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Asia

Head of Tibetan exile government expects continuity after Dalai Lama's withdrawal

Tibetans in exile are going to elect a new political leadership, including a new Kalon Tripa (Prime Minister) on March 20. The outgoing Kalon Tripa, Prof. Samdhong Rinpoche talks to Deutsche Welle.

Prof. Samdhong Rinpoche during his recent visit to Berlin

Prof. Samdhong Rinpoche during his recent visit to Berlin

Lobsang Tenzin, better known as the 5th Samdhong Rinpoche, has been the Prime Minister (or Kalon Tripa, as he is officially called) of the Tibetan government in exile based in Dharamsala (India) since 2001. In the upcoming elections, the 71-year-old is no longer a candidate.

Deutsche Welle: You are going to hold elections on March 20. These polls come as the Dalai Lama has announced that he is retreating from his political functions. What does that mean for the elections? Are they more lively than in the past?

Samdhong Rinpoche: Yes, this election is more important for the Tibetan people. The system of electing the political leadership or the head of the executive directly by the people was only established in 2001. In the first election they elected me and I was also elected in 2006. Now this is the third time the people are going to elect their political leader by the ballot. And this time Tibetans in the diaspora all over the world have taken much more interest and the participation rates are much higher. After His Holiness’ recent announcement of his withdrawing from the political scene, the Kalon Tripa will become much more important and much more responsible for the welfare of the people. So therefore the people are very excited and they are taking a very active part.

The Dalai Lama is retreating from his political functions because he said that he wants Tibetans to grow up democratically. Isn’t he taking a very high risk at this time of China’s rise to forsake his influence?

Yes, in a way you could see it as a very high risk but he has to take this decision sooner or later. And the Tibetan people will have to learn how to manage by themselves without the leadership of the Dalai Lama. If he does not take the risk this time, then it may be too late.

As a monk, but at the same time as a politician, how do you feel about the Dalai Lama’s decision?

I can appreciate his feelings and his decision. We Tibetans in the diaspora do not have any territory, we do not have any country. Therefore our activities as an administration are limited to the people’s welfare, and to finding a solution to the Tibet problem though non-violent means and through negotiation. Therefore, a monk can adjust to this work. If we have a territory or a county, then the monks may not be able to do the work of running a state.

And if there is only a PM for the Tibetans in the future, who do you think will talk to him? Western governments will shun him and the Chinese government will say, well, we’ve only been talking to the Dalai Lama and his envoys so far. So will there still be an address to talk to?

Yes. Even though His Holiness has withdrawn from the political affairs, he will have to continue the dialogue with the People's Republic of China - if China chooses to continue the dialogue. That's the only solution to the Tibetan problem. And he'll also address other nations and countries, with whom His Holiness has close relations. From these matters concerning the welfare and the future of Tibet, he cannot completely withdraw.

The last time the envoys of the Dalai Lama and Chinese government representatives met was in January, 2010. Since then there have been no further talks. What do you think is the strategy in Beijing?

I don’t know. Beijing always says that it is committed to continuing dialogue. And whoever asks the Chinese about the dialogue and the Tibetan issue, they always respond that we are engaged with the representatives of His Holiness and will continue to do this. But I guess that they are at this moment just waiting until the elections to pass and see who will come as the next Kalon Tripa.

On the other hand, people are also saying they are just waiting for the Dalai Lama to die, so it will become easier for them to handle the Tibetan issue.

That’s true. That has been China’s policy for a number of years. A few years ago there was a misconception that the Dalai Lama is seriously ill and he might not live for long. At the time, China found all kinds of excuses to delay the process of dialogue, waiting for His Holiness to pass away. But now they have realized that His Holiness is in very good health and he will live much longer than they expected. But still, they have not changed this approach completely. His Holiness is, after all, approaching 76 years – and therefore sections in China’s leadership are still waiting for His Holiness to pass away. They believe that the Tibet issue will disappear then – it will meet a natural death. This is not going to happen. But the Chinese way of thinking is like that.

Since the early 70s, the Tibetan leadership has adopted the so-called "Middle Way", that is to ask for autonomy within China and not independence. But there are two new factors emerging now. One is that many Tibetan people are getting impatient because they do not see any betterment of their situation. And the other is the rise of China, or at least the perception of China's rise in the Western world. Will this lead to a change of policy in Dharamsala?

I don’t think so. The Middle Way approach has the overwhelming support of not only Tibetans in diaspora, but also Tibetans inside Tibet. And as it has been approved by the Tibetan parliament over and over again, even if there need to be some changes to the policy, it will take very long because we need the people’s mandate through a kind of referendum or congregation. Anyone in Dharamsala cannot change the policy at random. And no one has, up to now, brought forward any kind of alternative which could be considered as a better choice than the present approach.

But during last year’s Tibetan Youth Parliament meeting in Switzerland, for example, there were some louder voices asking for a new independence policy, a stricter approach towards Beijing. Are these signs of growing frustration with the Dalai Lama’s course?

I don’t think so. As far as the Tibetan Youth Congress is concerned, their official policy is not to agree with the Middle Way approach, but to seek complete independence. Their voice might appear to be very loud and clear, but it does not have grassroot support. I do not think the people in Tibetan diaspora – more than 10 percent of the population – would agree with this approach or policy. On the contrary, the Middle Way approach has been successful in many ways, particularly in substaining the Tibet movement in the international scenario and also inside Tibet. I do not believe that younger generations are losing patience or are frustrated.

In 2012 there will be a leadership change in Beijing. If Xi Jinping comes to power, with the People’s Liberation Army being his stronghold, does that worry you? Will it change the policy towards Tibet?

No, unless there is a basic change in the Chinese political structure, there will not be any major change , whoever succeeds Hu Jintao. As far as Xi Jinping is concerned, there are different images of him. It is very early to make any judgement. We hope that he will do better – not only for the Tibetan people, but for the people of China and the people of other minorities as well.

Interviewer: Adrienne Woltersdorf
Editor: Thomas Baerthlein

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