Central & South Asia

Tibetan Activist and Writer Tenzin Tsundue Talks to Fair Observer

In this edition of The Interview, an eminent Tibetan activist and writer discusses exile, a protracted freedom struggle, China, Chinese brutal homogenization policies, cultural and philosophical differences between Tibet and China, and China’s tortured relationship with the West.

Panorama of destroyed by erosion area in Tibet, with many roads and tornadoes on horizon. © Belozorova Elena/shutterstock

May 28, 2022 08:30 EDT

In October 1950, China’s Red Army invaded Tibet’s eastern province, posing as an army of liberation from Western imperialism. In 1959, the Dalai Lama fled to India where he remains to this day. Many thousands of Tibetan refugees have streamed into India since. Tibet is particularly pertinent even as US President Joe Biden promises support to Taiwan and Ukraine dominates headlines on a daily basis.

For the last 70 years, Tibet has been under China’s thumb even as Hollywood stars swoon at the Dalai Lama’s feet. Many people think of Tibet as a separate nation with a definable history and a specific cultural identity symbolized by the Dalai Lama. Many are unaware of Tibet’s integration into China and its political subjugation by Beijing. In September 2020, Chinese President Xi Jinping made clear that Tibet was an integral part of China’s “impregnable fortress” as he decried the heresy of “splittism.” The fate of Tibet shines light on a key issue: can political entities bordering a hegemon exercise sovereignty?

We are living in a world where the 1945 postwar order is ending. The collapse of the Soviet Union has been followed by a bloody war between its two biggest successor states. Oil prices are soaring and inflation is skyrocketing. Fertilizers and food are in short supply because the two big exporters Russia and Ukraine are at war. So, Lebanon, Egypt, Libya, Tunisia and many other countries could soon be short of bread, if not oil. 

As the current world order breaks down, what will emerge in its place? Will we see a more fragmented world with regional hegemons competing in their spheres of influence? Or will we see a more multipolar world where dispersed power centers will realize there is no way to survive other than mutual respect and creative collaboration?

I spoke to writer and activist Tenzin Tsundue on a range of issues, spanning from his experience as a Tibetan in India to the state of our modern world. 

The transcript has been edited for clarity. Words in brackets are my insertions to provide context and clarity to Tsundue’s words.

Roberta Campani: How do the Tibetans live in India? 

Tenzin Tsundue: There are about 100,000 Tibetan refugees in India, of which three generations are represented: those who left Tibet (as Tsundue’s parents did), their children who are now adults (like Tsundue) and a third generation (children of Tsundue’s generation) who no longer have direct ties to Tibet. There’s also another group, those who came out of Tibet later on, in the early 2000s and up to 2009 and then it became almost impossible to get out of occupied Tibet. There’s a law in India as per which someone who was born prior to 1987 in the country is a citizen regardless of the origin of their parents. (Yet most Tibetans have not applied for citizenship to avoid weakening the Free Tibet Movement.) Like other refugees, Tibetans cannot own property nor vote. In fact, Tibetans don’t even have refugee status because India, like most modern nations, does not recognize Tibet as a state or country. 

We are considered foreigners, we have to get a document that lasts one year. This makes it hard to plan long-term, build a house or start a family. Some can get the document extended for five years. But it is hard not to have any stability. On the other hand, the positive side of this situation is that it maintains the impetus to keep working towards going back to our homeland.

Even if India granted us 43 settlements where we have built farms, hospitals, and schools where we are self-subsistent, this was a lot of work. And now the young go to cities and have jobs in IT.

Tibet is known for being the home country of Tenzin Gyatso, now known as the Dalai Lama. He is recognized both as a spiritual and political leader. In 2011, the Dalai Lama gave up his political role and passed it on to the Central Tibetan Administration (CTA). 

The CTA was formed in 1959. Some consider it a government in exile. The Dalai Lama’s handing over power to the CTA is historic. He wants Tibetans and Tibet to function democratically. The Sikyong, a figure analogous to a prime minister, and a parliament is elected every five years. 

Apart from 100,000 Tibetans in India, there are another 50,000 in other countries. All of them can elect members of the parliament and participate in activities of the CTA.

Roberta Campani: What can this impetus achieve given the current situation in China?

Tenzin Tsundue: China looks at Tibetan culture and religion as the biggest obstacle to assimilation. The Chinese want to homogenize Tibet and reduce it into Beijing’s backyard. They see that Tibetans are united over their cause. They are also united with Tibetans in exile.

Tibetan culture is very different from Chinese culture. China believes in bombing mountains, making money out of Tibetan minerals and resources, and damming rivers. In contrast, Tibetans believe that there are gods and goddesses in the mountains, and they are sacred for our living. Our environment is not to serve us. We are part of the environment. Philosophically, we look at land and resources very differently from the Chinese. They also look at people as resources to make them do cheap labor and make money for the capitalists. That is not how we look at life. Tibetan nomads and farmers are “rehabilitated” in reservations, kind of artificial villages so they lose touch and connection with their own land.

Tibet lies north of the Himalayas. It is a large high-altitude plateau inhabited largely by Buddhists who brave bitter winters and lead largely simple lives. Known as the roof of the world, historians speak of a geographical Tibet and a political Tibet. There is also a cultural Tibet associated with meditation, spirituality, esoteric practices, mystique and, in our Hollywoodish times, personified by the beatific Dalai Lama.

In May 1951, the Dalai Lama’s envoys were forced to sign a Seventeen Point Agreement with the Chinese. For the first time, an agreement formally recognized Chinese sovereignty over Tibet. This agreement, though, was signed to avoid a brutal military invasion by the Chinese. Beijing has always claimed Tibet to be an autonomous region belonging to the Chinese nation.

The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) claims that it has brought progress to benighted and feudal Tibet. The CCP says that it has bettered the lives of ordinary Tibetans by bringing modern technology and economic growth. The question arises whether this progress was worth it given the decimation of Tibetan culture and the destruction of Tibet’s once pristine environment.

Roberta Campani: Can you give us some background about what brought the situation to this point?

Tenzin Tsundue: Tibet had been a free and independent country right from the beginning until China’s invasion in 1951. What is called the western romanticization of Shangri-La is Tibet — 2.5 million square kilometers of land, geographically the biggest and highest plateau in the world. Tibetans have lived in isolation, untouched by western influences  — they have hardly had any relationship with many other countries. Of course, Tibet had relationships with Mongolia in the north, China in the east, India to the south and by extension with other South Asian countries, like Nepal, Burma, Bhutan and Pakistan. And that’s how Tibet lived as an independent country for all these thousands of years. 

And this isolation has also created this very unique language, culture, and identity. In the last 2,000 years, we have received Buddhism from India. It wasn’t Tibetan, it came from India and today, we are keeping that and Buddhism has become the primary identity for Tibetan people. And that’s how we have lived as a free and independent country and that is still existing today.

The Tibetans inside Tibet that are fighting the Chinese attempt to 1. homogenize, and 2. to use Tibet as a colony, which the Chinese mine and make money off. The reason why Tibetans have not been co-opted by Chinese mining and industrialization is because Tibetans have a very different idea of natural resources and the environment and that is a part of Tibetan identity. We look at nature as a larger universe where human beings are part of. We are servants to nature.

This identity comes from a much larger picture of the Tibetan civilization. That civilization, what we are getting to see, is something many countries have lost. We have not. Our Tibetans in Tibet still believe that the country is more important than the people. We are part of the environment. So the continuity of tradition that we are seeing resists the damming of rivers, mining for resources and clear felling of trees in order to make money through all the cheap made in China products.

China is mining and taking all of these natural resources —  lithium, copper, and gold — to make cheap products for the world. See, how China looks at natural resources is very different to Tibet. The China that is emerging today is not even the China of Deng Xiaoping or of Mao Zedong. China has completed a cultural revolution in so many different phases. So many times, China has completely changed. Tibet may have modernized in different ways, but as a civilization, we are continuous.

China-India Clash Wakes Up Tibet’s Ghost of Independence


Roberta Campani: It seems that this view makes even more sense now that we have climate issues: how could your experience be made useful for the world in general?

Tenzin Tsundue: I don’t want to be condescending by saying we have the best ideas for the world to copy. We will continue our religion, our culture, we have our very unique civilizational beliefs, and if the world, if the international community see that this is of value, they will anyhow take it. 

Roberta Campani: Do you think there is something positive in the “common prosperity” doctrine that China has brought forward these past few years? In particular, if we consider that inequalities and the wider income gap are creating discontent in most of the traditionally democratic countries. 

Tenzin Tsundue: You and I know it very well, it’s all optics. It’s what political parties create to fulfill their own self-interest, like Trump tried to create something for America while pursuing his own interest and Biden is now trying to do that today. The same goes for the propaganda war between Zelensky and Putin. All these optics are for consumption and you cannot just blindly consume that. When China says that it is creating a more equal society by getting rid of the gap between the rich and the poor, we understand it very well. These are political agendas and not social services. 

And as I said earlier, homogenization means that China already has what it calls the Chinese identity and Beijing is trying to impose that on the rest of the people. Homogenization does not mean there is no culture. There is a culture but it’s the majority culture that they are trying to impose on the minorities or the people that are living under China’s occupation. That is homogenization and this is the biggest threat that is happening in Eastern Turkestan, southern Mongolia, and in Manchuria. And the same thing is happening in Hong Kong.

And there is a threat that China may physically, and militarily invade Taiwan in the future. So this homogenization is the main factor why Hong Kong didn’t want to become completely Chinese because the Hong Kong people have their own identity, a social and a cultural tradition there. And they say “we are not like the Chinese in mainland China.” So you see, the Hong Kong people resist because they don’t want to homogenize. They don’t want to be turned into a Chinese backyard.

Of course, physically, Hong Kong is a part of the People’s Republic of China. Still, they have lived separately for almost one or two hundred years. They have their ideas, identity, ways of living, and culture. It’s much more vibrant and democratic there. Now, they are being homogenized. And the international community did not care much about losing Hong Kong.

Taiwan, Tibet and Hong Kong are not legally recognized as sovereign states. Therefore, other states and the so-called international community cannot take a clear position on them. However, these three geographical and political entities are increasingly in the news.

According to Professor Yeshi Choedon, “Tibet has been an international issue since the 1950s but no serious attempt has been made to address this problem on the main pretext that the status of Tibet was not clear. The lack of clarity on the status of Tibet is not just because of manipulation by the Chinese. The major contributing factor, in fact, was Tibet’s own failure to move along with the tide of the change that was sweeping the world in the 20th century.”

As per Michael van Walt, lawyer and professor at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton:  “From a legal standpoint, Tibet has to this day not lost its statehood. It is an independent state under illegal occupation.”  

Roberta Campani: What are your thoughts about how the situation could unfold for Tibet? 

Tenzin Tsundue: Today there are many possibilities. I think that the 63 years of exile experience have given us enough sense of resilience and understanding of the world’s political scenario and our own existence. The early shock we got after coming out of Tibet to the outside world where there were already so many scientific advances. For example, when my parents came to India, they were unable to understand what is a bus, what is a car and what is a train. From there we have come to a situation where the third generation is working in IT companies in India. 

So you see this fast-forward advance and experience has given us the understanding that ultimately our freedom struggle is something we have to do ourselves. And we have created enough cultural resistance and even resilience that even if no one helps us today we are still able to maintain our resistance and we’ll come to a point when China collapses we will go back to our country and we will re-establish a free, independent, democratic Tibet. This much confidence is what we have now.

Today, the Tibetan issue is not isolated. More than ever, the issue of the Dalai Lama, who is the reincarnation (of his predecessor), is now more useful to the United States, to the European countries and to India because China has now evolved from a communist country to an industrial nation and a superpower. China is today a threat to the western countries, India, and many other countries that need to tackle China. Now, we have to work with these other countries that might find the issues of Tibet useful to their causes.

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Roberta Campani: How could this happen?

Tenzin Tsundue: Look, when we were protesting in 2008, we were saying that China is killing Tibetans and that there is a genocide happening in Tibet, no one cared. Everyone went to participate in the 2008 Olympics in Beijing.

This year too, in 2022, when the Winter Olympics are happening, suddenly the United States realizes that there are human rights issues with China. That does not mean that they did not know about human rights violations in Tibet and East Turkestan in 2008. This year, 15 countries boycotted — a diplomatic boycott —  these countries are now finding these issues useful for them against China.

This is the understanding we are now getting as Tibetan refugees. Earlier, Tibetans were nothing —  oh, these are just nice, good, goodie people — and the Dalai Lama is non-violent. Now they find the issue of Tibet politically useful. So, how do we have to position ourselves with countries that want to deal with China differently? Are we able to do it? Perhaps, we can even work with China’s pro-democracy activists who would want to see their country as a democracy.

Tibet: A Nonviolent History of War


Roberta Campani: Are you in touch with people in China who want democracy? 

Tenzin Tsundue: Of course, we are in touch with them but they were themselves persecuted in China and they are now living in foreign countries. 

Roberta Campani: How could this experience that has given you and the Tibetan communities skills and consciousness be helpful? How can you use that experience to raise awareness about other refugees, as it’s a problem all over the world?

Tenzin Tsundue: It is not that the West doesn’t know. It is pretending not to know because its interests up until today have been more into trading with China and not with promoting human rights. We are very well aware of this. As much as we would like to work with western countries on human rights and democracy in China and also freedom for Tibet, we are also aware that the West may be using Tibet today. We would like to work with western countries for democracy in China and freedom in Tibet. 

Roberta Campani: Do you know there is a fascination with Tibetan culture that is actually not so well known?

Tenzin Tsundue: I am not surprised. The consumerism that has taken over the world has, in a way, homogenized entire production units that have centered on easy production. This has come about with big international corporate companies as producers and the rest of the people are just consumers. This model is a danger to the environment and also to human civilization. (That is why there may be a fascination for Tibetan culture.)

Roberta Campani: What is the mission or role that you have chosen? 

Tenzin Tsundue: I am a small activist based here in India. The role I have assigned to myself is that of a writer, I look at certain changing aspects in the Tibetan community, culturally and emotionally, and I write about these aspects. Also, as an activist, an important part of my role is to keep the freedom struggle going, maintaining the restlessness in the movement. And also come up with new ideas on how to deal with the changing political situation in the world and how to guard against certain threats, and, at the same time, look at opportunities that might appear.

So, mine is a very small role. Still, I see it in the larger picture. There is the Tibetan government in exile, there is His Holiness the Dalai Lama, there are members of parliament, there are many other leaders, and as an activist and as a writer, I also play my small role. But in the larger picture, I see that the Tibetan freedom movement up until now has been inspiring both for the international community and us because we have maintained nonviolence as the main thrust of our movement led by His Holiness the Dalai Lama. 

This has inspired many individuals, people in the West, in India and in many other places. They say that this is one peaceful community and a movement that they would like to support, and of course, we have a huge number of sympathizers and supporters, which is how we have maintained the health of the movement. We are hopeful that we will be able to carry on in this way, and when the opportune moment comes about, we can recreate Tibet as a free and independent state and a democracy. 

Han and Hindu Nationalism Come Face to Face


Roberta Campani: How could this happen? 

Tenzin Tsundue: There are three important factors. 

First and the most important are the Tibetan people themselves. As long as we don’t give up, there is always a chance for us to gain freedom. And if we do give up, no matter even if the entire world comes together to support us, there is no cause to support! 

So finally, the ultimate goal, the ultimate authority over the Tibetan freedom movement, is the Tibetan people. This is the most important fact. 

The second factor is China, because it is China who, without any provocation, entered Tibet, plundered Tibet, captured Tibet and, for the past 70 years, China has been maintaining a military occupation of Tibet. There should be a new kind of understanding within China. The Chinese must completely change the way they run their government and reform their entire structure. They are no longer able to maintain the occupation of Tibet.

China’s superpower status comes from how western countries use the country as an industrial factory floor to make cheap “Made in China” products and ship them to the West. That is how the West created China and made it into a monster. Until 1971, China was not even a member of the United Nations. And American intervention replaced Taiwan with China in the UN. That is how China became a permanent Security Council member at the UN and a superpower. Now, China is trying to throw out the United States from the United Nations. 

(So, China will not continue to be the workshop of the world and occupy Tibet forever.)

The third factor is how China is going to maintain its relationships with western countries, and, with that, what are the changes that are about to come about. We have seen in the past two years during the pandemic how the West has started to behave very differently towards China. Issues of human rights are coming out for the first time and the western relationship with China is changing. And I think this relationship will undergo dramatic changes in the next five years. All these things will throw up lots of opportunities for us.

Roberta Campani: Thank you! Are you still hopeful? 

Tenzin Tsundue: I have to be! There is no option. 

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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