The tour visit of American President in Asia has monopolized the world news followers’ attention, both academician and simple citizens, during these last days. As important as each and every visit he took, we single out his symbolic journey in Beijing.
The conclusion of commercial partnerships was the main part of the visit, no wonder if these contracts display a bargaining strategy to have Beijing’s side on the denuclearization of Pyongyang. Nevertheless, the controversy on North Korean nuclear weapon program had the commanding influence during the meetings between the two protagonists, respectively US and China presidents.
In fact, Washington asks Beijing to economically squeeze Pyongyang. As reminder, Beijing has voted the latest United Nations sanctions against North Korea and assured to implement them.
How China through its peaceful rise vision does position itself with regard to the North Korean nuclear weapon dilemma?
The desired peace has long been advocated by China and is part of its principles. Sun Tzu in the Art of War said “The Lowest form of war is to attack Cities”.
China is playing a key card as an important actor about this particular and unending issue of international concern: the nuclear program of North Korea.
Undoubtedly, a military alliance ties the two countries (the Sino-North Korean friendship treaty of 1961 includes a defense clause in case of invasion), but the main concern of Beijing is to avoid anything that might affect regional stability, guaranteeing its continued economic expansion. The collapse of the Pyongyang regime would entail a considerable risk to Beijing: arrivals of refugees and instability mainly in the border area where there are two million Chinese of Korean descent.
Looking back to some topical facts, we can see that China’s policy on this issue has evolved. In 2003, they opted on American compression. Besides, however by regional opportunism to a new and more exposed strategy, Beijing chose to be the builders of the dialogue between Pyongyang and Washington and to promote the framework of meetings. China’s involvement in such negotiations is intended as a pledge of its international responsibility.
Beijing, with its special relationship with the regime of Pyongyang, had played a preeminent role as a mediator in the settlement efforts on the North Korean nuclear crisis, as evidenced by the visit of President Hu Jintao in North Korea in October 2005 and the visit of the North Korean President Kim Jong-Il in China in January 2006.
The joint statement of the Six party talks  of September,19th 2005 had formed a diplomatic achievement for China: North Korea undertook to abandon to his weapons and existing nuclear programs and join the Non-Proliferation Treaty and the Conditions IAEA guarantee. This text also contained security assurances from the US authorities and the prospects of cooperation in the economic and energy field. Thus, China’s diplomacy, the origin of the text of the Joint Declaration, was able to be given therein the “red lines” of the United States like North Korea.
China, a permanent member of the Security Council, closer to Pyongyang, unequivocally condemned the nuclear test on October, 9th 2006 and Resolution 1718 of the Council of October, 14th 2006. Pyongyang has imposed an embargo on equipment related to nuclear technology or missiles, as well as weapons and related materials. At the end of October 2006, North Korea finally proposed to resume the six-party talks, reflecting the still strong influence of China.
Nowadays, however, Pyongyang’s nuclear tests and ongoing nuclear weapon threats have again raised concerns and troubled the international conciliation, posited itself as the world enemy. This has complicated its connection with Beijing. Indeed, relations between Beijing and Pyongyang are complex and cannot be reduced to the role of China as a mediator in the international crisis over North Korea’s nuclear weapon program. As said above, China has conceded and agreed to harsher penalties against North Korea.
Recently, Representatives in Beijing and Washington had specified that China has taken some significant actions on North Korea. As the North Korean accelerated nuclear tests and intercontinental ballistic missile launches, China acknowledged harder penalties at the United Nations towards Pyongyang. It has approved to undo banking bonds, limit the export of diesel fuel, terminate joint-venture businesses with North Korea.
Yet, lately, as a banned coal imports has been decided, the Beijing’s coal imports in August 2017 has raised doubt in the readiness of China to abide to the new U.N. sanctions. Though, it has been argued that Beijing only sought to resolve the remaining issue of the surplus coal from February by letting it enter the country in August, without any attempt to violate U.N sanctions.
This shows the uncomfortable position of China as even though it is willing to stabilize his relation with Korea and seek for peace in Asia, North Korea’s nuclear program is becoming gradually challenging for China’s yearning to preserve regional stability.
 the Fourth Round of the Six-Party Talks was held in Beijing among the People’s Republic of China, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, Japan, the Republic of Korea, the Russian Federation, and the United States of America
The issue of peace in North Korea and Asia
Much has already been decided in the best way for peace on the Korean peninsula and, indirectly, in the South Pacific region and even for the US power projection onto Asia.
In fact, after almost five years since the proclamation of his byungjin policy in March 2013, Kim Jong Un has announced “a new strategic policy line”.
It is worth recalling that, in Kim Jong Un’s thought, byungjin is the parallel development of the economy and military and strategic research and supremacy.
I make no secret of the fact that – as stated by the North Korea’s leadership in a letter sent to me – much has been done by me, who has tried to analyze the issue of North Korean nuclear and missile systems with the help of my long-standing friendship for North Korea and of the trust I have gained there over many years – trust that also many US friends have ensured to me.
However, I owe much to the free and friendly discussions I had on all the most important political and strategic issues with Kim Yong-Nam, the President of the Presidium of the Supreme People’s Assembly of North Korea – an extraordinary figure who was also North Korean Foreign Minister from 1983 to 1998, the year in which he was appointed to his current post.
Kim Yong Nam was, inter alia, the promoter of many North Korea’s openings to Africa – new strategic spaces that will be essential also in the upcoming talks between North Korea and the United States.
It is certainly not by mere coincidence that Kim Yong-Nam was present at the opening ceremony of the 2018 Winter Olympics. He is particularly trusted by the Supreme Leader, Kim Jong-Un, and national security – and hence North Korea’s positioning in the world – is currently the most important issue for the country.
If the byungjin policy “has been successful” – as Kim Jong-Un has recently stated – this is also due to the policy line that the North Korean leader has put in place since the beginning of his power, in 2012: reducing internal bureaucracy; renewing the country’s positioning in the world; making the most of the strategic threat of nuclear missiles to later achieve the eminently peaceful, political and economic goals of his policy “line”.
The core of the current “turning point” in North Korea’s policy line lies in Kim Jong-Un’s latest (and first) visit to China.
The Chinese President, Xi Jinping, wanted to know whether, pending a future meeting – already scheduled – between Kim Jong-Un and US President Trump, either of them could make improper moves that could create the conditions for a future war – something that China absolutely wants to avoid.
Therefore Kim Jong-Un reassured the Chinese President that North Korea wanted to negotiate in good faith, with a view to achieving a new equilibrium in the whole South Asian ocean region.
China also wanted to check whether Kim Jong-Un’s moves against the United States were only a way to play for time or rather a real willingness to negotiate.
If this had not happened, China would have moved its pawns directly in the United States.
In this regard, however, Kim Jong-Un provided every credible guarantee.
Moreover, China wants North Korea’s greater bilateral openness with it – a North Korea which, over the last few years, has slowly put an end to its traditional links with the Chinese Communism of the “Four Modernizations” and beyond.
Xi Jinping’s guarantee helped also the United States to understand that the negotiations were realistic and that there was no danger of imminent war on the Korean peninsula – a military confrontation that China would have avoided anyway, for better or worse.
On the other hand, Kim Jong-Un has always pointed out – also to President Xi Jinping in his first, but not last trip to China -that he believed President Trump’s threats were fully credible and that any US attack on North Korea would create tough reactions in China.
China does not want to have military borders with the United States and also believes that the presence of North American forces in South Korea is also aimed at the containment of Communist China.
This is the strategic usefulness of North Korea for China, but this also applies to Russia.
In both cases, Russia and China would be greatly damaged by any military operation entailing confrontation with the North Korean forces – a clash which would inevitably enlarge to the Russian and Chinese borders with South Korea.
Kim Jong-Un has used his strategic position with great intelligence.
Moreover, the United States cannot really wage war against North Korea: 85% of North Korean nuclear facilities are less than 100 kilometers from the border with China and the latter has already deployed at least 160,000 soldiers in its border area with North Korea, who can move quickly to the clash region.
Hence any war between China and the United States on the Korean peninsula depends on whether the United States really wants to knock China out – and this would be a suicidal move for the United States.
This is the reason why China has always thought that the two countries, namely North Korea and the United States, should have started dealing with each other long time ago.
Even with the bilateral mechanism alone.
This is also the reason why the news of bilateral talks between Kim Jong-Un and President Trump was the best thing that China could expect.
Hence, over and above full autonomy for both countries, China would alsolike to sit at the negotiating table to prevent either country from harming Chinese interest or making bilateral peace at China’s expense.
Whatever the outcome of the talks between President Trump and Kim Jong-Un will be, if it does not harm China’s direct interest in the region, it will be welcome for China which will anyway have time to make this US Presidency come to an end and clarify the future balance of power in the region – balance that no future US President will later be in a position to undermine.
We also imagine that China has already prepared military plans if President Trump or even Kim Jong-Un (albeit this is far less likely) did not fulfil their obligations, thus creating tension or even a “limited war” on the Korean peninsula.
It is easy to think that President Xi Jinping has already prepared plans to control the region on his own, without the support of either of the two countries, namely the United States and North Korea.
It is precisely the new linkage between Kim Jong-Un and Xi Jinping that has set the pace for the future peace talks.
“The issue of denuclearization can be resolved if South Korea and the United States respond to our efforts with goodwill and create an atmosphere of peace and stability while taking coordinated, progressive and synchronized measures to achieve peace”.
It is a statement made by Kim Jong-Un, as reported by the New China News Agency.
Currently North Korea wants to make it clear to the United States and to the rest of the West that it wants only one thing: the slackening of the joint US and South Korean pressure on the country, as well as the start of credible economic development or its full involvement in theregional globalization of Southeast Asia.
In fact, this was the dual purpose of North Korea’snuclear and missile systems: to pose such a vast threat as to make North Korea find itself more in the spotlight and no longer remain in the twilight zone of the old Cold War, thus enabling it to hold tough and definitive negotiations – almost on an equal footing – leading to strategic autonomy and economic internationalization.
With specific reference to Japan, it is both tempted by the new phase and suspicious of the future negotiations between President Trump and Kim Jong-Un.
On the one hand, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe wants President Trump not to neglect – in the negotiations with Kim Jong-Un – the issue of short- and intermediate-range missiles, which can easily hit Japan.
In fact, in spite of Japan, new Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had recently made it clear that the talks between North Korea and the United States would be focused only on intercontinental ballistic missiles.
Moreover, in the future bilateral talks, Shinzo Abe wants the United States to raise the long-disputed issue of the Japanese citizens allegedly “kidnapped” by North Korea.
It is an always fundamental issue for Japanese propaganda, but central to Shinzo Abe’s career.
Therefore, instead of asking for a place at the negotiating table, Japan delegates the United States.
We do not believe this is a forward-looking policy.
If peace with North Korea were finally achieved, this could also have positive results for Shinzo Abe.
President Trump has promised to Japan he will do everything for achieving North Korea’s full denuclearization and for eliminating all weapons of mass destruction still existing in the Pyongyang area, as well as for improving the “strategic triangle” between South Korea, Japan and the United States.
Kim Jong-Un, however, will always deal on a very broad basis of topics, ranging from missile engines to carriers, from nuclear devices to chemical and bacteriological weapons.
A wide range of issues that Kim Jong-Un will tackle with the United States for as long as it takes, considering that the missiles themselves attracted the attention of the United States and its regional allies to hold effective negotiations that would have never taken place without weapons of mass destruction and ballistic launches.
In that case North Korea would have been a sort of irrelevant maritime Tibet, without strategic clout, without autonomy and even without the ability to hold serious talks with “friendly” States, namely China, Iran and the Russian Federation.
Hence the political usefulness of North Korea’s nuclear and missile system has been very high.
In fact, it is the level of political and military autonomy that will allow futurenegotiations with President Trump – probably not on an equal footing, but at least with similar strategic potentials and with a fully credible US attack-reaction capacity.
It was exactly what Kim Jong-Un had been looking for years, so as to make the best use of his military system, with a view to getting out of his currently-closed economy and enable North Korea to experience positive economic globalization, not linked to the dollar and regional raw materials cycles.
It was the Russian Federation that officially informed the United States of Kim Jong-Un’ readiness to deal withit, although Russia is currently not so optimistic about the results of future talks between Kim Jong-Un and President Trump.
Firstly, the Russian Federation views the sanctions against North Korea – never approved by the UN Security Council – as serious obstacles to peace and as US illegal actions.
Moreover, Russia believes that North Korea’s nuclear and missile military system has a fully defensive nature and is mainly designed to avoid a regime change in North Korea itself, obviously sponsored by the United States and implemented starting from South Korea, which would also bear the most severe brunt.
Once again Russia is not fully convinced that the United States is credible, given its choice to continue military exercises with South Korea after a brief temporary stop during the Peyongchang Winter Olympics.
In fact, in an official statement made on March 3 last, the North Korean government announced it would respond militarily to new joint exercises between South Korea and the United States.
Furthermore, if the peace talks between President Trump and Kim Jong-Un failed, the Russian Federation would create a multilateral network that should improve North Korea’ security and encourage less brutal negotiations by the United States.
For Iran the issue of North Korea-US bilateral talks is even more complex. In fact, while Iran had no official reaction when, on March 8 last, the White House announced it had accepted Kim Jong-Un’s invitation to hold new bilateral talks, it is mainly interested in the new configuration – if any – of the JCPOA, i.e. the Treaty on nuclear weapons and their production in the Shi’ite Islamic Republic.
In fact, Iran fears that if the North Korean negotiationsgo well for Trump, the US President could have many incentives not to renew the JCPOA.
Moreover, if the American strategy keeps on defining the axis between Iran, North Korea and Iraq as the “axis of evil”, Iran fears that peace with North Korea will make the US hawks’ attention focus only on Iran.
Hence the skepticism of the Iranian leaders, who do not believe that a “revanchist” US President and America First can really reach a true agreement with North Korea.
Iran wants the maximum opening of negotiations for the reduction of North Korea’s military, nuclear and missile potential with China, the Russian Federation, Japan and the European Union.
Certainly multilateral negotiations would be such as to guarantee everyone from the beginning, but we believe that success in the relations between the United States alone and Kim Jong Un’s new policy line, will open up stable prospects for redesigning the whole Pacific region.
Moreover, we believe that never more than now Kim Jong-Un is both realistic and sincere in his willingness to negotiate with the United States.
Unified Korea: A stepchild of Asia
One of the unexpected events that happened during the PyongChang Olympics was the remarkable diplomatic manoeuvre of the three stars: Moon Jae-in, Kim Jong-un and Donald Trump.
Moon Jae-in convinced Kim Jong-un to send a large delegation to PyomgChang and show to the world that North Korea was not a country ruled by an irrational man;
Kim Jong-un told the world that he wanted peace;
Trump made it clear that he was not Obama, who according to Trump did nothing to solve the North Korean nuclear crisis.
Moreover, the “three stars: have made it possible to have two historical summits: the inter-Korea summit and the U.S.-North Korea summit.
That is great, but what can we expect from these summits? One thing is sure; each of the stars seems to have different hopes and expectations. Whatever their hopes and expectations may be, these summit must bring peace in the Korean peninsula after seventy years of unnecessary uncertainty, fragile security, fear and tension.
The PyongChang Meetings
The PyongChang Olympics may have written a new page in the modern history of world diplomacy. The world was expecting the worst scenario of Trump’s war against Kim Jong-un and the very success of the Olympics was in doubt. But, the war did not show its ugly teeth, not yet anyway; the youth of the world competed, fraternized, shared the victory and showed sincere friendship in defeat. Yes, the PyongChang was a success as a sport festivity.
But there was something else. We were all impressed with the silent, elegant and dignified diplomacy of Kim Yo-Jong, sister of Kim Jong-un; we were all touched by the honest effort of the North-South combined women hockey team who worked hard together in harmony despite seventy years of ideological separation. The world class performance of the North Korean musical group made us wonder how a country under the constant threats from outside and inhuman sanctions for so long could produce such a team.
Moreover, the PyongChang has provided a diplomatic arena where three stars performed well. Moon Jae-in took an initiative, in consultation with Trump, to invite a huge delegation of North Korea to PyongChang and succeeded in creating a peace mood. In return, Kim Jung-un has invited in early March special envoy of Moon Jae-in to Pyongyang where Moon Jae-in was invited to a summit with Kim at the end of April.
The same envoy went to Washington and reported to Trump of Kim Jong-un’s wish to meet with Trump, who accepted Kim’s invitation. Trump suggested the end of May as the date of the summit. This drama of diplomacy is so unexpected and so dramatic that the world- frankly speaking- felt a little dizzy.
Another surprising event was the reaction of Xi Jinping and Abe. Both welcomed the double summits and claimed their piece of peace pie evoking their role in international sanctions against Kim Jong-un.
It goes without saying that we all wish for successful summits. But we are not sure how these summits will come out. Nonetheless, we may allow ourselves to have an idea about the motivations of the summit stars. If we know the motivations of the stars, we may able to have an idea about the summit outcomes.
What are the reasons for Kim Jung-un for transforming himself from being a man of reckless worrier to a man of peace? What does Trump hope to gain? What has motivated Moon Jae-in to go between Donald Trump and Kim Jung-un?
Why the summits?
Professor Anis H. Bajrektarevic famously claimed that a ‘birth of unified Korea is an end of the US supremacy in Pacific”. Is the eventual reunification indeed a geopolitical changer? Is it really so?
Let us begin with Kim Jong-un. His decision to seek for peace with the U.S. and its allies may be explained in terms of internal factor as well as external determinants. Internal factors would include the following. First, after the launch of ICBM Hwasung-15 in November last year, reaching as far as 15,000 km, the Juche regime seems to believe that it can now deter nuclear attacks of the U.S.; this was made clear in Kim Jung-un’s New Year Speech.
Second, the successful conclusion of the nuclear programs has made Kim Jung-un’s leadership more solid and more consolidated, thus ensuring internal social cohesion and political stability.
Third, the development of private market, the multiplication of mobiles phones allowing the North Koreans the access to outside world’s reality may have made them more open-minded and perhaps desire for more economic development and peace. It is very likely that Kim Jong-un is well aware of this reality and that it can endanger the survival of the Juche regime. But young leader seems to think that his leadership is strong enough to ensure the regime’s survival.
On the other hand, there are also several external determinants of Kim Jong-un’s desire for peace. First, the intensification of nuclear threats and endless sanctions have surely been an important factor of Kim’s decision. So far, North Korea has been successfully minimizing the damaging effect of sanctions mainly through underground network of trade and the emergence of private market and, partially, China’s aid.
Now, the situation is different. Since Trump took over the power in Washington, the nuclear threats have become more alarming, while the sanctions have become much more damaging, especially since China joined the international sanctions on North Korea. In such situation, North Korea might have concluded that the peace with the U.S. and its allies was perhaps the only way to save its regime.
Another external factor is the regime change in South Korea. For ten years (2008-2017), South Korea was governed by conservative presidents, Lee Myung-bak (2008-2013) and Park Geun-hye (2013-2017). By the way, both are now in prison for bribery, corruption and abuse of power.
One of the chief characteristics of the conservative governments is its anti-North Korea culture. This is partly explained by the past colonial history. The conservative government of South Korea was formed in 1948 principally by Koreans who served, as high ranking civil servants, under Japanese colonial government; they collaborated for torturing and murdering patriots who fought against Japan.
On the other hand, the North Korean government was established by Kim Il-sung and the patriots. Thus, right from the beginning of the era of post-World War II, there has been deep and intense feeling of anger and hostility between the conservative government in the South and North Korean leaders.
This has produced two unfortunate results. First, the conservative governments which have ruled South Korea for sixty years out of seventy years since 1948 have produced a situation where the inter-Korean relation was dominated by mutual hostility, suspicion, mistrust and, above all, tension. Second, the conservative governments have used the inter-Korean tension as a tool of electoral campaign.
Prior to elections, the conservative governments often created an environment of fear by fabricating inter-Korean armed clashes or false rumours in such a way that the votes could go to the conservatives, who pretended themselves as the best guarantee of “security”; South Koreans are very sensitive about the security. This unfortunate phenomenon is called the “Book-Poong-Northern Wind”.
Now, in 2017, the liberal government of Moon Jae-in took over the power. Let us remember that Moon was one of the chief architects of the “Sunshine Policy” for ten years from 1998 to 2008. The return of the liberal government under the leadership of Moon could have changed Kim Jong-un’s perception of inter-Korea relations.
The young leader of Juche knows that he can trust Moon Jae-in and this might have contributed to his decision to have the inter-Korea summit and even the Washington-Pyongyang summit. It seems that Kim Jong-un relies on Moon Jae-in’s mediation role for the success of the Trump-Kim summit.
Now, let us move to Donald Trump. There may be also internal and external factors which might have led Trump to think of meeting with Kim Jong-un. Internally, the “Russia” gate, the sex scandal and his low popularity might have induced Trump to use the U.S.-North Korea summit as means of turning public concerns away from his internal problems. Besides, Trump promised, during his election campaign, to do something with North Korea, something which previous presidents, especially, Obama did not do. The summit with the young leader of the Juche regime may be the realization of his electoral promise.
The external factor motivating Trump to talk to Kim Jong-un is perhaps his perception of the China containment policy. China is getting stronger every day; Russia is developing new arms including powerful and fast under-water drones. Moreover, both Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin can now rule for long time to come, perhaps for life time.
This could have made trump to re-examine Washington’s relation with Pyongyang; he might have decided to solve the North Korean issues once for all so that he could allocate more resource to the strategy of China containment.
As for Moon Jae-in, several good reasons might have led him to take the diplomatic initiatives. First, Moon remembers well that Korea became Japanese colony because of the division of Korean leaders into Pro-Japanese, pro-Chinese or pro-Russia factions. Korea was and is surrounded by military giants trying to use the Korean peninsula for the promotion of their own interests.
For Moon, the reunification or at least the North-South mutual cooperation and united efforts to cope with outside intervention are very important. This point has been often made by Professor Michel Chossudovsky, who has even suggested a North-South peace treaty.
Second, one of the reasons for low FDI in South Korea has been the North-South tension. Hence, Moon hopes, through the summits, to reduce the North-South tension and increase foreign investments in South Korea. Third, the South Korean economy has attained a level of maturity and exhausted its potential growth; Seoul needs new economic frontier to develop further its economy; North Korea is the new economic frontier.
What Can We Expect from the Summits?
Thus, all the three nations have good reasons to engage in dialogues. The interesting question is:”What could be the results of the summits?” “What can the three countries expect from these summits, if they are successful?”
The North-South Summit will be held on April 27th. The main agenda to be dealt with in this summit will be the preparation for the Trump-Kim Summit which may take place at the end of May or early June.
What Trump asks seems to be complete and immediate denuclearization meaning immediate and complete destruction of nuclear arms and missiles. On the others hand, Kim appears to be ready to denuclearize gradually. Kim’s position is as determined as Trump’s position is. Therefore, if they meet at the summit without prior negotiated compromise, the summit could end up with total failure and the nuclear crisis may become even more risky and even more dangerous.
In this situation, somebody should play the role of go-between and facilitate the Trump-Kim negotiation. Moon Jae-in, President of South Korea is the only person who can play effectively such role owing to his remarkably sincere diplomacy shown during the PyongChang Olympics.. Moon is the only person who has the trust of both Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un.
It appears that there have been sustained discussions between Pompeo, former director of CIA (and now Secretary of State) and Suh Hoon, director of South Korean CIA (National Intelligence Service) and between Chung Eui-yong, Korea’s National Security Council chief and John Bolten nominated as Trump’s National Security Advisor. It is not known what will be the outcome of these contacts and meetings. However, one thing sure is this; if there are no compromises, there is no use having the Trump-Kim summit.
Even if Trump and Kim come to some agreement on denuclearization, the content and speed of denuclearization depends on the rewards Kim will ask and Trump will be ready to provide them. It seems that North Korea would ask the following: the removal of nuclear assets from the Korean peninsula, end of US nuclear threats, removal of sanctions against North Korea, signing of a peace treaty and normal bilateral diplomatic relations. Trump’s intention of meeting this demand is not known.
However, it is quite possible that Trump might accept some of these demands for two reasons.
First, North Korea will not ask the withdrawal of the US troops from South Korea; this means that Washington can continue its strategy of China containment.
Second, it is more than possible that Washington would try to make North Korea friendly to the U.S. through normal diplomatic relations and trade and economic development cooperation. If this happens, North Korea will no longer be effective buffer zone for China.
In other words, the process of North Korea’s denuclearization is liable to become an important variable in the dynamics of the Sino-American Thucydides trap. Thus, the denuclearization on the Korean peninsula does not mean the end of the danger of war in the region as long as the U.S. persists on its ambition to dominate China instead of cooperating for global prosperity and security.
An early version of the text A ‘Permanent Peace Regime’ on the Korean Peninsula at Last? appeared in the Global Research
The violently peaceful struggle for Tibet
Many years later, as he faced how the Dalai Lama became a political inconvenience for an increasing number of world leaders, the former emissary of the Dalai Lama, Gelek Rinpoche was to remember those distant afternoons when the poet Allen Ginsberg, the composer Philip Glass, the author Robert Thurman and the actor Richard Gere jointly planned fully-booked glamorous events for his Buddhist Jewel Heart organizations based in Ann Arbor, Chicago, and New York. At that time, the end of the Cold War was so recent that many notions lacked names, and in order to describe them, it was necessary to invent.
The belief of the Dalai Lama as a “man of peace” was pragmatically shared by all Western politicians, media and left-thinking intellectuals who depicted the people of Tibet as by nature honest, gentle and kind. This belief helped spread the perception of Tibetan culture as a compassionate and non-violent one, and of Tibet as a civilization where, under the Lamas, peace and happiness prevailed and that this condition of happiness could be taken up worldwide.
Just a few years before the end of the Cold War, the film Seven Years in Tibet featuring Brad Pitt posited that Tibetans revere life so much that they refuse to kill even worms and that the “Chinese are brutal; the Tibetans are gentle.” The Tibet activist and actor Richard Gere spoke of “Beijing’s savage oppression of the gentle Tibetan people.” Western media referred to the Dalai Lama as an apostle of world peace and happiness, and the idea that the Tibetan people are naturally peaceful became an obvious truth for all.
The rhetoric of the (cultural) genocide
In 2001, a few days before the International Olympic Committee met in Moscow to award the 2008 Games to Beijing, Gelek Rinpoche, acting as the Dalai Lama’s envoy for the occasion, approached the General Director of the International Olympic Committee and confident in the Tibetan struggle narrative that had gained good traction by then, demanded that the Games should be denied because “China has been executing a policy in Tibet of ethnic and cultural genocide against the Tibetan people, and intended to erase the Tibetan people from the face of the Earth.”
In 1959 after Gelek Rinpoche accompanied the Dalai Lama in his flight to India, both thought that in the near future China would totally exterminate the Tibetan race. In reports from 1959 and 1960, the CIA-funded International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) claimed that China was committing genocide in Tibet by eradicating the Tibetans through restrictions on religion that were destroying their way of life. A few years later the Dalai Lama mitigated his certitudes and admitted that China’s aim was not physical annihilation, but assimilation and subordination, stating that China “seems to attempt the extermination of religion and culture and even the absorption of the Tibetan race.”
Today it is historically irrefutable that there were substantial causalities in Tibet due to the vicious actions of Mao-era China, as there were throughout the country. However, there has never been credible evidence showing that physical genocide has been perpetrated in Tibet aiming at the extermination of Tibetans. Claims that a fifth of the Tibetan population was annihilated from 1959 to 1979 through executions, famines, imprisonment, and other means are without any evidentiary roots. Mao was at war with an ideology, not the nation of Tibetan people alone. Absent the nexus to physical genocide, a claim of cultural genocide becomes no more than a rhetorical construct, a conjecture in need of a name that would become the foundation justification for the Tibetan struggle.
The notion of cultural genocide in Tibet resonated in the West because it is a largely unexamined concept. Even where the phrase itself is not used, Western media reflexively alluded to the idea. For example, in late 2017, the US Congressional-Executive Commission on China, headed by Senator Marco Rubio, invited the actor Richard Gere as “someone who is knowledgeable about the political situation in Tibet” to testify before the committee. In his testimony, the actor stated that “under Chinese rule, the Tibetan language and culture have been suppressed”. In reality, the education system in Tibet has been tailored to the cultural specificities of Tibetans by developing primary level schooling in the Tibetan language and secondary level schooling on a bilingual basis, adding Chinese languages and supplementary English lessons to the curriculum. Gere’s assumed expertise in Tibetan matters has never been called in question because it fitted a definite agenda.
Others have posited that cultural genocide does not only mean killing, it also means limiting births among Tibetans. A lawyer who headed the US-based Tibet Justice Centre advanced such allegations, and the Dalai Lama stated that China is “forcing strict family planning rules on my people” in order “to make us a minority in our own land.” The fact is, family planning and the “one child” policy, however, even where coercive, were part of China’s policy over the entire Chinese territory for decades, and not just imposed on Tibet.
Some Tibetan leaders in exile and Western NGOs claimed that “Tibetans are not even permitted to undertake routine religious activities”. They asserted that 6,000 monasteries were destroyed before or during the Mao’s Cultural Revolution and that “the handful of surviving monasteries are being used as public toilets and barracks while monks and nuns in Tibet have been forced by the Chinese to defecate on religious objects”. Such claims are anachronisms designed to imply that a second Maoist Cultural Revolution is ongoing in Tibet. Yet mass participation in routine religious activities is evident to even sceptical observers and the occasional tourist.
Western journalists reported that in Tibet many hundreds of Tibetans prostrate themselves at temples daily, while US human rights officials visiting Lhasa saw pilgrims crowded in front of the Jokhang, one of Tibet’s most important temples, to perform ritual worship. They do not challenge China’s claims that every year more than one million people visit the Jokhang. As for the major monasteries on the Tibetan plateau, Western reporters have noted that the there are now 300 more lamaseries and temples in the Tibet than existed in the region before 1951. Again, such figures are not disputed.
Chinese state efforts to preserve Tibetan cultural accomplishments and popularize Tibetan culture by creating venues for its development are ignored in Western discourse because such efforts conflict with the idea of cultural genocide in Tibet. Rather, exile Tibet leaders and Western NGOs reject performing arts in Tibet as inauthentic and have stated that “in this calculated cultural genocide the Chinese make every effort to remove any vestige of Tibetan character in the performing arts.”
Even artists educated in contemporary Tibet who emigrate to India, such as Gongkar Gyatso, are spurned as polluted. Exiled Tibetan authorities are unhappy that the main trend in Tibetan art, in or out of Tibet, has been modernistic. They consider religious scroll painting to be the only authentic Tibetan style, and disapprove all other painting styles produced by ethnic Tibetans as being corrupted by Chinese influences. The reference to the arts and cultural genocide is a classic nationalist juxtaposition of the inauthentic in “occupied Tibet” to the “pure” preserved culture of the exiles and allied Western-based NGOs. One exponent of those NGOs is the New York-based Tibet House, founded in 1987 by Robert Thurman (father of actress Uma Thurman), actor Richard Gere and composer Philip Glass (among others). Ironically, in the fields of literature, architecture, art, film, and music alike, Chinese intellectuals and artists have been turning more and more frequently to Tibet as a source of inspiration.
Lhasa, like many large cities around the world, has abundant outlets for prostitution, gambling, and drugs. Exiled Tibet leaders and Western NGOs try to attribute such “vices” found in Tibet’s cities to cultural corrosion due to the Chinese presence. The Washington based International Campaign for Tibet, represented by its main public exponent, the actor Richard Gere, has stated: “We are concerned that more and more young Tibetans are being tempted by the very worst aspects of Chinese culture.” However, none of the “vices” complained of are specifically Chinese, and might equally be attributed to the influence of “the West”. While exiled Tibetan leaders and Western NGOs object to the cultural impact of the Han-Chinese in Tibet, they are usually much less concerned about the Western influence on traditional Tibetan culture.
Even the late Elliot Sperling, an expert on Tibet and passionate supporter of the exiled Tibetan cause, observed that “within certain limits China does make efforts to accommodate Tibetan cultural expression” and “the cultural activity taking place all over the Tibetan plateau cannot be ignored.” Other supporters of the exiled Tibetan cause, including Tibet scholar Professor Robert Barnett and German Green Party leader Antje Vollmer, also recognized the inaccuracy of the cultural genocide claim.
It has been said that the notion of genocide is marked by conceptual confusion, often compounded by its rhetorical and populist use on the part of those seeking to inflame and stigmatise social and political discourse. It is equally common for nationalists to deploy a charge of cultural genocide against changes they oppose in traditional lifestyles. The Dalai Lama often states that he is concerned most of all about the preservation of culture. His main international alliance, however, is with politicians in the US, a country whose hegemony plays a major strategic role in eroding traditional cultures, including in Europe, China and Tibet.
The unanimity on pacifism
But let’s go back to the few crucial days before the International Olympic Committee met in Moscow in 2001 to award the 2008 Games to Beijing. Gelek Rinpoche approached the General Director of the International Olympic Committee as envoy of the Dalai Lama, and claimed that there “has not been one single terrorist incident in all the 50 years of the Tibetan struggle for independence”. The dogmatic stance on non-violence was always effective in obfuscating memories and attracting consent. Yet Gelek Rinpoche must have remembered the bombings in Lhasa, the large-scale armed revolts, the guerrilla warfare, the large quantity of weaponry airdropped by the CIA, the gangs of rioters that burned dozens of policemen and killed hundred of civilians, the hate campaigns demonizing opponents of the Tibetan government in exile, seen as antagonistic to the authority of the Dalai Lama, the oppressive measures against the Dorje Shugden religious practice banned and considered heretic by the Dalai Lama, the related series of dynamite blasts in the Tibetan Dartsedo and Lithang counties driven by hatred of Dorje Shugden practitioners, the endorsements of terrorism by the largest Tibetan exile organization, the Tibetan Youth Congress (TYC) and its extreme nationalist slogans, like “no Chinese in Tibet is innocent”… while the Dalai Lama encouraged others to use such expressions to make himself look more conciliatory in comparison.
In fact, exile leaders have only in the last few decades claimed that nonviolence is essential to Tibetan culture and underlies Tibetan strategy. While the Dalai Lama gives a speech every March 10 to mark the 1959 Lhasa uprising, his first mention of nonviolence in that speech only came in 1988. And it was only in 1996 that the Tibet Parliament in Exile adopted nonviolence as a fundamental principle of the Tibetan Government in Exile.
Over the years, the Dalai Lama propagated its “middle way” approach of Tibet as an autonomous region inside China, with the use of such terms as “peace” and “non-violence”, affecting compassion and benevolence in order to gain international empathy and support. Looking beyond the conciliatory words and charismatic smile, however, it is not difficult to find evidence that the exiled Tibetan leadership has been willing to both threaten and resort to violence, and to carry out violence under the guise of non-violence. In truth they have never abandoned their ultimate goal of “Tibetan independence”. This undisclosed intent is explicitly reflected in all known Western-based NGOs advocating for human rights in Tibet which openly proclaim “Tibet Independence” (or “Free Tibet” or in the Tibetan language “Rangzen”) as their ultimate objective.
The image of a pacifist Dalai Lama facing a belligerent China has obstructed any settlement of the Tibet question. It has reinforced the idea that a “Free Tibet” can only be possible if China disintegrates. It has allowed Western elites to demand that because the Dalai Lama is perceived as a “man of peace” China has to negotiate with him unconditionally, which it would not do unless he first accepted Tibet as an inalienable and legitimate part of China. Because he refused to do so, the Chinese government linked him to hostile Western forces who seek China’s dismantling.
However, in recent years, the massive economic power China has become has made the Dalai Lama a political danger for an increasing number of world leaders and nations, who now shy away from him for fear of inciting China’s ire or endangering economic relations with China. Even Pope Francis, considered an audacious religious leader, reportedly declined a meeting in Rome with the Dalai Lama. And President Donald Trump, who might be expected to endorse the decades-long US efforts to destabilize China and to back US-based NGOs active in propaganda campaigns for human rights in Tibet, suggested that financially supporting the “Free Tibet” cause is a “waste of money”. Of late, even the Indian authorities hosting the Tibetan leadership and the Dalai Lama have cancelled important commemoratory events with him.
In reality, the Dalai Lama’s persona impedes a compromise for as long as the discourse prevents differentiation between his religious and political roles and the narrative remains a binary one which idolises him as peaceful and demonizes China as the brutal perpetrator of a cultural genocide in Tibet. China has over the last three decades relaxed draconian and cruel Mao-era rules, by opening the door to private sector capitalism. With its adoption of capitalistic mechanisms, China has accumulated immense financial assets which are today vital to the nourishment of the worldwide economy, particularly in Western countries that have accumulated huge debts.
Also over the last three decades, China has relaxed the draconian Mao-era rules on religion by allowing individuals to practice a religion of their choice. There are now significantly more adherents of Buddhism than members of the Communist Party – there are 90 million members of Communist Party of China, compared to some 250 million Buddhists and 200,000 registered Buddhist monks. Additionally, the Chinese president, Xi Jinping, is constantly moderating his attitude to Tibet and Buddhism, among other reasons because his wife is profoundly Buddhist.
The reverence for (non)-violence
When in 2001, Gelek Rinpoche approached the International Olympic Committee to protest against the 2008 Olympic Games being awarded to Beijing, he must have remembered the distant years before the Chinese invasion in 1951, when the Tibet was ruled by aristocrats, clerics, and manor owners and had a brutal social hierarchy and a system of serfdom similar to pre-feudal times; he must have remembered the distant year of 1959 when the Dalai Lama and two of his brothers enrolled by the CIA, along with other clerics and aristocrats, launched a large-scale armed revolt against officials stationed in Tibet and massacred local Tibetans who supported Chinese communism. The Dalai Lama was not only well-informed of the action but gave it his active blessing. Years later he wrote in his book My Spiritual Autobiography: “Every one of them is armed to the teeth, and even my personal cook is carrying a bazooka, with his waist belt full of ammunition. He has been well trained by the CIA…”
After the Dalai Lama fled to India, escorted by his entourage of clerics and aristocrats, he reorganized an army and waited to fight his way back to Tibet. In 1960 in Mustang, a county in northern Nepal, he rebuilt an anti-Chinese guerrilla force. In 1962, with support from external powers, he built a Special Frontier Force composed of mainly Tibetan exiles, most of them from aristocrat families. From 1961 to 1965, these forces sneaked across the border 204 times to harass Chinese border troops and Tibetan civilians. According to disclosed US archives, the Dalai Lama first established contact with the US government in 1951. During the armed rebellion in Tibet, the CIA not only sent agents to help the Dalai Lama and his entourage of clerics and aristocrats to flee but also purposefully trained militants to support his forces and airdropped a large quantity of weaponry.
On September 21, 1987, the Dalai Lama made a speech to the US Congress, calling for Tibetan independence. On September 27, in the square of the Jokhang Temple, a group of lamas shouted separatist slogans, attacked police, and injured many civilians. On October 1, a small gang of rioters raided the police station on Barkhor Street in Lhasa and burned seven cars, leaving dozens of policemen injured. The rioters proclaimed that the Dalai Lama was fighting for Tibetan independence. They demanded the support of spectators and the general public and threatened personal retaliation against those who failed to join them. On March 5, 1988, during the Monlam Prayer Festival, a gang of rioters stormed into local Party and government offices and police stations around Jokhang Temple and Barkhor Street, smashing and burning cars and shops, leading to 299 police and civilian casualties. From March 5 to 7, 1989, Lhasa witnessed another riot in which one policeman was shot dead, 40 others were injured, and 107 shops, 24 government offices, primary schools and neighbourhood committees were destroyed. On March 11, 1992, nine Tibetan separatists attacked the Chinese embassy in India with firebombs.
The (non)-violence around the Olympic Games 2008 in Beijing
“The Olympic Games in 2008 in Beijing will be a symbol of peace, friendship, and progress, which is welcomed and cherished by all peoples” commented the International Olympic Committee in 2001, during the ceremony awarding the 2008 Games to Beijing.
In May 2007, the Tibetan independence movement, including exiled Tibetan leaders and Western NGOs supporting them, held a meeting in Brussels and agreed on a strategic plan to launch a campaign to boycott the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games. Later, two NGOs in the US (International Campaign for Tibet and Students for a Free Tibet) and two in India (the Tibetan Youth Congress and the Tibetan Women’s Association) advocating for human rights in Tibet put forward a proposal for an uprising in Tibet, believing the 2008 Olympic Games was the last chance to achieve Tibetan independence. They decided to take advantage of this occasion while China was the spotlight of international attention before the start of the Olympic Games.
On January 4 and January 25, 2008, Tibetan independence activists held press conferences in New Delhi, releasing proposals for this uprising, spreading the news on more than 100 websites, and encouraging the instigation of constant large-scale uprisings for March 10, 2008, the date corresponding to the anniversary of the uprising in 1959. On March 10, the Dalai Lama made a speech, urging his followers within Chinese territory to engage in violence. On the same day, the Tibetan Youth Congress (TYC) made a statement, claiming that it would “now seize a most important opportunity never before seen in our struggle for independence – the upcoming Olympic Games,” and that it would “spare neither blood nor life for Tibetan independence.”
Uprisings took place in Tibet four days later than planned, on March 14, 2008. That day, a mob converged in the downtown area of Lhasa, assaulting innocent bystanders with weapons including rocks, daggers, and clubs, smashing and looting vehicles, shops, banks, the Telecom business offices, and government properties, severely disrupting social order, and causing heavy losses of life and property. During the violent incidents, there were over 300 cases of arson, while 908 shops, seven schools, 120 houses, and five hospitals were severely damaged. Ten bank branches were looted, at least 20 buildings were burnt to the ground, and 84 vehicles were torched. Most seriously, a total of 18 people were burned or hacked to death, and 382 people were injured – 58 of them seriously.
After these incidents, the Dalai Lama himself released a declaration through his personal secretariat, describing the riots as “peaceful protests.” On March 16, he said in an interview with BBC that he would not ask the rioters to stop because their demands came from the Tibetan people, and he had to respect their will. In the meantime, the Tibetan Youth Congress (TYC), passed a resolution to “immediately organize guerrillas to infiltrate China for armed struggle.” The head of the TYC claimed that they were ready to sacrifice another 100 Tibetans to reach complete victory.
Western NGOs advocating for human rights in Tibet, and in particular activists from “Students for a Free Tibet” engaged in a series of sabotage activities directed at the Beijing Olympic Games. They interfered with important ceremonies, including disrupting the torch-lighting ceremony in Greece, and attempting to grab the Olympic torch during the torch relay in various countries, provoking a strong reaction from the international community and a pandemonium at the International Olympic Committee in Lausanne, as its General Director, Urs Lacotte, revealed during a lunch at the edge of Lake Geneva, explaining how the Committee did not foresee such an organized outbreak.
The main claims of the activists were: China continues its crackdowns on freedom of religion in Tibet; China is using the Olympics to misrepresent the unique culture of Tibet as Chinese, as it has chosen an endangered Tibetan animal, the Tibetan antelope, as one of its Olympic mascots; China has failed to follow the call of the International Campaign for Tibet to end human rights abuses in Tibet and negotiate a peace agreement with Tibet’s exiled leader, the Dalai Lama…
The self-immolation marathon after the Olympic Games 2008
After the Western media coverage of riots in Tibet in 2008, in which the Dalai Lama was identified as a peacemaker to whom China refused to talk, the proportion of journalists who saw China as the world’s biggest threat doubled. Time magazine named the Dalai Lama the most influential person in the world and the Western general public saw the Dalai Lama as the most respected world leader. The notion he is a pacifist was so pervasive that it circulated from the West to China for some months.
Following some success in drawing media attention during the Beijing Olympic Games incidents, the exiled Tibetan leadership began to encourage Tibetan lamas and lay followers inside China and India to engage in acts of self-immolation, leading to a series of such incidents in a number of regions. This ongoing campaign started in 2009 but had its roots in a few isolated cases that began around 1998 outside Tibet.
The US-based NGOs stated that self-immolation acts by Tibetans were an assertion of the Tibetan identity in the face of “cultural genocide”. This proclamation, however, disregarded the fact that suicide is forbidden in Buddhism. The campaign was heavily exploited around the world and praised by NGOs advocating for human rights in Tibet, but also by NATO-backed think tanks. These included Freedom House, whose specific role is to monitor freedom of the press around the world and which ranked Tibet as the worst possible place, saying self-immolations were the result of a lack of freedom. However, the most extreme illustration of the alliance of the US government in the self-immolation campaign can be seen in the documents of The Congressional-Executive Commission on China (www.cecc.gov). This body promotes the self-immolation strategy aimed at achieving “Tibetan freedom” and the Dalai Lama’s return in Tibet, and sees the collapse of China as an implicit goal.
In some cases acts of self-immolation were exploited to support fundraising activities, particularly in the US, and to obtain governmental subsidies for NGOs or the exiled Tibetan leadership, with wide support from cultural exponents like Hollywood actors and famous musicians, whose numbers had boomed since those distant afternoons when the poet Allen Ginsberg, the composer Philip Glass, the author Robert Thurman and the actor Richard Gere first laid their plans to drum up support for US-based Buddhist organizations.
On May 29, 2012, at a TYC candlelight rally to glorify Tibetans who had set themselves alight, the leader of the rally claimed, “Tibetan independence will neither fall from the sky nor grow from the earth; rather it relies on our efforts and action and needs sacrifice.” From September 25 to 28, 2012, the exiled Tibetan leadership convened the Second Special Meeting of Tibetans in Exile, proclaiming self-immolation as the highest form of non-violence, hailing its victims as “national heroes,” building memorials and raising special funds for them. They still vigorously preach that “self-immolation does not go against Buddhist doctrine” and that “self-immolation is martyrdom and a Bodhisattva deed,” duping Buddhist believers in Tibet, and particularly innocent young people, and setting them on an incendiary path to ruin. The unavoidable consequence was a rapid increase in self-immolations. In addition, the TYC issued the Martyr Award in 2013 to Monks of the Kirti Monastery who self-immolated and in 2016 to self-immolators in Tibet and in exile who sacrificed their lives.
Investigations by China’s public security organs into incidents of self-immolation clearly revealed that these protesters were being manipulated and instigated by the highest levels of the exiled Tibetan leadership. Kirti Monastery in the Aba Tibetan and Qiang Autonomous Prefecture is where the greatest number of self-immolation incidents took place; it has been proved that those promoting these incidents have close links with the Tibetan exile leadership.
The investigation of the security organs revealed that the Tibetan exile leadership has four ways of instigating self-immolation: first, planning incidents from abroad through a so-called “press liaison group” based in the Kirti Monastery in Sichuan and the Kirti Monastery in India; second, sending TYC members into Tibet to incite self-immolation; third, mobilizing activists returning from overseas to assist in self-immolation; and fourth, using the Internet and NGOs’ social media reach to hype up self-immolation.
The exiled Tibetan leadership has allegedly released a Self-immolation Guide on the Internet – an instruction manual to incite and instruct Tibetans residing within China to burn themselves. The author of this manual is Chabdak Lhamo Kyab, who served for two terms as a member of the Tibetan government in exile, known now as the Central Tibetan Government (CTA) and was the head of a clandestine resistance movement and also a public relations counsellor of the Dalai Lama. He now resides in France.
The Self-immolation Guide is a book consisting of four parts: the first part advocates the idea that self-immolators are great, honourable and intrepid heroes and that both these male and female heroes should always be prepared to sacrifice themselves for a just cause. The second part gives detailed instructions on preparations for self-immolation, including picking important days and places, leaving written or recorded last words, and asking trustworthy friends to help record videos or take photos. The third part introduces self-immolation slogans, instructing victims to always shout the same slogans. And the fourth part illustrates other activities that might accompany self-immolation. The book also contains the timeline of protests since 2009; the life stories of the protesters; the international community’s support for the movement; and the exiled Tibetan leadership’s efforts to gain global support. “The book”, said one source of the leadership “has nothing to do with encouraging self-immolation”. At present, the existence of the book has been officially denied by the exiled Tibetan leadership.
Performing self-immolation in public is itself an act of violence, intended to create an atmosphere of terror and of horror. On this issue of principle, the Dalai Lama played an important role. For example, on November 8, 2011, when a new series of self-immolations had just begun, he said in an interview that the point was that self-immolation demanded courage and that “cultural genocide” was the reason behind these “courageous acts”. He thereby both showed his appreciation for and approval of self-immolators and promoted his rhetoric of cultural genocide.
On January 3, 2012, he defended self-immolation on the basis that it was superficially an act of violence, but what differentiated violence and non-violence was the motives and aims behind each act, and only an act driven by hatred and anger could be defined as violence. It was clear that he regarded self-immolation as non-violent protest. On October 8, 2012, he said in an interview that he was sure that self-immolators were sacrificing themselves with a sincere motivation and for the benefit of Buddhism and the well-being of Tibetans, and that, from the Buddhist point of view, it was a positive act. Through these words, he has repeatedly and explicitly offered his approval of and praise for self-immolation. He has also hosted a dharma assembly, in his capacity as a religious leader, to expiate the sins of the dead, chant scriptures and pray for them, a promise which turns out to be very persuasive to believers in Tibetan Buddhism. Only recently has the Dalai Lama revised his views on the effectiveness of self-immolation.
Since the Olympic Games of 2008, over 150 Tibetans have set themselves on fire in protest, including 41 monks and eight nuns. Only very few of Tibet’s Buddhist clerics or exponents of the human rights community have dared to speak out in Western countries against glorifying, praising or promoting acts of self-immolation for political gain. Also among exile Tibetans, any advocacy against self-immolation is considered incompatible with the agenda of the Tibetan government in exile, and very few would dare provoke the rage of the Dalai Lama for fear of reprisal. Recently, personalities that dared to speak out against the campaign of self-immolation were systematically attacked on social media in what appeared to be a coordinated slander campaign, organized through anonymous accounts. One luminary who did speak out was Tsem Tulku Rinpoche, the spiritual leader of the Malaysian based Buddhist organisation Kechara, who publicly and forcefully opposed the campaign of self-immolation, particularly after a succession of incidents prior the vote of the US budget bill 2018, which included grants to the exiled Tibetan leaders that were in danger of being rejected by Congress. He was severely punished on the social media for his call for non-violence and was tagged a ‘Chinese spy’ because he upheld a core Buddhist teaching of non-violence.
The fading unity for the Tibetan cause on the path to the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing
These violent initiatives succeeded in gaining world media focus on the Tibetan issue but ultimately failed to change the equation with China and tilt the balance in favour of the Dalai Lama’s government in exile. As questions of the Tibetan leadership’s adequacy became louder over the years, the Dalai Lama and exile leaders have constantly stoked the flames of division between Tibetans, sowing discord and inciting inter-religious animosity and divisions. Part of the motivation it was to distract Tibetan refugees from the reality that their exiled Tibetan leaders were unable, after 60 years, to offer a realistic prospective for their return to Tibet, or at least formulate a plan for their integration into Indian society.
Since the failure of the attempted rebellions in 1959 and 2008, a series of particularly divisive issues for the Buddhist community, both within Tibet and abroad have been introduced by the Tibetan leadership. The Karmapa controversy was one where the Dalai Lama created conditions for rivalry to beset the Karma Kagyu sect, the second largest school of Buddhism which prevails until this day. As for the largest Tibetan Buddhism school, the Gelug, enmity was introduced by outlawing the worship of one of the sect’s most popular deity, Dorje Shugden, a nearly 400-year old practice that began in the 17th century and has become a major practice in Tibetan Buddhism. The Dorje Shugden de facto ban has already existed for two decades since it was initiated by the Dalai Lama and has slowly stirred disunity in Tibet and among the exiled Tibetan communities, leading the Chinese government to consider the Dorje Shugden conflict an important front for undermining what it says are efforts promoted by the Dalai Lama aimed at destabilizing China.
This religious hostility has been fed by considerable propaganda and counterpropaganda efforts during the last two decades and it is still an ongoing battle. It has been continuously observed that Dorje Shugden followers, monks, and monasteries in Tibet and abroad are used as scapegoat and portrayed as heretic, demonic and sectarian, and are branded as Chinese Communist Party supporters or Chinese spies by most NGOs advocating in western countries for the exiled Tibetan leadership’s goals. In historical terms, the situation and implications may call to mind Martin Luther’s reformation of Christianity centuries ago.
Most nations acknowledge Tibet as a part of China, while none formally recognizes the exiled Tibetan leadership, the Central Tibetan Administration (CTA) – yet a number of them sustain the cause of the exiles in other ways. Because of the need for Western support of the exiled government and the significant role played by externally-based NGOs supporting Tibetan independence, democratizing elements have been added to self-governance in exile, and the vocabulary of human rights, development, environmental protection, and so forth has been deployed by the CTA and supported by Western NGOs. In reality, spirituality and aristocracy are linked through Tibet’s traditional system of theocratic government, in which politics and religion were tightly knit. Many exiled government officials continue to promote this system as ideal for Tibet, including the present prime minister of the CTA, Dr. Lobsang Sangay, who recently reaffirmed the urgency of strengthening efforts to facilitate the return of the Dalai Lama to his native land and his former residence in Lhasa, the Potala palace.
However, the repeated requests of many exile leaders to pass orders banning critical voices from any Tibet-related events, accusing such voices to be Chinese spies and/or Dorje Shugden heretics, stand in stark contradiction to democratic principles. Critical voices expose, for example, claims of corruption inside the CTA; some complain that instead of focusing on practical efforts to improve the everyday lives of Tibetan refugees in India, the CTA has often preferred political point-scoring against China; others still have expressed criticism of the Dalai Lama or of the CTA’s theocratic orientation.
The US President’s attitude reflects the waning support for the Tibetan cause and a change in perception of the Dalai Lama’s role as peacemaker. The cause has suffered a gradual dissipation of international goodwill, particularly among the CTA’s immediate neighbours and Indian hosts. Countries such as India, Mongolia, and Nepal have traditionally tolerated the activities of the exile leaders and the Dalai Lama, and by doing so risked annoying China, the region’s most powerful nation.
“The Winter Olympic Games in 2022 in Beijing will be a symbol of peace, friendship and prosperity, which is welcomed and cherished by all peoples” comments the International Olympic Committee, recognizing its world-class venue legacy from the 2008 Olympic Summer Games. In the last years, the Dalai Lama has embodied an intensified sentiment of political embarrassment among world leaders who seek stable political and profitable economic alliances with China. Beijing 2022 will form part of the future narrative of Tibet and it will be interesting to see if the support for the Dalai Lama will completely evaporate into the clouds of nostalgia for the poems of Allen Ginsberg, the music of Philip Glass, the books of Robert Thurman or the movies of Richard Gere.
Political leaders often conquer international stature by conducting war, but the personas of only a few men of peace – such as Gandhi, King, and Mandela – are prominent. The Dalai Lama’s “apostle of nonviolence” persona was built at the end of the Cold War, alongside a campaign to internationalize the Tibet struggle by fostering protests in Tibet, mobilizing Western converts to Tibetan Buddhism, and exploiting the Dalai Lama’s capacity to engage Western political and media elites. Boosted by his 1989 Nobel Peace Prize, US excoriations of China and the expectation of its collapse after the Cold War, the Dalai Lama became an international symbol of peace. He successfully combined his divine significance with his political struggle in exile under a veil of non-violence, compassion and selflessness. After decades of internationalization as he reaches the last lines of the book of his life, synonyms of the Dalai Lama as peacemaker are still discursive givens. Only time will tell whether he will be immortalized on the celestial Olympus with Gandhi, King, and Mandela or exiled from the collective memory of mankind.
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