“Democracy, very nice word…”

From HIMAL, Volume 4, Issue 1 (MAR/APR 1991)

Himal editors Kanak Mani Dixit and Kesang Tseten met with the Dalai Lama at “Thekchencholing”, his Dharamsala residence, in early-February. Excerpts:

Himal: What led you to dissolve the Kashag (Cabinet) last May?

Dalai Lama: ‘You have to go back a little bit. When we came out as refugees in 1959, we immediately started to implement democratic ideas. In 1963 we adopted a draft constitution, and in recent years we intensified democratisation. At Strasbourg, in 1989, I made clear my decision not to participate in politics. Last May I thought it was time to put into practice democratic principles. I found that among Tibetans, there was a basic enthusiasm for democracy but they needed to play a more active role, take more responsibility. Also, the international situation had an effect — democracy had become a fashion.

Q. So you joined the fashion?

A. Yes, why not (laughing)? There was some controversy in our community, too. The plan was already there, and I thought it was time to implement it.

Q. Do you think Tibetans will let you leave politics? And are they politically mature to fill the void?

A. Frankly, I think they are not quite ready yet. But unless we test that through experience we will never reach maturity. Most important, I feel that all the testing and experience should happen during my time while I am alive and active. I want Tibetans to become more habituated to democracy before I become too old to be of any help.

Let me say that while in exile I have no intention of abandoning my responsibility for Tibetans. My intention is to carry final responsibility. However, the future plan for Tibet is complete democracy — and I will have no role in politics. Even in the spiritual field, I do not want a special status, but just what comes spontaneously from the people. As I have said before, I really want to be a simple Buddhist monk, free from any formality. That is my freedom, my moksha.

Q. Were you satisfied with how things went after the developments in May?

A. Actually I was impressed. Individual Tibetans were showing initiative unlike previously. It was more serious, so there was more debate.

Q. There seems to be some confusion over what will happen after the March election of the people’s deputies?

A. Well, the elected deputies will choose the Kashag. Also, they will have new suggestions to make.

Q. Will the new system, as some believe, cause even more regionalism and sectarianism in exile?

A. I think sectarianism is lessening but regionalism remains active. This is not very healthy but it is a fact. What to do? After all, you must remember that Tibetans are also human. With more time and experience, and through practice, it will improve. Actually, there is less regionalism among Tibetans inside Tibet. Due to the suffering and destruction, the entire Tibetans in Tibet are united. Basically, the Tibetan nation is not a young nation; it has a few thousand years old history; it has been tested. The present period is the darkest period in our history but we have survived it. We have not lost our determination.

Q. What effect will democratisation in the exile community have on Tibetans within Tibet?

A. Generally, Tibetans inside Tibet welcome democracy, they are very pleased at the recent announcements. No doubt they also welcomed the 1963 draft constitution before. Tibetans inside and outside have the same feelings about democracy, even though those outside are a bit anxious right now.

Q. Could you and your exile government running the affairs of one lakh refugees still be regarded as representing the interest of the six million inside Tibet?

A. I think so. About 90 percent of Tibetans inside Tibet look to Dharamsala; their hopes are directed here.

Q. If the Chinese were to suddenly allow your return to Lhasa under conditions acceptable to you, does the exile government have a ready plan of action?

A. We are ready. But those within Tibet will have the main responsibility; they will be the real leaders. Even the Tibetans working in the Chinese Government in. Lhasa, deep down, they are for Tibet. Of course, here among refugee Tibetans, we have better education, better knowledge of the outside world, so those who return will also have responsibility in many fields.

Q. As you know, the Strasbourg Proposal has created much controversy. Did it advance or put back the Tibetan cause?

A. In one way, I feel it created a basis for open support from some international organisations and certain governments, like the Dutch and the French. My regret is that it did not reduce the human rights violations nor the population transfers into Tibet, which was my hope. We made maximum concessions, we made clear our minimum requirement, but we have received no serious response from the Chinese. Therefore, we have every right to say new things — although at the moment I still stand by the Strasbourg proposal.

Q. Diplomatically, was it a miscalculation to offer the maximum you were willing to give?

A. I believe we have to state clearly what we want. If that is impossible to the other side, then there is no need to have dialogue. Some say we should have made more demands, to get something less. I do not believe in making a gesture after which you can turn in any way. That would be confusing to myself.

Q. Will Tibetans continue to rely on Western support to influence the Chinese? Is that effective?

A. The Chinese will never admit to being affected by outside pressure. But unconsciously, there is an impact. For instance, the local Chinese authorities in Tibet were very much against lifting the martial law last March, but Beijing thought it necessary to make an outward gesture, though while announcing it they increased repression. The Chinese are very sensitive about the Tibetan issue. For example, when Hu Yaobang was in power, a confidential report known as Document No.6 stated that even a small event in Tibet has echoes outside so Chinese officials were asked to be very cautious about every action.

Q. Yet they cracked down in 1987.

A. That was the hardliners’ action.

Q. Did the 1987 demonstrations in Lhasa take you by surprise?

A. Yes and no. What was special about the 1987 demonstration was that news of it reached out so quickly. There were large scale demonstrations in the past that we did not know about until much later, like in 1969.

Q. If the events of 1950 and 1959 had not happened, would Tibet have been a poor developing country or an independent and powerful country in the center of Asia?

A. If – that is purely hypothetical. (Pause) You see, in the 1920s, the 13th Dalai Lama, my predecessor, sent students to England to study modern science. If that had been continued without interruption, then Tibet would have developed.

Q. Would you have allowed Tibet to open up?

A. I think so. Right from a very young age, I was very interested in the outside world. In 1947, I started to learn English even though my attendant was against the “devil” language (laughing), what is called the language of the Enemy of the Faith in Tibetan. I was always interested in mechanical things, in science, and in Europe. Even back then I had a strong conviction that in Tibet power remained within very few hands.

Q. Being surrounded by protocol and duties, do you ever feel out of touch with your people?

A. I don’t. My nature allows me to get along very easily with all kinds of people. Even in the old days, I always liked meeting people. Since becoming a refugee, I have had even more opportunities have for closer contact with my people. Of course, I cannot meet each and everyone.

Q. Has any government come close to actually recognising the demand for Tibetan independence?

A. Difficult. Very difficult.

Q. Was that realisation what prompted the Strasbourg Proposal?

A. I think that the time has come to realise that national sovereignty may be less important. Look at the European Community. Now, Tibet is a landlocked country, so to develop we have to depend heavily on our neighbours. In human history, boundaries change. The Chinese forces will not leave, we cannot throw them out, and nobody comes to help us. With these reasons, I made that proposal – in response to a practical problem as well as a broader philosophical question. Ultimately, I think the states of Central Asia will have to think of some federation, association – also countries like Nepal and smaller nations – to get maximum benefit.

Q. How do you view the recent democratic changes in Nepal?

A. I welcome the change. Democracy – very nice word, I like it very much. Democracy is the ideal. It gives people the opportunity to come forward, allows individual creativity. We can see the failure of countries with central-planning. Without freedom and democracy, there can be no progress in human society. Democracy also fits the Mahayana concept, that progress comes from individual initiative, from within. Of course, if taken in the wrong direction, like the human brain, it can become more destructive or if guided properly, it is constructive and beneficial. Education is the key.

Q. For some, Tibet must be saved for its treasure of Buddhist wisdom. Then there are younger secular Tibetans who regard political goals and nationalism as most important. As the Tibetans’ leader and as a ‘simple Buddhist monk’, what do you say?

A. I believe there is more benefit from working together. Sometimes nationalism and patriotism may not be the best in the long term. What I believe in is the preservation of the Tibetan identity – without harming the larger. With that as a basis, with wisdom, we must search for maximum common benefit. In communist states, individuals are not satisfied, and that has led to problems. Universal responsibility – as I call it – should be our long-term interest, the main’ goal, but first individual countries must be satisfied.

Regarding the question of religion, some younger Tibetans feel that Tibet had too much religion in the past, that we lost our country because of this. They are partly right. There was too much concentration on monasteries and too little contact with the outside world. At the same time, though, in spite of political demarcations, in spite of vast distances and little contact with Tibetans in Yunnan and Gansu, Tibetans have remained one nation and are Tibetans due to Buddhism. As in Poland, where nationalism and religion came together, in Tibet, too, religion has been helpful in keeping Tibetan patriotism alive.

Q. At the Kalachakra in Samath, you said that Tibetans could expect something significant to happen in the next five to ten years? What should they expect?

A. It is based on my common-sense calculation. There are so many changes occurring in the communist world. In China, too. With education and exposure, the people are completely fed up with the present system. So, the present rigid system will go — that is definite: even an unbiased and realistic Chinese leader would agree. The present generation of leadership is very old. Most of them have spent their entire lives with one conviction, and that veil is preventing them from seeing the real situation in Tibet. So it is just my common-sense calculation, also something mystical (laughing). This is not a prediction, not 100 percent, but most probably…

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