The next Dalai Lama is still missing
"The occupation of Tibet is unacceptable, the repression of the Tibetans is unbearable"
The President of the Tibetan Government-in-Exile, Lobsang Sangay, calls on Beijing to engage in dialogue. And would like western countries to stand up for their own values more strongly.
Mr. Lobsang Sangay, recently we have heard a lot about Xinjiang and Hong Kong, but hardly anything about Tibet. Why?
What is happening in Xinjiang is a confirmation of what has been going on in Tibet for a long time. The events in Hong Kong also confirm the situation in Tibet. The international community always said that Tibet was the exception. Otherwise the situation in China is very good. That's why one can do business with China. But now Xinjiang shows that Tibet is no exception. But because Xinjiang is new, the media is focusing on it.
Lobsang Sangay is Sikyong, President of the Tibetan Central Administration, the Tibetan government-in-exile based in Dharamsala, India. The 51-year-old was born in Darjeeling, India to a family of refugees from Tibet. He studied and researched at Harvard University. In 2011 he took over the role of political leader of the Tibetans in exile from the Dalai Lama. In 2016, Lobsang Sangay was re-elected.
Can Tibet really be compared to Xinjiang, where an estimated one million people - mostly Muslim minorities like the Uyghurs - have been put in re-education camps?
The architect of the measures in Xinjiang (party secretary Chen Quanguo, editor's note) was formerly party secretary in Tibet. What he did in Tibet in five years, he tried to do in Xinjiang in twelve months. The concentration camps seen in Xinjiang existed in Tibet during his time. Everything happens much faster in Xinjiang. But the situation in Tibet is the same.
In its latest defense strategy paper, Beijing writes that the greatest threat to China is separatism. Tibet is mentioned explicitly. Is Tibet a threat to China?
No. We stand by non-violence. And we are striving for real autonomy - within China. His Holiness the Dalai Lama is the best partner the Chinese government could wish for in resolving the Tibetan issue. But for sixty years Beijing has tried to demonize the Dalai Lama. The whole world respects the Dalai Lama - except for the Chinese government.
In March, on the sixtieth anniversary of the 1959 Tibet Uprising, the state-run Chinese news agency Xinhua wrote that human rights in Tibet have never been better than they are today. What do you think?
One can only laugh at such propaganda. If the Tibetans in Tibet are so satisfied and the human rights situation is as good as Beijing claims, why not hold a referendum among Tibetans in Tibet? They are to determine their future and choose their leaders. If they choose Chinese leaders, then we Tibetans in exile are okay. If the Chinese say that human rights are doing so well, let them prove it. But journalists do not have free access to Tibet, neither do experts and diplomats. The difficult access to Tibet is one of the reasons why little is reported about Tibet.
You cannot travel to Tibet either. How do you know what moves the Tibetans in Tibet?
Thirty percent of Tibetans in exile have family members in Tibet. You are in contact with them almost every day. We receive our information through these channels.
You were born in Darjeeling, India and lived in the USA for a long time. How is your connection with Tibet?
Although the flow of information is blocked and I have never been there, the Tibetans in Tibet know about me and my government. We know of villages where my portrait is hung and songs are sung about me. It is not about me as a person, but about my office. The Tibetans in Tibet are very closely associated with the Tibetan government in exile.
Would you visit Tibet under Chinese control?
In 2005 I was in Beijing and Shanghai. I was promised that I could travel to Tibet - but when I arrived, all of a sudden they said no. The reason given was that they didn't have enough people to see me. At the time, I was just a simple researcher at Harvard University.
During this time my father died on the first day. This is an important event for us Tibetan Buddhists. So I asked if I could fly to Lhasa for just one day to light a candle for my father in Jokhang Palace and Potala Palace. But they said no.
How did you feel when your personal wish was refused?
When I was forbidden from even a short personal visit, I knew: I was talking to a wall. I'm talking to a repressive system. These officers have no emotions, no feelings. Such a system has to be countered.
Until 2010 there was a dialogue between the Chinese leadership and the Tibetans in exile. Why does this dialogue no longer exist?
The Chinese always talk about dialogue, for example at the UN when it comes to human rights. Or in the trade war with the United States. They want to talk to everyone except us Tibetans. The Tibet issue can be resolved through dialogue. We don't want a secession from China. What we are asking for is real autonomy.
What do you mean by that?
Tibet was an independent state. No historian denies this. And under international law we have the right to self-determination. But we know that China's sovereignty is non-negotiable. We are ready to respect this. We accept that the foreign relations and the defense of China are perceived. But as Tibetans in Tibet we want the right to have our own language, our own culture and our own administration.
How do you rate the likelihood of achieving that?
We must not lose hope. What seems impossible today may be possible tomorrow. We are currently celebrating the thirtieth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. Who would have thought a year ago that the wall would collapse? But she collapsed. So we have to keep pursuing our goal.
But there are also voices in the Tibetan exile community who consider your approach to be hopeless. . .
. . . that is completely understandable. These voices argue that China would never give us real autonomy. And even if Tibet were given autonomy, Beijing would undermine it - just look what is happening in Hong Kong now. That’s all right. But we want to take the path of non-violence. And there is only the dialogue. The occupation of Tibet is unacceptable, the repression of the Tibetans is unbearable. Nevertheless, we do not require independence. The call for real autonomy is a reasonable proposition. But I can fully understand that after sixty years of repression the younger generation is impatient.
Is there a danger that parts of the Tibetans, be it in Tibet or in exile, will become radicalized?
No, non-violence is incontrovertible for us.
Are you now speaking for the government in exile or for every single Tibetan?
For every Tibetan. Violence is pointless - that is our principle. Everything we do, we do the nonviolent way. However, in the past few years we have had 153 Tibetans who have burned themselves to death. Is that a violent death? Yes. But is that violence? No. No Chinese, no Chinese property is harmed. Still, we are against self-immolation. We need every Tibetan alive so that they can participate in our movement.
Tibet has been occupied by China for almost seventy years. The Dalai Lama cannot go back there. Religious and cultural life is restricted. Is there a risk that Tibetan culture will be lost in Tibet?
No. The Chinese began to suppress our religion shortly after their invasion in 1950: In the following years 98 percent of the monasteries were destroyed, 99.9 percent of the monks and nuns were forced to take off their robes. But today, sixty years later, all the major monasteries have been rebuilt and are in operation. The Chinese government is also hindering Tibetan in schools and universities. Nevertheless, the Tibetans speak the Tibetan language and wear Tibetan clothes. Despite decades of efforts to sinize Tibet, Tibetan culture lives on. Young Tibetans identify more strongly than Tibetans than ever.
The Chinese authorities say they brought development to Tibet, roads, a railroad, health care.
Yes, there is development, we do not deny that. But who benefits from it? In Lhasa, the capital of Tibet, 90 percent of shops, restaurants and hotels are under Chinese control. And the roads are not for us Tibetans, they lead to our mineral resources, copper, gold, uranium, lithium. The railroad brings heavy machinery to mine even more natural resources.
Let's talk again about the Dalai Lama. You have taken over the political role from him. But you don't have the religious authority that he does. Is that a problem for you?
I have a democratic mandate. If I do my job well, I will be re-elected. Otherwise not. My second five-year mandate will end in one and a half years. Then I can no longer run for office. His Holiness the Dalai Lama, on the other hand, is a 400-year-old institution. Its legitimacy and credibility are ingrained. The current Dalai Lama has also supported the Tibetan cause politically for almost seventy years. My ten years in office pale in comparison to his seventy years of hard work.
Is the Dalai Lama still involved in politics? Are you taking his advice?
I have the privilege of meeting him regularly, at least once a month. He has a huge treasure trove of experience and wisdom. So I take his advice. But I make the decisions myself.
What if the current Dalai Lama dies?
It is a challenge for us. But he is the fourteenth Dalai Lama. Then comes the fifteenth, the sixteenth, the seventeenth. . .
But at present the Dalai Lama is a wise, well-known man. The next one will first be a little, unknown boy.
A person like His Holiness the Dalai Lama only exists every hundred years. You can't just replace it. But in the end we have to continue our movement ourselves. We were very fortunate that His Holiness led us so successfully for seventy years. But the Tibetan movement must go on.
How do you prevent the Dalai Lama from being captured by the Chinese authorities after his reincarnation? There has been no trace of the current Pantschen Lama for years. . .
His Holiness is very healthy. He has outlived many Chinese leaders, and he will survive some of China's current leaders. The Panchen Lama was recognized within Tibet - that's why the Chinese were able to kidnap him. But the Dalai Lama will be reborn outside of Tibet. In reincarnation one comes back to continue the mission of the former lama. If the Dalai dies outside of Tibet, he will also be reborn outside of Tibet. The Dalai Lama himself said that he would be reborn in a free country. So we will have His Holiness to ourselves.
Do you get enough support from western countries like Switzerland?
I meet a few Swiss parliamentarians on my visit. But Switzerland was also braver.
Are you disappointed?
When the Chinese foreign minister was in Switzerland, the Swiss government also raised human rights and Tibet, according to media reports. That’s encouraging. And we don't ask anyone to boycott China or break ties. But a country should stand up for its values and principles. For Switzerland, this includes democracy, federalism and respect for minorities. But you cannot say that you are for democracy and human rights and you cannot stand up for Tibet. That is a contradiction. Human rights and democracy are part of the Swiss DNA. It is important to stand up for it.
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