Silence on Tibetan talks is golden

2010-01-29Asia Times

BEIJING - On Tuesday, Beijing reopened the thorny and controversial talks with envoys of the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan god-king. Lodi Gyaltsen Gyari (the Dalai Lama's right-hand man), Kelsang Gyaltsen, and three other officials of the Tibetan government in exile reached the Chinese capital, it was announced from the Dalai Lama’s the headquarters in Dharamsala, India.

Unlike previous occasions, the Tibetans did not release press statements, and no one leaked news of the contact - the first since talks at the time of the Beijing Summer Olympic Games in 2008 ended in stalemate.

The news blackout and the fact that the Chinese have agreed to the talks without pressure from domestic or international groups casts a positive light on their prospects.

The Uyghur revolt in Urumqi, the capital of China's western Xinjiang region, last July seems to have contributed to the reopening the contact. Then, groups of Uyghurs, a Turkic minority, killed dozens of Han Chinese (the ethnic majority in China). The violence and cruelty of that protest proved to Beijing that the Tibetans were a milder and a more reasonable lot.

Silence from diplomats is considered in Beijing to be a guarantee of reliability. Talks between Beijing and the Vatican have been held for years and have registered significant progress by maintaining complete press silence on the political content of the talks.

Last week, China held high-level discussions to assess the situation in Tibet and to consider new projects to boost social and economic development in the region.

Beijing may also hope to set on a better course the expected controversial meeting between US President Barack Obama and the Dalai Lama, whom China blames for masterminding demonstrations in Lhasa, the Tibetan capital, which ended with the death of many people in 2008. Beijing has bitterly opposed such meetings in the past. However, now the two sides seem to have reached a compromise - Obama will meet the Dalai Lama privately and Beijing will tone down its protestations.

Besides the present prudent optimism, there are huge differences between the parties. The Dalai Lama and Beijing do not agree even on the meaning of "Tibet" or "autonomy".

According to Beijing, "Tibet" is the actual Tibetan Autonomous Region, which according to the Dalai Lama is less than half the territory of "historical Tibet" covering about a quarter of all China.

By "autonomy", China means maintaining the current administrative regime that is heavily dependent on Beijing. The men of the Dalai Lama think of the autonomy offered by Mao Zedong in the 1950s, which, according to Beijing, belongs to the past and to history.

Among Tibetans there is still, unchanged over time and history, deep faith in the Dalai Lama, but Beijing is unwilling to buckle under religious pressures. Xinhua, the official news agency, announced a gigantic development plan in recent days that would allow the Himalayan region to leapfrog to the average per-capita wealth level of the rest of the country by 2020. This means a huge infrastructure plan that will increasingly integrate Tibet with the rest of China, even if may not suffice to "buy out" the souls of Tibetans faithful to the Dalai Lama.

"This time we are really focusing on improving livelihood, whereas previous policies were mostly concerned with industry and infrastructure," reportedly said Luorong Zhandui, a specialist in development economics at the China Tibetology Research Center. "Without human capacity, Tibet will always fall behind and need others to take care of it," said Luorong, who did not attend the forum but advised the government to include all Tibetan areas in its policy deliberations.

The Tibetan front, from Beijing's perspective, appears divided, despite the common faith in the Dalai Lama. There is seething tension between those in Dharamsala who have been in exile since 1959 and the Tibetans in Tibet - although their common opposition to Beijing may unite them.

Moreover, the Dorjie Shugden Sect, considered heretical by the Dalai Lama, yet counting possibly up to 800,000 followers, has introduced further divisions among Lamaist Tibetans. The members of this sect are more inclined to cooperation with Beijing.

In any case, Beijing wants a solution with the Dalai Lama and does not want to be held hostage to the people in Lhasa who built their political and economic careers by waving the banner of war on the Tibetan insurrection. In other words, Beijing, wanting peace and development in Tibet, has two opponents.

One is the group around the Dalai Lama, which wants a tough clash with Beijing and hopes the ensuing widespread pandemonium will create something positive for them. The other is the group of Chinese officials in favor of a crackdown in Lhasa, who can maintain and promote their power by keeping alive the flame or ghost of an anti-Chinese uprising in Tibet. In fact, the two groups have convergent interests.

In theory, there may be a balance between Beijing and the Dalai Lama, but China certainly is not prepared to make concessions on its interpretation of "Tibet" or "autonomy." This creates a new and very sensitive space for compromise that will need time and attention to be true and genuine.

Meanwhile, it is unlikely that the two parties will reach an agreement in the short term. We are near the end of the Chinese lunar year, which ends on February 13. Most likely, the Chinese have for now only the mandate to study and understand the true intentions of the other party.

"You can't say there will be a deal, but you can say a better understanding," Khedroob Thondup, a member of the Tibetan parliament in exile, reportedly said. (2010-01-29 Asia Times)


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