The Balancing Act of the Exile Tibetan Government

In a startling turn of events, at least thirty Tibetans in Tibet have set themselves on fire since 2009. Consequently, this has galvanized both Tibetans inside Tibet and Tibetans in exile who have moved to articulate their solidarity with those inside Tibet in new ways. While responses to the self-immolations vary across the many communities offering commentary, one thing is clear: the self-immolations have created unexpected challenges regarding how best to respond, not least for the Tibetan government-in-exile based in Dharamsala.

For the Tibetan government, the difficulty has been in how to strike the right balance in responding to the self-immolations. From the beginning, Tibetan leaders have been extremely on guard against taking any action or making any statement that could be interpreted (particularly by Chinese leaders) as encouraging self-immolation. At the same time, the Tibetan leadership acknowledged the heroic courage and sacrifices of the self-immolators in speaking to Tibetans in Tibet and in exile, as well as the international community.

Since escaping into exile in India in 1959, His Holiness the Dalai Lama served as head of state of the Tibetan government-in-exile. However in May 2011, the Dalai Lama stepped down from politicalleadership and the Tibetan government revised its Charter to devolve power to the democratically elected Kalon Tripa or Prime Minister, Parliament and Judiciary. This change in exile leadership may have informed the sense of urgency and sacrifice that prompted the recent self-immolations.

The newly empowered Kalon Tripa Lobsang Sangay, inaugurated into his office on  August 8, 2011, has had the difficult task of negotiating a balanced position in his public responses to the self-immolations. In an op-ed in the New York Times (16 August 2011) immediately after the third self-immolation, it is clear he is grappling with the need to simultaneously discourage and honor the immolations.  He wrote, “We do not encourage protests, but it is our sacred duty to support our voiceless and courageous compatriots.” In his speech on March 10th (the Tibetan ‘State of the Union’ address, which was historically given by His Holiness the Dalai Lama), Sangay clarified one aspect of the government’s position in saying, “His Holiness the Dalai Lama and the Central Tibetan Administration have always discouraged such drastic actions.”

Within the Tibetan community, heated debates and discussions are taking place on the self-immolations. There is also public criticism from some Tibetans about the Tibetan government’s handling of the self-immolations. Beijing-based Tibetan writer Woeser rebuked Sangay for omitting Tapey, the first Tibetan to self-immolate in Tibet in 2009, from the list of self-immolators he read out loud at the Kalachakra teachings in the fall of 2011.  Yet, Sangay made this omission subsequently as well.  In March 2012, however, the Tibetan Parliament passed a unanimous resolution on “the critical situation inside Tibet” that recalled immolations “[s]ince 2009”, implicitly adding the name of Tapey to the official count. Tapey is also now included in official Tibetan government fact sheets.

The Tibetan Political Review published an editorial in February 2012 that criticized the Tibetan leadership for consistently talking about the self-immolations as “desperate” and “despairing” acts. We thought it detrimental to portray such utterly selfless acts of resistance as acts merely of desperation, and that it diminished the significance of the sacrifice. We said, “It falsely turns a powerful act of Tibetan resistance into a sign of Tibetan despair and helplessness.” As Lama Sobha, who set himself on fire on January 8th made clear in his audio testament: “I am giving away my body as an offering of light to chase away the darkness, to free all beings from suffering.”

The interpretations coming out of Dharamsala have lately evolved. On March 10th, the Speaker of Parliament, Penpa Tsering, said: “Burning’s one’s body in full consciousness and with conviction involves thorough deliberation with the self, conviction and mental courage, especially when one is motivated by benefit to others through self-sacrifice.” Recent press releases from the Tibetan Cabinet have called the self-immolations not desperate but “extreme” acts (itself a problematic word in an age of anti-extremism).  Of course, if the self-immolations continue, the Tibetan government’s responses may continue to evolve with them.

One change we are now seeing from the exiled Tibetan government is a strong response clearly laying the blame for the self-immolations at China’s door.  Whether this is the effect of the self-immolations themselves, or the change to a more secular Tibetan leadership, there does seem to be a departure from the previous restraint in official statements.  Both the Cabinet and Parliament have pointedly blamed China’s policies for driving Tibetans to self-immolation.  On January 30th, the New York Times quoted Sangay as saying, “The blame lies with the Chinese government and its very hardline, insensitive policies.”  On February 6th, Dicki Chhoyang, minister of the Department of Information and International Relations, said in a press conference that the self-immolations “represent an emphatic rejection of the continued occupation of Tibet and repressive policies of the Chinese government.” Speaker Tsering’s March 10th speech noted the Uprising Day as “being commemorated under the dark shadows of twenty-five Tibetans driven to self-immolation.”  Kalon Tripa Sangay’s March 10th speech pointed out that it was clear that the self-immolations were political protests.

Recently on March 26th, the Tibetan Government issued a strong statement titled “At Least Seven Reasons Why Beijing is Responsible for the Self-Immolations in Tibet.” The statement points to China’s continuing occupation of Tibet, political repression, cultural assimilation, and environmental destruction among other factors as the real causes of self-immolations in Tibet.

During this time, what has the Dalai Lama said about the self-immolations? He has been relatively quiet, but not silent. While in Tokyo in the fall, he declared these incidents “very sad,” and clearly stated that the responsibility for the self-immolations rested with the Chinese government.  Recently, in a Wall Street Journal interview, he said, “I have nothing to say. Only pray.”

February 8, 2012, was observed as International Solidarity day, marked with events around the world and with a prayer session led by the Dalai Lama at the Tsuglakhang temple in Dharamsala. The Tibetan community collectively chose not to celebrate the Tibetan New Year and the Tibetan Parliament kept a fast on the first day of the New Year. Lobsang Sangay recently called for 2012 to be Tibet Lobby Year, and the Parliament pledged Rs. 10 million for lobbying and acts of solidarity.  But, it is not clear if any of these initiatives will result in concrete political change.

From the Tibetan government’s side, two demands have been constant: (1) that the Chinese government legitimately address the grievances of the Tibetan people, and (2) China should allow an independent fact-finding delegation to ascertain the realities on the ground. Given the history of Chinese rule in Tibet, it is very difficult to anticipate either of these demands being met. 

Regardless of this political impasse, it is likely that the most significant dynamic unleashed by the self-immolations has been in Tibet itself.  As the Tibetan government-in-exile struggles to adjust to this change, it is the Tibetans inside Tibet who are taking the Tibetan struggle into their own hands.  They are taking the movement into untested waters, with the only certainty being the very palpable manifestation of a greater pan-Tibetan solidarity and national identity than at any time in the recent past.

March 28, 2012

The Tibetan Political Review Editorial Board

Tenzin Dickyi, Nima R.T. Binara, Wangchuk D. Shakabpa, Tenzin Wangyal