Prof Nawang Phuntsog* observes that while the rhetorical gyrations in the autonomy versus independence debate over the past decades have only generated more heat than light, the middle way approach is innovative, visionary, inclusive, and revolutionary with a path forward to end Tibet’s ongoing agony under the repressive CCP regime. He further states that MWA is in keeping with the current Tibetan ethos of being progressive and embracing modernity, democracy, and development while maintaining fidelity to the core Tibetan cultural values and that it is for China to come to the point that it needs to solve the issue of Tibet by thinking outside the box.
In a recent article, “genuine autonomy or independence,” John Billington** expressed how remorseful he was for not agreeing with His Holiness on the effectiveness of the Middle Way Approach (MWA) for resolving the Sino-Tibet issue and was wondering if “someone will come forward and explain to him why “genuine autonomy” is to be preferred to independence.” Concerning the complicated and on-again-off-again Sino-Tibetan dialogue, I genuinely wish there was a preferential option similar to the one when choosing between courses in a university catalog. We all know that “genuine autonomy and independence” preferences are not available on a golden platter for Tibetans to choose from. Hands down, every single Tibetan would like an independent Tibet more than anything else in the world.
The late Gyari (2022), the Special Envoy of His Holiness, who led the Beijing-Dharamsala talks for over a decade, has pointed out in his recent “Memoirs of a Lifetime in Pursuit of a Reunited Tibet” how grueling the experience was for His Holiness and CTA even to establish a formal relationship with PRC, let alone initiating a dialogue. Furthermore, Gyari stated, “the Tibetan people must further recognize, however, that active involvement of the international community only became possible because His Holiness adopted the Middle Way Approach (p.274).” He adamantly believed that His Holiness’s courageous articulation of the Middle Way Approach in his speech to the European Parliament in 1988 in Strasbourg, France, was genius (p.286). The late Special Envoy further believed that the resumption of the dialogue with the PRC would not have occurred if the MWA’s adoption had not elevated the Tibet issue to international prominence.
Gyari (2022) was saddened and disappointed when he realized that the Ninth Round of Talks, held on January 10, 2010, was to be the last one, for he was well aware of the impact of this lapse of negotiation on the Tibetan people, especially for the ones inside Tibet “who placed their faith in the process, believing it would bring some relief from their long-standing suffering (p.600)”. More than anyone else, he dedicated his life to pursuing a reunited Tibet guided by the MWA framework considered revolutionary, visionary, and inclusive by scholars and politicians alike. If he had walked the talk and trusted the efficacy of MWA, it is incumbent on us to heed his suggestions and insights to help us move forward with the Tibet issue. It was heartening to note that the Chinese negotiating counterparts themselves began to ask the Tibetan delegates to convey messages to both His Holiness and Samdhong Rinpoche as head of the Kashag (p.244), which was indicative of the gradual change of hearts on the Chinese Leadership.
The two main ideological perspectives, autonomy and independence, have been debated for over six decades, often acrimoniously. Yet, a solution to the vexed Tibet question remains elusive. Invariably, the rhetorical gyrations have often generated more heat than light. Two unfortunate facts have, however, remained unchanged. One, the immeasurable suffering of Tibetans in their occupied country has escalated manifold over the years. A myriad of high-tech surveillance gadgets now monitors every movement of Tibetans, especially in Lhasa. Tibet’s holiest place has become one of the most heavily guarded and militarized zones. The repressive policies have become so oppressive towards Tibetans, young and old, nuns and monks, that many have resorted to self-immolations as acts of resistance. Second, the “Tibet issue” remains one of the world’s most intractable human rights problems.
Drawing inspiration from the glorification of our past history, the independence protagonists are locked in a bygone era when Tibet enjoyed its sovereign status and signed treaties with neighboring countries as equals. Unless the Chinese Government purges all the libraries and museums in the world, there is no way that it can rewrite Tibetan history much against its wishful thinking. His Holiness has candidly stated, “The Chinese Government wants me to say that Tibet has been part of China for many centuries. Even if I made that statement, many people would laugh. And my statement will not change past history. History is history”. Although history is a source of solace and induces pride and confidence in one’s heritage, one must avoid essentializing it, using a romanticized past to address pressing issues of the day. The independence protagonist’s lack of articulation of a strategy to achieve its lofty goal is a problem in itself. Stagnation without strategy immobilizes the movement.
On the other hand, the MWA protagonists neither deny the past nor turn a blind eye to the urgency and the gravity of the present. Rightly described as “a mutually beneficial policy based on the principle of justice, compassion, non-violence, friendship and in the spirit of reconciliation for the well-being of the entire humanity,” the Middle Way policy is revolutionary and visionary in terms of its scope and impact. Including the spiritual dimension into the political process is a refreshingly new paradigm that “would surely set a new benchmark in a world troubled by ethnic conflict” (Davis, 2008). Inclusivity rather than exclusivity is the bedrock strength of this approach. A spiritual perspective can transcend self-serving political, social, historical, and economic barriers, which are pernicious stumbling blocks for peaceful solutions. Applying a spiritual precept to resolving a mundane issue is neither sacrilegious nor disingenuous as some purport to claim it to be.
The current Central Tibetan Administration, under the Leadership of Skyikong Penpa Tsering, has made repeated assurances that his government-in-exile “remains steadfastly committed to the Middle Way and to the resumption of dialogue between Beijing and Dharamsala to resolve the issue of Tibet.” The time has come to present a solid united front with one loud voice reverberating in all corners of the world. Nothing is more urgent than the mission to end the agony and intolerable suffering of Tibetans in Tibet.
MWA is a measured and calculated strategy for solving the Tibet issue. The Law on Regional National Autonomy (LRNA), as enshrined in the PRC Constitution, protects minority concerns in the areas of language, education, political representation, and the use of local natural resources. Crafted with logical precision and legal clarity, the Tibetan Memorandum of Genuine Autonomy for the Tibetan People (2008) is the blueprint for implementing MWA within the PRC’s Constitutional framework. It is in PRC’s interest to take all the necessary steps to resolve the Tibet issue. In promoting sustained stability of economic, security, and international relations, China’s protracted and prolonged delay in solving the Tibet issue needs to be revised. China must recognize that the continued marginalization of Tibetans engenders resentment, alienation, and mistrust that may lead to civil disobedience and resistance movements unseen so far in the region. It is timely that the Chinese Leadership must think outside of the old box and take bold and visionary steps to solve the Tibet issue.
Tibetans are a proud race with a distinctive history, culture, and language seared deep into the psychosocial fabric of their life. Tibetans are also progressive and embrace modernity, democracy, and development while maintaining fidelity to their core cultural values. Tibetan Buddhist culture is a serious academic research in many parts of the world. Tibetan scholars collaborate with scientists in exploring the intersection of Buddhism with cognitive science, environment, and neuroscience. Tibetan Diaspora has roots in well over 30 countries where Tibetan ethnicity has not hindered one’s ability to identify with the host country’s nationality. Hence, the exiled Tibetan communities returning from different countries will contribute vibrancy, human capital, and international experiences to Tibet’s rapid economic, cultural, and educational development and will enhance the international stature of the PRC. The Middle Way must be celebrated and implemented as a mutually beneficial approach.
Billington, J. (2022), Genuine Autonomy or Independence?, Tibetan Review, https://www.tibetanreview.net/genuine-autonomy-or independence/ Retrieved on December 29, 2022
CTA, Memorandum on Genuine Autonomy For the Tibetan People,
CTA, Note on the Memorandum on Genuine Autonomy for the Tibetan People, https://tibet.net/important-issues/sino-tibetan-dialogue/memorandum-on-geniune-autonomy-for-the-tibetan-people/
Gyari, L. (2022), The Dalai Lama’s Special Envoy: Memoirs of a Lifetime in Pursuit of a Reunited Tibet, New York: Columbia University Press.
* Dr Nawang Phuntsog is a Professor Emeritus of the Department of Elementary & Bilingual Education, California State University, Fullerton, USA, and a founding member of www.TibetanEducationAdvancement.org
** See https://www.tibetanreview.net/genuine-autonomy-or-independence/