Penpa Tsering, sikyong (chairman) of the Tibetan Central Administration (CTA) based in Dharamshala, intends to denounce China’s growing belligerence along the Indian border. The hawkish leader of the Tibetan government in exile has ordered his Ministry of State Security to prepare a report on the activities of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) on the Tibetan plateau, which he intends to present to the embassy from China to Delhi.
At the same time, Tsering wants the Indian government to have a structured policy for Tibetans living on the front lines in the Himalayas. He wants them to be settled in the empty expanses of remote areas, which he says can help detect and prevent PLA intrusions like the one that has occurred in the Galwan Valley.
Speaking exclusively to THE WEEK, Tsering, who was born and raised in a Tibetan settlement in Bylakuppe in Karnataka, said his first task as a sikyong was to revive the Sino-Tibetan dialogue.
Excerpts from the interview:
Q / To what extent is the information that China inducted Tibetans into the PLA to fight the Indian army in the Himalayas true?
A / First of all, [China needs to] trust the Tibetans to put the weapons in their hands. If there is no confidence, they can strike back as well. I know of previous attempts to recruit people from Qinghai Province to serve in the army in East Turkestan (Xinjiang). But I don’t trust the Chinese to recruit Tibetans into their army and send them to the Indian border because the Tibetans have too much respect for India.
India is the land of Aryabhata and we have a guru-chela (teacher-disciple) relationship. Tibetans feel an extension of Indian culture. It is only the food and the clothes that come from China; inner peace and spirit are derived from India.
So, I think it’s Chinese propaganda. As the Special Frontier Force (SFF, made up of Tibetan soldiers) is on the Indian side, the Chinese are trying to get the message across that the Tibetans are going to fight, which is absolutely false.
Q / How do you see the role of Tibetans as the first line of defense at the border?
A / Tibetans have always played an important role in the defense of India’s borders, be it the Bangladesh War, the Kargil War or the skirmishes in the Galwan Valley. Previously it was not known, but now the role played by the SFF is well documented in the media. We are very proud of them. India has given us a home; for those of us who were born here, this is our first home. I believe that the Indian government can prepare a structured policy for ordinary Tibetans living on the front lines in remote areas, as they continue to play the role of defenders of the Himalayas. It is not easy ground, but their perseverance and commitment are exemplary.
Q / What are your main goals as a sikyong?
A / My first objective is to relaunch the Sino-Tibetan dialogue. Second, we want to reach out to governments around the world. Third, we want to maintain close relations between the Tibetan diaspora and the CTA.
Q / Have you been approached by the Chinese government to restart the dialogue?
A / It is a fact that the Tibetan situation cannot be resolved without talking to the Chinese government. There are feelings of those who claim [to be close to Communist Party of China], but we prefer an official communication channel. We were taken on a ride for too long.
Some people claim to have contacts and they claim to be the best channel to reach the Chinese leadership, but we have to check their credibility. Until we reach a resolution with the Chinese government through an âmiddle groundâ – based on non-violence and a negotiated, mutually beneficial and lasting solution for Tibet – we will focus much more on understanding the reality of the situation within. Tibet.
If you analyze how China deals with the Uyghurs or with Hong Kong, you will see that it is probably the only country that spends more money on internal security than on external security, which is symptomatic of the relationship between the rulers and the ruled. There is a trust deficit.
We are planning to do a representation to the Chinese government to explain why the policies and programs implemented in Tibet are not helpful to China as a state and also to the Tibetan people.
Q / What is the situation in Tibet?
A / Before 2008, we received around 2,500 to 3,500 Tibetans each year. It has declined due to restrictions in Tibet. Many agents who brought Tibetans from the Himalayas through Nepal have been captured and imprisoned. Incentives are offered to (betray) those who flee. Last year, only five people came. There was also the pandemic. This year, nine people, including two children, left Tibet. But they may not have a lot of information about what is going on because they may not have been exposed other than their PIN code.
Before the trade war and China’s border belligerence, the Chinese communications app WeChat was widely used by Tibetans to communicate with families inside Tibet. Now only those who can afford to use VPNs (Virtual Private Networks) can. But they must always be careful not to say anything sensitive, otherwise their loved ones inside Tibet will suffer.
Electronic surveillance has increased and high-tech gadgets are being deployed to track movements, so any political activity will be immediately detected. Recently, we heard the Chinese authorities forcing families to remove prayer altars from homes and schoolchildren are not allowed to go to monasteries.
According to the latest information, Chinese officials are visiting Tibetan families to ask if they have relatives outside of China. These contacts are shared with the consulates of different countries to appeal to Tibetans. Thus, the control is not limited to China, but goes beyond its borders to control the Tibetans in exile.
Q / How is the international community responding to your concerns?
A / The United Nations are ready to listen to us. The world has seen Uyghurs harassed, so while we don’t have full evidence, the UN understands that many lives are at stake.
I will be traveling to the United States in January and the idea is to work with like-minded countries. I am also looking forward to establishing relationships with new governments like Germany. We are also witnessing a slight reversal of European and African mentalities on the perception of China as an intruder. China has used carrot and stick and divide-and-rule policies in European countries.
China’s “United Front” operations (aimed at “co-opting and neutralizing sources of potential opposition to the Communist Party”) extend beyond China’s borders and even interfere in China’s internal affairs. other countries, influencing the media and financial and educational institutions.
Q / Is it true that the number of Tibetan monks in monasteries is decreasing?
A / The numbers are decreasing. Previously, of the 40,000 monks and nuns in India, Nepal and Bhutan, about 58% were Indians and 42% Tibetans. Today, figures suggest that 65.5% are Indians, mainly from the Himalayan region, sharing a similar culture and traditions, and 33.5% are Tibetans. About one percent are non-Tibetans and non-Indians. Thus, no new Tibetan joins the Tibetan monasteries and institutions. But Tibetan Buddhism remains alive since it does not belong only to Tibetans.
Q / Is there a project to integrate Tibetan colonies in India?
A / There are around 1.3 lakh of Tibetan refugees in India, Nepal and Bhutan. Of these, around 55 percent are in India. Eventually, the integration of the Tibetan settlements must happen, and it will be hard work. People have built houses in different places and asking them to move will be difficult. We will not force anyone to move, we are only creating opportunities to move from a vulnerable community to more compact communities. Around 4,000 refugees still have no housing. I travel everywhere to understand people’s needs.
Q / Prime Minister Narendra Modi greeted the Dalai Lama on his 86th birthday this year. Will they meet soon?
R / The Dalai Lama has to decide when he will officially start meeting the public again. Since he enjoys human relationships so much, he will certainly be looking forward to (meeting people).
His Holiness wishes to meet the Prime Minister again and have engagements with Indian universities to see how the ancient wisdom of India can be combined with modern education and contribute to peace and harmony.
Q / Do you think India should publicly express its position on the reincarnation of His Holiness?
R / India will one day have to clarify its position. Since His Holiness lives here and even the United States has recognized the absolute authority of His Holiness and the Tibetans to select the reincarnation of the Dalai Lama, New Delhi will have to express its opinion.
Q / For the first time, a political crisis hits the Tibetan government in exile. Does it not threaten unity?
A / I took the oath on May 27, before the crisis. New MPs were due to be sworn in on May 30, but 22 MPs did not take the oath (according to law) and there was a crisis that lasted for four months. We have a system that is neither presidential nor parliamentary. It is unique in itself since we are an administration in exile. The charter does not mandate the executive to override the jurisdiction of parliament or the judiciary. As a Buddhist, I believe that nothing is permanent. So, the question was how long will it take to fix this problem? We didn’t want the parliament to worry His Holiness, but eventually they wrote to him and he had to step in and solve the problem.
Q / Are you proposing changes in the functioning of the government in exile?
A / I believe that if there is to be unity, there has to be unity at the top. I not only contacted the Tibetan Supreme Justice Commission (CTA’s supreme judicial authority), but also independent bodies, the Civil Service Commission, the Auditor General’s office and civil society.
The idea is to systematize our functioning so that, regardless of changes in individual leadership, the system remains strong. When an individual becomes more important than the organization, it is the death knell for the institution itself. We have promised transparency and we want to institutionalize accountability and responsibility.