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Lobsang Sangay’s wrong Churchill quote

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Wednesday, Jun 1, 2011
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Illustration: Juan Osborne

I had not yet fully digested the scope of the Dalai Lama’s retirement when I was struck by a curious remarks made by Lobsang Sangay on BBC’s HARDtalk and NDTV’s Your Call. According to the newly elected Kalon Tripa, his surprising conversion to the Middle Way Approach was nothing but the result of maturity. This baffled me even more to find out that this argument had to be supported solely by a quote from Winston Churchill: “When you are young, if you are not liberal you don’t have heart, and when you are old, if you are not conservative you don’t have head.”

Looking at the current crisis faced by the Tibetan nation, I find this quote absolutely bizarre. It implies that the present dismantlement of the nation and of its governmental institutions is the logical culmination of a mature thought, and not the direct result of a disastrous and unsuccessful policy of reconciliation with Communist China launched twenty-five years earlier by the Dalai Lama. It also signals further attacks and belittlement of the issue of Tibetan independence and the marginalization of those Tibetans who still believe that Tibet’s independence can be restored.

This quote didn’t pop-up by chance, and is obviously a part of Lobsang Sangay’s “policy” speech. He repeated it word for word in both HARDtalk and Your Call, subtly adding: “So I’m right in the middle. So I have both head and heart, and I subscribe to the Middle Way policy of His Holiness the Dalai Lama as it stands today, and I support that because it’s a pragmatic approach.”

Pragmatic, conservative and intelligent. This is what Lobsang Sangay’s stance on Middle Way boils down to, if we are to accept this quote. By extension, it also implies that those thousands who believe in, fought and died for independence are good hearted but brainless citizens.

But there’s another big problem with the quote. And an embarrassing one. This quote is not from Winston Churchill as Lobsang Sangay claims. To the contrary. As explained by The Churchill Centre and by Paul Addison of Edinburgh University: “Surely Churchill can’t have used the words attributed to him. He’d been a Conservative at 15 and a Liberal at 35!” According to Wikiquote, “this quote was in fact first uttered by mid-nineteenth century historian and statesman François Guizot when he observed, ‘Not to be a republican at 20 is proof of want of heart; to be one at 30 is proof of want of head’, and has been attributed variously to George Bernard Shaw, Benjamin Disraeli, Otto von Bismarck and others.”

Not only do I find regrettable that Lobsang Sangay had nothing else than a quote for clarifying his clumsy and embarrassing conversion to the Middle Way Approach — the source of which he didn’t even take the time to double-check —, I find a pity that he had to choose one that uses denigration as a justification. For it not only denigrates Rangzen advocates, it also denigrates the youth as well, whom, if I am correct, makes the largest part of his electorate.

It is also highly disturbing that Lobsang Sangay had to refer so often to prestigious leaders to make his point on TV and during his campaign, especially when he tries to appropriate their charisma. Would it be that Lobsang Sangay has very few arguments and thoughts of his own? Most of the leaders he refers to, be it Winston Churchill, Gandhi, Nelson Mandela or Martin Luther King, are people who fought actively for freedom with conviction and who, unlike Lobsang Sangay, never gave up on their original goals and never gave in to the might of the enemy. Referring to their struggle’s outcome to promote the surrender policy of the Middle Way is nothing but intellectual dishonesty.

Using the same method as the new Kalon Tripa, and in the hope of correcting the image given by Lobsang Sangay of this great wartime leader, let me quote two speeches of Winston Churchill, rightly attributed this time:

Never Surrender

We shall not flag or fail. We shall go on to the end. We shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air. We shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be. We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing-grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills. We shall never surrender!

—House of Commons, 4 June 1940, following the evacuation of British and French armies from Dunkirk as the German tide swept through France.

Never Give In

This is the lesson: never give in, never give in, never, never, never, never—in nothing, great or small, large or petty—never give in except to convictions of honour and good sense. Never yield to force; never yield to the apparently overwhelming might of the enemy.

—Harrow School, 29 October 1941.

* * *

I must admit that criticizing a Tibetan prime minister before he even started his job is unfair. But one must also admit that it actually depends of the gravity of the offense and whether the criticism might be beneficial for the Premier’s tenure. Moreover, taking into account the political uncertainty brought by the recent constitutional changes and by the decision of the Dalai Lama not only to devolve his political power but also to put a definitive term to the Tibetan government, the need for scrutiny is higher than ever.

Lobsang Sangay, anyhow, deserves a chance. Even if I didn’t support his candidature, I believe that he will need the support of all of us to carry successfully his task of Premier and to make the best out of this mess. After all, we all strive to end Chinese tyranny in Tibet. This support is, however, reciprocal. The new prime minister cannot expect to rally all Tibetans and friends to his command simply on the basis that he secured 55 percent of the votes cast by exile Tibetans. If Lobsang Sangay seriously wishes unity, then he will have to make an extra effort to accommodate different opinions, in particular when it comes to the restoration of Tibet’s independence. Contempt is definitely not the best recipe.

The outgoing prime minister, Samdhong Rinpoche, has sparked a great deal of controversy and bitterness by launching a wide-scale crusade against supporters of independence. I hope Lobsang Sangay won’t fall in the same trap. On the contrary, I hope he will publicly keep a declaration of independence as an option if Beijing persists in not showing any interest at negotiating within the first year of his tenure.

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