Dalai Lama's representative talks about China, Tibet, Shugden and the next Dalai Lama
Wednesday, November 14, 2007
Kasur Tashi Wangdi was appointed Representative of the Dalai Lama to the Americas on April 16, 2005. He had previously served as His Holiness' representative in New Delhi. He has served the Tibetan government-in-exile since 1966, starting as a junior officer and rising to the highest rank of Kalon (Cabinet Minister). As a Kalon, he at one time or another was head of the major ministries, including the Department of Religion and Culture, Department of Home, Department of Education, Department of Information and International Relations, Department of Security, and Department of Health. He is not a Buddhist scholar but describes himself as a civil servant. He possesses a BA in Political Science and Sociology from Durham University.
Wikinews reporter David Shankbone recently spoke to him about Chinese-Tibetan relations, the status of the Panchen Lamas, the awarding of the Congressional Gold Medal to Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th and current Dalai Lama, the appointment of Tibetan high monks by the Chinese government and some of the Dalai Lama's views on topics on religions and societal topics.
The Office of Tibet and the Tibetan government in exile
David Shankbone: What is this office's relationship with the government in exile?
- Tashi Wangdi: I am the Representative of the Dalai Lama. We look after Tibetan affairs in North and South America.
DS: Are you essentially an embassy without a country?
- TW: Yes.
DS: Professor Venerable Samdhong Rinpoche was elected the head of the Tibetan Administration cabinet--effectively a prime minister of the Central Tibetan Administration, the government-in-exile?
- TW: Ever since His Holiness held leadership responsibilities at the age of 16 when he was in Tibet, he wanted to bring about social political reforms. He started those reforms in Tibet. Because of the Chinese invasion and the problem thereafter with the occupation, he could not get through the reforms he wanted to implement. Then in 1959, when the situation went beyond a solution and he had to leave Tibet, as soon as he went to India he continued with the reform and promulgated a draft Constitution. A parliament was elected by Tibetans in exile. He then brought about gradual changes for the democratization of the system. The political leadership is now elected. We have had a parliament in existence since 1961 and seven years ago we elected a Prime Minister. His Holiness describes himself as semi-retired.
DS: Retired from administrative functions?
- TW: Yes. The governing responsibility is now carried out by the elected political leadership.
DS: The Dalai Lama exists as a spiritual leader and essentially a figurehead, similar to Queen Elizabeth?
- TW: As you know, we are not seeking independence, but it’s more about the future of Tibet.
DS: As an autonomous region.
- TW: Yes. We are seeking a solution within the framework of the Chinese Constitution for a meaningful autonomy. Until we are able to achieve that goal, we effectively have a government in exile with a charter —a Constitution. In that charter, his holiness is effectively head of state, and the prime minister is head of government, to use ‘normal terms’. His Holiness, however, describes himself as semi-retired.
DS: He’s a symbolic head of the people, whereas Rinpoche would be an administrative head? I understand you may want to shy away from using government-oriented terminology.
- TW: No, we function as a government in exile. Nothing to be shy about; we want to be open and transparent. It is nothing to hide. Elected parliament, elected leadership; the Tibetan people consider that government as their government, so there is nothing to shy away from. But as I said, in that charter His Holiness is described as head-of-state, and the elected leadership is head of government, in normal terms.
DS: What would be some of the first actions the Dalai Lama would undertake if he were to return to Tibet?
- TW: He would hand over all of his responsibilities to the new leadership in Tibet. He made in very clear as far back as 1992, in a public statement, that as soon as we are able to reach an agreement with the Chinese government, the government-in-exile will be dissolved and the responsibility for managing future affairs will be carried out by Tibetans in Tibet. In other words, people like me who have no claim for leadership and responsibilities by the mere fact that in exile we have been working for Tibet; we will have no claim that we will be in some leadership role when we go back. His Holiness has made it very clear that the people in Tibet should take the responsibility.
DS: What are the functions or responsibilities of the Office of Tibet in the Americas?
- TW: My responsibilities are to inform the governments, the people of the situation in Tibet and what we are trying to achieve. Simple as that.
The Chinese invasion and occupation
DS: How many Tibetans were lost during the Reign of Terror directly after the Chinese invasion?
- TW: According to our research, we believe that 1.2 million died as a result of Chinese invasion and occupation. That would include people who were killed in fighting, who died of starvation, suicide; people who died being tortured in prison, and so on. 1.2 million. Between March 1959 and the end of 1959, according to China’s own documents—we got hold of the report of a Chinese military officer, an official document—in about nine months, in Central Tibet near Lhasa alone, 87,000 Tibetans are killed in nine months. That’s an official Chinese military document. That document is available and been made public many times.
DS: How has the Chinese government’s Western China Development program affected ordinary Tibetans?
- TW: Of course, development per se is to be welcomed. One of the reasons why His Holiness has repeatedly stated for wanting to be part of China is the economic benefit. Tibet is underdeveloped; materially and economically it is backward, in a development sense. Tibetan people, they need economic development and assistance. If it is meant for the Tibetan people, it is to be welcomed.
- But unfortunately, the development plan they have and the impact—we suspected and we now see—it first doesn’t take into account the fragile environment; secondly, it is not benefiting the local Tibetans. It is providing facilities for the resettlement of Han Chinese in Tibet. At every point of development, and any casual visitor such as a tourist can see it, all the development is in Chinese towns and cities. The local people have become more and more marginalized. There are minor side benefits, of course, but if it continues Tibetans will become a completely insignificant minority increasingly marginalized. If Tibetans in Tibet were enjoying economic development, there would be no reason for them to be unhappy.
DS: The phrase used to describe this by the exiled Tibetan government is “Chinese Apartheid?”
- TW: Effectively it is the segregation of people; the economic benefits are not going to Tibetans, who are second class citizens in Tibet.
DS: How are the local people handling this situation?
- TW: Resentment! But Tibet should be opened up and we’ve always said you should be able to ask these questions of local Tibetans, and not to me. It is better to be able to ask people in Tibet openly.
DS: But that's not possible.
- TW: No, journalists are not allowed to go. Why? If Tibetan people are happy and free to express their views, then there is no reason why people should not be allowed to meet outside reporters. Journalists are not allowed to go, though. About four months back in the international news, it was reported that of the 74 Tibetans in the Tibetan Chinese Communist Party, 54 were dismissed.
- TW: For not being loyal to the party. They were Tibetans who were members of the Chinese Communist Party who are holding posts in the administration.
DS: Have any spoken out as to why they were dismissed?
- TW: No.
Tibetan reaction to the Dalai Lama's Congressional Gold Medal
DS: What happened when the Dalai Lama received the Congressional Gold Medal?
- TW: Restrictions were imposed on people; in spite of that, people expressed their happiness. Better dresses were worn that day.
DS: Was there a crackdown?
- TW: Yes. Why should that be if people are happy? We have always said that if people are happy we have no reason to continue.
DS: What is the status of the monks who were arrested after the Dalai Lama received the Congressional Gold Medal?
- TW: According to the reports I have seen, a large number of people have been detained.
DS: At the Drepung Monastery?
- TW: Yes, one of the monasteries was completely surrounded by troops. The movement of people was highly restricted and party members—retired people—were warned that they would lose their pension. I’m sure many of them who, despite these strong warnings, expressed their happiness may have suffered. I have no recent report on that.
DS: How difficult is it to receive information from Tibet?
- TW: Not very difficult. Our job is to represent people in Tibet, so our main effort is to try to understand the situation and their feelings, their views. Therefore, it is very important to us to keep in touch with them and receive accurate, objective information from inside Tibet.
DS: Do you know the situation with Ronggay A'drak, the Tibetan nomad who was arrested?
- TW: What he said is nothing—it was the basic asking for the release of prisoners, that His Holiness should be allowed to return to Tibet. Because of some democratic change there has been land pressures with Tibetan nomads, so he also appealed to them to not fight amongst themselves for land ownership, which would never have happened in the past. In this country, nobody would even notice what he said.
DS: What will happen to him?
- TW: He has already been sentenced to prison. I think it was 10 years.
DS: Is that standard?
- TW: Yes. It’s almost a treasonable act to make that kind of a call; unfortunately, it is a very serious crime in Tibet.
The disappearance of Gedhun Choekyi Nyima, the eleventh Panchen Lama
DS: Where is Chadrel Rinpoche, the man who selected Gedhun Choekyi Nyima as the eleventh Panchen Lama?
- TW: I have no information.
DS: Does anyone?
- TW: There was a report, but I have no confirmed information. At one point I heard he was not in good health. He was appointed by the Chinese government to search for the new Panchen Lama and he was in touch with us with the knowledge of the Chinese government.
DS: The Chinese government knew he was in touch with the Dalai Lama over the selection?
- TW: Yes. Some of his people went to Beijing when His Holiness’ delegation was in Beijing. They met and even sent some offerings to His Holiness to pray for the quick discovery of the Panchen Lama. His Holiness has always made it very clear to the Chinese government that the search for the genuine—the important thing is we have to follow all the procedures to make sure that the genuine reincarnation is discovered. It was made very clear to the Chinese government that His Holiness and the Tibetan leadership outside was willing to work with the Chinese government in this search. At that time I was His Holiness’ representative in Delhi, so I had a number of meetings with Chinese officials to convey these messages. There were no behind-the-scenes.
DS: So at age six, Gedhun Choekyi Nyima just disappeared?
- TW: When the final decision came close, there was a lack of willingness on the part of the Chinese leadership to involve His Holiness. Unfortunately, we then ended up having two people. Now we don’t know because since the age of six he has disappeared. It is totally ridiculous on the part of the Chinese officials, who say he is kept in hiding at the request of his parents, for his security. That makes no sense.
DS: And nobody knows where he is.
- TW: No, nobody.
DS: What do you think will happen to him?
- TW: I have no idea.
DS: Do you think he is aware of his status?
- TW: I’m sure. He is mature now.
DS: But at six years of age, it is probable he was not able to completely comprehend the fight between the two governments over who he was and what role he is to play. If they were to take him at the age of six and place him somewhere in Manchuria, re-educate him and deny him his heritage, it is possible he does not even know who he is?
- TW: I suppose. It’s speculative, but there are apprehensions on the part of the Tibetans that this was the plan for taking him away and keeping him in isolation. To brainwash him. At the same time, by deduction, one could say neither he nor his parents and other relatives have given in to the Chinese government. Because if they had, they would have made some kind of public statement to say, “We do not think he is Panchen Lama, we have been treated well and we are ordinary people.” Nothing has happened like that.
DS: There have been no rumors, no words through the grapevine as to his status?
- TW: No. The logical deduction would be there is no cooperation from the Panchen Lama’s side to follow the official line.
DS: That’s pretty amazing when you consider it.
- TW: It is amazing! It’s also very silly. Unnecessary. It’s a religious matter. Reincarnation is purely religious, and it is a very unique tradition in Tibet. If that is allowed to be followed-through, it is the best way of winning the hearts and minds of people. It’s the best diplomacy and a wise way of dealing with things. Now they have screwed it up. Unnecessary.
DS: What do you think is the thinking on the part of the Chinese government that this six year old boy would be a threat to their power?
- TW: They sense their lack of legitimacy. It’s weakness. It’s fear of illegitimacy. They think everything is going to blow up in their face. In the long run it’s counterproductive.
DS: It would seem that by the Chinese government installing their own person, they have created their own symbol of illegitimacy as opposed to allowing religious practice to happen whilst keeping their governmental authority intact. They have created a symbol in the form of Gyancain Norbu of their illegitimacy and meddling in the cultural affairs.
- TW: That’s right.
Gyancain Norbu, the boy selected by the Chinese government
DS: Do you think Gyancain Norbu, the boy the Chinese government selected as the eleventh Panchen Lama, is a victim as well?
- TW: As a good Tibetan, when he comes to his age of making his own decisions, which he is about that age—18 or 19—he will make the right decisions.
DS: What would be the right decision?
- TW: I think if he wants to pursue religious leadership, in Tibetan customs we have more than one reincarnation. If he proves himself to be a good practitioner and religious leader, people will treat him as a reincarnation.
DS: But if he insists on his status as the Panchen Lama?
- TW: If through his own contact and learning he proves himself to be worthy of being a reincarnation—as I said there is more than one reincarnation in our tradition—then people will treat him as a reincarnation. It’s not a political institution. Panchen Lama is a religious institution. So you can have two reincarnations. I don’t see it as a clash of interests.
DS: But he has no legitimacy now as the Panchen Lama, where as the one the Dalai Lama selected does have that legitimacy, is that correct?
- TW: Yes, that’s right.
DS: Gyancain Norbu has not made any statements?
- TW: No. Lately he has not been seen in public. People are starting to ask questions and there have been speculative reports that he has escaped, or ran away. There was speculation, but I can’t comment on this. The fact is that lately has not been seen in public. About a year or so ago he was prominently shown in public as a propaganda. For some reason of late he has not been physically seen or made any statements attributed to him. It raises questions, but I can’t comment on speculation.
DS: What do the Tibetan people think about him?
- TW: People will respond to him when he comes out on his own. I don’t think people have any bad feelings against him personally. It’s not his fault.
DS: But they are against what he represents.
- TW: Yes. At the moment it is not against him, but against the Chinese authorities. Not against him, as a person. He’s not asserting himself.
DS: He’s not towing the party line but just keeping quiet.
- TW: Yes, that’s understandable.
DS: So in a sense he is a victim himself?
- TW: I suppose one could say that, yes.
The selection of the next Dalai Lama
DS: In September the Chinese government has said they must approve all high monks—
- TW: Yes, the state council has promulgated some order. It’s a religious matter and it’s ridiculous for any government to interfere in religious affairs. No democratic government would interfere. Not here in the United States, not in India. China's government believes in atheism and doesn’t believe in a religious tradition, which is the Communist government in China. It believes in religion as an opiate, a destructive element; to interfere in that is irrelevant, ridiculous and meaningless. It is interference in the affairs of followers of traditions.
DS: How will it affect the choosing of the next Dalai Lama?
- TW: It will have no effect. You can’t impose a Pope. You can’t impose an Imam, an Archbishop, saints, any religion…you can’t politically impose these things on people. It has to be a decision of the followers of that tradition. The Chinese can use their political power: force. Again, it’s meaningless. Like their Panchen Lama. And they can’t keep their Panchen Lama in Tibet. They tried to bring him to his monastery many times but people would not see him. How can you have a religious leader like that? When a Panchen Lama goes to his monastery thousands and thousands of people will come from all over Tibet and outside. He is an important Buddhist leader. But when they brought their Panchen Lama, they had to force government officials and the public to attend certain public functions.
DS: How do they force the public?
- TW: They said if you don’t come you will be punished and each family has to send one person, and so forth.
DS: How do they keep track of that?
- TW: It’s a totalitarian system. Look at the former Soviet Union and China itself. They keep track; the civil system is built like that. It’s run on the basis of fear. They have developed an effective system of control and monitor.
DS: Did the Dalai Lama support India’s nuclear testing?
- TW: His Holiness has always spoken against violence, arms sales; he has signed with the other Nobel laureates against arms sales and nuclear disarmament. When India exploded a bomb, he said India is a big country and has its foreign concerns, so it would be unfair with its security concerns to deny of that ability to defend itself. He also said that in the long run, all the nuclear countries should work towards total disarmament.
The views of the Dalai Lama
DS: What is His Holiness’ view on abortion?
- TW: He has said many times that as a Buddhist taking a life is wrong. But on abortion it depends on so many other factors and stages of the development of the fetus. And the circumstances. It’s a question for the mother and the child, and he did say if there are developmental issues.
DS: He believes that it should be a personal decision and not a governmental decision?
- TW: Yes.
DS: But that it’s frowned upon as a Buddhist principle?
- TW: Yes. But he has certainly spoken very often on population control, but that is more on the preventative side.
DS: What are His Holiness’ views on homosexuality?
- TW: He said according to Buddhist practice it is wrong. In society, it is all right. I think of it like this. I am Buddhist. You are Christian, let’s say. For me, I have to follow the precepts and principles as a Buddhist. For me it would be wrong to do that. But it would be wrong for me to say it is wrong for you because in multicultural, multireligious societies you can’t do that.
DS: So if somebody is gay they could not be a proper Buddhist?
- TW: I’m sure under certain precepts of Buddhist tradition, a person would not be considered as following ALL the precepts of Buddhist principles. People don’t follow all the principles. Very few people can claim they follow all the principles. For instance, telling a lie. In any religion, if you ask if telling a lie is a sin—say Christian—they will say yes. But you find very few people who don’t at some point tell a lie. Homosexuality is one act, but you can’t say they are not a Buddhist. Or someone who tells a lie is not a Buddhist. Or someone who kills an insect is not a Buddhist, because there’s a strong injunction against that.
DS: Have you ever killed an insect?
- TW: I’m sure, yeah.
DS: Is the Dalai Lama planning on visiting Latin America any time soon?
- TW: There’s likelihood that it will be next year. We are looking at it. We have so many invitations from countries and every few years we look to see what we can fit in.
DS: It’s likely next year?
- TW: We are thinking of it, yes.
DS: Do you know why the Dalai Lama has not explicitly said he is a reincarnation of the Dalai Lama?
- TW: In the broader sense, it is a manifestation, so you can manifest in different ways. He is talking in that sense. It’s a broad principle argument.
DS: It’s that he believes he is a reincarnation, but whether he is the whole and sum of the 13th Dalai Lama is another question?
- TW: Yes. Yes. Something to that effect.
DS: Do you have thoughts to share on the situation in Burma?
- TW: His Holiness issued a statement soon after the recent crackdown in which he expressed his deep concern and sadness over the violation, and he expressed solidarity with the Buddhist monks and people asking for democracy. He appealed to the generals to refrain from using violence—they are Buddhists—and as Buddhists they should follow the teachings of Buddha and enter into meaningful dialog.
DS: Have you any information on their current status?
- TW: No, we follow whatever comes into the media very closely. It’s a Buddhist country and historically Tibet and Burma have good relations.
DS: It’s such a difficult region with many complex disputes.
- TW: There are ethnic differences, different religions, but through democratic process things can be resolved. Let’s look at India and Pakistan. India is a huge country, so many ethnic, religious—they have the second largest Muslim population after Indonesia—but through a democratic process and the federal structure that came into being the last six years, that’s through democratic process. Unfortunately on the Pakistan side with the same people, same culture, the political system is not fully developed and you see more ethnic problems. With Burma if you see more democratic process I’m sure these problems will be worked out.
DS: All over Asia so many people have long-lasting conflicts and memories never seem to die.
- TW: I think it’s a problem that is remnant of the British rule and all these new states came into existence when British rule was withdrawn. But where democratic process came into place things are better. In places where interest groups came into rule, they divide. But democracy reduces special interest.
Arunachal Pradesh, an historically Tibetan area of India claimed by China
DS: What is your view on Arunachal Pradesh? Is the Government-in-Exile's relative silence over the issue due more to a recognition of India as a friendly government, or does the Government-in-Exile view the area as less Tibetan than the areas controlled by China?
- TW: We are bound by the 1914 Simla Convention under which the McMahon Line was formed between India and Tibet. It has been accepted. Both by British India and the Tibetan government, so we are treaty bound. At that time the Tibetan government entered into and signed that agreement. We can’t change. The McMahon Line is the international boundary and whatever falls on either side of that line is the territory of either India or, as of now, the People’s Republic of China (Tibet).
DS: Christopher Hitchens criticized the Dalai Lama for his supposed suppression of Shugden worship?
- TW: There’s no suppression! His Holiness made it very clear that according to his own observations over many years—in fact, he himself used to worship Shugden—and over many years of his own experience and observation and investigation, he found that this practice is not according to Buddhist practice. That practice is also bringing in divisions within the Buddhist traditions. The practitioners are attaching more importance than the basic Buddhist practice, and therefore he felt that it’s a practice that he would not approve of and therefore he advised people to not engage in it. But he made it very clear right from the beginning it was up to the individuals. He has a responsibility to explain the negative aspects of it and then it’s up to the individuals to decide on their own. Officially there has never been any repression or denial of rights to practitioners. But after His Holiness’ advice many monastic orders adopted rules and regulations that would not accept practitioners of Shugden worship in their monastic order. The followers have set up their own groups and they are free to function. But it’s in the right of institutions to make their own decisions.
DS: Was Lozang Gyatso, the director of Institute of Buddhist Dialectics murdered by Shugden worshipers?
- TW: Yes, that’s a fact. There’s some misunderstanding that groups taking their own actions is the policy of the Tibetan government, but it’s not. Institutions take advice and it is within their right to say they do not want Shugden worship. But now if a group of people say they want to set up their own institution because they are different practitioners, which is within their right.
DS: What is the reason for the Dalai Lama's decision to become involved in the dispute over the identity of the current Karmapa [the leader of the largest sub-school of one of the four main schools in Tibetan Buddhism - ed.] by endorsing one candidate?
- TW: There was no special decision. His Holiness was approached.
DS: By all sides?
- TW: Yes. And then later on there was unfortunately some disagreement. Even Shamarpa—who had disagreements with the other regents at that time—even he did not dispute His Holiness’ decision as to who should be the throne holder. There should be no dispute.
DS: Does he still play a role as a peacemaker?
- TW: No, there’s no need. It’s accepted by the vast majority of that tradition.
DS: Do you think Ogyen Trinley Dorje [one of the two contestants in the Karmapa dispute - ed.] will be able to travel freely to visit his followers?
- TW: He’s traveling freely. Under the circumstances he escaped from Tibet there are security concerns about his personal safety. The government of India has to make sure he is not personally harmed, so in that sense there are some security restrictions. But as far as movement is concerned in India he can travel anywhere in India. There’s no ban on his movement.
- Tashi Wangdi at the Office of Tibet's website