Has MTAC turned over a new leaf ?
By Luke Ward, September 2006

issue : AT n°2 - 2007
author: Luke Ward
file :
other language: French

From August 7th-12th the Mongolian and Tibetan Affairs Commission of the Executive Yuan, Taiwan's government, held a 'World Youth Care for Tibet Forum' in Taipei. Youths from Europe, America and Asia, 16 Tibetans, 15 youths from other countries and 23 Taiwanese students attended the Forum. In addition to this there were several different guest speakers. The format of the forum saw each day split up into several different topics, each presented by different 'moderators' with a Chairperson for each topic. The moderators gave a presentation on their allotted subject, and this was followed by a question & answer session. The topics included 'International Tibetan Human Rights Support Movement', 'The Qinghai-Tibet Railway's Conflicts and Impacts on Tibet', 'Current Situation and Developments of Tibetans Living in Taiwan', 'A Deep Discussion on Tibet Issues', 'An Introduction of Taiwan Care for Tibet', 'Democratic Transition of Tibetan Govt. in Exile' and finally the 'International Campaign for Tibet and Youth Participation'.

What really made the forum interesting was the underlying controversy. I first became aware of this when a member of the SFTUK committee phoned me, seemingly to try and discourage me from attending. Whilst our university society works with SFT, we are not a chapter, and I myself am not a member. Since I was not given an explanation of the 'evils' of MTAC, I decided to continue with my plans to go. However, I decided to investigate further, and whilst in India in July I asked various people about the reason surrounding many Tibetans suspicion and dislike of MTAC. My investigations led me to the Tibetan Government in Exile's (TGIE) 'Department of Information and International Relations' where I spoke to Thubten Samphel, who filled me in on the main cause of contention- MTAC signing an accord with members of the Khampa resistance organization Chushi Gangdruk. He also encouraged me to go to the conference, and write a report on it, which is why I have written this. Now I was getting somewhere, but of course I still don't know the full history and complexities of MTAC's relations with the Central Tibetan Administration and the exiled community as a whole. From Tibetans point of view, MTAC, underneath the exiled Kuomintang government carried out 'aid' and policies that were divisive within the exiled community. However, from the Taiwanese point of view, they believed they were carrying out aid to fellow citizens affected by the diaspora following the Communist takeover in 1949. However good their intentions, it is apparent that the Republic of China has in the past used this aid to try and gain support from the Tibetan exiled community. As put by Zablocki, 'The ROC expressed its claims to sovereignty over Tibet in various ways, and in particular through the operations of MTAC. Needless to say, this claim of sovereignty infuriated the Tibetan exiles, and it was this which led to serious conflict between the two governments.'

The Taiwanese found favour among individuals and groups who find themselves isolated from the Tibetan government in exile. As such there has been a stigmatism associating Taiwan with opponents of the government, and therefore of the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan people in general (Zablocki 2005). This, in addition to the Republic of China's (Taiwan) previous claims to sovereignty over Tibet has brewed great resentment within the exiled community.

Tensions peaked with the 1994 signing of the aforementioned accord, which stated that upon the reunification with China, Tibet would become an Autonomous Area and His Holiness would be recognized as its leader. Whilst this accord bears obvious similarities to the Middle-Way Approach of the Dalai Lama and the Central Tibetan Administration, many Tibetans were irked by the fact that MTAC believed itself within its rights to sign an accord, furthermore with an organization that is not a part of the government, and does not represent the Dalai Lama. The resulting controversy split Chushi Gangdruk, and is the main cause of ill feeling towards MTAC. However, distrust and ill feeling cannot be put solely at the hand of MTAC - MTAC is merely one of 28 commissions and committees of the Executive Yuan, the legislative side of the Taiwanese government, a government which until recently, still claimed to be the sole legitimate government over China, including Tibet. Despite limited ROC influence in Tibet other than in Xining, Amdo, under Ma Bufang (later an ambassador for the ROC), the Kuomintang always claimed Tibet to be a part of China, and therefore under their jurisdiction. Whilst as a non-Tibetan I cannot comment, I imagine this would leave a sour taste in the mouth for the exiled population.

It was these factors which saw several participants in the forum raise question's over MTAC's activities- specifically during the second full day, during the 'Introduction of Taiwan Care for Tibet' Q and A. The speaker briefly mentioned the distrust that the Tibetan Government in Exile felt towards MTAC, and this opened a door to a barrage of questions regarding MTAC's purpose, and current policy towards Tibet. Prior to going to the conference, I had asked the organisers for clarification as regards their policy towards Tibet. I was told 'We respect the Tibetans their own decision or own choice. We are not against or for Tibetan Independence. It is totally [within the] rights of the Tibetans to choice [chose] their own future. We have nothing to do with it.' However, during the questioning, there was an obvious confusion, which the youths seized upon, and even a translator pushed the heads of MTAC on the point- the actual policy seemed unclear and it seemed there might not be a clearly defined official line. Taiwan seems a deeply politically divided country, and this lack of definition regarding Tibet may be representative of divides in opinion in Taiwan over the future status of Taiwan and China itself.

A further question was asked as to 'Why doesn't Taiwan simply officially recognize Tibetan independence?' and vice-versa, with the questioner saying it could globally raise the credibility of both nations 'separateness' from Mainland China. In their defence, here MTAC gave a very good reason- they do not wish to openly come out and (re-) declare themselves independent, and neither would the TGIE want Taiwan to recognise Tibet, as the co-operation between two opponents of the Chinese regime would infuriate the CCP, and would be harmful towards Sino-Tibetan 'negotiations' and would further increase animosity between Taiwan and Beijing. If we really want to look at Taiwanese policy with regards to Tibet, perhaps we should look at some of the actions and statements in recent years- in 1997, when the Dalai Lama first visited Taipei, the Tibetan national flag was flown above offices of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). The current Taiwanese prime-minister, Chen Shui-bian has come out and said, in February 2003 that Tibetans will no longer be regarded by the ROC as 'people from Mainland China. Now, even the much-loathed MTAC is trying to make amends, and repair its relationship with the TGIE, which is one of the reasons that the conference is running.

The conference itself was run very professionally, and the format worked reasonably well. Only 2 of the 'youth' participants were moderators, and given the wealth of knowledge possessed amongst the youths (aged 20-35), I think this was a wasted opportunity. The rest of the moderators were Taiwanese or Chinese, perhaps the two most notable being Chinese dissidents and authors, Zhengming Fu and Wang Lixiong. Whilst some of the moderators, especially Wang Lixiong, married to the Tibetan author Woeser, were very knowledgeable about Tibet and the Chinese occupation, and the subjects they were talking on, one or two seemed less well informed, and some even seemed a bit unprepared to speak on their topics. As already mentioned, there was only 1 Tibetan moderator, a man who has done a variety of studies, but was chosen to speak on a subject that he himself did not believe to be his speciality. It seemed a waste to invite 15 Tibetan participants, and only ask one to speak, and whilst other Tibetans acted as 'Chairmen', this would have given them little opportunity to express their own opinions. MTAC informed us that they had invited other Tibetans to be moderators, including former members of the CTA (Central Tibetan Administration), but they had declined, on the grounds that MTAC's reputation was so tarnished, that they may face ramifications and criticism for attending, which is understandable. I must admit that whilst I was disappointed that there was only one Tibetan moderator, I was impressed by MTAC's candidness as to why there weren't more.

Since the accession of the DPP, there has been talk of scrapping MTAC (The Taipei Times, March 4, 2002). However, the timetable set for seeing MTAC's activities stopping does not seem to be adhered to- why would they be running the conference if MTAC is to be scrapped? MTAC is currently running a number of different projects supporting Tibetan communities in Nepal and India, and has been helping Tibetan students by offering financial support, and even offering some the opportunity to be educated in Taiwan. Whilst I can't excuse the wrongs done by MTAC in the past, perhaps MTAC has turned over a new leaf, or is at least trying to. MTAC no longer insists that it is providing support to Tibetans as 'Chinese citizens', insisting they recognise the ROC as their legitimate government. Therefore, the aid is no longer 'conditional'. Whilst I'm not suggesting that Tibetans should immediately forgive and forget, perhaps MTAC could be allowed to explain themselves, maybe through an open apology to the exiled Tibetan population. If MTAC gives a decent explanation of itself, and can convince the Tibetans that they can be trusted, then why not accept their help? There are plenty of Tibetans in India and Nepal who could use the assistance.

Referring to old adage 'There's no smoke without fire', I can understand Tibetan government's and communities distrust, but we must remember that politics is dynamic, not static. MTAC is now under a different government, one that is clearly making conciliatory steps towards the TGIE. Whilst I do not know or understand the full history of Taiwan-Tibet relations, perhaps the TGIE should take the olive branch that is being offered. Whilst relations between countries and governments often sour, sooner or later, most governments are open once again to the re-establishment of diplomatic relations. Despite bombing each other relentlessly during World War 2, Britain and German (East and West) governments re-established ties soon after peace was reached. Just because a nation angers another nation, that does not justify one completely cutting off ties with the other's foreign ministry. Whilst MTAC is not Taiwan's foreign ministry, its purpose is now to improve ties with and help Tibetan and Mongolian populations, and perhaps it is time that TGIE reconsidered it's stance on MTAC. MTAC is now under the DPP, who should not be held responsible for the mistakes of the Kuomintang, and I'm sure that the DPP wishes to let bygones be bygones. Both the Taiwanese government and the TGIE share a common enemy in the CCP, both have been repeatedly spurned by the UN, and both need all the support they can get.

One thing, however, that strikes me is- why persevere with MTAC? On March 4, 2002, the Taipei Times published an article, titled 'MTAC Gets The Boot From Cabinet', announcing that MTAC along with other ministries and councils was to be 'scrapped'. The article went on to report that 'The new government reforms will not start until May 2004.' and so what progress has been made on that in the 28 months since? MTAC has continued with its various operations, such as raising awareness about Tibetan and Mongolian cultures and scholarship schemes, and has even started new projects since 2002. Many of these have been of great value- such as the Taiwan Root Medical Corps, which has established a network of dentists in areas with Tibetan communities, from Ladakh to Kashmir, and the Care Tibet Association, which has been training Tibetan doctors and nurses. Good intentions aside, these projects do not seem to support the assertion that MTAC is set to be scrapped. Even at the forum, during the 'Introduction of Taiwan Care for Tibet', a representative of MTAC told us of their 'future plans'. Furthermore, in the closing speech of the forum, MTAC's chairman, Hsu Chih-hsiung told us that MTAC would certainly be around at the time of the next Presidential Elections (expected to be in 2008), and that he expected MTAC to be in existence for the foreseeable future. This was after I had been informed by a representative of MTAC that 'DPP party is still working on the scrapping of MTAC, but it takes times because of so many legal procedures.'

It is hard to understand the need for MTAC. I'm sure everyone involved knows very well that the majority of Tibetans who know anything about it distrusts and dislikes it. In December 2000, the Tibetan community in Nepal angrily rejected MTAC healthcare aid, accusing it of following 'an agenda that is solely directed at creating disharmony among the Tibetan Refugee Community.', and continued 'It has been clearly and repeatedly stated that Tibetans will welcome cooperation from Taiwan as long as it comes through proper official channel but never will the Tibetans accept any arrangement that has the involvement of the MTAC.' How much clearer does MTAC need it to be spelt out? In my own brief investigations into how Tibetans felt towards MTAC, I met not one Tibetan who had a good thing to say about them. Furthermore, as the Nepalese Tibetan community made abundantly clear, they will welcome help from Taiwan, but not through MTAC. Even His Holiness the Dalai Lama told DPP leaders that MTAC had "spoiled your [Taiwan's] reputation among the Tibetans" (Namgyal, T, 2003). To me, as an outsider, whilst I am open to the fact that MTAC can change, it simply doesn't matter- it's very obvious that it will take nothing short of a miracle for MTAC to win over the exiled community. So why not simply change the name of MTAC, issue a refutation of the policies that MTAC stood for under the KMT, and transfer all of the activities and projects of MTAC over to other Taiwanese organizations (governmental or otherwise)? As it is, much of the aid that MTAC is giving to exiled communities is through Taiwanese NGOs, as most Tibetan communities reject any aid from MTAC outright. Rather than spend huge amounts of money trying to show that MTAC has changed, why doesn't it simply change its name and its image. With two organs dealing with the Taiwan-Tibet relations; the 'His Holiness the Dalai Lama Religious and Cultural Foundation', and the Tibet-Taiwan Exchange Foundation, is MTAC needed at all? Even in Taiwan, Taiwanese people have questioned the worth of MTAC, and prior to their election, The DPP vowed to abolish it upon coming to power. Will this pledge be realised? Only time will tell.

Several of the participants questioned the purpose, even the worth of the forum. It seemed to me that the main purpose of the forum was to try to convince the CTA that MTAC has changed, however, whilst talking to other participants, other explanations were mooted- perhaps the Taiwanese government wanted to use this as a think-tank of sorts, and see how they could apply the discussed topics to their own relationship and dialogue with China. I myself wasn't so sure about this, as I believe that they would have assembled an older and wiser group of people if this was what they intended. Another opinion was that the forum was the result of a government department having a large amount of funding, but nothing to particularly do with it. We were told how some Tibetan groups and communities in exile had rejected MTAC's financial assistance, which could have left a large amount of money, and a large amount of money must have been spent on the forum. Youths were flown in from across the globe, and a large conference centre was leased for the forum. All our meals were paid for, including 2 especially large banquets, and in the last 2 days we were taken on excursions on luxury buses. And to top it off, we were each given around 2000 Taiwanese $. This must have all added up to a large amount of money, and at the end of the week, several participants were questioning its worth- what had it really achieved?

I however, would argue that the Forum did have a purpose. By bringing together youths interested in Tibet from across the world, I'm sure the forum created a better understanding of Tibetan issues and differing points of views. It introduced people who care about Tibet to one another, and may well encourage future co-operation on academic work and action supporting the Tibetan movement. Several of the Taiwanese participants I spoke to had very little knowledge of Tibet and the issues surrounding it- as such, another purpose of the forum was to educate these participants, but surely MTAC could have found 23 participants from Taiwan who did actually have a good knowledge of Tibet?

To conclude I would argue that the forum was worthwhile, though costly, and shows that MTAC is making attempts to turn over a new leaf. However in my opinion, the Taiwanese government should have continued its seemingly 'on-hold' plans to scrap MTAC. Huge amounts of cash are being spent, and I would question the worth of MTAC to the Taiwanese people. The money could undoubtedly be better spent if channelled to areas of Nepal and India where financial assistance is needed within Tibetan communities. The Executive Yuan could easily continue the good work and projects that MTAC is currently doing, either under a new committee, or by transferring them to another committee or NGO. Perhaps these projects could even be transferred to the Tibet-Taiwan Exchange Foundation, formed in 2003. With two other foundations existing in Taipei to promote Tibet-Taiwan ties, and with MTAC no longer dealing with visa applications from Mongolians or Tibetans, it seems to have lost its direction. MTAC, though it may have changed, still has a tarnished reputation, and no matter how much polish they try to apply, I doubt whether the Tibetans will ever see it as clean.