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posted Mar 15, 2011, 7:49 PM by The Tibetan Political Review   [ updated Mar 18, 2011, 1:19 PM ]

By the Editorial Board of The Tibetan Political Review

In this editorial, the Editors of The Tibetan Political Review (TPR) look at the views of the three Kalon Tripa candidates on the Middle Way (Ume-Lam) Policy for Tibetan autonomy within the Peoples Republic of China (PRC).  The candidates’ views are described and analyzed below in alphabetical order by the candidate’s last name.

Lobsang Sangay la

In his youth, Sangay belonged to Tibetan Youth Congress (TYC), a group that unequivocally supports Tibetan independence (rangzen).  Of course, this does not necessarily mean Sangay still holds those views today.  More recently, Sangay has expressed his views on the Middle Way Policy, the Chinese Constitution, and China’s National Regional Autonomy Law at various times but his position has not always been consistent.

In October 2006, in the Harvard South Asian Journal, Sangay did not directly discuss the Middle Way Policy but did criticize China’s National Regional Autonomy Law (NRAL) and the PRC Constitution for not providing genuine autonomy to Tibet because of the emphasis on unity in the NRAL and the PRC Constitution.  In Sangay’s opinion, the NRAL and the PRC Constitution do not provide genuine self-governance to the Tibetan people.  Any conflicts between unity and autonomy are always decided in the favor of unity which trumps any rights of ethnic autonomy.<FN1>  Sangay’s article in the South Asian Journal suggests he believes the Middle Way would not work within the framework of the PRC Constitution and the NRAL.  This 2006 article suggests that Sangay would have serious concerns or criticisms of the Ume Lam since he believed genuine autonomy are not possible within the current PRC Constitution and NRAL.

However, Sangay also has expressed supported for the Middle Way Policy even before he was a candidate for Kalon Tripa.  In April 2008, in prepared testimony to the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Asia Pacific Subcommittee, Sangay wrote that “Dalai Lama’s middle path approach of seeking genuine autonomy within the framework of China has substantial legitimacy in the context of China’s own rich history.”<FN2>  This suggests a strong endorsement of the Middle Way Policy.

In 2008, the Tibetan Government-in-Exile (TGIE) publicly released the full Memorandum of Genuine Autonomy (Memorandum) which states that “[w]e are seeking a solution to the Tibetan problem through genuine autonomy, which is compatible with the principles on autonomy in the Constitution of the People's Republic of China (PRC).”<FN3>  The Memorandum goes on to describe how its proposal for genuine autonomy is also consistent with the NRAL.  One would think that Sangay would disagree with this view based on his opinions expressed in the South Asian Journal in 2006.  However, in a speech to Minnesota Tibetans in January 2011, Sangay said there is no contradiction between the Middle Way and the PRC Constitution and that he always endorsed His Holiness’ plan of using the PRC Constitution to push for Tibetan rights.<FN4>  Sangay said this despite his previous findings that the PRC Constitution and the NRAL do not provide genuine autonomy for Tibetans and that they, in fact, trump unity over autonomy.

Then in March 2010, Sangay wrote that a free Tibet was conceivable and he believes that one day the “Tibetan national flag” will fly over the rooftop of the Potala Palace.<FN5>  While a “free Tibet” is ambiguous enough of a term to include either autonomy or
rangzen, the use of the term “Tibetan national flag” (emphasis added) suggests support for Tibetan independence.  A country does not have a national flag unless it is a nation.  An autonomous Tibet within the PRC could have a flag but not a “national flag.”  Once again it became unclear whether Sangay supports Ume Lam or really believes in an independent Tibet that is not under Chinese sovereignty.

In a November 2010 interview with RFA, Sangay stated that if His Holiness, the Parliament (in exile) & Tibetan people want to change the Middle Way Policy than the Kalon Tripa should implement it.<FN6>  While this statement reflects what a Kalon Tripa should do if the Middle Way Policy is changed, it does not provide any further clarification of whether Sangay supports or disagrees with the current Middle Way Policy.  It should be noted that Sangay also believes Tibetans have the right to self-determination but has maintained his support for the Middle Way.<FN7>

More recently, Sangay stated that the Middle Way Policy is mandatory per Chapters IV and V of the Exile Charter but that he does recognize a diversity of views on the subject.<FN8>  However, a review of the Chapters IV and V of Exile Charter reveals no clause making the Middle Way Policy mandatory for the Tibetan Government in Exile.<FN9>  In fact, we could find no provision in the Exile Charter which makes the Middle Way Policy or Tibetan autonomy mandatory or that even discusses the Middle Way.  In fact, Chapter I, Art. 3 of the Exile Charter states the future Tibetan government should be based on federal democratic republic, which suggests an independent Tibetan state.  Therefore, we do not understand Sangay’s claim that the Exile Charter makes the Middle Way policy mandatory for the Kalon Tripa to follow.  The Kalon Tripa may be required to follow the policy adopted by the Parliament-in-Exile but there is nothing in the Exile Charter which makes the Middle Way policy mandatory.

In conclusion, even though he has not always been consistent in his statements, Sangay appears to now support the Middle Way Policy.  However, he is also open to a review of that policy, if everyone, including His Holiness, the Parliament and the Tibetan people decide to change it.  Of course, if all those people decide to change the Middle Way Policy, it is doubtful any Kalon Tripa could stand in the way of change.  While his views have vacillated from time to time, the most recent statements from Sangay since he announced his candidacy for Kalon Tripa clearly show that he now supports the Middle Way Policy, even in the framework of the arguably flawed PRC Constitution.

Tenzin Namgyal Tethong la

Like Sangay, Tethong was once also a member of TYC but activities during one’s youth do not necessarily reflect one’s views later in life.  Presumably, Tethong supported the Middle Way Policy when he was Kalon Tripa during the early 1990s although the position then had less power than it does now, and presumably Tethong had little choice but to support this policy.  More recently, Tethong is a co-founder of Committee of 100 for Tibet (C100).  One of their core principles is self-determination for Tibet which C100 describes as “principle that a people has the right to freely choose its own political status and to determine its own form of economic, cultural and social development.”<FN10>  

In a response to TPR’s questions to the Kalon Tripa candidates, in September 2010 Tethong noted that discussions with the Chinese Government have come to a standstill and that Tibetans are not obligated to any previously-held positions since China rejected the Memorandum in 2008.  Tethong elaborated on his position by stating “[w]e need to find a way to promote a resolution of the Tibetan issue based on the reasoning that the human rights of the Tibetan people are not for the Chinese to grant, or to abuse.  And that collectively, we as a people have the right to determine our own future.”<FN11>

In an October 2009 interview with WTN, Tethong repeated his support for self-determination and stated that the focus should be on the right of Tibetans for self-determination and not just on the dialogue process.<FN12>   Tethong also pointed out that self-determination is not necessarily inconsistent with the Middle Way since His Holiness has said the ultimate decision belongs to the Tibetan people.

In the November 2010 RFA interview, Tethong said the “[China’s negative response to the Middle Way Proposal] makes us think that the time has come to review the current Middle Way approach of the Tibetan exile government in dealing with the Chinese leadership on the issue of Tibet.”<FN13>

It is clear from these statements that Tethong supports self-determination for Tibet although he has to our knowledge never clarified whether he personally prefers independence or genuine autonomy.  It is also clear that Tethong believes there is a need to review Ume Lam but has acknowledged that the Kalon Tripa cannot change the policy as that must be done by the Parliament-in-Exile.  Nevertheless, it seems likely that if elected Kalon Tripa, Tethong might use his influence to at least review and possibly amend the Middle Way Policy, assuming His Holiness does not express any objections.

Tashi Wangdi la

Throughout his long career in the TGIE and service as His Holiness’ Representative, Wangdi has supported and promoted the Middle Way Policy.  As a candidate for Kalon Tripa, Wangdi has continued his unequivocal support for the Middle Way Policy.  

It is clear that if elected Kalon Tripa, Wangdi will continue to advocate the Middle Way for genuine autonomy.  In response to a question in one of the debates, Wangdi responded that there is no other alternative but the Middle Way for genuine Tibetan autonomy and if talks with the Chinese Government ultimately fail, the solution would be explain the Middle Way to the Chinese public.  <FN14>However, in our opinion that idea shows some political naiveté since the Chinese public does not control the government nor can they truly influence their government given the lack of genuine democracy in China.  Moreover, the Chinese Government has been very adept at propaganda spin such that the majority of the Chinese public believe His Holiness’ plan is to grab more territory by creating a “Greater Tibet”; a belief not grounded in reality but, nevertheless, strongly held by many ordinary Chinese.


Wangdi and Sangay appear by all available evidence to be supporters of Ume Lam, even if one of them had misgivings about it in the past.  Tethong, as a supporter of self-determination, would more likely leave it up to the Tibetan people to decide whether to maintain, change, or abandon the Middle Way.  Of all the candidates, it seems Tethong would be the most likely to be open to rangzen as the new policy of the TGIE if the Tibetan people decided to pursue independence again.<FN15>

All three Katri candidates acknowledge that the Kalon Tripa would have to follow the policy set by the Parliament-in-Exile.  However, depending on his personality, a Kalon Tripa could influence the outcome of any decision by the Parliament-in-Exile.  A Kalon Tripa’s potential influence will become even greater given His Holiness’ recent decision to resign from political responsibilities concerning the TGIE.  In the near future, His Holiness may be more reluctant to advise the TGIE and the Tibetan people on whether they should maintain or change the Middle Way Policy and leave it up the Tibetan people to decide what course to pursue.  A Kalon Tripa who supports maintaining Ume Lam will likely use his influence to keep the Middle Way as the official policy of the TGIE.  A Kalon Tripa who is open to rangzen might use his influence to change the policy, assuming His Holiness made it clear that He is neutral on the subject and is leaving the decision entirely up to the Tibetan people.  Of course, if a change of policy is considered, it may take another referendum to obtain the views of the Tibetan people on this very important (possibly the most important) issue for Tibet’s future.

Our conclusions are based on the best available evidence we have found.  We do not claim to have thoroughly exhausted all possible information and welcome responses from our readers who may have additional information to clarify the record.  We also welcome responses from all three Katri candidates to clarify their position on this subject if they believe our editorial is erroneous or we have reached the wrong conclusions about their views.  



14: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KwXWcpBH_J8
15: Of course, many Tibetans and Tibetan groups, notably TYC for example, still support rangzen.