Sam Brownback is a lawyer, former United States Senator and former governor of the state of Kansas who has served as the U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom since February 2018.
On Nov. 21, he spoke with RFA Tibetan Service reporter Tashi Wangchuk about his visit at the end of October to Dharamsala, India, where he met with exiled Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama, and to Nepal, where he met in early November with Nepal’s president and other senior officials to discuss that country’s policies toward Tibetan refugees and residents in the face of growing pressure from China.
RFA: You recently visited India and spoke with the Dalai Lama. What issues did you discuss?
Brownback: The big issue we discussed was the succession of the Dalai Lama. He’s healthy, and he was telling me he is going to live 15 or 20 more years, and he showed me his muscles. He also is an 84-year-old man, and so there’s just concern about the succession. And particularly the concern is that the Chinese Communist Party is claiming a right to appoint, or have some role in this, and they don’t. They’re a government, they don’t have that right. So we’re putting forward the U.S. government position, which is that the succession decision belongs to Tibetan Buddhists. It belongs to their religious process and not to the Chinese Communist Party. And that was the clear message I was putting forward and also conveying to the Dalai Lama.
RFA: How will you to continue to take up this issue now?
Brownback: I’d like to see a resolution come forward by a number of nations supporting [the position] that the Chinese government does not have a right to do this, that this belongs to the Tibetan Buddhists. I pointed out that this is a bit like the Chinese Communist Party claiming that because there are Catholics in China, they have a right to pick the next pope. Well, they don’t, and the world wouldn’t agree with it either. They’d say, well of course you don’t have any right to do that. And neither does the American government, even though there are a number of Catholics in the United States. But yet they’re claiming that for the head of Tibetan Buddhism. And this is wrong, it’s against religious freedom, it’s against religions being able to organize themselves freely as they see fit, and so we are pushing back aggressively against this.
RFA: After your Dharamsala visit, you also visited Nepal, where there is a noticeable decline in the numbers of Tibetans fleeing out of Tibet. And there’s growing Chinese pressure in Nepal, too. Did you have a chance to talk about this with the Nepalese president or any other officials that you met?
Brownback: I did talk about that with the Nepalese officials. I met with the foreign minister and I met with the president, and I conveyed to them that we appreciate them previously allowing a number of Tibetan Buddhists to pass through, and them also allowing a number of Tibetan Buddhists to stay [in Nepal as refugees], but we would like to see that flow be able to happen more freely now. They pointed out that the Chinese have really restricted the border now. They’ve increased their border patrols, and they’re not letting Tibetan Buddhists walk out like they did, say, a decade ago. There’s been a far smaller flow. We believe that Tibetans should be able to go back and forth and practice their faith in Tibet, or in India, or in Nepal, or in the United States—anywhere, freely. But that’s certainly not their experience in that region.
RFA: Have you talked about the extradition treaty that was discussed for signing this year with [Chinese president] Xi Jinping?
Brownback: I did talk with them about that, and I pushed back against it. We are opposed to an extradition treaty. We believe that the Chinese will push to extradite Tibetan Buddhists. Their fate would be uncertain, and they could well be in prison perhaps, or even worse, if they are extradited back to China. So we pushed back, as the U.S. government, strongly against that extradition treaty.
RFA: Tibetans in Nepal cannot celebrate Tibetan New Year or the Dalai Lama’s birthday. Did you have any chance to speak with officials there about this issue?
Brownback: It’s a bit of a touchy situation, because Nepal has been very good to Tibetan Buddhists—to allow them to come there, to have refugee centers. But we do make the point all the time that people should be allowed to celebrate their own faith community’s days and dedications. We’ll celebrate Christmas here in a big way before too long. And the Tibetans should be allowed to celebrate as well. There’s an old saying about Nepal, that it’s a yam between two big rocks, and they feel that pressure frequently, and I think really they’re feeling a lot of pressure from China right now.
RFA: The position of Special Coordinator for Tibet in the Department of State is still unfilled, and many Tibetans are showing great concern over this issue. Is there any movement you can see that this position will be filled soon?
Brownback: I don’t know whether it will or not. But I know we will continue to push aggressively on these Tibetan issues. The Congress just recently passed a bill on this, which I think is good. A decade ago, when I was in the Congress, we used to work aggressively on a lot on Tibetan issues, and then they kind of died down for a while. But it’s picking back up, and I think this is a good sign. I think this is a very good time for us to push aggressively for Tibet, for Tibetan Buddhists to be able to practice freely and not be under this heavy Chinese Communist control. Unfortunately, the gentleman who was over Tibet, Chen Quanguo, the party chairman, has been moved now to Xinjiang, and is over the Muslim population, and is using very hard-edged tactics and high-technology control systems over people. This does not bode well for freedom or for religious freedom at all in China.
RFA: Meanwhile, Tibetans in Tibet cannot openly celebrate many religious activities. What can the U.S. government do to further improve the situation inside Tibet?
Brownback: We’re going to push, and we are pushing. I think that a lot of the focus recently has been on Xinjiang because [the situation there] is just so horrific. A million Muslims are locked up in concentration camp-type facilities. But that doesn’t diminish what has happened over a long period of time in Tibet, where many people have been locked up, and a lot of the monasteries have been destroyed, and people’s ability to practice their faith freely is nonexistent. So I think what you’re seeing is that we’ve stepped up a lot more pressure on Xinjiang. And I think you’re going to see that continue to rise again now on Tibet—not letting that issue slide with what China is doing with the long suffering of the Tibetan people.
RFA: CTA President Lobsang Sangay [leader of the India-based exile Central Tibetan Administation] is in town right now. Will there be a chance to see him here in the State Department?
Brownback: Well, I hope so. I met with him extensively while I was in Dharamsala, and I hope we’ll be able to meet with a number of people up on Capitol Hill. I’ve met with him here in Washington before. So it’s my hope that we will be able to, but that’s not scheduled right now.
Reported by Tashi Wangchuk for RFA's Tibetan Service.