ON THE WEB, 15 November 2012
US President Barack Obama’s decision to visit Asia, his first foreign trip after re-election, reaffirms his administration’s foreign policy pivot to Asia. The tour will attract a lot of attention throughout the region, but especially in Tibet. Mr Obama will visit Cambodia and Thailand, two predominantly Buddhist countries, and will be the first sitting American president to visit Burma, also a majority Buddhist nation.
The Burma stop is meaningful to Tibetans because that country’s struggle for freedom so closely tracks Tibet’s efforts to secure greater autonomy from Beijing. Mr Obama’s presence will offer a firm gesture of support to the forces of democracy and freedom as symbolised by Aung San Suu Kyi, the Burmese pro-democracy leader. In partnership with President Thein Sein, she is working under extremely delicate circumstance with the junta lurking in the shadows.
The Burmese people and their leader, Ms Suu Kyi, have suffered greatly. The 8888 Uprising was brutally crushed and the military junta killed thousands of Burmese democracy activists. Ms Suu Kyi remained under house arrest for 15 years despite winning the 1990 general elections overwhelmingly. Her father, Aung San, the father of modern-day Burma, was assassinated in 1947.
Ms Suu Kyi’s struggle and experience has many parallels with the Dalai Lama, a fellow Nobel Peace Prize laureate. In spite of being forcibly separated from his people in Tibet, the Dalai Lama established a democratic system within the Tibetan refugee community, separating church and state, and transferring his political power to a democratically elected leader, the Sikyong. This model of a functioning democracy is unique among refugee communities.
Mr Obama should use his trip in part to make a broader point about the compatibility between Buddhism and democracy. Just as the Burmese people and the Thais, Tibetans in exile have worked to build a democracy. Indeed, as with the upsurge of the Saffron Revolution in Burma, Tibetan monks have been at the forefront of a non-violent struggle for freedom in Tibet for the last 60 years.
The Obama administration also could take up the issue of Tibet more seriously with the new Chinese leadership appointed at the 18th Party Congress. Tibetans in Tibet are crying out for justice, including the autonomy and freedom to worship they have been promised by Beijing over the years. Some 72 Tibetans have set themselves on fire, 70 of them since March 2011, and five in one day this month alone. The common cry of all self-immolators is the return of the Dalai Lama to Tibet and freedom for Tibetans.
Tibetans have invested in democracy and non-violence for the last five decades. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has made reassuring statements on US commitment to human rights and democracy, and Ambassador Gary Locke recently visited Tibetan areas. The next four years present an opportunity for the Obama administration to build on the positive start from the visit to the three Asian Buddhist countries and make its Asia pivot even more meaningful by raising the issue of Tibet with China.
Helping resolve the issue of Tibet is not only in synch with American values, but it is also a strategic imperative. America and the rest of the world have a vital stake in China’s rise from an economic giant to a potential superpower. With regard to the development of real stability in China and peace in Asia, a litmus test will be China’s willingness to grant genuine autonomy for Tibet within the framework of the constitution of the People’s Republic of China.
Solving the Tibet problem will help improve relations between China and India. It will allow Tibetans to resume their traditional role of being responsible stewards of Tibet’s immense natural resources, including the management of Asia’s great rivers that originate in Tibet and on which hundred of millions of Asians depend for their livelihood and their very survival.
A successful American engagement with China on Tibet will also be welcomed by millions of Indians, Nepalese, Bhutanese and Mongolians who at one time looked upon Tibet as the source of their culture and home of their faith. Today there are reportedly more than 300 million Chinese Buddhists and millions of other Asians.
America’s ability to engage China on Tibetan autonomy also accords with the thinking of the best minds in China. When peaceful and sustained protests swept Tibet in 2008, many Chinese intellectuals, writers and human rights activists, including Liu Xiaobo, the imprisoned Nobel laureate, signed an open letter to the Chinese government calling on the authorities to stop its one-sided propaganda and to resolve the issue through dialogue.
This I believe is the current sentiment of many in China and the aspiration of Tibetans in Tibet. President Obama’s leadership on this shared sentiment will give a much-needed human rights dimension to America’s Asia pivot.
About the author
Lobsang Sangay is the Sikyong, the democratically elected leader of the Tibetan people and the political successor of the Dalai Lama.