Kasur Lodi Gyari and international diplomacy on Tibet

Oct. 29, 2022 marks the fourth death anniversary of Kasur Lodi Gyari, who until his retirement was the Special Envoy of His Holiness the Dalai Lama and concurrently Executive Chairman of the Board of the International Campaign for Tibet.

The Dalai Lama's Special EnvoyEven though Rinpoche, as he is reverently addressed by people in the Tibetan cultural world, is no longer with us, his legacy lives on and is a daily reminder to many of us at ICT who knew him. Now, a book that he had been working on since his retirement has been published by the Columbia University Press. It is aptly titled, “The Dalai Lama’s Special Envoy: Memoirs of a Lifetime in Pursuit of a Reunited Tibet.”

I have been reading the book and taking in all the information therein like any other new reader. I am saying this since some might assume that having worked with Rinpoche closely, I might have seen it in manuscript form. Rinpoche told me categorically that he intentionally did not include some of us who were working closely with him (I understand even some of his family members did not have access to it) in the process of writing this book so that his process would be clear.

This is also not a book review. In addition to my not having finished reading it at the time of writing, it will take much more space and analysis to thoroughly appreciate the book. Having said that, the title of the book summarizes Rinpoche’s objective: fulfilling the vision of H.H. the Dalai Lama keeping in consideration all Tibetans. In his preface, Rinpoche says, “I firmly believe that I was destined to serve my people and His Holiness. When I look back over the past decades of my service, it is clear to me that each major change in my life was guided by some unseen force.” Indeed!

Me assisting Gyari Rinpoche as he prepares a Mandala set for a formal presentation to Dr. James Billington, the Librarian of Congress, in July 2010, part of the items that His Holiness the Dalai Lama had gifted to the Library of Congress.

Even from the pages that I have read so far, the book provides insight into how His Holiness’ vision was put into action. It has revelations of the different players with whom Rinpoche interacted and self-examination of developments and challenges with recommendations for the future.

In the post-1959 period Kasur Lodi Gyari is among those notable Tibetan leaders who have made a mark in shaping the direction of the Tibetan movement. Rinpoche’s fingerprints can be seen in the development of the Tibetan media, democratic governance system and also in public diplomacy. All of these are highlighted in the book.

Rinpoche’s greatest contribution is his role in the field of Tibetan diplomacy, and virtually two-thirds of the book are devoted to this topic. It was also because of this quality of Rinpoche that His Holiness the Dalai Lama assigned him to be the lead interlocutor in the dialogue process with China.

Rinpoche had a clear strategy and game plan. He redefined “dialogue” to the Tibetan people. Conventionally, people assumed that Tibetan-Chinese dialogue meant the actual act of Tibetan officials meetings with Chinese officials. However, Rinpoche asserted that dialogue did not merely mean the few days of actual talks that might take place with Chinese officials. Rather, it included the need to take into consideration the building of a necessary support base among governments and in the international community so that the talks could have the needed outcome. Rinpoche came up with a strategy to build a coalition of governments whose representatives met regularly to discuss with him in Washington, DC and elsewhere. To fulfill this, he regularly consulted with officials of different governments in Asia, Europe and the Americas. Similarly, he chose to reach out to think tanks and influential individuals, including Chinese intellectuals and Tibetan personalities inside Tibet, who could use their good offices to help with the dialogue process. Rinpoche thus brought a multifaceted approach to the process. I have had the privilege of accompanying him on many of these meetings. Each of these entities were a piece of a puzzle, the complete image of which was clear to Rinpoche.

Interestingly, there were times when Rinpoche even felt the need to ask the international community not to give up its hopes for forward movement in the Tibetan dialogue process. In a testimony to the then-House Committee on International Relations (now the House Foreign Affairs Committee) on March 7, 2002, some months before he was to lead the first round of talks, Rinpoche said: “Members of Congress acting in Committee and individually have taken significant initiative to reach out to the Chinese leadership to urge dialogue with His Holiness, respect for religious freedom, and on behalf of certain Tibetan political prisoners. I know that some congressional friends have been deeply frustrated in their efforts and have even questioned the utility of continuously raising Tibet with the Chinese when their words appear to fall on deaf ears. Yet, I must ask you today not to give up.”

He added, “For the people of Tibet, congressional resolve has given us hope that the possibility of a political solution has not been foreclosed. As long as people have hope, they refrain from desperate measures. Although Tibetans inside Tibet must live in a political and economic situation increasingly beyond their control and by every measure less and less Tibetan, they still cling to hope—hope that His Holiness the Dalai Lama will one day return and hope that they will be delivered from Chinese oppression.”

Rinpoche also provided an international dimension to the Tibetan issue, asserting that the international community is a stakeholder in its future. In a speech at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government on Oct. 8, 2008, Rinpoche expanded on this. He said, “But resolving the Tibetan issue is also important to the international community, particularly to our region. The historically volatile Central Asian region has revived and has already become an area of conflict. Here Tibet can play a stabilizing role, which is important to the countries in the region such as India, China, and Russia, as well as to the United States and other countries. Tibet, which for centuries played the vital role as a buffer in the region, can help create a more cohesive and stable region by serving as a valuable bridge. A number of political observers from the region also acknowledge that resolving the Tibet issue is an important factor in the normalization of India-China relations. Understanding the great mutual benefit for all concerned, His Holiness has consistently supported closer India-China relations.

“There is also increased awareness of the vital importance of the Tibetan plateau from the environmental perspective. Just on the issue of water alone, it is an undeniable fact that over the next few decades water may become as scarce a commodity as oil. Tibet is literally the life-source of the region, serving as the source of most of Asia’s major rivers. Therefore, protecting Tibet’s fragile environment should be accorded the highest priority.”

Rinpoche also did much to explain what the Tibetan issue was and what it was not so that the dialogue process was not confused. For example, when China was literally forcing governments to repeat adherence to the “one-China” principle at every opportunity, Rinpoche explained how this should not apply to the Tibetan situation. In an address to the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington, DC, on April 23, 2012, Rinpoche explained it this way: “If one has to look for any reference point for China-Tibet relations, it is not the 1972 Shanghai communiqué, but the ‘17 Point Agreement,’ previously mentioned. In fact, the lack of relevance of the ‘one China’ policy is precisely what I would like to address. No Tibetan government has ever claimed to be the government of China, so the application of the ‘one-China’ policy to Tibet—or for that matter, the PRC government’s ‘one China’ principle that stresses the inalienability of both Taiwan and mainland China as parts of a single ‘China’—simply does not arise.”

Rinpoche’s diplomacy encompassed outreach to the Tibetan people as well. One of his constant lamentations, also mentioned in the book, is that we Tibetans fail to study our history properly and to learn from it. For example, concerning the Middle Way Approach, Rinpoche says this in the book’s preface: “Unless we fully understand the tumultuous and complex decades of our early years in exile, we cannot truly appreciate why His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama took the courageous decision to adopt the Middle Way Approach.” The book has a section totally devoted to this tumultuous period.

Nature of his assignment

In the final years of the 2002-2010 dialogue period, there were those who felt that the exercise had not achieved anything. By this, they meant that the issue remained unresolved even after nine rounds of talks. Rinpoche spoke out on many occasions about the nature of his assignment and how there might be differing public reaction no matter what the outcome was. This was because he knew that trying to talk to the Chinese leadership on the complicated issue of Tibet where there were several factors at play was a herculean task. Any outcome would be controversial.

However, this did not mean Rinpoche failed in his assignment. Rinpoche was clear in what he was tasked to do. On Sept. 28, 2002, after the first round of the talks with the Chinese officials, Rinpoche issued a statement in which he said, “The task that my colleague Envoy Kelsang Gyaltsen and I had on this trip was twofold. First, to re-establish direct contact with the leadership in Beijing and to create a conducive atmosphere enabling direct face-to-face meetings on a regular basis in future. Secondly, to explain His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s Middle Way Approach towards resolving the issue of Tibet. Throughout the trip, we were guided by this objective.”

On May 10, 2007, in a speech at Asia Centre, a think tank based in Paris, Rinpoche outlined the status of the dialogue process until then, saying, “The five rounds of discussions that we have had with the Chinese leadership have brought our dialogue to a new level. Today, there is a deeper understanding of each other’s positions and the recognition of where the fundamental differences lie. On the surface it may appear that there have been no break-throughs and that a wide gap persists in our positions. But the very fact that the two sides have been able to explicitly state our positions after so many decades represents a significant development.”

Subsequently, he summed up the outcome after the dialogue process ended in 2010. On March 5, 2010, in a speech at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a think tank based in Washington, DC, Rinpoche said, “Through our talks, for the first time after decades of being in and out of contact, we have been able to convey to the Chinese leadership in an unambiguous manner the position of His Holiness and the steps that need to be taken to resolve the Tibetan problem. Our talks have certainly enabled us to understand better the Chinese government’s position and concerns regarding the future of Tibet.”

Even as Rinpoche was able to convey His Holiness’ position directly to the Chinese government, he clearly reiterated the fundamental issues in which there would be no change. In his “My Personal Words of Gratitude,” which he released at the time of his retirement on Dec. 31, 2014, he said, “My delegation made sincere and serious effort to convince the Chinese leaders of His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s firm commitment to seek a solution for the future of Tibet without independence and within the Peoples Republic of China (PRC). We were also explicit and firm on three fundamentally important positions as directed by His Holiness the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan leadership: 1) that whatever solution was worked out must address all the Tibetans and encompass all the areas inhabited by Tibetan people, 2) that while our commitment to seeking a solution within the PRC was genuine, we could not accept a falsified and distorted version of our history and, 3) that the issue confronting us was not about the title, the function or the future of His Holiness the Dalai Lama but that of the six million Tibetans and their place within the People’s Republic of China.”

Rinpoche also made use of the media to convey his messages as and when needed. In the course of his leading the dialogue process, I saw him strategically give interviews to specific news outlets (including having us organize Chinese-only media events) or write articles for a news outlet with a specific target audience in mind. Some months after the ninth round of talks that ended in January-February 2010, Rinpoche wrote an op-ed in the South China Morning Post on Sept. 12, 2010 in which he had a clear message to the Chinese government. Rinpoche wrote:

“The Chinese leadership needs to take responsibility and make a serious commitment to finding a real solution to the issue of Tibet. The urgency of that responsibility is all the more palpable because of the uniqueness of this current window of time. Never before has there been a Tibetan leader like His Holiness, who has so firmly and persistently pursued such a challenging and treacherous path to achieve visionary change for the Tibetan and Chinese peoples.”

Given his work here in Washington, DC, it was very encouraging that the United States Senate honored him with a resolution passed in September 2012, saying it commends his achievements in building “an international coalition of support for Tibet.”

In 2018, after his untimely demise, I ended a blog piece of mine about him with this: “Following his retirement and departure from Washington, D.C. ‘How is Lodi?’ was a constant refrain that I would hear from serving and retired officials here when I accosted them. Until now, I could respond by saying that he is spending his time writing his memoir as he sees that as something that he can put his retired life in a meaningful use in the service of the Tibetan people. Now Rinpoche is no more, but he will continue to be my inspiration.” Now, I can say that with this book, there is some sort of closure.

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Bhuchung K. Tsering

Bhuchung K. Tsering joined the International Campaign for Tibet in Washington, DC in 1995 and is currently the head of the Research and Monitoring Unit. He worked as a journalist with Indian Express in New Delhi, and as an official of the Central Tibetan Administration (CTA) in Dharamsala, India, before joining ICT.
He was a member of the Task Force set up by the Central Tibetan Administration to work on issues relating to the dialogue process with the Chinese leadership. He was also a member of the team led by the envoys of H.H. the Dalai Lama in the discussions that they had with the Chinese leadership between 2002 and 2010.
He has contributed articles on Tibet and related issues to Indian, Nepalese, Tibetan, Swiss and American journals. He has also testified in Congress on behalf of the International Campaign for Tibet and spoken at Universities and Think Tanks.