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Remarks by Assistant Secretary Robert Destro on Religious Freedom in Tibet
December 7, 2020

Remarks at the virtual event “Religious Freedom in Tibet: The Appointment of Buddhist Leaders and the Succession of the Dalai Lama”

Robert A. Destro
Assistant Secretary and U.S. Special Coordinator for Tibetan Issues
Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor

As Delivered

Thank you for inviting me to join you and thank you Ambassador for your introduction.  I am truly honored to be here.

Let’s begin with the real reason we’re here. And that’s to celebrate the beauty and richness of the Tibetan culture, to reflect upon the many accomplishments of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, and to think together about the serious challenges we face ahead.  So let’s begin, then, with the golden threads that knit Tibetan culture together:  the Tibetan language and Tibetan Buddhism.  Together, they are the beginning of our discussion.

Tibetan Buddhism is a major world religion with great teachers and their writings have influenced thinkers and religious leaders around the world for centuries.  We don’t need to be either Tibetan or Buddhist to recognize not only Tibetan Buddhism’s unique contribution to the world, but also the importance of the Tibetan language and the development of its unique perspectives on both the transcendent and the mundane.  “A word,” said the late American Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, and I quote, “is not a crystal, transparent and unchanged; it is the skin of a living thought and may vary greatly in color and content according to the circumstances and the time in which it is used.” Unquote.  The Tibetan language encodes the Tibetan Buddhist experience, and shapes its and our perspectives on the world around us.  Our language shapes our faith, and our faith shapes our individual attitudes and communal approaches to that which we value as human beings.  Freedom of religion, speech, association, and peaceable assembly are human rights, not because they’re useful, but because rather the activities they represent are the foundations of human culture.

So let’s pause for a moment and consider the enormity of the statement I just made, that these are human rights because the activities they represent are the foundations of human culture.

It is no accident that the Chinese Communist Party claims the right to direct the selection of the next Dalai Lama, and through that process to remake or in its words to “Sinicize” Tibetan Buddhism in its own Communist image.  Nor is it a surprise that the Chinese Communist Party is ramping up its efforts to eliminate Tibetan language and culture.  It’s doing precisely the same thing with our Uyghur and Kazakh Muslim brothers and sisters in Xinjiang, and in its efforts to replace the teachings of Jesus and the Prophets with the state-inspired drivel of a “patriotic” church.

This, my friends, is what information warfare looks like.  In all it says and does, the Chinese Communist Party aims to control not only the information landscape, but the very thoughts of all whose perspectives and approaches to life in community differ from those of the Communist Party.

Consider the case of the Panchen Lama.  It’s no accident that he was abducted when he was six years old.  What better way to Sinicize Tibetan Buddhism by installing their own pliable and fake replacement who would promote the Communist Party and weaken Tibetan Buddhist individuality, while “Sinicizing” the real Panchen Lama from youth, relegating his traditional roots to what Leon Trotsky derisively called, quote “the dustbin of history”?

Unfortunately, Tibetan Buddhists are not alone.  The Communist Party feels so threatened by faith in something other than the Party that its leaders are bent on controlling all aspects of religion, from the selection of Catholic bishops and the training of monks, to the content of Scripture and the succession of Buddhist spiritual leaders.  Driven by a need to control anyone or anything that exists independent of the Party, Communist Party officials use force, intimidation, censorship, and coercion to shape both the medium and the message.  The Communist Party forces Chinese citizens into “re-education” and slave labor camps, threatens the families of regime critics, censors the brave scientists who sought to warn the world about COVID-19, and corrupt the short-sighted around the world with their bribes.  And the Communist Party have the audacity to complain that we are interfering in their internal affairs.

When Secretary Pompeo appointed me to be the Special Coordinator for Tibetan Issues, he did so out of not only a deep respect for Tibetans, their language, culture, and religion, but also out of a deep concern over the Chinese Communist Party’s abuse of China’s religious and ethnic minority populations.  The United States is committed to helping Tibetans safeguard their way of life – not just in Tibet but also in India, Nepal, Bhutan and everywhere that it flourishes.  Within a day of announcing my appointment, China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs criticized the United States for interfering in China’s internal affairs, as if Tibetan Buddhism belongs to China.  It doesn’t.  Tibetan Buddhism belongs to Tibetans and to its adherents everywhere.  If our commitment to human rights means anything, it is our collective duty to bring attention to this unfolding tragedy – for Tibetans’ sake and for our own.

It is both baffling and completely hypocritical for the Communist Party to criticize our support for the preservation of a major world religion as interference in Chinese internal affairs.  The Communist Party does not hesitate to interfere in the internal affairs of its neighbors and of major faith communities around the world.  The PRC is cajoling its neighbors into signing treaties that would allow for the forcible return of Tibetan refugees to China.  Just last month I spoke to Tibetan youth leaders here in the United States who told me that they have been afraid to speak as U.S. citizens in the United States because of potential Chinese retribution to themselves and their families in Tibet.

The Communist Party has no right to impose its regime of speech and thought control on the world.  We must certainly object when they wage information warfare globally.  The Communist Party has stated clearly that it should control the succession of the Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhists all around the world, just because there are Buddhists in China.  There are roughly as many Catholics in China.  Mark my words, when the opportunity presents itself, the Communist Party will by the same logic join the list of governments in history that have claimed the right to influence the election of the next Pope.  You can bet as night follows day, that will be the claim.

The United States rejects attempts by any government to limit the freedom of all religious communities to choose their own leaders, define their own doctrines, and to preserve the internal coherence of their faith.  On this point, the United States is completely unified:  Republicans, Democrats, Executive, Congress, the Supreme Court of the United States.  We all understand that religions have the right to control their own leadership and the United States government understands that the Communist Party’s attempt to control world religions and decisions of sovereign nation states is a major threat to global peace and stability.

Together with partners around the world, the United States has and will continue to call on the PRC to provide unhindered access to foreigners traveling in Tibetan areas, including for diplomats and journalists, just as other countries give Chinese diplomats, journalists, and citizens access to their respective countries.

The United States adopted the Reciprocal Access to Tibet Act to press for greater access and transparency.  Today, I call on our likeminded friends and partners to pass their own versions of the Reciprocal Access to Tibet Act.  Together, we must force the issue by continuing to press the People’s Republic to respect the unique language and culture of Tibetans.  Tibetan Buddhists are rightfully proud of their language, culture, and religion.  Those who live in China can be patriotic Chinese citizens, too.

I am honored to serve as the Special Coordinator for Tibetan Issues and join you on a path to which so many of you have dedicated your lives.  I thank you profoundly for your leadership, for your sacrifice, and your perseverance.  And thank you for trusting us to help you, your families, and generations to come resolve these important issues.

Thank you, Mr. Ambassador for giving me the floor, and I turn it back to you.