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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."

Tibet in Exile: An Interview with Pico Iyer

June 9, 2008

By Jon Wiener (online)
Dissent Magazine
Spring 2008

BORN IN Oxford, raised in California, a resident of Japan, Pico Iyer
has captured his itinerant life with books and essays that document
his journeys to Nepal, Cuba, and most recently, Tibet. He speaks with
Dissent's Jon Wiener ("The Weatherman Temptation," spring 2007) about
his new book, The Open Road: The Global Journey of the Fourteenth Dalai Lama.

Jon Wiener: There are six million Tibetans. But you write in your new
book that Tibet today is "slipping ever closer to extinction." Those
are chilling words.

Pico Iyer: I wish they were overstated words, but they're not. The
Tibet autonomous region is more and more a Chinese province. Lhasa is
now 65 percent Han Chinese, so Tibetans are a minority in their own
country. The Chinese are practicing what the Dalai Lama has called
"demographic aggression" -- trying to wipe out Tibetan culture
through force of numbers. Two years ago they set up that high speed
train, which allows 6,000 more Han Chinese to come to Tibet every
day. I first saw Lhasa in 1985 just when it opened up to the world.
It was still a classic Tibetan settlement -- two story traditional
whitewashed buildings, and the Potala Palace, the great residence of
the Dalai Lama. If you go there now, sadly, it's like an eastern Las
Vegas—huge shopping malls, blue-glassed department stores, high rise
buildings. From most parts of Lhasa you can't even see the Potala Palace.

J.W.: Isn't Tibetan Buddhism still practiced openly in Tibet?

P.I.: It is. But there is a limit on the number of monks allowed in
each monastery. In old Tibet as much as 20 percent or more of the
population was monastic. Now there's a limit of 500 monks per
monastery. These are monasteries that used to have 8,000 or 10,000
monks. They were the biggest monasteries in the world 70 years ago.
Now they are just shells.

J.W.: Since 1959 the Tibetan exile community has been based in
Dharamsala, India.

P.I.: Yes. A thriving Tibetan culture exists in exile, especially in
India, where the Dalai Lama has done a good job of sustaining
everything that is essential about Tibetan tradition and culture and
religion, while getting rid of everything that is feudal or outdated.
In exile, he's set up a living, modern version of Tibet -- you could
call it "Tibet 2.0."

J.W.: Let's talk a little bit about the history of Tibet in exile:
Shortly after Mao's Red Army triumphed in China, China invaded Tibet
in 1949-50. What happened when Tibet appealed to the UN in 1950 about
the Chinese invasion?

P.I.: Tibet's apparent sponsors at the UN were Britain and India. And
both Britain and India asked the UN not to listen. Tibet never
received an answer. Tibet suddenly realized it was completely
friendless, and that no country in the world would rise to its
defense. Ten years later, the US realized Tibet could be a pawn in
its ongoing struggle against China. But the Dalai Lama told me many
years ago that Tibet's greatest mistake was to be too isolated.
That's why now he speaks out against isolationists and in favor of
dialogue. Even with China. He says let's not boycott the Olympics,
because isolating any country is only going to bring problems.

J.W.: A guerilla resistance in Tibet was aided by the CIA starting in
the 1950s.

P.I.: Yes. The CIA really moved in during the 1960s, when they
trained Tibetans in Colorado, of all places, and set them up in
Nepal. The CIA wasn't concerned about Tibet; they were only concerned
about trying to foil their great communist enemy China. It was a
fitful resistance but the CIA was more than ready to help -- until
Nixon and Kissinger went to Beijing. At that point, the Dalai Lama
realized that violent resistance would only bring more suffering to
his people, so he sent a taped message to the guerillas in Nepal and
told them to lay down their arms. They did, but some of them were so
heartbroken that they took their own lives.

J.W.: The Chinese Cultural Revolution in the mid-1960s was a turning
point for Tibet.

P.I.: They tried to destroy Tibetan culture --much as they tried to
destroy their own culture, but even more brutally. According to
Tibetan estimates, 1.2 million Tibetans died—that's 20 percent of the
population. All but 13 of the 6,000 monasteries were destroyed.
Little kids were asked to shoot their parents. Most violently, the
Chinese sought to tear apart every last shred of Tibetan Buddhist
tradition. Monks were asked to use sacred texts as toilet paper. It
was a brutal thing, which the Chinese government has since repudiated.

J.W.: In the Tibetan exile community today, is there a dream of
return -- the way there is for the Palestinians?

P.I.: There is a great dream of return. One often meets Palestinians
visiting the Tibetan exile center in India to share ideas. The Dalai
Lama has often talked to Jewish leaders about how they managed to
keep their culture alive before 1948 even though they had no
territory. Many of the young Tibetans are restless and say, "We've
got to act now." The Dalai Lama keeps trying to restrain them,
pointing out how they're outnumbered by the Chinese, pointing out
that Washington and London are not likely to come to their rescue,
and that if you confront China you'll only bring more suffering on
the Tibetans. The Dalai Lama's message is aimed in part at
Palestinians and Uigars and Kurds and the many exiles in the world,
reminding them that "home" has to do with the values inside yourself,
and those can flourish wherever you are. The Dalai Lama says, "I've
lost my home, but I've gained the whole world as part of my community."

J.W.: You are saying Tibet can exist outside of Tibet.

P.I.: Yes. One of the happier ironies of recent history is that even
as Tibet is being wiped off the map in Tibet itself, here it is in
California, in Switzerland, in Japan. All over the world Tibetan
Buddhism is now part of the neighborhood. In 1968, there were two
Tibetan Buddhist centers in the West. By 2000, there were 40 in New York alone.

J.W.: You write in your new book that the "second most urgent" task
facing the Dalai Lama is to keep Tibetan culture and history alive
for thousands of young Tibetan boys who dream about California.

P.I.: The Tibetans in India are in a poignant situation. They are 100
percent Tibetan but none of them have seen Tibet. They are living in
a poor country in poor settlements, surrounded by beautiful young
women and men from California and elsewhere. Like people all around
the world in underdeveloped countries, they long to come to America,
the land of freedom and abundance. They imagine that the grass is
greener in California.

J.W.: There is a Tibetan government in exile. Is it run by the Dalai Lama?

P.I.: I'm so glad you asked that. One of the first things the Dalai
Lama did went he went into exile was to draw up a democratic
constitution, even with a clause allowing his own impeachment. He set
up a democratically elected parliament and prime minister in
Dharamsala which has full executive powers. That government is
working smoothly. The only drawback is that he is regarded by the
Tibetans as an incarnation of a god. So if it comes to listening to a
prime minister or listening to a god, Tibetans will always defer to
the Dalai Lama.

J.W.: You've written about the fourteenth Dalai Lama. Will there be a

P.I.: He knows that as soon as he dies, the Chinese government will
alight on an amenable little boy, probably the child of Communist
cadre, and reenact a kind of monastic search and declare, "This boy
is the fifteenth Dalai Lama." Of course he will be completely loyal
to the communist party and probably be an enemy of Tibet. This Dalai
Lama, the fourteenth, has been saying for 39 years now, since he was
34 years old, that if there is a fifteenth Dalai Lama, he'll be born
outside Tibet and China. But, he says, there may not be a fifteenth
Dalai Lama. Or it may be a woman. It won't be discovered in the same
way. My suspicion is that he will depute someone to carry the weight
and he will tell Tibetans, "This person speaks for me. Please listen to him."

Jon Wiener teaches U.S. history at the University of
California-Irvine; his most recent book is Historians in Trouble.
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