Time is fast running out for Tibetan people
[The Scotsman, 28 September 2009] Lord Steel is just back from leading the first all-party delegation to Tibet since last year's demonstrations. Here he reflects on the visit.

As a parliamentarian, I have enjoyed 40 years of association with the largest Tibetan Buddhist monastery in Europe – Samye Ling near Eskdalemuir, in Dumfries and Galloway – just over the hills from where I live.Last year, I met the Dalai Lama and the "Tibetan government in exile" at their Indian HQ in Dharamsala. Therefore, I was pleased to accept an invitation from the Chinese embassy to send a delegation from the British parliament's all-party China group to see the situation for ourselves.

Arriving in Beijing, we pointed to the British government's unambiguous acceptance of the status of Tibet as an autonomous region of the People's Republic of China (PRC), the Dalai Lama's public disavowal of claims for Tibetan independence and his rejection of violence.

Taking the new train to the Tibetan capital, Lhasa, we climbed to over 16,000ft through breathtaking scenery of desolate mountain passes with the higher snow-capped peaks in the distance.

We met the deputy head of the Tibetan government – or to give him his ponderously correct title, the Vice-Chairman of the Standing Committee of the Tibet Autonomous Regional People's Congress – for our first of several frank exchanges of views. The Tibetans themselves, of whom he is one, are by far the largest slice of the population, which also has a growing Han Chinese minority – some of whose shops were ransacked in last year's disturbances – and a substantial Muslim community.

We delighted in a tour of the oldest monastery, Samye, some 50 miles into the countryside. We knew some of their monks had been arrested and imprisoned for their role in the demonstrations, but all the monk I spoke to could say was that they "did not know where they are".

On questioning government officials, they fall back on the familiar line expressed by all governments that their sentences were a matter for the judicial authorities, not for them. Nevertheless, it seems unacceptable that their host monasteries do not know where they are.

In all our meetings, we increasingly focused on the future of the Dalai Lama, simply because it is our view that, at 75, as he grows older, the time is running out for a settlement between the central government in Beijing and the acknowledged religious leader of the whole Tibetan population. Talks between representatives of the two sides have now been dragging on spasmodically and painfully slowly with no sign of progress.

The Chinese continue to accuse the Dalai Lama of seeking independence, despite his frequent recent declarations to the contrary. Frankly, the level of distrust on both sides is what is making progress impossible.

At our final meeting back in Beijing, I summarised what I took to be the three stated aims of these discussions:

•  Acceptance of the status of Tibet as an autonomous region of the PRC;

•  An end to tensions between the ethnic communities in Tibet and the need to avoid destructive protest demonstrations;

•  The return of the Dalai Lama to Lhasa.

The real argument is over how these aims should be achieved. We pointed out that the ban on displaying photographs of His Holiness was akin to the ban we used to have on Martin McGuinness appearing on radio and TV (remember the use of actors' voices if ever he was quoted?), and that he was now deputy first minister in Northern Ireland.

We showed that a political solution could be assisted by an outside independent intermediary, as US Senator George Mitchell did in the province. But so far they will have none of it – "It is an internal matter for China". Yes, but so were these internal matters, and yet outside mediation helped towards their solution.

At our farewell banquet in Beijing, Tory MP James Gray, in a bold attempt to lighten the conversation, asked why the Chinese present all had black hair while we on our side were all grey. "Perhaps," came the smiling reply, "it is because you worry too much about other people's affairs." Touchι!

Worry about them we should. China is an increasingly important and successful economy, but its reputation in the world would be greatly enhanced if we saw a rejoicing Tibetan people welcoming back the Dalai Lama to Potala Palace with a non-political status similar to that enjoyed in Italy by the Pope in the Vatican.

China should be great enough, and the Dalai Lama humble enough, to allow this to happen. They should not be too entrapped in their mutual distrust to refuse outside help in mediation.

Lord Steel is a former MP, Liberal leader and Presiding Officer of the Scottish Parliament.