Just my two cents worth


April 2010

SAARC: Why Tibet matters to Southasia

SAARC summit in Thimphu on April 29, 2010

I have been closely following the ongoing South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) summit in Bhutan. While it is yet another attempt by the South Asian nations to redefine themselves and to find ways to work together, it is even more valuable opportunity for Bhutan to showcase itself to the world.

Whatever be the case, I am reproducing below an article that I wrote for the Nepal-based magazine Himal South Asia in 2007 relating to SAARC.

Why Tibet matters to Southasia

By Bhuchung K Tsering
Himal South Asia, April 2007

When reports about the possible entry of China into SAARC first appeared a few years back, quite a few eyebrows went up. When China was subsequently  given observer status to the organisation in 2005, some wondered whether SAARC would now be used as a forum for a proxy India-China battle towards regional dominance. As a Tibetan living in Southasia, China’s connection with SAARC has long held a particular interest for this writer. And indeed, if there is any direct relevance to China’s involvement in SAARC, it is due to Tibet. In terms of physical geography alone, the main connection between today’s People’s Republic of China and Southasia is through Tibet.
But what has SAARC got to do with Tibet? Historically, Tibet and the Tibetan people have looked to the south for our spiritual and cultural heritage – to countries, including India, Bangladesh and Nepal. But this is not necessarily  why the rest of the Southasian countries should pay attention to Tibet. The political path on the plateau and beyond is taking its own route.

Since 2002, there have been five rounds of discussions between envoys of the Dalai  Lama and representatives of the Chinese government on the future of Tibet.  As the Dalai Lama’s special envoy, Lodi Gyari, said in recent testimony  before the US Congress, “We have now reached the stage where if
there is the political will on both sides, we have an opportunity to finally resolve this  issue.” So, we now just need the Chinese leadership to appreciate the vision  and initiative of the Dalai Lama. Of course, a resolution of the Tibetan issue will certainly contribute to peace and stability in other parts of Southasia, as well.
However, Tibet should matter to Southasia because of its trade possibilities, as well as its strategic and environmentally sensitive location. At one time, within living memory, there was a robust trade relationship between Tibet and its southern neighbours – Nepal, Bhutan and  India. A revival of such relations has considerable potential for helping to speed up the rising Southasian economy. If there is truth to the belief that China is a vast market able to be tapped, Southasia is well placed to do so  through Tibet.
Second, the management of Tibet’s rich water resources and environment will  have a long-term impact on the region as a whole. Critically, analysts speculate that the next big global crisis will be on the sharing of water resources. A report from 2000 by the Asian Development Bank on the “looming water crisis” found that globally, “The demand for freshwater increased sixfold between 1900 and 1995, twice the rate of population growth.”
Further, “The most accessible water is that which flows in river channels or is stored in freshwater lakes and reservoirs.” In the Subcontinent, most of  the major rivers have their source in Tibet. According to the Central Tibetan Administration in Dharamsala, “A substantial proportion of river flows in Tibet are stable or base flows coming from groundwater and glacial sources.” Thus, the impact of changes in Tibet’s glacial reserves – through  either climate change or more direct human intervention – will affect  regions far beyond Tibet.
Already some Southasian countries are experiencing the negative impact of improper management of Tibetan river systems. Frequent flooding of the Yarlung Tsangpo (Brahmaputra) continues to have devastating results in India and Bangladesh. According to a 2004 report, “The Brahmaputra is mainly responsible for the annual floods that hit the eastern region of the Subcontinent. Estimates say that [2004’s] floods, the worst in a decade, claimed close to 2000 lives in Bangladesh and in the eastern Indian tates of Bihar, West Bengal and Assam. Millions of people lost their homes in the region that includes the foothills of Nepal.” The report continued, “International agencies once again began discussing the need for a regional approach of water-resource management of the Himalayan rivers that flow through China, India, Pakistan, Nepal, Bhutan and Bangladesh.”
When reports appeared in 2006 about China building a dam on the Yarlung Tsangpo, strong reactions immediately arose from Assam and Arunachal Pradesh, which would be directly impacted by the move. China subsequently denied having any such plan, but the impact that the handling of Tibet’s rivers will have on downstream countries was crystal clear. Now that China has an observer status with SAARC, the countries of Southasia have an increased need, but also a crucial ability, to pay direct attention to the situation in Tibet – environmental, political and social. Indeed Southasia as a whole now has both the increased impetus and leverage to call for the opening up of Tibet, both physically and psychologically, to the southern neighbours.

Did I have a hand in translating Shakabpa’s new book on Tibetan History?

Many of you would have heard about the English translation of historian W.D. Shakabpa’s two-volume A Political History of Tibet (in Tibetan).  It was published some months back and was titled One Hundred Thousand Moons (Brill’s Tibetan Studies Library), translated by Dr. Derek F. Maher of East Carolina University here in the United States.

However, not many may know that some of us had a hand in its “translation,” too.  In the early 1990s, when we were working in Dharamsala, some of us were approached to see if we could do the first translation of the two volume by Shakabpa as there were plans to publish it in English.  We did not have much background information then except knowing that John Avedon, who had written, In Exile from the Land of Snows, was involved in it. We took up the task, divided the two volume amongst ourselves (there were around six of us, if I recall). After our draft translation was sent and we were paid for it, we did not hear anything. Later on we were informed that the project got shelved.

Recently, while browsing through Dr. Maher’s introduction in the book, I came across the following reference:

“I had access to a very rough and incomplete translation that had been prepared by someone for whom English was apparently not a first language. This was provided to me by the agent handling the Library of Tibet series, Wylie Aitkin & Stone. Despite its limitations, I owe a debt to the person or people who created those pages because they served as a sort of Rosetta Stone for me, permitting me to understand difficult phrases and stylistic forms employed by Tsepon Shakabpa, many of which I could not find paradigms for in the few grammar books then available.”

So, indeed the “incomplete translation” that Dr. Maher refers to “by someone for whom English was apparently not a first language” would certainly be the draft that my colleagues and I were involved in.  Dr. Maher is kind enough to “owe a debt to the person or people who created those pages…”

From his introduction, I also had a better understanding of the entire book project.  Dr. Maher writes:

“Donald S. Lopez was then editing what was planned to be a significant new series of books about many aspects of Tibet called the Library of Tibet, for which, John F. Avedon was the general series editor. The plan was to have three books published each year for seven years, with His Holiness the Dalai Lama contributing one book each year and scholars providing translations of other classic Tibetan works for the other two. The books were to be published by a well-known American publisher. Years later, the publishing deal collapsed after only one book had been put out, the novel called The Tale of the Incomparable Prince, written by Tshe ring dbang rgyal and skillfully translated by Beth Newman.”

So when you happen to read Shakabpa’s One Hundred Thousand Moons, it could be that some of the words in English (or at least the inspiration for that) are the product of some Tibetans who had worked as commercial amateur Lotsawas.

What do you call Twitter in Tibetan?

It has been some months since I joined the Twitter bandwagon and began the more personally satisfying task of twitting in Tibetan. Take a look at In the process I have learnt a great deal. In the absence of a pan-Tibetan news source that can act like a 24-hour TV news channel, the small world of Twitter in Tibetan has become a major source for diverse news. Whether it is about His Holiness the Dalai Lama having returned to Dharamsala from one of his visits, the weather in the Dhoeguling Tibetan settlement in South India, the release of a new book in Tibetan, or a fire in a hotel in Bhutan, I am able to get instantaneous news by merely logging on to Twitter and following the postings there.

It is not just news that I get. I am also able to engage in comparatively deeper discussions with others on mundane as well as philosophical issues. We even go to the basics by discussing how “Twitter” should be called in Tibetan. Given that there is not one single accepted style for converting foreign terms in Tibetan, one school of thought (or set of Tweets) contends that we should get to the closest pronunciation as possible in Tibetan without considering any other factors. Another set contends that if we can get a similar pronunciation but also be able to use terms that would have some meaning in Tibetan, this is the way to go. Some of us have decided to follow the latter route while others stick to the former. Whatever it is, I feel it is a small contribution to Tibetan linguistic debate.

I don’t know whether the Twitter authorities are compiling the number of languages in which people use their forum but I think the increasing number of Tibetans who are twitting in Tibetan show that when it comes to adapting to new situation, given opportunity, the Tibetan people do not lag behind.

Do you have a point of view? Why not tweet in Tibetan?

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