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Trump administration makes 'tough choices,' proposes zero aid to Tibetans; wants other countries to follow suit

Washington: President Donald Trump has proposed zero aid in 2018 to the Tibetans, reversing the decades-old American policy of providing financial assistance to the community for safeguarding their distinct identity.

The Trump administration now wants other countries to jump in. The State Department, which sent the detailed proposal to the Congress as part of Trump's maiden annual budget, described it as one of the "tough choices" that it had to make as its budget itself has been slashed by more than 28 percent.

Leaders of the Tibetan community in the US refrained from commenting on the proposal, saying they are still reading the budget papers.

At the same time, they observed that majority of the assistance to the Tibetan people, including for Tibet, so far have been Congressionally driven.

Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi has expressed concern over the move. "Leader Pelosi is very concerned about the zeroing out of aid to the Tibetan community in the Trump budget proposal," Drew Hammill, spokesman for Pelosi, told PTI.

In its budgetary proposal for the fiscal year 2018 beginning 1 October, the State Department has removed the decades old Tibet Fund and has proposed zero dollars against Ngwang Choephel Fellows. In 2017 and 2016, both -- Tibet Fund and Ngwang Choephel Fellows -- categories had accounted for more than a million dollars.

 Trump administration makes tough choices, proposes zero aid to Tibetans; wants other countries to follow suit

File image of Donald Trump. AP

However, the State Department in its footnote of the budget, said that Special Academic Exchanges, whose budgetary allocation has been reduced from more than $14.7 million in 2017 to just $7 million for 2018, would include funding for programmes such as the Benjamin A Gilman International Scholarship Program, Mobility (Disability) Exchanges, and the Tibet Fund.

"As we work to streamline efforts to ensure efficiency and effectiveness of US taxpayers' dollars, we acknowledge that we have to prioritise and make some tough choices," a State Department official told PTI.

"Focusing our efforts will allow us to advance our most important policy goals and national security interests, while ensuring that other donor countries contribute their fair share toward meeting global challenges," the official said requesting anonymity.

However, the official did not identify the countries that it would like to help continue funding for the Tibetan cause.

"We will continue to engage diplomatically with allies and partners to advance our US national interests and shared policy priorities," the official said.

Pelosi, who early this month led a high powered Congressional delegation to Dharamshala to meet the Dalai Lama, has expressed concern over the development. "As she has said many times, including during her visit this month to His Holiness The Dalai Lama in Dharamshala, if the US does not speak out for human rights in China, we lose all moral authority to talk about it elsewhere in the world," Hammill told PTI.

"That includes critical funding through the State Department for important efforts, like those in support of a genuinely autonomous Tibet, that advance and protect America's interests in the world," Hammill said in response to a question.

The move to abolish Tibet fund is expected to be widely opposed in the Congress. The US policy towards Tibet is currently driven by the Tibetan Policy Act of 2002 which was signed by the last Republican President George W Bush.

Enacted into law on 30 September, 2002, as part of the Foreign Relations Authorisation Act, FY2003, it lists its "purpose" as being "to support the aspirations of the Tibetan people to safeguard their distinct identity."

The act establishes in statute the State Department position of United States Special Coordinator for Tibetan Issues and states that the Special Coordinator's "central objective" is "to promote substantive dialogue between the Government of the People's Republic of China and the Dalai Lama or his representatives."

The Act, among other things, includes US government assistance for nongovernmental organisations to work in Tibetan communities in China; an educational and cultural exchange program with "the people of Tibet"; Voice of America and Radio Free Asia Tibetan-language broadcasting into Tibet; and assistance for Tibetan refugees in South Asia.

It also calls for a scholarship program for Tibetans living outside Tibet; and the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) human rights and democracy programmes relating to Tibet.

The Special Coordinator is also required to "vigorously promote the policy of seeking to protect the distinct religious, cultural, linguistic, and national identity of Tibet" and press for "improved respect for human rights," according to a 2015 report on Tibet by the Congressional Research Service (CRS).

It was in 2002 that the Congress began earmarking Economic Support Fund assistance to Tibetan communities in China. In addition to this, the US Agency for International Development (USAID) manages provision of this support out of its India office.

According to the CRS, retaining this earmark has become a major priority for the Central Tibetan Administration in India.

With a major drop in the budget of USAID, it is not clear what impact it would have on funding for the Tibetan Government in exile.

Congress required the establishment of "programmes of educational and cultural exchange between the US and the people of Tibet," including opportunities for training, in the Foreign Relations Authorisation Act, Fiscal Years 1994 and 1995 and again in the Human Rights, Refugee, and Other Foreign Relations Provisions Act of 1996.

In the Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2000, Congress renamed the program the ANgawang Choephel Exchange Program, in honour of an India-based Tibetan ethnomusicologist and former Middlebury College Fulbright Scholar who in 1996 was sentenced to an 18-year prison term in China on espionage charges.

According to a 2015 CRS report, in 2014, the total financial assistance to the Tibetan cause was more than $24 million. This included $1 million for the Office of the Special Coordinator for Tibetan Issues, $10 million for the support to ethnic Tibetans in China through Economic Support Fund, $575,000 for the Ngawang Choephel Exchange Program, $3.8 million for Radio Free Asia Tibetan Service, $3.2 million for the Voice of America Tibetan Service, $2.8 million for NGO Programmes Benefiting Tibetan Refugees in South Asia (Migration and Refugee Assistance), $710,000 towards Tibetan Scholarship Program for Tibetans outside Tibet and $621,000 to the NED's Tibetan programmes.

Since 2014, there has been a gradual decline in Tibetan funding. Slashing down of the Tibetan funding has come as a surprise to the supporters of the Tibetan cause in the US.

During his confirmation hearing, the Secretary of State Rex Tillerson had assured lawmakers about the Administration's support for Tibetans: "Should I be confirmed, while recognising Tibet as part of the People's Republic of China, I will continue to encourage dialogue between Beijing and representatives of Tibet's "government in exile" and/or the Dalai Lama. I will also encourage Beijing and the governments of all nations to respect and preserve the distinct religious, linguistic, and cultural identity of the Tibetan people worldwide," Tillerson said during his confirmation hearing in February.

Powerful lawmakers in the House of Representatives and the Senate have introduced identical legislations, which if passed, would deny access to the United States by Chinese officials who are responsible for creating or administering policies on travel to Tibetan areas until China eliminates discriminatory restrictions on access by Americans to Tibet.

Ahead of the US-China Summit, held on 6-7 April, a group of influential lawmakers had urged Trump to raise the issue of Tibet with Chinese President Xi Jinping.

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Updated Date: May 26, 2017 10:11:17 IST