Sino-Tibet dialogue: Interview with ex-envoy Kelsang Gyaltsen

Kelsang Gyaltsen at the Seventh Tibet Support Groups Conference in Brussels, Belgium, on 8 September 2016.

Kelsang Gyaltsen at the Seventh Tibet Support Groups Conference in Brussels, Belgium, on 8 September 2016. Tibet Sun/Lobsang Wangyal

By Lobsang Wangyal

BRUSSELS, Belgium, 15 September 2016

Kelsang Gyaltsen was one of the interlocutors of the China-Tibet dialogue along with Lodi Gyari Gyaltsen since his appointment as the Envoy of the Dalai Lama for relations with the leadership of the People’s Republic of China in 1999. Nine rounds of talks had taken place between the two sides since 2002, but had not produced any break through in the Tibetan issue, and since 2010 the talks had stalled. In the interview in Brussels, during the Seventh Tibet Support Groups Conference, Kelsang Gyaltsen spoke about the past, present, and the future of the Sino-Tibetan dialogue.

Kelsang Gyaltsen la, could you please tell us what has happened after nine rounds of talks with the Chinese leadership about the Tibetan issue?

Many things happened after these nine rounds of discussions. First of all, I think there have been justifiable concerns among many Tibetans, especially also within the Tibetan leadership, that despite all our efforts, it has not been possible to bring about tangible results and progress.

First, in improving the situation inside Tibet a little bit. And then secondly, in closing the gap that exists between the views of the Chinese government and the Tibetans.

So many people felt great disappointment. So this has been the basic situation.

Then of course, after the last round of the discussions in January 2010, in 2011 we had a major political development with the decision of His Holiness the Dalai Lama to devolve all his political responsibilities to the elected Tibetan leadership. And we had also a new elected political leadership in exile.

And at the same time there has also been a change in the leadership in China. In November 2012 Xi Jinping became the secretary-general of the Chinese communist party, and in March the president of the People’s Republic of China. So a new leadership in China came into power.

So all this developments have led to a situation where the process of dialogue and contact came to a standstill. Since then, we have not been able to re-establish direct contact and resume the process of dialogue and negotiations.

So what do you think will make direct contact and more dialogue possible, and a solution for the Tibetan issue?

It’s very difficult and presumptuous to say that if we do this and that, then direct dialogue will be established and the process of engaging in face-to-face talk can be resumed.

Because the primary reason why we couldn’t make any progress in the past talks and the process of direct contact and dialogue came to a stop, is a result of lack of political will on the part of the Chinese leadership.

Nevertheless, I am of the opinion, irrespective of the attitude of the Chinese government, that the Tibetan leadership has the political responsibility to do everything possible to engage the Chinese leadership, to make every possible effort in entering into a dialogue with the Chinese government.

Against this background, sometimes I have the impression or have doubts whether everything possible has been done in making effort in this regard. Because in order to say that we have done everything possible, I think we need to be able to explain and demonstrate convincingly that a substantial part our limited resources has been spent on this task in terms of personnel, finance, time, and energy.

So my question is how much resource in terms of personnel, finance, and time we have been spending on this task in recent years?

Of course, there is the wish on the part of the Tibetan leadership to enter into a dialogue and resume the process of speaking to each other. But my impression is that since 2010, since the last round of the meeting, our policy has been more or less of a “wait-and-see” approach. To watch how the new leadership in China performs, what the thinking and the policies of the new Chinese leadership are.

And also making public statements that we on our part are ready any time any where to resume the dialogue.

But the question is whether such public statements alone are sufficient to really resume the dialogue, and also to say with a clear conscience, that we on our part have been doing everything possible in bringing about such a dialogue.

So in the dialogue process, the most important aspect, or the only aspect probably, is to achieve autonomy for Tibet. But this document that the Tibetan exile administration has submitted to the Chinese leadership, the Memorandum on General Autonomy, has been rejected by them. So how viable is it to pursue this same agenda, if there is to be a dialogue for next time?

I think that rejection of a proposal, in any negotiation process, is nothing shocking — it happens very often. And very often also one side rejects the first proposal of the other side in order to reduce the price as much as possible. So that kind of development in any process of negotiation is not really surprising.

Therefore in my eyes the rejection by the Chinese side of the Memorandum on General Autonomy is nothing to be really discouraged or disheartened o disheartened about.

In any way, the issue of Tibet is quite complicated, and it will take time for both sides to engage in real, substantive, and serious discussions until we reach a common ground.

If you look at the process of the dialogue from 2002 to 2010, first of all, the dialogue was not really intensive. To meet only once a year is not sufficient to really make progress.

Secondly, I would say that from 2002 to 2010, the dialogue has been more of an exploratory nature about what the other side’s thinking, views and positions are and whether there is any common ground to make progress.

And as I mentioned at the beginning, my impression is that on the part of the Chinese leadership, there has not been the political will to really address the issue in a serious way and to settle the issue.

It was more of keeping in touch with each other and of finding out what the other side’s views and demands and thinking are on the relationship between Tibetans and China, and so they let the process go on without taking any initiative or making any proposals from their side.

However, despite the fact that we have not been able to make any progress during these rounds of dialogue, what is important is that as long as we keep meeting with each other, and talking to each other, it sends the message to the Tibetans inside Tibet, that the chapter on Tibet is not yet closed. And it also conveys this message to the outside world. Irrespective of whether the Chinese government officially and publicly acknowledges it or not, the fact that we are talking to each other is a clear signal and an indication that there is a problem, an issue yet to be resolved through dialogue and negotiations

In this context we can urge members of the international community that their attitude on the issue of Tibet impacts whether Tibet and China move towards dialogue and negotiations. We can make the point that they can play a constructive roleand help both sides to move towards peaceful conflict resolution.

And also for the Chinese government, if we resume direct contact, they can with good reason tell the world, yes, we are talking to the Tibetans, we are in touch, we listen to each other and tell each other our views and positions. And so with that they can make clear to the outside world that there is an attempt on their part to address this issue of international concern and to solve it through dialogue.

The main problem in the relationship between Tibetans and Chinese government is lack of trust. If we were in a position to overcome this lack of trust, then in my eyes, the real problems are not insurmountable. They can be overcome with determination and with a willingness to find mutually-agreeable ways.

The problem of lack of trust and confidence can only be overcome through face-to-face meeting. So from that point of view I think that dialogue is the most important means to move towards a resolution of the problem.

In Sikyong Lobsang Sangay’s first term there hasn’t been any
dialogue, any contacts with the Chinese government, at least directly or publicly. He has from time to time said that in the second half of Xi Jinping’s presidency, maybe there could be a dialogue. He is citing this from previous examples. How do you see that, do you think there is some substance to that?

I think it is good to have hopes, but my argument is, hope alone will not bring about a change in the present situation. We must be proactive, and we must make very concrete efforts.

The first term of president Xi Jinping now ends in 2017. So our only hope is that there will be a change during his second term.

Of course in any dialogue, both parties must show a willingness to meet with each other and talk to each other. If there is willingness only one side, there is no possibility to bring about a dialogue.

However, irrespective of this reality, the fact is that a resolution of the Tibetan problem is the foremost responsibility of the Tibetan leadership. It’s not the foremost responsibility or problem of the international community and for that matter, I would say, of the Chinese government. They can live with the present situation; they are not in a hurry to resolve this issue.

The people who are suffering, and whose rights are oppressed, and whose identity, culture, and values are being undermined, are Tibetans, so it is the responsibility of the Tibetan leadership to be the leading and driving force for an early resolution of the Tibetan problem.

I think it is, therefore, the responsibility of the Tibetan leadership to take initiatives and to push in any conceivable ways towards dialogue and not to ‘wait and see’.

I think there are many things we can do. There are many doors we can knock on and many international actors we can ask for help.

First of alI we need to come up with a concrete strategy and plan in re-estalishing direct contact and dialogue. With such a political initiative we can approach international actors and Chinese friends for help in this undertaking. We can explain in clear terms what the aim and goal of this initiative is and what efforts and steps we Tibetans are making respective taking to achieve this. In this context we can urge for help by explaining that our efforts alone are not sufficient to achieve this goal but that member of the international community can play a constructive and non-confrontational role in bringing about the resumption of the Sino-Tibetan dialogue. Here we can put forward our concrete requests in creating a conducive international political environment for the resumption of the dialogue.

With this kind of approach, I believe, there is much greater possibility to involve members of the international community on the issue of Tibet.

So in short we need to take the initiative and be proactive, on the offensive, and creative. We have to come up with initiatives and proposals. We have to be the party that knocks on the door of China and of the international community.

So, in order to be ready, and to have dialogue any time any where, there should be envoys ready as well. Probably what you were suggesting, to have such things ready is important. But you have resigned as the interlocutor to the Chinese government, you as well as Lodi Gyari. So at the moment I believe there are no envoys as such who could be the interlocutors. What do you think about this vacuum?

I feel that the Central Tibetan Administration must entrust a Tibetan team with this task. First of all making a thorough assessment of the present situation, and then coming up with ideas and initiatives we can take to re-establish direct contact, and also identifying actors who can be helpful in this endeavour.

We need to have a team who really deals with this issue, and comes up with strategies and plans and executes these ideas.

Lodi Gyari and myself, we have resigned from these tasks. But I know there are many other Tibetans who are in a position to shoulder this responsibility and to engage in this task.

There are a number of Tibetans with very vast experience, skills and also with the necessary personal maturity and integrity as diplomats who could do this job.

For example … ?

I think, Kasur Tashi Wangdue la, Kasur Tempa Tsering la and so on, and also among the younger ones, I think there are a number of young civil servants and officials who would be able to do this job.

I think it might be even better to have new people from both sides, who could make a fresh start. And if they can make a new beginning, without the legacy of the past rounds of discussions, this might be even better.

A younger generation?

I think it’s not a question of age. It needs to be people with diplomatic experience, with a thorough and deep knowledge of the Sino-Tibetan relationship. And with real knowledge of Chinese politics. That’s important.

Mentally and psychologically it should be people with a strong belief that the task is achievable. Entrusting the task to people who, right from the beginning, are resigned or even pessimistic about the mission would be a mistake – how good their qualities and qualifications might be. The sense of purpose, mission and personal conviction are important factors.

When you actually sit with the Chinese leaders who dialogue with you, what impression and what feeling do you get? Did you feel any intimidation, or were they friendly and treat you as equals? What was the general feeling you got?

Basically the treatment they accorded to us, the hospitality was good. After all the Chinese are famous for their hospitality. The problem is not the degree of the hospitality.

In our discussions, my impression has been that these people have no understanding of the grievances of the Tibetans, or of the strength of the yearning of the Tibetans for freedom and dignity. And they also thoroughly underestimate the determination and the spirit of the Tibetans.

Their statements on the issue of Tibet have been so, in a way, so outrageous, distorted, and fabricated, that I lost all my respect for my counterpart. Because it didn’t make any sense at all.

In these meetings, there has never been a time where I thought that on the other side of the table are people with real, sound views and legitimate concerns and positions deserving my consideration and respect.

I think the best way is to say — they acted like young people in their adolescence, they behaved very boastfully and arrogantly. They just repeat the official line in the discussions. They just repeat it, they just read it.

Let me put it this way: I had not the feeling that these people were making these statements out of personal conviction, with the confidence that their position is truthful, or correct, or just. They just make the statement, just like reading some newspaper. There was no real personal conviction or passion behind these statements.

I really never felt intimidated by my Chinese counterpart. The most difficult thing for me during these times was travelling to Tibetan areas. When I saw how Chinese officials treat and speak to Tibetans.

When I observed how Tibetan officials were fearful of saying something wrong, and how monks or lay people were intimidated and frightened by the presence of Chinese and Tibetan officials.

Seeing these things, made me very sad. Deep in my heart.

In the past, I always thought that setting my foot on Tibetan soil would be the best thing that could happen to me in my life. And that the feeling of touching the soil of my homeland would be the highlight of my life, the strongest feeling that you could have in your whole life.

But after these visits to Tibetan areas … since then I have totally lost the yearning to go back to Tibet. Not under these circumstances. Whenever I recall my visits to Tibetan areas, in my memory I see places that are deserted, lifeless and forlornly and faces of people who are intimidated, insecure and frightened. This impression and feeling were strongest on our visits to monasteries and sacred religious places.

Never in my life have I prayed more and more fervently than on these visits to Tibetan areas. I prayed to the protector deities of Tibet to see the plight and agony of the country and people they have pledged to protect.

So I’m very pleased and grateful that I don’t need to go again and to travel to these areas under these existing circumstances.

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