During the past year, the Government of China has
indicated a new willingness to engage in a dialogue
with representatives of the Dalai Lama.
Two delegations headed by the Dalai Lama's special
envoys have visited Beijing and met with officials
there and in Lhasa, Tibet's capital.
In October WTN's Thubten Samdup, sat down with Kalon
Tripa Samdhong Rinpoche, Chairperson of the Tibetan
Cabinet, to discuss the dialogue process and hopes for
the start of real negotiations on the future of Tibet.
Samdup: There has been some concern expressed among
the Diaspora that management of the new dialogue
process should be the responsibility of the elected
Tibetan Parliament rather than the office of the Dalai
Lama. What is your reaction to this concern?
Kalon Tripa (Samdhong Rinpoche): It is important to
remember that His Holiness has always been 100 percent
clear that Tibet-China negotiations are not about his
personal status. The subject of negotiation is the
future of people living inside Tibet. His Holiness has
made it absolutely clear that nothing at all related
to his personal status is to be negotiated. His
Holiness is not negotiating for himself; he is
negotiating for the people of Tibet.
If we were to insist that the Government of China
negotiate with the Tibetan government-in-exile, then
the matter would end right there. The Government of
China would certainly state that it does not recognise
the Tibetan government-in-exile. Just to avoid that
outcome, we refer instead to "representatives of the
Dalai Lama". The Dalai Lama is the legitimate
representative of the Tibetan people.
Samdup: The Dalai Lama has appointed 2 special envoys
to establish the dialogue with Chinese authorities.
During your mandate as Chief Minister, the envoys have
led two delegations to Beijing. The perception among
many Tibetans and non-Tibetan supporters is that these
critical matters concerning Tibet's future are being
managed outside of Tibetan Government-in-exile. What
is your view on the role and influence of the special
Kalon Tripa: The concept of His Holiness' special
envoys is not my making. I get it as a legacy dating
back to the 1980s or 90s. When I took charge of the
Kashag, the concept of envoy already existed and the
appointments had already been made. My understanding
of the rationale for a position of special envoy is
that the People's Republic of China (PRC) does not
recognize the Tibetan Government-in-exile. Therefore
it is not possible for the Tibetan Government-in-exile
to interact with the PRC. Still, we need to achieve a
dialogue with them and therefore the only way to do so
is through His Holiness. Chinese authorities do not
recognize His Holiness as the legitimate
representative of Tibetan people, but they are ready
to talk with His Holiness as the institution of the
Dalai Lama. That understanding was established way
back in 1979 and for the past 23 years that
understanding has been maintained and the Tibetan
people should understand it.
Samdup: How does the Tibetan Parliament, which is
elected by the people, view its role in the
Kalon Tripa: The Tibetan Government-in-exile has 2
functions - the first is to manage foreign relations
and policy with countries other than the PRC.
The second is to achieve a dialogue with the PRC in
the hopes of launching negotiations on the future of
Regarding the dialogue with the PRC, it is under the
direct leadership of His Holiness and everything is
decided by him. Why? It is the result of the Tibetan
people's popular mandate which was given via a
referendum which was later endorsed by the
parliament-in-exile. Through the referendum, the
people authorized His Holiness to make decisions with
regards to relations with the PRC dependent on the
current situation. The people have not authorized the
Kashag to manage this process and they have not
authorized the Department of Information and
International Relations (DIIR) to do this job.
Nevertheless, His Holiness is kind enough to consult
with the Kashag and therefore before the 12th Kashag
session (1996-2001), the business of dialogue with
Beijing was discussed among the individuals who
advised His Holiness on this matter: the two envoys,
the Kalon Tripa; the Kalon for Information &
International Relations; the former Chairman of the
Assembly of Tibetan People's Deputies (at the time,
Samdhong Rinpoche). We were requested by His Holiness
to discuss options and offer suggestions to him.
He makes the final decision which is then implemented
through the two envoys. This is exactly in accordance
with the mandate of the referendum with the
endorsement of parliament.
As far as international relations with countries other
than China are concerned, that is the
co-responsibility of the Kashag and the DIIR.
In this regard, the envoys are sometimes consulted but
many times they are not consulted. They are not
representatives of the Offices of Tibet which operate
abroad. The DIIR consults with its various
representatives in the Offices of Tibet as official
procedure and they implement its directives.
However, as far as the dialogue with China is
concerned, its implementation is the exclusive
responsibility of the two envoys under the directives
of His Holiness.
Samdup: Even understanding this background, the fact
remains that the 2 special envoys have tremendous
influence. And therefore the perception among Tibet
support groups (non-governmental groups), and the
Tibetan people themselves is that there may be some
cause for worry in terms of the democratic process.
Now that we have succeeded in establishing a
democratic system of governance in exile with a Kalon
Tripa holding a strong mandate, many in the Diaspora
expected to see your office playing a more prominent
role in the negotiation process. For example, during
the first or second delegation visit last year, the
press statement came from the Private Office of the
Dalai Lama, not from the Tibetan government or
Kalon Tripa: I think that this is unnecessary worry.
As I have mentioned, the parliament has authorized His
Holiness to make all decisions with regards to the
dialogue and negotiation process. There is no
authorization for the Kashag to do this job. When the
decision was taken, neither the Kashag nor the people
expressed any reservations about it. It was the only
way to achieve the dialogue because if the Tibetan
Government-in-exile were involved in any way, then the
PRC would not agree to talk.
Your readers might remember that His Holiness once
sent a delegation to approach the Chinese Embassy in
Delhi. Among the delegation members was one of the
secretaries of the DIIR and the Chinese Embassy
representative said very clearly "sorry he cannot come
because he is an employee of the so-called Tibetan
Government-in-exile". That was their attitude. Under
these circumstances, the only way for us is to
approach the Chinese through His Holiness and that
approach has to be transparent in the international
scenario, particularly to the Chinese leadership. For
that reason after the first envoys' mission, the press
release was issued by the private office and it was
notable that the PRC did not contradict that
The Chinese statement was different but it did not say
the statement from His Holiness' Private Office was
untrue. And I would like to mention here, that if His
Holiness envoys should visit China again, the press
release would again come from the Private Office, not
The envoys may be very influential but you should know
that your Kalon Tripa cannot be influenced by any
influential person. There are many influential persons
in the Tibetan community, but my weaknesses or
demerit is that I am not able to be influenced by
anyone and therefore I am an unpopular person. Any
decision so far about the negotiation strategy has
been the result of consultation and discussion between
the team of advisors and His Holiness. We have never
taken any decision without His Holiness and during the
course of our discussions I don't believe that I have
been unduly influenced by any influential person. I am
happy that His Holiness' envoys are influential
persons - that's good, they need to be influential
persons who can impress the Chinese leadership and I
wish and I hope and I believe they will be successful
in their efforts.
Samdup: I want to go back to your earlier point that
the Tibetan people have requested that His Holiness
deal directly with Tibet-China negotiations. Even with
this mandate, however, His Holiness has always come
back to the Kashag for consultation. If the public
felt strongly and if the parliament felt strongly that
a different approach should be pursued - it would be
possible to reverse that original mandate.
Kalon Tripa: Even if the Tibetan people did feel
strongly about this, and I don't believe that they do,
the parliament could not independently reverse it. In
this matter the parliament is not independent because
the original decision was guided by the opinion of the
people as expressed in a referendum. Sixty-six percent
of the Tibetan people said that His Holiness should
take care of the relationship with China.
That mandate of the people was subsequently endorsed
by the parliament unanimously.
Recently in the last session I said that as far as the
negotiation with the PRC is concerned there are only 2
ways to change our Middle Path Policy. The first is by
His Holiness himself and the second would be through
another referendum. Parliament is also not competent
to change it because it was not a parliamentary
decision. Parliament only endorsed the opinion of the
people expressed during the process of referendum. If
we want to change it then either we have to go to the
people for another referendum, or we have to go to His
Holiness to request him to change the policy.
Samdup: That means, in theory, that if there were
enough people in the Tibetan Diaspora who believe
strongly that a different process should be put into
place, it is conceivable that a change could be made.
Kalon Tripa: Yes, everything is possible in a
democratic society. But there are procedures. If
people gossip among themselves, that will not change
it. His Holiness is not required to initiate a new
referendum because His Holiness has the mandate to
decide from time to time according to the situation.
That is a very clear mandate. If parliament wants to
make a change, then parliament should initiate another
referendum and parliament has every authority and
power to do so. If the people want to conduct a
campaign addressed to their parliamentary
representatives to make that change, then they have
the right to do so.
Samdup: We often seem to use the words "dialogue" and
"negotiation" inter-changeably. In your mind, what is
the difference between them?
Kalon Tripa: There is a big difference - we have
achieved a dialogue but we have not achieved a
negotiation. Dialogue means 2 parties talking face to
face with each other. Negotiation means there is an
established process to resolve specific matters
between the 2 parties. For example, His Holiness has
put forward an agenda in the Strasbourg Proposal - he
has a proposal. Now, if China comes to the negotiation
table, its representatives will say, "this is not
acceptable" or "this is acceptable". Then our people
will have to respond saying "no, you have to accept
this because of this, this or this." That is not mere
discussion, it is negotiation. We have not yet entered
negotiations. Therefore, in all the records and
documents, we do not say we are in negotiations with
the PRC. We have entered a dialogue and now this
dialogue may result in negotiations.
Samdup: In what ways would the negotiation process
differ from the current dialogue initiative?
Kalon Tripa: His Holiness is very clear about
negotiations - once the negotiations start then the
responsibilities of the special envoys will end and a
fresh negotiation team will be constituted. That
negotiation team should consist of people from inside
Tibet and from the Diaspora, along with scholars,
eminent persons, public figures, historians,
The responsibility of His Holiness' envoys is to
prepare the ground for negotiations and to bring China
to the negotiation table. That is very clear in their
mind, in His Holiness' mind and in my mind.
End of part one: Comments should be sent by email to
Part Two of the New Year's Interview with Kalon Tripa
Samdhong Rinpoche, exclusive to WTN, will appear
February 21, 2004.
For more information about the Tibetan
government-in-exile, visit www.tibet.net
For more information about Tibet-China negotiations,
Kashag - Cabinet
Kalon - Cabinet Minister
Kalon Tripa - Chairperson of the Cabinet
Assembly of Tibetan People's Deputies - Parliament