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Tibetan exile leader arrives in Washington for talks

Tibetan exile leader Penpa Tsering has met with senior State Department official Uzra Zeya for discussions on the status of the Himalayan region in the first of a series of talks this week with U.S. Congressional and government representatives.

Tsering – the Sikyong or elected head of Tibet’s India-based exile government the Central Tibetan Administration – will be in Washington until April 29 at the invitation of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, and will be following his talks there with visits next week to Canada and Germany.

Monday’s meeting with Uzra Zeya, Special Coordinator for Tibetan Issues, was followed by a lunch hosted at the State Department and attended by seven foreign ambassadors, including ambassadors from the Czech Republic, Denmark, Canada, and the United Kingdom.

Special Coordinator Zeya has been active in supporting Tibet’s struggle for greater freedoms under China’s rule ever since her appointment to the role last year, Tsering said in remarks following their discussions.

“She had her first virtual meeting with the Representative of the Office of Tibet in Washington D.C., and has met with other groups such as the International Campaign for Tibet and the Tibet Fund, and has also been interviewed by various Tibetan media outlets such as Radio Free Asia,” Tsering said.

Former State Department special representatives were never so visible or spoke so openly in raising concerns over Tibetan issues, Tsering said.

Discussions on how to resume talks between China and Tibet’s exile government will continue “and cannot be resolved in one day,” the Sikyong said, reiterating the CTA’s support for a “Middle Way” approach that accepts Tibet’s status as a part of China but urges greater freedoms for Tibetan language, religious, and cultural rights.

“We urge the Tibetans inside Tibet not to lose hope, as we in exile will continue to do our best to advocate for Tibet,” Tsering added.

Nine rounds of talks were previously held between envoys of exiled spiritual leader the Dalai Lama and high-level Chinese officials beginning in 2002, but stalled in 2010 and were never resumed.

Also meeting with Zeya on Monday, Zeegyab Rinpoche — abbot of the South India branch of Tibet’s Tashilhunpo monastery, seat of Tibet’s missing Panchen Lama — said that he and Tsering urged Zeya in their talks to “take a stronger stand and strengthen efforts to resolve the Tibetan issue and His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s return to Tibet.”

The U.S. must now also implement the Tibet Policy and Support Act, U.S. legislation pushing for U.S. access to Panchen Gedhun Choekyi Nyima, who vanished into Chinese custody as a young boy in 1995 after being recognized by the Dalai Lama as the previous Panchen Lama’s successor, Zeegyab Rinpoche said.

Following the Panchen Lama’s disappearance, the Chinese government quickly put forward its own candidate, Gyaincain Norbu, calling him the “real” Panchen Lama. Norbu remains widely unpopular among Tibetans, who consider him a puppet of Beijing.

A significant religious figure

April 25 marked the 33rd birthday of the missing Panchen Lama, and was celebrated by Tibetan exile communities around the world. It was also observed this year by a large gathering in Ladakh, a northwestern Indian territory that shares many Buddhist traditions with Tibet.

Commenting on Monday’s observance, Thiksey Rinpoche — a former member of the Indian parliament’s upper house — called the Panchen Lama “a very significant religious figure not just for Tibetans but for Buddhists everywhere.”

“Tibet and Ladakh share similar religious and cultural traditions, and any problems faced by Tibetans are also problems faced by all Himalayan communities,” Thiksey Rinpoche said.

“The [well-being of] the Panchen Lama remains a critical issue,” agreed Jamyang Tsering Namgyal, a member of India’s parliament. “It is also obvious that the Chinese government will object if the Dalai Lama himself is reincarnated in India, and as an Indian I feel we must be concerned about this.”

“This is not just a concern for Tibetans alone. The Indian government must address this issue too,” Namgyal said.

In a statement Monday, the U.S. State Department urged authorities in the People’s Republic of China to account for the missing Panchen Lama’s whereabouts and well-being, “and to allow him to fully exercise his human rights and fundamental freedoms, in line with the PRC’s international commitments.”

“The United States supports Tibetans’ religious freedom and their unique religious, cultural, and linguistic identity, including Tibetans’ right to select, educate, and venerate their own leaders, like the Dalai Lama and the Panchen Lama, according to their own beliefs and without government interference,” the State Department said.

Formerly an independent nation, Tibet was invaded and incorporated into China by force more than 70 years ago, and the Dalai Lama and thousands of his followers later fled into exile in India and other countries around the world following a failed 1959 national uprising against China’s rule.

Tibetans living in Tibet frequently complain of discrimination and human rights abuses by Chinese authorities and policies they say are aimed at eradicating their national and cultural identity.

Translated by Tenzin Dickyi for RFA’s Tibetan Service. Written in English by Richard Finney.