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"We Tibetans are looking for a legitimate and meaningful autonomy, an arrangement that would enable Tibetans to live within the framework of the People’s Republic of China."

Cohn: Time running out for Dalai Lama

October 25, 2010

Martin Regg Cohn Columnist
The Toronto Star
October 19, 2010

He is the Holy Lord, Gentle Glory, Eloquent,
Compassionate, Learned Defender of the Faith,
Ocean of Wisdom and Wish-Fulfilling Gem.

In short, he is Kundun. The Presence. But there
is one thing the 14th Dalai Lama is not: Immortal
— at least not in his current incarnation.

He is 75 now, the first leader of Tibetan
Buddhism to circumnavigate the globe, not just
circumambulate temples. His heavy carbon
footprint lands in Toronto later this week, after
a spiritual road show stopping in Cincinnati, Atlanta, Palo Alta and San Jose.

But the one journey the Dalai Lama still cannot
make is to Tibet, back to the palace in Lhasa he
fled as a 26-year-old monk on a mule. A
half-century later, China’s grip is more suffocating than ever.

Now, time is running out for Tibet’s spiritual
leader. And for the people he hasn’t seen since
1959. To us, he is an omnipresent deity —
grinning from book covers, appearing on yoga
DVDs, preaching via Twitter, giving speeches in
Toronto. But he is virtually invisible in Tibet —
where his tweets go unread and his voice unheard.

For all his persuasive powers abroad, the Dalai
Lama remains powerless at home: lacking leverage
with China’s rulers and, increasingly, his own people.

In a weekend interview with my colleague Rick
Westhead, he argued that ordinary Chinese are
coming round to his view that Tibet must be
accommodated, that repression is unsustainable.
He said much the same thing seven years ago when
I interviewed him at his heavily guarded
residence in Dharamsala, a small town in the
Indian Himalayas where he heads an increasingly restless government-in-exile.

Travelling across Tibet just prior to meeting
him, I found a people weighed down by both
Chinese misrule and Chinese migration: hundreds
of thousands of Han Chinese relocating to Lhasa,
taking over jobs, buying out shops, acting as tour guides.

The intervening years have not been kind to Tibet
or its leader. Beyond his message of peace and
spirituality, delivered with such infectious
enthusiasm, the reality on the ground is
increasingly grim. A high-altitude railway line
now snakes across the Tibetan plateau, linking
Lhasa to Beijing and enabling yet more migration and military reinforcements.

A turning point came in 2008 with bloody ethnic
riots pitting indigenous Tibetans against Han
Chinese migrants, leaving 20 dead. The biggest
casualty was the reputation of the Tibetan
resistance as a peaceful movement. The beatings
and killings of Chinese shopkeepers at the hands
of local Tibetans belied the Buddhist image of
non-violence. And showed the limits of his influence.

It also highlighted the diplomatic dead end he
finds himself in. Eight years ago, the Dalai Lama
launched direct talks with Beijing inspired by
the Buddhist middle way: Seeking full autonomy
under Chinese rule, he renounced Tibetan claims to sovereignty.

Beijing kept stringing him along. Negotiations
went nowhere, broke off after the ethnic riots,
and resumed earlier this year. But a new
generation of Tibetan youth looks at the Dalai
Lama’s legacy, sees itself lagging, and dreams
again of full independence from China. Now,
opposition to the Dalai Lama’s leadership is not
only external, from China, but internal — from
Tibetans who consider his middle way hopelessly naive.

The end game looms, and it revolves around the
arcane ritual of succession. The Dalai Lama, who
was plucked from his village by Buddhist
officials at age 2 to fulfill his divine role,
has been musing that his successor could well be
found outside China’s borders. Beijing’s leaders,
despite being professed atheists, insist they are
the rightful stewards of reincarnation.

One alternative is for the Dalai Lama to defy
mortality. His supporters have started
speculating he may live until 100 to outlast communism.

If that plan doesn’t hold up, what will his
legacy be? As he descends on Toronto once again,
bringing a message of peace and tolerance that
falls on deaf ears in Beijing, he can at least
claim credit for putting Tibet back on the map at
a time when China was determined to wipe it from the map.
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