in an inconsequential room called the Map Room and that’s once again because he doesn’t want to annoy Beijing. You know the struggle is becoming more and more difficult for you.
Lobsang Sangay: It’s alright. I’m sure Gandhiji must have faced the same question, had he been through the same struggle. Nelson Mandela was in prison for 27 years and 9 years in Robin Island. So it’s part of the struggle. We have a long term goal, at the same time our struggle is based on Buddhist philosophy – which is 2,600 plus years old and communism that China is banking on is 100 plus years old. We will outlive them, that we know.
Karan Thapar: You know it’s interesting Dr Sangay that you referred to Gandhiji. The Dalai Lama frequently says, with a smile on his face, that India is too timid, but India prefers timidity to outspokenness when it comes to China and yet this is the country where you’re living where perhaps sympathy and sentiment feels greatest but the government, when it comes to choosing between China and the Tibetan cause, like any and other government in the world, chooses China and not Tibet and that’s the problem you face.
Lobsang Sangay: Well, India has done the heaviest lifting till this date. The largest number of Tibetans are in India and we owe a lot to Indian people and India’s kindness and gratitude. So India is doing a lot as far as it can for humanitarian point of view, of course, we wish that Indian government becomes more for Tibet and Tibetan people, but as a humble guest, we can’t complain.
Karan Thapar: But the truth is that, despite the fact, that may be public support in India would be in favour of, the government in India taking a stronger stand in favour of Tibet. Pursuing the Tibet cause more energetically and many in India even argue that it would make sense in India’s strategic interest to do it, the government doesn’t, that’s the problem, you have sentiment from the papers the world over, from people the world over, but governments because of politics and because of China’s power don’t support you. That’s why I come back. Isn’t it a lost cause?
Lobsang Sangay: It is not. Of course you raised valid issues and that is for Indian people and Indian leaders to debate, discuss and formulate a policy on Tibet, a long term based policy on Tibet, that’s for the Indian people to decide and you’re absolutely right. As per the Indian media, China has in a sense surrounded India, if you look at the land border, and the hills are inside Tibet and the sea port in Sri Lanka, Pakistan, and also Bangladesh, so all these are realities.
Karan Thapar: But can you see a Cameron or Sarkozy when they depend on Chinese investments telling Hu Jintao that please reform a change in Tibet? Can you see Obama, whose entire debt depends upon China bank rolling it saying to Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao that please reform Tibet? Those are leaders who you need. But those leaders are in debt to China. China’s hold is greater than the emotional sympathy they feel for you. That’s why I say, isn’t it a lost cause?
Lobsang Sangay: I might differ with you on the number. I think America’s debt is around $ 14 trillion, of which China owe about $ 1.3 trillion.
Karan Thapar: And the single largest component is the Chinese.
Lobsang Sangay: That’s 10 per cent. But China is more dependent upon the rest of the world as well. For example, as you mentioned India. India’s investment in China, people always make this argument, we have to ‘protect’ our economic interest with China. But actually, China is profiting from doing business with India, China is profiting from doing business with America. So you give profit to China, you compromise on your morals and if you’re scared or anxious of China, then who’s losing? So what we’re saying is stand up on these principles, democratic principles on which I got elected; which Indian people, rest of the world should be standing up for.
Karan Thapar: I hear what you’re saying and you’re telling the world, you’re telling Sarkozy, Cameron, Obama, you’re telling Dr Manmohan Singh that stand up on your principles. But they’re not standing up on their principles. They’re going by their economic interest, they’re going by the fear of antagonising China, and the problem is in the process that Tibet call is losing out.
Lobsang Sangay: It’s for the Indian people and the rest of the world to debate and discuss this issue.
Karan Thapar: So your message to the people is give your government the strength, give them the ability to stand up for principles, tell them not to be weak kneed in front of China.
Lobsang Sangay: That’s what you are saying. But I will say we Tibetans are pursuing fundamental principles, which people around the world should enjoy – freedom, dignity and identity, that we should enjoy and the rest of the world should support us.
Karan Thapar: Let me come to a second problem that you face. Since you became the Prime Minister in august, you’ve repeatedly said you’re ready to talk to the Chinese, but the Chinese don’t respond. You want to talk, they refuse to talk and there’s nothing you can do about it.
Lobsang Sangay: That shows our sincerity. We are sincere in solving the issue of Tibet peacefully through dialogue.
Karan Thapar: But it’s not happening.
Lobsang Sangay: It’s for the Chinese government to reciprocate in kind.
Karan Thapar: But they’re not.
Lobsang Sangay: But they’re not that means they say ‘we are a country of rule of law, we want a country of harmonious society, we want a peaceful rising in the world.’ If these are the principles that they propagate, then they should live up to them and what we’re saying is fulfil the principles and the claims that you make.
Karan Thapar: There’s no doubt that in terms of the principles, you’ve got no argument with you, but in terms of political reality, real politics, it’s against it. Let me give you another example, today whilst he’s with us, no one will doubt that the power of the Dalai Lama’s personality keeps the Tibetan cause alive. But he’s 76. When he’s gone, Tibet will probably disappear from the public conference altogether.
Lobsang Sangay: I would disagree. His Holiness is 76, but is strong and very healthy and he will live very long. At the same time, any freedom movement, if you look at the success of the Egypt movement or in Tunisia, who was the leader. As long as your movement is based on democratic principles, you can sustain and strengthen over time.
Karan Thapar: Let me tell you another reason why this horizon is darkening. Hu Jintao’s successor Shi Xinping, seems like a hardliner on Tibet. Let me quote to you what he said In Lhasa in July this year, “We shall thoroughly fight against separatist activities by the Dalai clique and smash completely any plot to destroy stability in Tibet and jeopardise national unity.” That’s much hard and tough a language than you’ve been used to from Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao for the last 10 years. Things are getting tougher, not easier.
Lobsang Sangay: These are tough words, but we have seen much tougher actions in Tibet in 50s and 60s where they destroyed most of our monasteries, most of our cultural heritage, and many thousands of Tibetans were killed. But Tibetans are still alive, still strong, and Tibetans’ spirit inside and outside, in 2008, it was made very clear. Tibetans all across Tibet, young, old, nomads and farmers rose up and even today they’re protesting against the repressive policies of the Chinese government. The tough words by Chinese leadership, the tough actions by Tibetan people so far.
Karan Thapar: Except the problem is that over last 10 years or progressively over the next 10 or 20, your capacity to change the situation in Tibet is going to get weaker and weaker just as China’s capacity and resolve to maintain the status quo is getting stronger and stronger. So the struggle, far from becoming equal, is becoming increasingly unequal and you’re the disadvantaged party.
Lobsang Sangay: Nothing in this world progresses in a linear fashion that you described. There are always ups and downs. Who knew that Hosni Mubarak will no more be the President of Egypt?
Karan Thapar: Miracles can happen.
Lobsang Sangay: Things happen and we do believe it will happen to us because it has happened before. We have the 13th Dalai Lama who returned to Tibet in 1913 from India.
Karan Thapar: So you’re banking on a miracle?
Lobsang Sangay: I’m not banking on a miracle. We’re banking on our spirit, our belief, our identity, our cause, which is fundamentally strong and it will remain strong for a long period of time and we will survive the Chinese repressive policies.
Karan Thapar: Dr Sangay on September 24, his holiness the Dalai Lama issued a comprehensive statement on the issue of his succession suggesting that the next Dalai Lama could be chosen by emanation during his lifetime and not necessarily only by reincarnation after his days. But almost within days, the Chinese officially and publicly rejected that statement. How do you respond to that rejection?
Lobsang Sangay: The Chinese government has no basis to reject what his holiness has said because the Chinese government labelled him a devil. They don’t believe in reincarnation, they treat religion as poison and they have no say whatsoever on reincarnation of his holiness Dalai Lama, for that matter for any reincarnation, They are a communist government, they should stick to their ideology.
Karan Thapar: On this programme, of course being a devil is not necessarily an insult, but that apart, the Chinese spokesman Hung Lei has said and he’s the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman, has said two very important things. First he says that Dalai Lama in his own lifetime cannot identify his successor, which means that the Chinese reject the concept of succession by emanation. Isn’t that a problem?
Lobsang Sangay: It’s not a problem. Obviously, what do you expect from the spokesman of the Chinese foreign ministry to say. But they are a communist government. They don’t believe in religion, His holiness is the ultimate authority on whom the next succession should be, whether through reincarnation or emanation and whatever his holiness decides, Tibetan people and Buddhists around the world will whole heartedly embrace that boy or girl and recognise him/her as the 15th Dalai Lama.
Karan Thapar: Except the political authority that controls the soldiers that are on the ground in Tibet is challenging just that precise point because the second thing Hung Lei, the Chinese spokesperson has said and it’s a very critical thing is that the title of dalai Lama is conferred by the Central Government and is illegal otherwise. In other words, they claim a veto on who the next Dalai Lama will be and they’re saying that until they recognise that person, he won’t legally be Dalai Lama.
Lobsang Sangay: They never had veto. They will not have veto. Even the Chinese Buddhists, some 200 million or so, and Tibetans inside Tibet will abide by his holiness’ decision. Even many Chinese are writing in favour of Tibet and Tibetan people now and the Chinese government is spending more on internal security as per the declared document than on external security. So the China that you described previously is not exactly as we believe from outside, it is.
Karan Thapar: Except the truth of the matter is that the Dalai Lama’s statement was a strategy to prevent the Chinese to try and appoint a successor after his death and trying to take over the authority and control of the Dalai Lama office. The problem is since the cards and the trump seem to be in Chinese hands, can his holiness’ strategy work?
Lobsang Sangay: On this issue, the Chinese government has no card, no credibility, no legitimacy. It is our spirituality. It’s what inside you and all the Tibetans inside and Buddhists around the world believe his holiness Dalai Lama as the leader and his word is far more valid and relevant than what the Chinese government or their foreign ministry says on this issue.
Karan Thapar: So what you’re saying is that as long as the Tibetan people abide by what the Dalai Lama decides over the succession issue, you don’t care what the Chinese try and do to thwart it.
Lobsang Sangay: Both for the struggle and for his holiness Dalai Lama reincarnation, is the Tibetan spirit, is the Tibetan belief. That is the foundation. As long as we keep it strong, we will sustain it for a long period of time and when the 15th Dalai Lama comes in the picture when his holiness Dalai Lama decides, we will embrace and move forward.
Karan Thapar: So in a nutshell, Tibetan spirit is more resilient and more important and stronger than Chinese soldiers.
Lobsang Sangay: It has always been like that in history. Indian spirit against British Raj, the South African spirit against the Afghan rule, the Egyptians’ spirit against Hosni Mubarak’s dictatorship and Tibetan spirit against hardliners in the Chinese government.
Karan Thapar: Dr Sangay, a pleasure speaking to you.
Lobsang Sangay: Thank you so much.