On Saturday the prime minister-elect of one of the world’s newest and most promising democracies touched down in Melbourne for a week-long Australian visit. He’s being met by hundreds of compatriots and received enthusiastically by journalists, scholars, parliamentarians and the public at large.
Perversely, he will not get to meet our Prime Minster, Foreign Minister or government officials, at least not in any formal capacity. Canberra refuses to recognise his administration or build relationships with its elected officers.
To Tibetans both in Tibet and in exile, Dr Lobsang Sangay is their legitimate authority, elected to succeed His Holiness the Dalai Lama as their political leader. Tibetans in more than 30 countries cast their votes in a free election, overseen by an independent electoral commission.
The Central Tibetan Administration, based in the northern Indian town of Dharamsala, provides a striking counterpoint to China’s one-party rule. Its mandate is to seek a conciliatory "Middle Way" path to the resolution of the Tibet-China conflict, conceding far more to the Communist Party than any objective reading of history demands, an olive branch to Beijing’s relentless program of oppression and forced assimilation.
Nonetheless, Canberra refuses to engage with Dr Sangay and his democratic government-in-exile, even as tensions in eastern Tibet continue to boil over. The handful of foreign journalists who have visited Tibet’s most restive regions in recent months have described scenes of medieval brutality — besieged monasteries, police armed with spiked clubs, troops stationed on every corner, fire trucks on lookout for Tibetans threatening to set themselves alight in protest and defiance.
Beijing refuses to review its hardline policies in Tibet or enter into meaningful dialogue with the Tibetan people, despite decades of calls from the US, EU, India, Australia and every other major democratic power.
Dr Sangay epitomises a new generation of Tibetans, confident and steadfast in their Tibetan identity and empowered by a modern education and heightened familiarity with politics and the dynamics of social change.
Born in exile in one of northern India’s Tibetan refugee settlements, Lobsang Sangay studied at the University of Delhi before winning a Fulbright Scholarship and earning a doctorate from Harvard Law School in 2004. He organised landmark summits between Tibetan and Chinese scholars aimed at building bridges and nurturing greater trust and understanding between the two communities. He was elected as one of 24 Young Leaders of Asia by the Asia Society.
In 2010 Dr Sangay and two other main contenders for the office of Kalon Tripa transformed Tibet’s exile democracy by running energetic campaigns and canvassing for votes throughout the scattered Tibetan refugee settlements.
The modern, multi-candidate election, replete with televised debates and social media campaigns, was emblematic of a broader evolution in the Tibetan exile community and changes that give some grounds for hope against the backdrop of horrors inside Tibet.
Many Western democracies, including Australia, now have sizeable communities of younger Tibetans brought up in exile and more adept at targeting their host governments for support.
In March this year 12 young Tibetans from across Australia headed to Canberra to brief federal parliamentarians on the deteriorating situation inside Tibet and discuss options for stronger Australian Government action. They were backed by thousands of Australian supporters who used an online tool to urge their politicians to meet the delegation in Canberra.
After they met with over 40 MPs and Senators, including the Shadow Foreign Minister and numerous members of the Labor caucus, Foreign Minister Bob Carr was pressed in the Senate on how the Australian Government was responding to the crisis now engulfing the Tibetan Plateau.
The minister announced that new requests were being lodged for Australian officials, including Ambassador Francis Adamson, to visit Tibetan areas and investigate for themselves the situation that has led around 30 Tibetans to set fire to themselves in acts of protest and defiance this year alone.
While the initiative was met with some scepticism, as China rarely allows foreign officials to visit Tibet on anything other than tightly scripted tours, its very announcement, the first significant statement by an Australian Foreign Minister on Tibet in three years, was itself a small victory for people power.
Inside Tibet, on the other hand, no options remain for peaceful protest. An associate of the Australia Tibet Council (ATC) who visited Lhasa last month, one of the last to visit before Tibet was yet again sealed from the outside world, described how in the old Tibetan quarter, gatherings of any more than two or three Tibetans would be swiftly broken up by the omnipresent security forces. Another traveller told the ATC the atmosphere in Tibet’s capital as a pervading sadness.
Tibetans are often unable to speak of their grievances without grave risk, let alone vote to throw out a government that has failed them ever since it invaded their country over half a century ago.
The contrast between Tibetan democracy-in-exile and China’s refusal to grant the barest of democratic rights inside Tibet represents two very different long-term futures for our biggest trading partner.
Wherever China’s state capitalism has fallen short of winning over Tibetans or any other disadvantaged group within the PRC, the Party has resorted to force and intimidation to maintain control. The financial cost of this forced "stability" is greater than China’s national defence bill, and rising.
Meanwhile, Tibetans have completed a long and comprehensive process of democratisation that began soon after 1959 and the Dalai Lama’s exile to India, ensuring the resilience and stability of their community for as long as it takes for the political situation in China to change.
Wen Jiabao, China’s outgoing Premier, while admittedly stopping short of showing any concessions to Tibet, recently sounded the alarm once again on the need for major political reforms. Indeed, a growing band of liberal cadres, scholars and journalists recognise that it is only a matter of time before totalitarian governance becomes untenable for China.
The question remains whether change will come through orderly reform, including taking seriously the grievances of the Tibetans, or through a painful collapse with widespread harms, including for Australia.
It is easy for us to get carried away by China’s economic miracle and turn a blind eye to the inconvenient truths at the heart of today’s PRC. But The Tibetans have responded to Chinese intransigence with a noble effort to craft a fair, free and democratic future for the region, beginning with themselves. For this they deserve our full respect and attention.
Dr Lobsang Sangay will address the National Press Club today.
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