Autonomy: Scotland and Tibet; Birds of the same feather, daring to fly together

I wrote this piece for the journal Tibet Today in the year 2007 whilst pursuing my graduate studies in Edinburgh

Living in Scotland, I am enamoured by its successful autonomous model. His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama has admitted to being inspired by the Scotland Model. Imagining Tibet’s autonomy within the similar paradigm, I can only hope for it to be modelled on the Scottish Autonomy.

Thanks to Jenni Campbell (a staff at the Scottish Parliament and an avid supporter of Tibet) for arranging my visit to the Scottish parliament which enabled me the opportunity to witness the debate at the Debating Chambers. It was quite an enthralling experience to see the MSPs from Scotland’s six major political parties getting engaged in heated debates about home issues. I simply couldn’t resist visualising our future Autonomous Tibet in a similar  setting.

The Scottish Parliament has 129 members. Of these, 73 are constituency MSP while 56 are regional “list” MSPs. The Parliament has powers over most of what goes on in Scotland, including education policy, health and transport. The next Scottish Parliament election will take place on the 3rd of May 2007. At the moment, the Labour party and the Liberal Democrats are in coalition and form the Scottish executive while Scottish National Party, Torries Party, Greens Party, Scottish Socialist Party and five independents are the opposition. The magnificent Parliament building definitely deserves to be amidst the new wonders of the world. My eyes turned moist looking at its glaring magnificence. “There shall be a Scottish Parliament”. This was the opening clause of the Scotland Act 1998 which led the following year to the establishment of the first Scottish Parliament since 1707. These are the words inscribed on the plaque of the Mace of the Scottish Parliament, handed to the Parliament by the Queen at the official opening of its first session on 1 July 1999.

Scotland has been extremely supportive towards the Tibetan Government in Exile and to the Tibetan struggle for genuine autonomy, needless to say that the Scottish Parliamentary Cross Party group on Tibet has been instrumental in hosting the ‘4th World Parliamentarian’s Convention on Tibet’ convened at the Scottish Parliament in November 2005.

Chris Balance, the Chairman of Scottish Parliamentary Cross Party group on Tibet and an important member of the Scottish Green Party generously agreed to do an interview with me.  Chris is the Business Manager for the Greens and sits on the Procedures Committee.  The cross party was formed following His Holiness the Dalai Lama`s first visit to the Scottish Parliament in June, 2004.

Q) Scotland’s Autonomy is an inspiration for the future Tibetan Autonomy, What is your say /reflection on this?

C.B; It is very interesting here in the Scottish Parliament where we have a degree of autonomy, following 100 to 200 years of campaign. I can completely understand where the desire for complete independence comes from, but I recognize and support the Dalai Lama`s position as the spiritual and political leader of the Tibetan People. His call for acceptance of autonomy within the Chinese state is what I am very happy to support. His Holiness has visited the Scottish Parliament twice and his part of interest within the Scottish Parliament is with the fact that we have for the first time in 300 years, a Scottish Parliament with a degree of autonomy, we don’t have control over defence and macro economic policy, but we do have control over substantial number of areas relating to health, education, transport, environment. The Scottish Parliament manages to work with the aspiration of Scottish people and their own identity and culture, whilst also working within the framework of the UK government.

Q) What is your general impression about the Tibetan freedom struggle that now sees a clash between quest for genuine autonomy and the demand for complete independence? We have been pitching for autonomy for more than two decades and considering the Chinese government’s apathy and callous attitude, do you see the practicability of a demand for an autonomous Tibet?

C.B; I think, such big achievements always take time. The campaign for Scottish Parliament has been active for atleast 60 to 80 years which is fair enough time. Clearly at the moment we have a Chinese government which is very oppressive of human rights and which in many ways, abuses the human rights of its citizens, not just the Tibetans, but of the other groups within the country. The Chinese government regime, which I believe is much more repressive regime then the UK Westminster regime, does definitely cause difficulty for the Tibetan struggle for autonomy within the Chinese framework. But things always change and we are in a state of flux, the current leadership will move on and a new leadership will be taking over in time and I think one important thing that we can do here in the west is to work with the young Chinese students, who are learning new things and observing our culture. It is important to work with them, to put across human rights and Tibet, because these people who are now in their adolescence will be ruling their country when they are adults. I am an enthusiastic supporter of the non-violent approach; although non-violence doesn’t produce obvious, immediate, quick effects but the problems caused by violent approach can be far worse in the long term and I am not convinced about any form of violent approach that would have the got the Tibetan people any further than what they are at the moment. Thanks to His Holiness, Tibetan people have a profile worldwide which some weaker community would love to have. His Holiness is not just a spiritual leader but principally his role in promoting peace and his peaceful solution and alternatives have given the Tibetan people the profile.

Q) There’s no denying the fact that any country or international body that supports the political profile of Tibet seems to be relentlessly threatened or pressurized by the Chinese Government. How has the Scottish Cross party group on Tibet been containing such threats?

C.B; Oh! The Chinese Consul here (the Chinese Consulate is based in Edinburgh) has been very active. She tried to stop the Cross Party being formed in the first place. The formation of any Cross Party has to be formally been accepted by the Standards Committee and the Consul tried to target the Committee to say no, but I am glad that they refused to oblige to her. When His Holiness visited here, again she wrote to the Scottish Executive, myself, the Presiding officer of the Parliament and to Westminster and again her demands were not met and again His Holiness was able to come here and give a religious address to the whole Parliament and a political address to the members of the Cross Party which was the one thing that the Chinese Consulate was adamant about. She told me that all the trade relations between China and Scotland would end and that all the tourist visits, but we did not see any such consequences. It was all empty threats.

And it did very much demonstrate on a personal level to me the bullying nature of the Chinese government and of the fact that they as much as need us as much as we need them, so we have a power. When I met the other ambassadors and consulates, generally or superficially there is a certain level of politeness. But when I invited the consul to a meeting, she rolled her sleeves and thrashed on the table and said “right down to business, this visit must not happen, you are splittist, separatist….and what you are proposing will cause great damage to the Chinese people”. She came threatening and there was no attempt to any diplomatic courtesy and I felt at the end of the first meeting that if she could behave in this manner with me, whom she has no power over, then the power and the threat of the Chinese government over their people must be truly horrendous and thinking about the Tibetan people, I felt very unpleasant.

Q) Given your concerns about the human rights situation of Tibetans in Tibet under the Chinese occupation and contrasting that with China’s representation of huge economic growth and a display of religious freedom in Tibet, do you think it’s a constructed reality or have things changed for the better?

C.B; Well, we have interacted with former Drapchi political prisoners and clearly, for people held in jails, then are no human rights and that is still deeply disappointing. If the situation is easier for Tibetan people, then I think it is good. I hope that the Chinese government will see this as a part of the solution and see that the Tibetans are happier. But sadly things are state controlled and yes, there is a long way to go. But if China is feeling towards allowing more personal freedom in Tibet, then I think its great and obviously the Chinese government themselves will gain from that. One has to clearly admire the engineering feat in Lhasa, nevertheless the Chinese appear to be making the Tibetans a small minority in Tibet. For me, the Tibetan culture that interests me first is the unique religious culture, which is so precious and important on a global scale that it has to be protected and cherished and it also has to have its own freedom to worship. The Chinese have to realise that it is not a threat and that it is actually a way of life.

Q) His Holiness the Dalai Lama has expressed inspired by the Scottish Autonomy and Parliamentary proceedings. As an MSP and being a key figure in this model, how would you response to this?

C.B; His Holiness has visited the Parliament twice and we have also had a couple of visits by the Tibetan exile parliamentarians. They have taken serious interest in the structure here and how this place interacts with Westminster and in how this Parliament operates. No two countries are the same, so we can’t be exact parallel or model and I think it will be wrong to see it as such. But we have worked together well with Westminster. The people of Scotland have wanted Autonomy for so long, particularly for the last 30 years. It is also said that having the Scottish Parliament has reduced the movement in Scotland for complete independence.

I am speaking here to two audiences, one is the Tibetan and the other is Chinese.  I haven’t seen the Chinese themselves having any particular interest in the Scottish Parliament but I would like to put across the message to the Chinese government that the autonomy here is working.

Q) Well much like the majority of the Tibetans in exile, I too support the demand for a genuine autonomy . Closing on a positive note, how do you envision or foresee the future relations between an autonomous Tibet and an autonomous Scotland?

C.B; We are both small nations living within a bigger framework. Scotland and Scottish people have a reputation for being very open to people from other lands because Scots have gone right across the world and on similar lanes, following the exodus of 1959, Tibetan have taken Tibetan Buddhism right across the world. We understand each other’s situation very well and we will always support the Tibetan people. In future there are a lot of possibilities of economic ties and religious harmony. So I look forward to our future with an autonomous Tibet. His Holiness has said that the next incarnation will not be within China and may be we will have an incarnation in Scotland (laughs).

I interrupted; ‘A Scottish Dalai Lama’?

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Born on 7th July, 1952, Chris Balance is an alumnus of St. Andrews University (not to forget that Prince William is an alumni of this prestigious university). His Career graph reflects the multi-talented role that he donned as a self-employed playwright, writer and bookshop owner, as a part-time teacher in creative writing at Crichton Campus, Glasgow University and as the Manager of the mental health Charity, Glasgow which is the 2nd largest city in Scotland.  Chris also has a professional membership in Executive Member of Writers` Guild of Great Britain and Scottish Society of Playwrights Equity.

Well it has been quite an experience living and studying in an autonomous Scotland and being able to interview a member of the Scottish Parliament. In twenty years down the lane, I see myself conducting a similar interview with a Tibetan Parliamentarian in an autonomous Tibet.  I bet this is a sight with a vision for I strongly believe that sight without vision is incomplete!

“Shoot for the moon. Even if you miss it you will land among the stars”-Les Brown.

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