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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."

Tibetans fear China's hand in Dalai Lama succession

March 7, 2010

Ben Blanchard
The New York Times
March 4, 2010

TONGREN, China (Reuters) -- For Tibetans living
near the birthplace of the Dalai Lama, one
question is very much on their minds these days
-- who will succeed the aging exiled spiritual leader once he dies?

The possibility that scares most of them, and is
seen as the most likely to happen, is that the
atheist Communist government in Beijing will
simply appoint its own replacement, with a veneer
of tradition and religion thrown in.

One of the few certainties about the political
future of Tibet is that the death of the current
Dalai Lama will cause major ructions in Tibet and overseas.

Some Tibetans fear a violent backlash in what is
now called the Tibet Autonomous Region and
surrounding provinces with large Tibetan
populations, like Qinghai, Gansu and Sichuan, if
Beijing unilaterally appointed the next Dalai Lama.

There is precedent for that happening.

China chose a rival incarnation to succeed the
late 10th Panchen Lama, Tibetan Buddhism's
second-holiest position, shortly after the Dalai
Lama announced his choice in 1995.

"We think China will try to appoint its own Dalai
Lama, as it did with the Panchen Lama," said
Jigme, a monk in the Tibetan region of Tongren in
the arid northwestern province of Qinghai.

"If that happens, we will protest," he added,
punching his fists into the freezing air. "The
people will be very unhappy. This is a religious
decision. There should be no politics."

The worry of violence is very real.

Anti-Chinese protests erupted in March 2008, in
which at least 19 people were killed in riots in
Lhasa. Pro-Tibet groups say hundreds died in a
subsequent crackdown across the region.

The Beijing-anointed Panchen Lama is spurned by
most Tibetans as a fake. The whereabouts of the
Dalai Lama-recognized Panchen Lama is one of
China's most tightly guarded secrets. China has
in the past insisted he is safe, healthy and wants his privacy.

"We will not believe in a Dalai Lama chosen by
the government," said another Qinghai Tibetan,
who gave his name as Jokhar. "Look what happened
when they appointed their own Panchen Lama. We
don't believe in that one, and never will."

Born in 1935 into a farming family in Qinghai,
known to Tibetans as Amdo, Lhamo Thondup was
discovered at the age of two to be the 14th
reincarnation of the Dalai Lama. He fled to India
in 1959 after a failed uprising against Communist Chinese rule.


The Dalai Lama, or Ocean of Wisdom, has earned
adulation from supporters in the West, including
Hollywood celebrities, who see him as one of the
world's most enduring symbols of peace after
Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr.

China's Communist rulers view him as a political
headache and hypocrite with "a human face and the
heart of a beast." They say he foments violence
and is a separatist. He denies both charges,
pointing out that he wants more meaningful autonomy for Tibet.

For China, who becomes the next Dalai Lama is a
heavily politicized issue. Beijing appears
determined not to cede any kind of authority to a
candidate beyond their control.

Last year, a top official warned that the central
government must approve the Dalai Lama's
reincarnation, and would not recognize any candidate that it had not endorsed.

"In terms of what has been flagged by China ...
no other option has emerged, no other even vague
likelihood has emerged, except for China
promoting its own candidate," said Robbie
Barnett, a Tibet scholar at Columbia University in New York.

The Dalai Lama's succession has become a prickly
issue, as the Nobel Prize winner's health
declines, as witnessed by his recent hospital
visits for trapped nerves, abdominal discomfort and gallstone surgery.

He has suggested that his incarnation might be
found outside of Chinese-controlled territory, or
even that Tibetans themselves could order a vote
on whether to continue an institution that once
gave one monk both spiritual and temporal sway over Tibet.

"There definitely will be two," Khedroob Thondup,
a member of the exiled Tibetan parliament, told
Reuters when asked how he thought the succession would play out.

"It will depend on who's in power in Beijing. If
it's the present regime, they will go out of
their way to choose their own," said Khedroob
Thondup, a nephew of the Dalai Lama.

Chinese officials have prevaricated when directly
asked recently about how the succession could be handled.

"Chinese people have a custom of not asking when
an aged person is going to pass away," Zhu
Weiqun, a Communist Party vice-minister
responsible for co-opting Tibetans and other
ethnic minorities, told a news conference last month.

"The Dalai Lama once met Chairman Mao. We hope he
lives a long life, and we hope he can resolve the
question of his succession while he is still with us," Zhu added.

Yet there is a level of worry in official circles
about the potential for instability when the Dalai Lama passes away.

A book on the historical precedent for succession
of living Buddhas published last year under the
auspices of the Beijing-run Chinese Center for
Tibetan Studies warned about this possibility.

"Only if the system used historically is employed
during the reincarnation process for a living
Buddha can it be completed smoothly, otherwise
there will be disturbances and chaos," authors
Chen Qingying and Chen Lijian wrote.


If the new Dalai Lama is just a child when
chosen, exiled Tibetans could find it harder to
have their voice represented on the world stage for years.

"Is the U.S. president going to invite a child
round to play?" wondered one Western diplomat.

Still, some people point to a younger generation
of Tibetan leaders living in exile as a new hope
for their movement once the current Dalai Lama passes away.

"You have young leaders like the Karmapa who are
effectively being groomed and taking on more and
more responsibility," said Kate Saunders of the
International Campaign for Tibet, referring to
the Karmapa Lama, Tibetan Buddhism's third most
senior figure, who fled into exile in India in 2000.

"There's a group of these individuals both
religious and secular who are very capable, very
gifted, learning from the Dalai Lama, often
present at his teachings. This is something that
gives great hope to Tibetans," she added.

(Additional reporting by Ralph Jennings in
Taipei; Editing by Benjamin Kang Lim and Megan Goldin)
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