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Return of the Referendum

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Wednesday, Aug 9, 2000
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Like the Children of Israel wandering through the desert to the Promised Land, we Tibetans have often been diverted from our goal by “golden calves” and false gods of one kind or another: genuine autonomy, truth insistence, zone of peace, constructive engagement, associate status, middle path, etc. None of these much vaunted, dazzling solutions to the Tibetan problem have ever came close to approaching realization. They failed because they were not based on even a minimal study of Chinese history and politics, nor an understanding of modern totalitarian and authoritarian systems, nor for that matter, an appreciation of the hard-ball nature of global politics. Looking back, these proposals leave behind a strong impression that they were devised primarily to appeal to the West, as non-nationalistic, world-peace oriented, environmentally friendly, and most important of all, non-disruptive of the West’s economic interests in China.

The latest of such false gods doing the rounds within the Tibet support community is the “Referendum Proposal” that made its debut as a WTN article some months ago, and is being promoted vigorously by the Committee of 100 for Tibet. On close inspection this proposal seems to be a reworking of an earlier referendum scheme that the Tibetan government launched some years ago. That earlier scheme called for a referendum throughout the Tibetan world to make a choice between, essentially, “Independence”, and the Dalai Lama’s “Middle Way Approach” which required the giving up of Tibetan independence and living in an autonomous Tibet under Chinese sovereignty. In order to downplay the stark contrast between these two choices — and muddy the water as it were — two other quite irrelevant options were added. These were “Self-determination” and Samdhong Rinpoche’s recondite doctrine of “Truth Insistence”.

After the first announcement of the referendum scheme it may have dawned on the authorities that such an exercise could not be conducted inside occupied Tibet, for a further announcement was made that the referendum would be confined to the exile world. Right from the start it was clear that the whole point of the exercise was to whip up public support for the Dalai Lama’s “Middle Way Approach”. A gesture of impartiality was demonstrated by the organizing of a debate in Dharamshala. But when teams of Tibetan members of Parliament and government officials toured the Tibetan settlements and communities-in-exile to announce the terms of the referendum, it was made clear to the public, in not very subtle ways, that failure to vote for the “Middle Way” would be tantamount to showing disloyalty to the Dalai Lama.

The Tibetan community was thrown into controversy and confusion. The Tibetan Youth Congress was the only organization that came out clearly and unequivocally for independence and started a campaign, with posters and public discussions, to voice their conviction. The Congress was vilified by nearly all the corrupt, reactionary organizations that dominate Tibetan politics, and whose stock-in-trade are noisy, hysterical and aggressive (but also calculatedly self-serving) displays of loyalty to the Dalai Lama. A community already divided by a fierce and violent religious controversy was now being politically divided in much the same fashion.

The general public was, without question, strongly attached to the cause of independence but at the same time did not want to disappoint the Dalai Lama, or at least be seen in opposition to His wishes. It was a traumatic, confusing and extremely divisive period for Tibetans. Even within families the referendum caused much bitterness and discord. Finally a plebiscite of sorts was conducted, but the results were never made public. Instead the government-in-exile issued a statement declaring that it was not quite the right time for a referendum yet, and the whole sorry debacle was brushed under the already lumpy carpet of our recent history.

The present call for a referendum does give the impression of being an attempt to reintroduce the former scheme in a fresh way, this time by roping in the Tibet support groups around the world to endorse what the Tibetan public failed to do. That the object of the exercise is still to promote the Dalai Lama’s “Middle Way Approach” can be gauged in the statement of his special envoy, Lodi Gyari in an article in the latest Tibetan Bulletin (May–June 2000) where in a tacit endorsement of the Referendum Proposal as a lever to persuade the Chinese to have a dialogue with the Dalai Lama, Gyari writes, “If the result of such a referendum affirms China’s claim that the Tibetans are happy and contented, then His Holiness the Dalai will be the happiest person of all.”

Even if this present Referendum Proposal were completely sincere and did not contain a hidden agenda, I feel that its promotion would further divide the Tibetan community and divert effort and resources from the real goal of carry on the struggle for Tibetan freedom.

The revival of the referendum scheme was probably inspired by events in East Timor last year, with the UN supervised plebiscite bringing about the freedom of the East Timorese people. Yet however uplifting this historic event it is important to note some major differences in the circumstances that led to the referendum in East Timor, and the current situation in Tibet.

Indonesia was in a state of economic collapse and near anarchy. The old repressive regime had been thrown out and totally discredited. China’s economy hasn’t collapsed. Party control is total and absolutely repressive. This is not to say that events won’t change, but it clearly hasn’t yet.

The United Nations had never recognized Indonesia’s takeover of East Timor and had condemned the Indonesian government for its repression of the East Timorese people. The UN does not question China’s sovereignty over Tibet. In fact the UN is so submissive to China that it regularly objects to the presence of the Dalai Lama or any other Tibetan in events organized under its auspices, and further goes out of its way to ensure that references to Tibet and the Dalai Lama do not appear in its publications — or anything related to it.

We must bear in mind that even with the advantages mentioned above, East Timor paid a terrible price in terms of its people massacred (in the many tens of thousands) tortured and raped. I should also mention the looting and destruction of thousands of buildings and homes, and the near-complete leveling of East Timor’s capital city, Dilli. All these outrages took place after the referendum. The UN displayed an unfortunate and bewildering disinclination (or inability) to protect the people of East Timor from the wrath of militant groups loyal to Indonesia, until quite late into the events.

If we take the figures issued by the Tibetan government-in-exile of Chinese population transfer into Tibet, holding a referendum inside Tibet now would be fraught with uncertainties, even if we were absolutely sure that every Tibetan voted for independence. Furthermore pressure from the UN or the World Community for referendum in Tibet (if it ever did come) could easily provoke the Chinese to accelerate their population transfer timetable in order to present a fait accompli.

But let us look on the bright side of things. Let us suppose that we could be sure that a referendum in Tibet would reveal to the world that Tibetans did not want to live under Chinese rule. Would the Chinese allow such a referendum if there was even a remote chance of such an outcome? This is where the logic of the referendum advocates completely escapes me. I just don’t understand why the Chinese, who have made it absolutely and brutally plain that they are not in the least interested in the Dalai Lama’s surrender of Tibetan sovereignty and his proposal for “genuine autonomy”, should want to consider a more dangerous option like referendum where “independence” would have to be a choice. (Or maybe we are talking here of a referendum where no reference to independence or “Free Tibet” is contemplated).

Furthermore I don’t see how world leaders and governments who are unwilling or unable (even in the slightest way) to persuade China to accept the Dalai Lama’s absolutely tame proposals for negotiations, could persuade China to accept a more dangerous and uncertain option.

I am certainly not against the idea of referendums per se, and it is quite possible that in the eventuality of a collapse of Chinese power in Tibet and the presence of even limited Tibetan control over the country we might be able to conduct a genuinely free and fair referendum under the supervision of the UN or a respected international agency, and also protect ourselves against a Chinese backlash. But clearly we should only call for a referendum when we have the wherewithal to ensure its success and not to have it backfire on us and become the final nail driven into the coffin of Tibetan sovereignty.

For those who feel that a referendum is important in order to ascertain what the people inside Tibet want, I would ask them to spare a little time to listen directly to the voices of the Tibetan people inside Tibet and not to those interpreting them in the West. The word “Rangzen” is the most constant and powerful refrain in nearly all protest documents that have come out from Tibet in the last twenty odd years, whether it be lengthy petitions to the United Nations, humble scraps of paper surreptitiously passed on to tourists, or wall posters hurriedly pasted up in the night (sometimes upside down) on the walls of Lhasa city. The cry of the suicide bomber in Lhasa last year was also “Rangzen”. In fact, every political demonstration and protest has had as its fundamental demand, independence for Tibet; followed by a demand for human rights, and expressions of loyalty to the Dalai Lama as the sovereign of Tibet. Hundreds of such posters, leaflets, pamphlets and manifestos have made their way out of Tibet and in not a single one of them has there ever been a demand for autonomy, dialogue, or for that matter, referendum.

More than through paper ballots, Tibetans inside Tibet have declared their aspirations in a far more demanding and dangerous referendum. Braving incarceration, torture and execution they have, in the streets, monasteries and prison-cells of Tibet, raised their voices for “Rangzen”. The direction for the Tibetan struggle is clear. It is up to us to take our own first steps on that hard road and not try to persuade oneself and others to adopt easier routes, which may appear safe, politically correct, undemanding and even personally advantageous, but which will eventually lead our people and nation to darkness and extinction.

* * *

This article was also posted on the Tibet Support Group List and elicited much discussion. Some replies to questions raised.

In his refutation G writes: “In true democracy there are no thoughts of ‘ensuring’ success.” Does G think that China is a democracy and that China will respect the rules if the UN tells them to do so? The UN will do as it’s told by China. Let’s just review recent events when His Holiness the Dalai Lama was not invited to the Millennium World Peace Summit of Religious and Spiritual Leaders because China did not approve of it.

It may have escaped G’s notice but most Tibetans are living in one of the most repressive states in the world, and the situation is worsening daily. If a referendum were held under present circumstances one could be near certain that China would win a landslide victory. It has a lot of experience in organizing such happenings. Communist Party candidates regularly gain 99.99% of the votes in elections to the National Congress in China. And who’s going to call on State Security personnel — stuffing ballot boxes or terrorizing Tibetan voters — to cease and desist? The UN, the USA, Great Britain, Canada? I seriously doubt it.

When one is conducting a referendum or an election within it is, of course, imperative that there should be a philosophy of accepting defeat gracefully and not just “winning at all costs”. But within one doesn’t have to go to prison or get shot because one has lost a referendum or an election. But unfortunately not everyone in this world is privileged to live in a democracy as G does. Remember how East Timorese were massacred even though they won the referendum.

G says that even if the referendum is lost it shouldn’t really matter, “Simply another day, another vote, another chance” is his philosophical refrain. The loss of a referendum in Tibet would not only provide the final legitimization of China’s take-over of Tibet, but could well be the death knell of Tibetan civilization. It could possibly trigger a horrendous persecution, if not massacre, of Tibetans who voted or campaigned for freedom.

But of course if a disaster like that happened it wouldn’t be anyone’s fault, not least of all G’s and other proponents of referendum. So what if nobody took the trouble to think the whole thing out properly. Their motivations were pure. So, don’t get too upset about it. Just chalk the whole thing up to experience, pack up your “Satyagraha” in your old kit-bag, and move on to causes anew. “Simply another day, another chance.”

* * *

F says that the Committee of 100 for Tibet’s referendum campaign is different from the Tibetan government referendum scheme which was primarily to poll Tibetans outside Tibet. Wrong. The first announcement made by the Tibetan government clearly indicated that they intended to poll people inside Tibet too. Even some harebrained schemes were proposed of sending pollsters secretly to Tibet. Only when the impossibility of the scheme really sunk home did it become limited to the exile population.

F further remarks “The distinction is that the 1995 referendum was intended to decide the strategy or path that was to be followed in the Tibet movement;” Nothing of the sort. Does everyone remember the four options of this earlier referendum. One was “Independence”. For the life of me, does that sound like a strategy? Or more precisely, a goal. Fred adds that “the current referendum is to let the Tibetan people determine the destination, or the goal, or the outcome of the movement.”

I would like to suggest that the Tibetan people have already determined what they want. Are our memories so short that we forget the many demonstrations since 1987, all over Tibet, where Tibetans had only had one demand “Rangzen”. Is it necessary to ask these people again if they really meant what they said when they risked their lives by calling for an independent Tibet.

I also did not take the Lodi Gyari quote out of context as F maintains. Lodi Gyari though not expressing immediate support for the referendum did write that it would be the proper solution if the Chinese did not respond to the Dalai Lama’s offer of negotiation; something I clearly stated. Of course, Gyari threatening to unleash “referendum” on the Chinese if they did not respond to the Dalai Lama’s overtures, is the height of absurdity.

As for the claim that I have not provided an answer as to how Tibetan independence can be attained, I would like to plead guilty. I do not have a blueprint on how to liberate Tibet. If the reader has a copy of my Rangzen Charter he will know that I propose a broad strategy of Direct Economic Action (at least in the free world) to destabilize China, and weaken its hold on Tibet. But that’s as far as it goes for the present. I am not a prophet or the medium for a Tibetan oracle. Anyway how do you think revolutions and freedom struggles work? Do you think Nelson Mandela had a complete plan of action in prison on how he was going to bring down apartheid? Do you think George Washington, shivering in Valley Forge, with a rag-tag army decimated by desertion and disease, knew exactly how he was going to beat the Brits?

All you can do when the odds are stacked against you is to hang on to your goal like grim death, and keep on fighting regardless of all the attractive comfortable alternatives that well intentioned but essentially anaemic souls, try to make you accept in the name of good sense, peace and understanding.

If the Committee for 100 had existed in 1770s America and had managed to push for a referendum then, there would be no United States of America today. Only fourty per cent of Americans supported the revolution. The rest of the colonists were essentially loyal to their sovereign, His Majesty King George III. Thank God for firebrands, dreamers and fanatics like Tom Paine, Jefferson, and Patrick Henry.

* * *

E says “Yes, Tibetans have for several years sought negotiations and nothing has come about, but political strength building takes time.” I would like to correct E. The Dalai Lama tried negotiations from 1950 to 1959, for about ten years, and failed completely.

The more recent initiative was undertaken around the late seventies, which would make this present futile exercise over twenty (not “several”) years old. All in all, over thirty years of hoping we could negotiate a deal with the Chinese. When will we ever learn?

World Tibet Network News, 9 August 2000

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