The Dalai Lama’s pursuit of united Tibet: Book Review

Book Review by Shyam Saran, Trustee at FNVA

by Team FNVA

Book: The Dalai Lama’s Special Envoy: Memoirs of a Lifetime in Pursuit of a Reunited Tibet

Author: Lodi Gyaltsen Gyari

Lodi Gyari, as he was popularly known among his friends, belonged to an aristocratic feudal family from the Khan region of China. He was singularly responsible for bringing the Tibet issue in to international discourse and in cultivating an image of the Dalai Lama as an international statesman and spiritual leader. He served as the representative of the Tibetan government-in-exile in Washington for over two decades. During this time, he developed an enviable and influential network in the corridors of power in the US, of which any ambassador of an accredited nation would have been proud. He served as a Special Envoy of His Holiness in the nine rounds of talks that were held with Chinese authorities between 2002 and 2012, aimed at reaching an understanding that would enable a reconciliation of Tibetan autonomy with Chinese sovereignty. Also discussed was the possibility of the Dalai Lama returning to China for Pilgrimage if not permanent residence. Lodi Gyari died in 2018 but the voluminous memoir that he penned during his final years has now been published posthumously under the title The Dalai Lama’s Special Envoy: Memoirs of a Lifetime in Pursuit of a Reunited Tibet.

The Dalai Lama’s pursuit of united Tibet

The “reunited” Tibet refers to the objective of merging the three distinct sub-regions of the Tibetan plateau – U-tsang, Kham and Amdo – where the six million ethnic Tibetans live into one province. The current Tibet Autonomous Region of China refers only to U-tsang, with a population of just over two million, which was invaded and occupied by Chinese forces in 1950. The other two regions were already incorporated into China in earlier historical phases and are now parts of the Chinese provinces of Ningxia, Sichuan and Yunnan. While declaring that he does not seek Independence for Tibet, the Dalai Lama demands that all the areas where ethnic Tibetans live should become part of an enlarged province, whose inhabitants should enjoy all the religious, cultural and other rights granted to minorities in the Chinese Constitution. This has been vehemently rejected by the Chinese who see this as a devious prelude to the eventual separation of nearly a quarter of the territory of China.

The book traces the trajectory of the dialogue conducted between the United Front Work Department of the Chinese Communist Party and representatives of the Dalai Lama. It was in 1979 that the then top leader of China, Deng Xiaoping conveyed to Gyalo Thondup, the elder brother of His Holiness, that China was ready to discuss all issues relating to Tibet as long as the demand for its independence was explicitly forsworn. Gyalo Thondup has an interesting history. He was educated in China under the guardianship of the KMT leader Chiang Kai-shek and is a fluent Mandarin speaker. Though he played a role in the American CIA’s support for the insurgency in Tibet after His Holiness sought refuge in India in 1959, he later cultivated contacts with the Chinese communist party functionaries who he must have known while still in China. These contacts were approved and encouraged by His Holiness.

A series of interactions followed, beginning with a series of four Fact-Finding Missions sent to China by the Dalai Lama’s establishment in Dharamshala between August 1979 and June 1985. There were two rounds of Exploratory Talks in 1982 and 1984, which set the stage for nine rounds of talks led by Lodi Gyari on the Tibetan side. Since the Chinese did not recognize the Tibetan government-in-exile, Lodi Gyari and his delegation serves as personal representatives of His Holiness. In June 1988, in an address to the European Parliament in Strasbourg, the Dalai Lama formally abandoned the demand for independence for Tibet but put forward the proposal for the creation of a larger administrative entity incorporating the three sub-regions mentioned above.

The talks were suspended in 2012 when the Dalai Lama gave up his temporal leadership, which devolved on an elected Assembly and a prime minister. The status of the negotiators as personal representatives of His Holiness could no longer be sustained and the new dispensation in Dharamshala did not seem inclined to continue with the earlier practice. Lodi Gyari resigned his position though he wanted the dialogue to continue and remained optimistic about achieving progress.

Lodi Gyari would have known that despite the political changes in Dharamshala, His Holiness remained active in seeking reconciliation with the Chinese, hoping that he could even visit China on pilgrimage and talk directly with Chinese leaders. His hopes were aroused with Xi Jinping becoming China’s top leader in 2012. He received a number of messages through intermediaries, claiming to be speaking on Xi Jinping’s behalf and expressing the latter’s interest in pursuing a reconciliation. These have proved to be chimerical and China’s Tibet policy has become even more hardline and repressive that before. The book ignores these later developments.

Lodi Gyari is cautious in his comment about India’s role which appears to have been marginal. India was kept fully informed about the progress in the talks with China but did not make any serious effort to put the issue of Tibet on the India-China bilateral agenda. This is odd considering that it is the Tibet issue that precipitated the worsening of India-China relations and led to the 1962 border war. Lodi Gyari’s memoirs contain valuable insights into Chinese thinking and negotiating tactics of which careful note should be taken.

The book is also now Available in Paperback format in India.

The link to the Book Review as published by Business Standard –

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