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The Karmapa Conundrum

February 18, 2011

The Karmapa's defection was the biggest failure of Chinese policy in
Tibet for the last 50 years.

Tsering Shakya

Anyone following the Indian media's obsession this month with a Buddhist
monk would think the stories came from the pages of a cheap spy novel.
Last month, India's police found $1.6 million in cash in various
currencies—including Chinese yuan—at the north Indian monastery of Ogyen
Trinley Dorje, who as the 17th Karmapa is one of the most important
spiritual figures in Tibetan Buddhism.

The Karmapa's office has explained this as cash donations from Tibetans
in China. Still, over the past week, many in India have fervently
accused the Karmapa of being a Chinese spy. Tibetans in India have just
as fervently defended their religious leader.

The accusations have been leveled not just by the media, but also by
senior and influential political figures. B. Raman, a former
intelligence officer and top bureaucrat in the Indian government, writes
that the Karmapa's "escape to India was probably under a long-term
Chinese intelligence operation to use him to influence events relating
to Tibet after the death of the Dalai Lama." Mr. Raman here refers to
the defection of the Karmapa in 2000 from Chinese-controlled Tibet to

These accusations reflect New Delhi's growing anxiety about its strained
relationship with Beijing. But India must also appreciate that Tibetans
aren't any friendlier with Beijing than they were when the Dalai Lama
fled Tibet in 1959 and found asylum in northern India.

What are these Indian suspicions? First, there are doubts that the
Tibetan community in India could pose a liability. After all, after the
death of the present Dalai Lama, couldn't these Tibetans, under the
influence of this Karmapa, become a Trojan horse—abandon their political
struggle and run into the open arms of China? The underlying assumption
here is that Tibetans are blind followers of religious leaders. To
outsiders, Tibetans' emotional response to the latest media coverage
confirms that their piety borders on religious fundamentalism.

But this suspicion makes it seem as if Tibetans are more loyal to a
spiritual leader than they are to the idea of Tibet. What Tibetans want
is a nation of their own. The mass protests in Lhasa in March 2008
weren't simply religious; they were a manifestation of people craving
their own secular representation.

Second, and more specifically, the Karmapa's lack of vocal opposition to
Beijing since his defection, as well as the Chinese government's
reluctance to demonize him as they do the Dalai Lama, has raised
eyebrows in India. The fear is that the Karmapa could well turn out to
be a Chinese agent and turn other Tibetans in northern India into
Chinese agents too.

But the same could be said of all senior Tibetan lamas. None of them
makes frequent anti-Chinese speeches or leads political campaigns,
because this has always been a task for the Dalai Lama. In any case, if
the Karmapa were a planted agent, wouldn't the Chinese have encouraged
him to camouflage himself as some firebrand activist? And why would
Beijing even pick a Tibetan to be a spy? Tibetans in India usually don't
have citizenship, or access to New Delhi's top echelons of power.

In fact, the thought that the Karmapa's 2000 escape was part of some
"long-term Chinese operation" is completely misguided. Since 1959, the
single most important failure for Chinese policy in Tibet has not been
the protests but the Karmapa's defection.

When Beijing installed him as a boy in 1992 in the Tsurphu monastery,
the traditional abode of the Karmapas, it was a major propaganda coup.
The Chinese intended for him to stay in Tibet and endorse their message
of stability and unity. Now that he has fled, not a single senior
Tibetan lama remains under the Communist Party's control.

It's understandable that any story involving $1.6 million in cash would
make for a sensation in India. For the press, it revived a prejudice
held in India in the days before liberalization, when capital controls
were tight, that foreign currency equaled criminality. It also may have
seemed out of place for Tibetan refugees in India to have all this cash.

But times have changed. The flow of foreign cash in India is no longer
suspicious in itself. And Tibetans now have great access to both global
remittances and donations.

If India wants to point a finger here, it should point it at itself.
Tibetan refugees can rarely become Indian citizens and hence face
complex regulations regarding the international transfer of money. That
they often have no choice but to resort to cash dealings is an open secret.

New Delhi should help change this, because these donations won't stop
anytime soon. In fact, these donations come not just from the West, but
also increasingly from Tibet. The Karmapa has thousands of followers
there who, because of an improving Tibetan economy, have more disposable
income to offer as remittances to family members or donations.

The funny thing is that even Beijing is suspicious about these
remittances and donations from Tibet to Tibetans on the other side of
the border. Neither China nor India is happy. And it's the lamas who are
caught in the middle.

Mr. Shakya is a professor at the Institute of Asian Research, University
of British Columbia, Canada.
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