Q. What can you offer them as a plan with which to engage you that might be acceptable to Beijing?
A. I think Quebec is a good example, and also the north, Nunavut. The Chinese government argument is based on an underlying suspicion that if you grant anything to Tibet, they will ask for more and more and ultimately they will secede or separate. But then ultimately if you reach that equilibrium where people get what they want, the majority will decide to stay within the country. Even in Quebec, there is always this strong passionate number of people who are advocating independence, but two referenda were held and both times people decided to stay within Canada – meaning that the majority thinks that you have reached the equilibrium.
Having said that, this is a complex issue and the demand for nationhood will always be there. So how do you lessen it and increase cooperation? I think if the Chinese government grants us autonomy for Tibetans and the majority of Tibetans feel that this is a good deal they will choose to stay within. It’s not that voices of independence will disappear, they will not. In that respect I think Canada is an example that the Chinese government could look at. Because the Chinese government example seems to be, ‘repression, more repression, much harsher repression, and the solution will be found.’ And it has not worked since the 1950s.
And now the self-immolations are a clear reflection of the entrenched resentments of the Tibetan people towards hardline policies. The self-immolators are a younger generation – they have never met the Dalai Lama, they have never heard him speak, they have never met me, they didn’t vote for me, they could not. But still the sense of Tibetan identity, and Tibetan dignity – the assertion of their basic freedom – is so strong that they say, ‘This precious life that I have, I’ll give up to send a message to the Beijing government that what is happening is unacceptable.’ So the Chinese model is clearly not working.
Q. About the self-immolations, of which there have now been 85: Do you view them as a legitimate form of protest? Do they clash with either your religious teachings or the policies of the Tibetan government?
A. We have made repeated appeals to Tibetans inside Tibet not to resort to drastic actions including self-immolations. Because life is precious. Now the self-immolation is not only continuing, it is escalating. So what do we do? As a person of faith – or even no faith – you pray for all those who died. And as a Tibetan you show solidarity, because they are doing it for Tibet. And then you support their aspirations, which are very clear: the return of His Holiness the Dalai Lama to Tibet; and freedom for Tibetan people. We say, ‘It’s better to preserve life and carry forward the movement’ – that is the preferred option for us. But we are not saying it’s not a valid form of protest, because self-immolation as a form of protest is a global phenomenon, it was done by monks the Viet Nam war, in Czechoslovakia in 1969, and then the undergraduate in Tunisia in the Arab Spring. Tibet is seeing one more chapter. But this is a sad form of protesting – and it is a desperate form of protest, because Tibetans are not given any option, or any space for any form of protest because the Chinese government does not allow them to go into the streets. If you shout a slogan, you get arrested. If you have a picture of the Dalai Lama, you go to prison. If they have a picture of me, it’s more likely they’ll get tortured. In that kind of environment, they are saying, the chances of me getting arrested, tortured, even disappeared, is high, so I might as well self-immolate.
Q. If Beijing gave you a chance to send a message to Tibetans inside Tibet, what would you say?
A. I would say we are committed to non-violence and democracy, these are our uncompromising principles. And that the grievances that they have are genuine, because they are the ones who are suffering. And the Chinese government should take note and solve the issue as soon as possible. I’d say, ‘Tibet is a very old civilization, one of the oldest civilizations in the world, and Buddhism as a religion is very rich, and Tibet has very rich history of great kings …. So we ought to be proud of ourselves. And in this really challenging period when there might be questions, one should be in oneself. And our day will surely come.