This article was originally published in the Winter 1994 issue of the Harvard International Review.
The promotion of human rights is of universal interest because it is the inherent nature of all human beings to yearn for freedom, equality, and dignity. All people are born into this increasingly interdependent world as part of one great human family. Regardless of class, education, ethnicity, religion or ideology, each of use is ultimately a human being like everyone else. Each of us, therefore, has the right to pursue the happy, fulfilling life that human rights protect.
It is often the most gifted, dedicated, and creative members of society who are the targets of human rights abuses. Human rights violations, therefore, obstruct a country’s political, social and cultural development. Both individuals and society as a whole suffer from these human rights violations. Members of the academic world understand and appreciate how freedom is necessary if humans are to use their unique intelligence to understand themselves, their society and their environment. Their support is therefore needed not only for the Tibetan people, but for all human beings who are presently prevented from exercising the rights and freedoms that many take for granted.
Universality of Human Rights
The protection of fundamental human rights in all communities, by preserving the ability of different cultures to freely express themselves, should produce on the international level a rich diversity of cultures and religions. Underlying diversity are, therefore, basic principles that bind together all members of the human family. The mere maintenance of a diversity of traditions, however, does not justify violations of human rights. Although racial, gender and class discrimination are traditional in some regions, these forms of behavior must change if they are inconsistent with universally recognized human rights. The universal principle of the equality of human beings must take precedence over strict cultural preservation in this context.
Some governments contend that the standards of human rights defined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights are Western concepts, and, therefore, do not apply to Asia and other parts of the Third World, both of which have experienced different patterns of cultural, social and economic development than the West. I do not share this interpretation of human rights, and I am convinced that the majority of the world’s population does not support it either. General standards of human rights apply to the people of all countries because, regardless of their cultural background, all humans share an inherent yearning for freedom, equality and dignity. Democracy and respect for fundamental human rights are as important to Africans and Asians as they are to Europeans and Americans.
Moreover, there is no contradiction between the implementation of successful economic development programs and the protection of human rights. In fact, the freedom of speech and association is vital in promoting a country’s economic growth. In Tibet, for example, unsuitable economic policies are implemented by the Chinese authorities, and continue long after they fail to produce benefits, because the people are not free to speak out against the government’s programs.
A lasting effort to protect human rights in a global democratic future also entails world-wide demilitarization. Although this may sound idealistic, it is important to re-evaluate the concept of the military establishment for it is not only during times of war that military establishments are destructive. By design, military establishments are the single greatest violators of human rights and the most regular opponents of democracy. The existence of a powerful army increases the chance of military dictatorship. If we truly believe that a dictatorship is the most despicable and destructive form of government, and the very antithesis of democracy, then we must recognize that in the contemporary world, powerful military establishments can contribute to the formation of tyranny. Many dictators in the developing world have only retained power because they controlled the weapons and armaments supplied by countries of the developed world. Tremendous amounts of money have been used to purchase guns rather than to feed people and meet basic human and environmental needs. It is tragic that in many countries there are no shortages of food for people. Compared to its neighboring countries in which the military plays a dominant role, Costa Rica (a country which is demilitarized) has done very well in areas such as education and health.
It becomes incumbent upon us to support universal human rights once we accept three fundamental notions: all people have an equal right to live in peace and happiness; people can only be happy when able to realize their inherent human affinities for freedom, equality and dignity; and protection of human rights is a precondition for the expression of these natural affinities. Moreover, since those deprived of their rights are often also those least able to speak up for themselves, the responsibility for the protection of universal human rights rests with those who already enjoy these freedoms.
Living in exile, I enjoy freedom of speech and movement. For over three decades, I have tried my best to work for the freedom of the six million Tibetan people who have been suffering under the yoke of tyranny. As a result of the Chinese invasion and the ensuing occupation, over one million Tibetans have died of unnatural causes and over 6,000 of our monasteries, the learning centers and repositories of our culture, have been destroyed. Tibetans have been detained merely for expressing their determination to be free. Moreover, the national and cultural identity of Tibet has been subject to attack and abuse due to an influx of Chinese settlers. Tibetans are becoming a minority in their own land. There is much in the rich Tibetan religious, cultural and medical traditions that can be of benefit to the wider world. The world would be poorer if these should be entirely lost. But, over and above that, the six million Tibetan people have a right simply to live as human beings.
Following the Chinese army occupation, I was forced to leave my homeland in 1959. Over 100,000 fellow Tibetans followed me into exile in India, Nepal and other parts of the globe. Since that time, I have pursued a course of nonviolence and have tried in every way I know to find some reasonable accommodation with the Chinese government so that the Tibetan people can resume a life of peace with dignity.
In 1979, Deng Xiaoping stated that the People’s Republic of China was willing to discuss and resolve with Tibetans all issues other than the complete independence of Tibet. We responded positively to the principles advanced by Deng in the hope that the Chinese government would be genuinely committed to negotiating on all other matters concerning the future of the six million Tibetans.
We were able to send four fact-finding delegations to Tibet to see the actual situation there. Our delegation members were greeted, welcomed and even mobbed by thousands of excited Tibetans wherever they went. When the first delegation arrived in Lhasa, the capital of Tibet, in August 1979, Tibetans disobeyed an order to stay away and huge crowed filled the streets. A member of the Chinese cadre was reported to have said, “The efforts of the last 20 years have been wasted in a single day.” Apparently, this show if support outraged the Chinese leadership which, since the return of our last official delegation on October 1980, has refused to permit any more delegations from our side to central Tibet.
Tibetans were given a glimmer of hope in 1980 when Hu Yaobang, the General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party, launched a limited policy of liberalization. While visiting Tibet, he publicly expressed shock at the poverty he witnessed, asking in an historic speech, never publicly released in its entirety, whether all the money sent to Tibet had been thrown in the river. He promised the withdrawal of 85 percent of the Chinese cadres stationed in Tibet.
After an initial period in which we were able to send two high-level delegations to Beijing in 1982 and 1984 to engage in exploratory talks with the Chinese leadership, the prospects for direct talks dwindled. The Chinese failure to show any seriousness in negotiating with us compelled me to make public my Five-Point Peace Plan, which I did in 1987 at the invitation of the US Congressional Human Rights Caucus. I proposed that Tibet become a demilitarized zone of peace, a notion that continues to be the basis of my future vision for Tibet. I have always envisioned the future of my country as a neutral demilitarized zone of peace where people live in harmony with nature. I have called this a zone of Ahimsa, or nonviolence. This idea is not merely a dream; it is precisely the way Tibetans tried to live for over a thousand years before Tibet was ruthlessly invaded by China in 1949/50. For at least the last three hundred years, Tibet has had virtually no army; Tibet gave up war as an instrument of national policy.
In June 1988, I delivered what has come to be known as the Strasbourg Proposal during an address to members of the European Parliament in Strasbourg, France. In an effort to initiate substantive negotiations, I proposed that Tibet become a self-governing political entity in association with China. Since then, there has been some confusion over my stand on negotiations with China. Recently, certain statements made by the Chinese government, reported in a section of the press, have misrepresented my stand. In October 1991, in an address at Yale University, I made a fresh overture to the Chinese government by suggesting I make a personal visit to Tibet, in the company of senior Chinese leaders and journalists, to make an on-the-spot assessment of the actual situation. In this instance, as before, the Chinese made such a proposed visit conditional upon my acceptance of Tibet as “a part of China” and upon the cessation of activities which they regarded as “separatist.” According to the official Chinese media, Chinese President Jian Zemin said in Beijing this July that I was welcome to return to Tibet “at any time” once I abandoned visions of Tibetan independence. While I very much want to visit Tibet, the main issue should never be centered around me. I have stated this repeatedly in response to the frequent attempts by Chinese government officials to reduce the issue to my “repatriation.” My concern is the welfare of the six million Tibetans living in Tibet and the protection of their rights, freedoms and distinct culture. Tibet has a long history of independence. There is no doubt that the Tibetans constitute a distinct people with their own culture, language and religion. Even geographically, Tibet is distinct from China. However, because of the gravity of the current situation in Tibet—particularly the threat posed to the distinct Tibetan culture and identity posed by the continued influx of Chinese into Tibet—and because of the political constraints I face, I have adopted a middle-of-the-road approach of reconciliation and compromise in the hope that I may in this way secure a peaceful and negotiated resolution of the Tibetan problem.
Toward a Lasting Solution
It has always been my belief that the only way to achieve a lasting solution to the Tibetan-Chinese conflict is through earnest, substantive negotiation. While it is the overwhelming desire of the Tibetan people to regain their national independence, I have over the years repeatedly and publicly stated that I am willing to enter into negotiations and work from an agenda that does not include independence.
Ever since direct contact with the Chinese leadership was established in 1979, I have consistently and vigorously pursued this approach. My official statements on March 10, the anniversary of the Tibetan National Uprising, and the proposals I have put forward since 1979 clearly demonstrate our willingness to seek and facilitate a peaceful and negotiated settlement of the Tibetan issue based on Mr. Deng Xiaoping’s statement to my personal emissary in 1979 that “except for the independence of Tibet all other questions can be negotiated.”
In June 1988, in Strasbourg, I proposed a framework for negotiations. This proposal aims at securing the right for Tibetans to govern their own country while allowing China to retain responsibility for Tibet’s foreign policy. China would maintain a restricted member of military installations in Tibet for defense purposes until a regional peace conference is convened and that Tibet is eventually transformed into a neutral and de-militarized peace sanctuary. The Strasbourg proposal clearly seeks a “self-governing, democratic political entity” for the whole of Tibet, consisting of the three provinces—U-Tsang, Kham and Amdo—in association with China.
On many different occasions, I had conveyed these ideas to the Chinese leadership through both personal letters and my personal emissary and delegations, who traveled to Beijing before I made these views public. Having informed the Chinese government of my position on negotiations, I was hopeful that a forthright response would come from the Chinese so that we could enter into serious negotiations. Unfortunately, the Chinese government has yet to accept any of my proposals and initiatives and has yet to enter into any substantive negotiations with my representatives, who remain prepared to meet with Chinese representative at any time.
I am deeply concerned about the Chinese government’s real intentions with regard to Tibet. While repeating the official position that China is prepared to negotiate, the Chinese government refuses to hold any substantial discussion on the problem. Meanwhile, they flood Tibet with Chinese, reducing the Tibetans to an insignificant minority in their own country. Some of my friends call this the Chinese “final solution” to the Tibetan people. The magnitude and seriousness of the problems in Tibet have escalated. Recent developments have been marked by an intensification of Chinese suppression, the marginalization of the Tibetan people in their own country, and the undermining and destruction of Tibet’s unique culture and religion.
With the appointment of a new Chinese Party Secretary in the so-called Tibet Autonomous Region, a radical shift in the political character of the Chinese presence in Tibet has taken place. The Chinese government has abandoned their publicly stated policy of progressively reducing the number of Chinese administrators in Tibet. They are now appointing Chinese to all major departments, including key positions at the county level, where for many years the policy had been to appoint Tibetans. They are thus enhancing the drive to assimilate and absorb the Tibetan region into China. The new Party Secretary, Chen Kuiyuan, has already pursued a tough course in Inner Mongolia, where he acquired a reputation as an administrator with little regard and consideration for local autonomy, culture and sentiments. His appointment and the subsequent policy shifts in Tibet are clear reflections of the Chinese government’s hardening position. Furthermore, these indications corroborate the contents of classified Chinese documents revealing their intent to transfer an even larger number of Chinese into Tibet in order to make it demographically “impossible for Tibetans to rise up” and to create disunity and disruptions in the Tibetan movement.
Tibet—an ancient nation with its unique culture and civilization—is quick- ly disappearing. The mortal danger to the survival of Tibet and its distinct cultural heritage and national identity is increasing day by day. In my endeavor to protect my nation from this threat, I have always ought to be guided by realism and patience. I have tried in every way I know to find some reasonable accommodation with the Chinese government in a spirit of reconciliation and compromise.
A Vision for Tibet’s Future
By 1987, I had broadly outlined my vision for a future Tibet in the Five-Point Peace Plan, the concepts of which were further elaborated in my Strasbourg Proposal in 1988 and later in a plan called, “Guidelines for the future Polity of Tibet and Basic Feature of its Constitution.” In this last document, I proposed that Tibet should ultimately be governed by a multi- party parliamentary democracy. In line with this system, a duly elected citizen of Tibet would become the supreme head of the country, or self-governing region, and would subsequently assume the ensuing responsibilities as head of state. The legislative, judicial and executive organs of the Tibetan government would be independent and vested with equal power and authority. As I have often stated, I am not concerned about labels—independence, self-governing, in association, etc. The most important thing is that Tibetans govern themselves, and be able to determine a form of government which provides real freedoms, openness and democratic processes.
Tibet belongs to the Tibetans, especially to those who have remained in Tibet. Therefore, those within Tibet would bear the main responsibility for establishing a democratic Tibet. In particular, because of their experience and knowledge, those Tibetan officials who are presently serving under the Chinese occupation should in the beginning hold the responsibility for running the government. It is therefore important that these officials eschew all feelings of uncertainty and doubt over their role in a democratic Tibet so that they might dedicate themselves to regaining the freedom of Tibet while simultaneously making efforts to improve the quality of its administration. Some Tibetans have had to involuntarily say or do things under coercive Chinese influence. I see no purpose in inquiring into their past activities. What is vitally important is the happiness of the Tibetans as a whole. To this end, all must stand united. All Tibetans must assume the responsibility to transform the present totalitarian system, which denies essential freedoms to the people, into a genuinely democratic federal system that guarantees the participation by all Tibetans in their governance.
Once Tibet regains its freedom, I will not accept any political status in the future Tibetan government on the basis of the traditional system. I have not taken this decision lightly, since all Tibetans place great faith and hope in me. For my part, I have unflinching determination to aid the Tibetans, both politically and religiously. However, in order for Tibet to be able to exist as an equal member in today’s community of nations, it is extremely important that it not be dependent on a single person, but rather that it reflect the collective consciousness of the Tibetan people. This requires the Tibetan people to take full responsibility for their own political destiny; hence, it is in both the immediate and future interest of the Tibetan people that I not hold a political position in the government.
On our return to a free Tibet following the withdrawal of the Chinese regime, there will be a transitional period before the finalization of the Tibetan constitution. During the transition, the existing Tibetan administration would continue to function and a President would be appointed as the interim head of state. He or she would be vested with all the political powers I currently hold. Simultaneously, the Tibetan Government-in-Exile would renounce its existence. Each official of the dissolved administration would bear the same responsibility for the affairs of Tibet as any other Tibetan. Though members of the Tibetan Government-in-Exile would not be entitled to any special privileges by virtue of their previous positions, they may, ac- cording to their desire and qualifications, voluntarily accept positions assigned to them by the transitional administration.
The main responsibility of the transitional government would be to create a Constituent Assembly to finalize Tibet’s constitution. The comprehensive draft of the democratic constitution for a free Tibet is under preparation. We are circulating guidelines for the framework of the constitution in order to create awareness and to encourage the formulation of opinions regarding the type of democratic government Tibet should have.
I will continue with my sincere efforts to resolve the crisis in Tibet through negotiations. However, it has now become obvious and clear that our efforts alone, based on a spirit of reconciliation and compromise, are not sufficient to bring the Chinese government to the negotiating table. Moreover, in light of alarming developments in Tibet, I cannot continue to simply hope and wait for a positive signal from Beijing when the continuation of the present situation only enables China to complete the colonization and absorption of Tibet. I have, therefore, called for concerted efforts by the international community to press the Chinese leadership to enter into substantive negotiation with us. If this approach does not bring about a positive results, then, as I declared in my statement on March 10, 1994, to commemorate the thirty-fifth anniversary of the Tibetan uprising day, I will consult my people over the future course of the our struggle for freedom. My commitment to nonviolence, however, is fundamental, and there will be no deviation from this path under my leadership.