Join our Mailing List

"On my part, I remain committed to the process of dialogue. It is my firm belief that dialogue and a willingness to look with honesty and clarity at the reality of Tibet can lead us to a viable solution."

Dalai Lama challenged by new generation of Buddhist activists

August 2, 2008

By Christiane Amanpour and Andrew Tkach
July 31, 2008

Story Highlights
* Gedun Gyatso, 27, is part of new breed of Buddhist activists
pushing for free Tibet
* They defy the Dalai Lama's "middle way" approach to Tibetan
autonomy within China
* Gyatso, 80 other monks took marched 850 miles from India to Tibetan frontier
* Younger generation vows to continue movement after Dalai Lama dies,
says Gyatso

DHARAMSALA, India (CNN) -- Gedun Gyatso, a 27-year-old Tibetan
Buddhist monk, is so devoted to the Dalai Lama that when he was in
prison he placed a picture of him next to his pillow in open defiance
of his jailers. The gesture earned Gyatso another month of
incarceration on top of the three years he had already served for his
political activity.

But today, Gyatso stands in defiance of the Dalai Lama's "middle way"
approach to the long struggle between China and Tibetans over the
fate of their homeland. The Tibetan spiritual leader's moderation is
being challenged by a new generation at odds with his willingness to
accept Tibetan autonomy within China rather than push for full independence.

"His Holiness says it's up to the Tibetans to choose their future,
and I choose complete independence, and so do most Tibetans. As we
saw in the uprising last March," says Gyatso.

Gyatso is one of a new breed of Buddhist activists who are on the
front lines of battles to win democratic freedom. These Buddhist
warriors struggle to maintain their religious convictions of
compassion and nonviolence while challenging powerful autocratic regimes.

CNN spoke to Gyatso as he and 80 other monks, who are living in exile
from Tibet, were preparing to take part in an 850-mile protest march
from Dharamsala, India, to the Tibetan frontier. Their march was
timed to coincide with the run-up to the Olympics to bring maximum
exposure to their demands for Tibetan independence from China.
PhotoSee behind-the-scenes photos »

They are part of a young generation of monks who are willing to put
their lives on the line for a political cause. But these insurgents
are not carrying weapons. In fact, when CNN met them in India, they
were attending a training course in nonviolent protest, inspired by
the likes of Mahatma Gandhi and Rosa Parks.

"I stand for the cause of Tibetan independence. But as a monk, I will
never deviate from nonviolence," says Gyatso. VideoWatch: Some of the
Dalai Lama's unruly flock »

Unlike many monks, Gyatso cuts an imposing figure -- tall and
muscular -- like many of the Tibetan nomads and farmers from the wild
eastern region of Kham. As a boy, he spent summers herding yaks in
the high mountains and chasing away wolves with stones and
slingshots. But Gyatso dreamed of achieving much more. At age 13 he
enrolled in the nearby Podma Monastery and began the rigorous study
of Buddhist texts. Learn about Tibet's history of conflict »

"I wanted to become a monk because it gives me a sense of peace, " he says.

But when he was 16 years old, that peace was broken by Tibet's
gathering political storm. Tibet had been part of China since a 1950
invasion by newly victorious Chinese Communist forces. In the mid
1990s, reacting to pro-independence protests by Tibetans, Chinese
authorities stepped up a "patriotic re-education" campaign.

Gyatso says they forced monks to denounce the Dalai Lama and declare
their allegiance to the People's Republic of China. But the elderly
abbot in his monastery refused, saying he would rather give up his
monk's robes than denounce his spiritual guide. After the abbot was
arrested, Gyatso and other young monks plastered protest posters on
the walls of their monastery. It didn't take long for the authorities to react.

"In prison they beat me so badly that I couldn't walk or eat,"
remembers Gyatso. "My cell mates put food in my mouth because I couldn't chew."

But the worst was to come. Gyatso says the guards handcuffed him and
forced him into a room filled ankle-deep with water.

"Then it felt like I was hit by a giant hammer and I passed out," he says.

Gyatso says he was knocked unconscious by electric shock and for the
next 10 days he couldn't walk, talk or see straight. He says Chinese
interrogators were trying to extract a confession from him to find
out who had masterminded his monastery's protest.

"Even when I was badly beaten, my mind never faltered, because I knew
I stood for the truth," he says. "They are destroying what I hold
most sacred; my religion, my culture and my cause. The more they
tortured me, the stronger my faith grew."

The Chinese government declined CNN's repeated requests for an interview.

Gyatso's faith may soon be tested again as he approaches the
culmination of his march to Tibet. After he was released from prison
in China, Gyatso escaped over the Himalayas to continue his studies
in the Sera Monastery in southern India, a center of the Tibetan
exile community.

But when he heard about the pre-Olympic protest march, he was one of
the first monks to sign up. Last March, on the 49th anniversary of
Tibet's failed uprising against Chinese rule, the marchers began
their quixotic quest.

For three months, Gyatso and 80 monks slowly approached the Tibetan
border, despite arrest by Indian authorities and pleas from Tibet's
government in exile to suspend anti-Chinese protests.

Gyatso's march coincided with the largest protest Tibet had seen in
decades. More moderate Tibetans didn't want to further inflame the
situation, but a nonviolent uprising is exactly what the marchers wanted.

"We were hoping there would be an uprising in Tibet on the 10th of
March, but our march was not the trigger that set it off. The severe
repression of our people is what did it," says Gyatso.

When Tibet's initially peaceful protests turned into anti-Chinese
riots on March 14, Gyatso and his fellow monks condemned those who
strayed from nonviolence and acknowledged that the Dalai Lama was
helping to "keep the peace."

In June, when Gyatso and the other marchers were within sight of
Tibet, they were stopped and arrested again by Indian authorities,
who would not let them proceed further.

The five organizations of exiled Tibetans who had sponsored the march
called it off, but Gyatso and many of the other monks vowed to
continue their movement.

"The Chinese authorities hope that once the older generation of
Tibetan activists is gone it will all be over," says Gyatso. "But
what I've learned on the march is that when the Dalai Lama passes
away, a new younger generation of activists will step in."
CTC National Office 1425 René-Lévesque Blvd West, 3rd Floor, Montréal, Québec, Canada, H3G 1T7
T: (514) 487-0665
Developed by plank