Dharamshala — "When the Dalai Lama sent fact finding delegations [to TIbet] in 1979, I sneaked back in 1980 to study the situation there. I made one observation where I saw evidence of Chinese immigrants, and realized that this was the final solution..." said longtime independent Tibet activist and poet Lhasang Tsering (LT) in an exclusive interview to the Tibet Post International (TPI).
TPI: How was your experience working with the guerillas in Nepal?
LT: My utter sense of respect for these men that they are giving up their personal lives, their families for the sake of a nation. Sadly, their hopes, their dreams were shattered because the CIA withdrew their support, the leadership gave up and the page was closed.
TPI: Have you been to Tibet?
LT: When the Dalai Lama sent fact finding delegations [to TIbet] in 1979, I sneaked back in 1980 to study the situation there, to make contact with some of the patriots. For me to carry out any meaningful activity in Tibet, I had to know the land. I was only a child when my family came on a pilgrimage to India and then they could never leave. So I never had first hand knowledge of Chinese plans or policies. I did not have any contacts with whom to coordinate and assist. But I made one observation where I saw evidence of Chinese immigrants, and realized that this was the final solution. For me as an individual, to get experience was not important but I had to convey this crucial information to His Holiness. I risked my life to come out of Tibet and inform His Holiness but nothing happened.
TPI: Does your poetry help you to connect to the people who have left their homes and families behind in Tibet?
LT: Well for the older generation for they don't read English, I don't know about them. But many of the younger Tibetans who have grown up in exile, who know enough English to read my writings, my feeling is that it has touched the hearts and minds of many of them. But many times it is painful for me to bump into some young Tibetan who have read my writings and they want to show their respect to me, but they have to be careful and look around. Its hard.
TPI: Since you were in the guerillas...?
LT: I did not see active service. That was the last year of their existence, they were trying to keep a low profile, and then after President Nixon's visit to Shanghai, the CIA stopped support. Thereafter, China felt confident enough to put pressure on the King of Nepal. Then to cut a long story short, with direct orders of the Dalai Lama the case was closed. So I did not see active service, but I can say that living with those guerillas for 1 year, from a school boy of 19, I became a former guerilla by 22.
TPI: How has the struggle for Tibetan independence changed in the last few decades in your eyes?
LT: Now we no longer have a struggle for Independence. Independence is no longer our goal and I hope I'm wrong. Hoping, sitting and waiting here will not get us anything or anywhere. This so called Middle Way, I see nothing Middle about giving up, that's the other extreme. Middle way calls for peaceful negotiations for mutual benefits. It sounds very nice I'm very sorry to say but thats about it. It takes two to negotiate. Where is there any benefit on the part of China to agree to the middle way? They hold all the cards. So there's not going to be any negotiations. Then people talk about these special envoys within China... you heard the old saying "it takes a long line to catch a big fish"? Tibet is a big fish. Do you know the size of Tibet? 2.5 million square kilometers. But that doesn't mean anything. What is the size of India? 3.82 million square kilometers. Two thirds the size of India, but there are more people in Delhi than in all of Tibet. So its not just big its empty. But not only that, all the natural resources, the minerals, the forest reserves, and most importantly, one natural resource for which there is no alternative, without which there can be no life. Fresh water. Ten major river systems of Asia have their source or a source of a major tributary in Tibet. Then there is another factor, the altitude of Tibet. The Chinese missiles in Tibet, the tallest peak you can see here, is places just above 13 thousand feet. The average valley in Tibet is above 14 thousand feet. So the Chinese missiles in Tibet have this huge advantage of firing from that enhanced trajectory and can carry heavier payloads. The Indian missiles have to climb over the Himalayas before they can start going anywhere. So there are these huge advantages, and I hope I'm wrong but China will never willingly or voluntarily walk away as envisioned by the Middle Way policy and return Tibet to the Tibetans.
TPI: What are your views on His Holiness The Dalai Lama stepping down from political duties?
LT: Unrealistic and Irresponsible. He was born the Dalai Lama so you can't retire as yourself. He wasn't elected or appointed. He was born the political leader of Tibet. It was irresponsible of him, like a shepherd leaving his flock in the middle of the desert. We're in the middle of the desert of exile, and that is the biggest desert. Any physical desert has a limitation. The Jews were in the exile for 2000 years, but in their case they had this huge advantage of numbers, 6 million. We're only a hundred and forty thousand. And the numbers in Tibet is decreasing, do you know that? We're already a minority in Tibet. So I see nothing wonderful about a shepherd leaving his flock in the middle of the desert. We are in this endless desert of exile. Without unity, we're tearing ourselves apart. We're fighting amongst ourselves and the Chinese are having a good laugh. And soon I'm sorry to say, there will be so many Chinese in Tibet that it will no longer be realistic to hope to regain a Tibet for Tibetans. Time is running out fast.
TPI: Your thoughts on the 150 cases of self immolation that has taken place in Tibet since 2009?
LT: These are the confirmed cases. What about these remote villages, these nomadic areas where they don't have access to petroleum, people jumping into rivers or down high cliffs. What about those committing suicide in prisons and slave labour camps? People inside Tibet are voting for freedom with their lives. This is the vote that the Dalai Lama must recognize and respect. When I questioned the Middle Way policy, the Tibetan leadership conducted something called a referendum among Tibetans in Exile. If we had the freedom to conduct a referendum in Tibet, then what are we doing here? People inside Tibet performing self immolation for freedom and still their government doesn't know what the people want? What the hell are they doing here? Nobody can vote more clearly than to vote with their lives. I have confirmed information from people inside Tibet, during these demonstrations the political protestors are arrested. The Chinese have a form for these political prisoners, they fill the form to say that "I was misled by reactionaries, that I don't believe in Tibetan freedom". They can sign the form and walk away, if they're employable they can get a job, if they want to do business they can get interest free loans. So far the Chinese have not managed to get a single Tibetan to sign that form otherwise they'll be all over the world. People inside Tibet are voting for freedom with their lives but the government here still doesn't know what they want. If you want to know the view of the people living in Tibet, then you conduct the referendum inside Tibet. But if we had the freedom to conduct the referendum inside Tibet then what are we doing here? If you want to solve the problem of the street dwellers, do you go to a five star hotel and ask "Sir what is your problem, what do you want"? You go to the street dwellers! You want to solve the problems of the people inside Tibet, you listen to their vote for freedom. I'm sorry to have to put it that way.
TPI: Do you believe that writers and artists have a role in creating more international awareness?
LT: We have a role, we have a duty but we're limited in what we can do. Take for example a writer like Jamyang Norbu. With all his essays and travels, there's a limitation to how far he can reach. We're up against the Dalai Lama.
TPI: Do you believe that international cooperation can help to change the Chinese policy of restricting basic freedoms in Tibet?
LT: That is the one major source of hope that we have. Public opinion in the free world to put pressure on China. But other than that, I'm saying the chain of China's occupation of Tibet can be cut with the scissor effect of two campaigns. The first arm of the scissor will be the international campaign where the Dalai Lama could go around the free world, getting China out of Tibet. Not only Tibet as a strategic buffer between India and China, India spends one third of its defence budget on the Northern frontier with Tibet. When Tibet was free what did India have to spend? The other third of the budget is spent in the Kashmir valley, but that also largely because China is behind Pakistan. Without China's help, Pakistan is nothing to India. This huge defence expenditure has an economic implication. The economy is being hurt. But not only that, the occupation of Tibet by China is not only a strategic or an economic problem, but also environmental. We hear about the free world but where are they? They want to do business with China. To that extent then, the other arm of the scissor where I'm saying the four nations under China's rule, not only Tibet but Southern Mongolia, Manchuria, East Turkestan, we should unite to bring an end to China's occupation of our four countries. So with the dual effect of these two campaigns, I can see the distant possibility of a free Tibet. But if the Dalai Lama's giving up then what can I do?
TPI: What advice do you have for the new generation of Tibetans trying to keep the struggle for freedom alive?
LT: Be it the younger generation or the older or anyone else, to achieve anything in life as an individual, as a family, and even as a nation, you have to meet these three basic conditions; I call the three musts. First must is that before you achieve anything, you must have clarity of purpose. You must be very clear about what you want. A struggle in life is like a journey. Before you start any journey, you must decide on the destination. You can go to the best travel agency in the world and say "Sir, please, take me anywhere. I don't know. Please get me a ticket" Nobody can help you! We are appealing to the world for help but for what we don't know! So we have to restore clarity of purpose. We have to restore freedom as the one and only goal of the Tibetan struggle. So even in their private life, if they want to achieve anything, they have to be clear about what they want. It is however not enough to only be clear about what you want, so the second must is to have the faith and confidence to achieve what you want. Third and most important, you must actively work for what you want to achieve. "I want to climb that peak", "I'm very confident I can climb that peak because I have climbed higher peaks." But if I sit here and wait for the right time, will I ever get there? I have to start walking. So also for the Tibetan people, its good that many of them want freedom. When they join organizations such as the Tibetan Youth Congress, they have this feeling that they can do something. But unless we have an active struggle, we're calling to the world for help, support cannot precede action. Support can only follow action. There are many people who are concerned about Tibet. Some have genuine sympathy, but it is in the interest of many countries to have a weaker China. But when we're not doing anything, what can they do?
TPI: Should there be more cultural and educational exchanges between Tibetan and Indian colleges?
LT: With the new generation of Tibetans, I see no difficulty in influencing them or inspiring them. The difficulty is getting them into action. We don't have clarity of purpose, we don't have a clear destination. There cannot be any meaningful action. The occasional peace march is not getting us anywhere.
TPI: What kind of problems do you foresee in the future once His Holiness is no more?
LT: China will definitely interfere and play the game. The Dalai Lama has gone on record to state that he will be the last for two important reasons. One to immediately rule out the possibility of China playing politics with the institute of the Dalai Lama. Two, in the long term, he has endowed his political power onto an elected leadership, who have a functioning democracy. His reincarnation is only in his hands. Democracy is an internal affair. I consider myself as a Democrat within the Tibetan community in exile. At the moment, what we need is efficiency. To give a common example, two families are fighting for a plot of land. One family gets into an argument about the colour of the walls, in the mean time the other family buys the land. The colour of the walls are important but you can change it every year. But first get the land! Democracy is important but that can wait. First we need to get our country. And what we need at the moment is not democracy we need efficiency, and democracies are not the most efficient system of government.
TPI: Europe is facing a refugee crisis due to the civil war in Syria and Iraq. Do you think those nations have something to learn from the experience of Tibetans who seek and found refuge in India and other parts of the world?
LT: Well with regard to refugees in general, they should not be treated as immigrants. We're not immigrants here, we're not here to stay. Then the answer lies in seeing how they can return to their homelands. If there was help to improve the situation in their respective countries, then these refugees would have no need to leave. If they could resolve the situation in Syria, then we would not have refugees in Europe. We hear about the world powers, but what are they doing? If they could resolve the local crisis in Syria, then we would not have a refugee crisis. In Tibet we're now second class citizens in our own homeland. So unless we can solve the situation there, the few of us here in exile have no hope and no future.
TPI: Do you have any thoughts on Indian politics?
LT: This is a functioning democracy, which is I think a credit to India's culture that a land with this size and this population can be a functioning democracy. This is an example I think other countries, like Syria should follow, as people with different faiths and cultures can live together with mutual respect. It would be helpful to our cause if a few more MPs in parliament would raise the issue of Tibet politically. A free Tibet is equal to a secure India. With China occupying parts of Ladakh and Arunachal and making highways through Pakistan, it is in both our interests to bring the struggle to the international limelight.
Lhasang Tsering was President of the Tibetan Youth Congress and a founding director of Amnye Machen Institute. In 1972, he gave up an opportunity to study medicine in the United States and joined the armed Tibetan resistance force, who were then operating from Mustang, Nepal. He is an outspoken and ardent advocate for Tibetan independence and a passionate lover of literature. His book of poetry "Tomorrow and Other Poems" was published in 2004.