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Politics & Security

Secret Support for Tibet: Next Let's Acknowledge the Exiled Government

Japanese government aid to India was really to support the refugees from Tibet living there, says the author, while asking why is Japan so secretive about it?

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Tibet
Main Street of Dharamshala, 2019. (Provided by author)

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan (MOFA) has supported Tibet  in secret. MOFA has broken what had long been a taboo. Yet, they refuse to admit it.

My husband, Hidetoshi Ishii, is the Executive Advisor of Free Tibet Fukuoka. He and I have been deeply engaged in this covert Tibet support project from the planning phase to completion. We know the truth. I'm now going to reveal what happened over the last four years.

Tibet
Former President Lobsang Sangay with Hidetoshi Ishii and Yoko Ishii in Dharamshala, 2019. (Provided by author)

Water and Sewer Projects in India

 As part of Official Development Assistance (ODA), MOFA carried out a "construction project of water supply, sewerage facilities, and public toilets in Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand, India." This was in the budget of 2020, with the amount being approximately a little less than ¥30 million JPY (about $226,000 USD). This project has already been completed. 

With Japanese government funding, water pipes, elevated water tanks, drainage channels/road gutters, and public toilets were built in the rural areas of two states in northwest India: Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand. Construction projects were carried out in seven villages of these two states, eight construction projects in all.

Like any other country, India went through lockdowns and other very severe measures during the COVID-19 pandemic. As a result, there were many difficulties for outsiders, such as entry restrictions, transportation problems, and so forth. 

Originally, the MOFA plan was that all projects were to be finished by March, 2021. Due to the pandemic, however, construction was delayed by a year and a half, and the entire array of projects was finally completed in September of 2022.

Tibet
Scenery of Dharamshala, 2019. (Provided by author)

Tibetan Refugees in India

This project was treated as ODA for India. The question is, why were these eight places out of the vast country of India selected as construction sites? 

It's because these are the villages where Tibetan refugees live. About 80,000 Tibetan refugees live in India, including the spiritual leader of Tibet, His Holiness the Dalai Lama

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Tibet
Exile Tibetan children mark the anniversary of the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to their spiritual leader the Dalai Lama, in Dharamshala, India, Saturday, December 10, 2022. (AP Photo/Ashwini Bhatia)

A town of north India, called Dharamshala, is where the Tibetan government in exile is also based. The MOFA initiative was a project to help the Tibetan refugees living in India. 

In February, 2018, the President of the Central Tibetan Administration at the time, Lobsang Sangay, visited Japan. The Japanese All-Party Parliamentary Support Group for Tibet held a general meeting and welcomed him. 

President Sangay visited Japan every year while in office. But during his 2018 visit he stated, "We'd like the Japanese government to provide some concrete support." To this comment of his, the chairman of the Japanese All-Party Parliamentary Support Group for Tibet, House of Representatives member Hakubun Shimomura, replied: "We will consider what we can do concretely."

Tibet
Main Street of Dharamshala, 2019. (Provided by author)

Covert Assistance to Tibet 

Over 100 members of the Japanese National Diet belong to the Japanese All-Party Parliamentary Support Group for Tibet. The Support Group is, in fact, the biggest such group in the world. 

Ironically, despite the size of the Japanese All-Party Parliamentary Support Group for Tibet, the Japanese government's official support for Tibet has been almost non-existent. For example, the Japanese government has never imposed sanctions against the People's Republic of China over that country's human rights abuses. 

Even in the case of the Uyghur and Hong Kong issues, which have been particularly prominent in recent years, the Japanese government has only expressed "grave concerns." It has not criticized China, let alone impose sanctions. The Japanese government had not provided even one yen of official aid to Tibet.

However, in response to President Lobsang Sangay's request for "concrete support" in February, 2018, the politicians of the Japanese All-Party Parliamentary Support Group for Tibet began considering possible courses of action. Things started to move rapidly in the fall of the same year. 

Tibet
MP Akimasa Ishikawa, Mr Takashi Nagao, Dr Tsewang Gyalpo Arya, and Ven. Shuei Kobayashi.

Takashi Nagao, a member of the House of Representatives at the time and also the then-secretary general of the All-Party Parliamentary Support Group for Tibet, came up with the idea to support Tibet in the form of ODA. It's difficult for the Japanese government to support Tibetans living inside of China's borders, such as those in the Tibet Autonomous Region, without obtaining the consent of the Chinese government. 

However, Representative Nagao's idea was that a project to support Tibetan refugees living in India may be possible.

Wary of China

With this idea in mind, Representative Nagao consulted with my husband, Hidetoshi Ishii, to ask him whether he knew of any NGOs that could manage such a project to support Tibetan refugees in India. 

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It was a risky proposition for any NGO. Any organization that carried out a project to support Tibetans would earn the opprobrium of the Chinese government. And even if an NGO were to apply to the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs to carry out such a project, there would be no guarantees that the application would be approved. 

There was therefore a strong possibility that everything would end up in vain and the NGO would have wasted time, money, and other resources. There were many risks.

But Representative Nagao was determined. He requested that Hidetoshi Ishii find an organization that understood the significance of supporting Tibet and could work on doing just that. On the spot, my husband introduced a certain organization. Then, he became the go-between and arranged contact between the All-Party Parliamentary Support Group for Tibet and the NGO. 

Things went smoothly. The parliamentary group pledged to provide as much support as they could. The parliamentary group also emphasized that they wanted the project to be planned well and to succeed. 

Tibet
Hidetoshi Ishii speaking on the ODA project at the General Meeting of the Japanese All-Party Parliamentary Support Group for Tibet, September 21, 2022.

The Foreign Ministry's Warnings

With the preliminaries in place, the NGO immediately dispatched their staff members to Dharamshala, India, to investigate the local needs there. Over the course of this investigation, the NGO learned that water pipes and public toilets were needed. 

The plan then therefore centered on improving living conditions for Tibetan refugees related to water sanitation, such as by installing elevated water tanks and digging drainage channels.

Despite the smooth start, this project faced a problem. The support for Tibet had to be done in secret. The Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs told the NGO that, while it was fine to conduct an ODA project to support Tibetan refugees living in India, the NGO must avoid any form of direct support for the Tibetan government in exile. 

In addition, the Ministry told the NGO never to mention that the project was for "supporting Tibet." Therefore, the NGO was asked to make sure that the word "Tibet" did not appear in any documents, including not only the project application form, but also the local contract. 

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Only the word "India" could be used when referring to the recipient and beneficiary of aid. If this condition were not met, then the funding, and therefore the project, could not move forward. 

MOFA requested that the narrative be that this was ODA to the country of India. The NGO was to claim it had no knowledge of Tibetans living in the area where the project was being implemented.

Tibet
Building sign showing it was funded by the US, 2019. (Provided by author)

Japan's Approach to Tibet Versus Western Aid

What's behind such an unreasonable narrative is, of course, consideration for the Chinese government. What the MOFA was afraid of is opposition from the Chinese Communist Party. 

The project is refugee assistance and humanitarian aid with no political aspect. Nevertheless, the Ministry believed that they had to consider China to such an extent that the word "Tibet" not be uttered, not even once.

When Western countries give aid to Tibet or Tibetans, they usually do so either directly. They go through the Tibetan government in exile, or through NGOs run by that government in exile. 

However, the support from the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs made it seem as though the Tibetan government in exile wasn't involved at all. It was as though the Tibetan government in exile didn't even exist. This caused great puzzlement on the side of the government in exile. 

From the standpoint of the Tibetan government in exile in Dharamshala, India, the amount of aid money received from Japan was small, compared to that provided by Europe and the United States. Aid from the West often provides Tibetans with schools and other buildings. The aid from Japan was a much smaller-scale construction project. 

But the money was not at issue. The Tibetan government in exile felt rebuffed by Japan's insistence that the Tibetan government in exile be treated as an invisible non-entity.

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Tibet
Yoshiko Sakurai speaking at the General Meeting of the Japanese All-Party Parliamentary Support Group for Tibet, September 21, 2022. (Provided by author)

Overcoming Invisibility

At the time, various people on the Japanese side tried to persuade the Tibetan government in exile to accept MOFA's offer, even though it came with such an insulting condition attached. My husband and I also directly explained the situation to then-President Sangay many times when we attended an international conference held in Dharamshala. 

Eventually, the Tibetan government in exile agreed to approve the project, and the relevant work was duly carried out. It was in this way that the first-ever case of the Japanese government providing funds to help Tibetans came to be.

So, will Japan's Ministry of Foreign Affairs put its mouth where its money is, as it were? Will it commit to recognizing Tibet and Tibetans? Or, will it go on deferring to the bullying of the Chinese Communist Party, Tibet's decades-long persecutor?

As it stands, the word "Tibet" has never come out of the Ministry's collective mouth. The bureaucrats in MOFA insist they are only helping India. 

Tibet
Scenery of Dharamshala, 2019. (Provided by author)

Helping the Tibet Government in Exile

Can Japan's Minister of Foreign Affairs, Yoshimasa Hayashi, say the words "Tibetan government in exile"? Will he acknowledge that his government is helping Tibetans?

Isn't it time for Japan to stop worrying less about what China thinks, and more about helping the victims of China's brutal human rights violations?

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