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Is this the last great Dalai Lama?

March 8, 2009

Fifty years after Chinese rule began, Tibet's leader is still in exile, and many fear chaos will erupt if the conflict with China isn't resolved within his lifetime
The Globe and Mail (Canada)
March 7, 2009

BEIJING -- On a clear and sunny morning last week on the northeastern edge of the Tibetan plateau, a young monk named Tashi walked into the centre of the town of Aba and, carrying a handmade flag with the Dalai Lama's likeness on it, set himself on fire.

Precisely what provoked Tashi's lonely and desperate act isn't clear. Groups pushing for Tibet's independence say that around 1,000 monks had been protesting earlier in the day after police prevented them from entering a prayer hall. The same groups say that police shot several times at Tashi after he lit himself on fire and that he had been taken alive to an undisclosed location. Chinese authorities dispute nearly all of that story — they say the monks on the streets were "celebrating," not protesting.

The only things left clear from the duelling tales are that things remain very tense on the Tibetan plateau ahead of the anniversary of a failed uprising against Chinese rule that started 50 years ago Tuesday, and the extreme devotion most Tibetans feel to the Dalai Lama, who has been the world's most famous exile for most of that time.

In the minds of many, the Tibetan struggle and the current incarnation of the Dalai Lama, 73-year-old Tenzin Gyatso, are inextricably linked. Which is why -- after a series of health scares in recent months — this year's anniversary of the Tibetan uprising is accompanied by rising concern over what might happen if the spiritual and political leader of Tibet were to die or become incapacitated before he has the chance to return home to the official residence in Lhasa he fled with his followers in 1959.

His death would instigate a mystical process of scouring the region for his reincarnated soul in another body, similar to how the current, 14th, Dalai Lama was discovered -- supposedly after the embalmed head of his predecessor rotated to face his town in the Chinese province of Qinghai. The search party of high lamas followed symbols such as cloud banks, oddly shaped fungi and visions of letters floating in lakes until they met a two-year-old boy with a soul they recognized. A similar search for the 15th incarnation could take years, only to lead them to another child far from ready to lead. Complicating matters, the Chinese government also claims a right to have a hand in choosing the next Dalai Lama.

"There's no doubt that life without the Dalai Lama, in the current state we're in, would be a terrible blow," said Lhadon Tethong, executive director of Students for a Free Tibet, one of an array of Tibetan exile groups opposed to Beijing's rule. "It's going to be awful if things are not resolved in his lifetime."

While some in Beijing openly relish that prospect -- they see the Dalai Lama as an unrepentant separatist who was behind the deadly unrest that flared across the Tibetan areas of China last year — the Dalai Lama's supporters warn that China may be letting the best chance for a peaceful resolution to the issue die away. What has until now been a non-violent campaign for autonomy and self-government within China — the Dalai Lama says he wants "one country, two systems" status for Tibet, similar to Hong Kong — could morph into a violent struggle for outright independence, they say.

Like many in the younger generation of Tibet's 120,000 exiles, 33-year-old Ms. Tethong has never set in foot in Tibet -- she was born in Victoria and spends most of her time working out of her organization's head office in New York — but it's a cause she has dedicated her life to. And for all that time, the cause has been inseparable from the bald, charismatic monk.

Although the vast majority of the Tibetan exile community is loyal to the Dalai Lama, few have his seemingly inexhaustible patience, or share his apparent belief that there's something to be achieved through negotiations with Beijing.

"There are many of us who believe that the current incarnation of the government in China is not going to give us anything," Ms. Tethong explained. "I think the easy thing to say would be that the Dalai Lama equals non-violence and without him there would be violence."


The smiling monk with the gentle demeanour and high-pitched giggle has been warmly welcomed to the White House by successive presidents, won the 1989 Nobel Peace Prize and is one of four non-Canadians to have been granted honorary citizenship by Parliament. Almost single-handedly, he has made "Free Tibet!" into one of the most popular causes among well-meaning students on university campuses in Europe and North America.

But 50 years after his dramatic escape by foot and on horseback across the Himalayas -- amid rampant rumours that Chinese forces planned to abduct him -- to set up a government-in-exile in the town of Dharamsala in northern India, the Dalai Lama is no closer to returning home to Lhasa. He has been unable to pass on his irrepressible optimism — he once said that "not getting what you want is often a wonderful stroke of luck" — to many of his followers, who despair that Beijing will never grant Tibet the autonomy the Dalai Lama seeks, let alone the independence that most Tibetans truly crave.

"He's the leader of what is probably the most successful refugee project ever, in that he's kept his people together, kept their culture intact and turned them into a major international issue," said Robbie Bennett, a Tibet historian at Columbia University in New York. "There's a lot of achievement there, but he can't achieve the final move, which is reconciliation with the Chinese."

Part of the reason for that, Prof. Bennett said, is that the Chinese government sees red at the very mention of the man. In the wake of the riots last March on the 49th anniversary of the uprising, one official went so far as to call the Dalai Lama a "jackal clad in Buddhist monk's robes."

In the Chinese narrative, the Dalai Lama isn't the living saint he is often portrayed as in the West. Official Beijing -- and many ordinary Chinese -- see him as a dangerous separatist who has masterminded much of the violence that has plagued the Tibetan plateau off-and-on since the People's Liberation Army first arrived there to "liberate" the region in 1950. Even more damningly, in Chinese eyes, some of the Tibetan groups who support the Dalai Lama accept money from the National Endowment for Democracy, a grant-giving organization that doles out State Department funds. Most famously, the Dalai Lama's escape into exile 50 years ago was accomplished with help from the Central Intelligence Agency.

"We think the Dalai Lama is the reason for the riots in Tibet, including last year in March … and the Dalai Lama is a card, a chip in a wider diplomatic struggle. He is a chip of the anti-Chinese forces in the West," said Wang Xiaobin, a researcher with the China Tibetology Research Centre, a government-backed institute in Beijing. "If there was no intervention by the West, there would be no Tibet issue at all. The Tibet issue is a creation of the USA."

China has tried to combat the Dalai Lama's charisma and international renown by highlighting what Tibet was like before the People's Liberation Army arrived in 1950 and put an end to a brief period of de facto autonomy on the plateau. In a depiction rejected by many academics, Beijing accuses the young Dalai Lama of presiding over a deeply unequal society where many Tibetans effectively lived as slaves. To bolster its argument, the Chinese government highlights the rapid economic growth and the development of modern infrastructure in Tibet over the past five decades.

With tension rising ahead of a series of sensitive dates, China has barred foreign journalists — and many foreign tourists -- from visiting the Tibet Autonomous Region as well as areas of neighbouring provinces that are heavily Tibetan.

In a cynical effort to promote its own version of history -- and poke a stick in the eye of the Dalai Lama -- the Chinese government recently announced that March 28, the day in 1959 that China dissolved the old Tibetan government and created the current Tibet Autonomous Region — would henceforth be celebrated in Chinese-controlled Tibet as "Serf Emancipation Day." In effect, it's a celebration of the end of the quelling of the 1959 Tibetan rebellion, a battle that left 86,000 people dead.

Beijing appears to look forward to time inflicting a final defeat on the Dalai Lama. Without him, many here believe, a leaderless Tibetan exile community will lose its focus. China could deal with Tibet as an internal issue, without the nuisance of constantly seeing images of the Dalai Lama walking down red carpets in Western capitals, wearing that beguiling grin that drives Beijing so crazy.


When a 73-year-old man is hospitalized three times in seven months, it's natural to start thinking about succession planning. The problem the Tibetan community will face when the Dalai Lama is no longer able to lead is that there is no one who can step in and fill his sandals.

Tibetan Buddhists believe that Tenzin Gyatso is a "living Buddha," the 14th incarnation of the Dalai Lama. When he dies, his reincarnation will almost certainly be a young boy, someone likely decades away from being able to take on the leadership role that comes with the title. Mr. Wang of the Tibetology centre predicted there would likely be two Dalai Lamas, one recognized by the Chinese government, the other by the exile community. "It's unavoidable," he said.

The Dalai Lama has spoken about an election to choose his successor, and of possibly separating the political and spiritual roles traditionally given to him. "The very institution of the Dalai Lama is up to the Tibetan people," he said two years ago during a visit to Japan, where he proposed that his successor could be elected by senior lamas, just as the Catholic Pope is chosen by a college of cardinals.

He has also speculated that he will likely be reincarnated somewhere outside Chinese-controlled Tibet — it's unlikely Chinese officials would allow the search party to wander Tibet looking for their next nemesis anyway — and even suggested that he may completely break with tradition and name his successor while he is still alive, a regent who could rule until his next reincarnation comes of age.

Some see a solution in the 23-year-old Karmapa Lama, the third-ranking Lama in Tibetan Buddhism, who happens to be unique in that he is recognized by both Beijing and the Tibetan exile community. (The second-ranking Lama, the Panchen Lama, disappeared in China 14 years ago at age 6 shortly after his reincarnated form was recognized by the Dalai Lama in 1995. Beijing recognizes a different Panchen Lama, though he's considered a fraud by many Tibetans.) While the Karmapa Lama, who fled from China to Dharamsala in 2000, is an intriguing character — he speaks fluent Chinese and is said to enjoy his iPod and Playstation — it's unlikely, at least in the short term, that he would command the same respect accorded to the Dalai Lama.

Most observers believe it's likeliest that the Dalai Lama's passing will be marked by a descent into chaos, both in the suddenly leaderless exile community and inside Chinese-controlled Tibet, where anger might once more boil over.

"I can even predict the time of the next Tibetan riots," prominent Chinese intellectual Wang Lixiong wrote last year. "If Tibet doesn't make progress, and the Dalai Lama doesn't return to Tibet before he dies, the moment that he dies will see general riots across the Tibetan areas of China.… The Tibetan riots won't need any allying or organizing. They will form without any instigation. The people who know Tibet all know that the fate of the Dalai Lama is a wound to every Tibetan's heart."

Which is precisely what perplexes many about China's apparent strategy of trying to wait the Dalai Lama out. "If this man dies or becomes seriously ill, if you're China you don't want that to happen when there are six million Tibetans in your country who will blame you for that. [Beijing] could face real anger, a real pain that could last for generations," said Prof. Bennett, the Tibet historian.

Time, he said, is likely already too short. Even if Chinese President Hu Jintao suddenly had a change of heart and committed himself to resolving the Tibet problem, it would likely take months or years to hammer out the details of any deal that would allow Tenzin Gyatso to go home to Lhasa. No one knows if this incarnation of the Dalai Lama has that much time left. It seems more likely that a time of great opportunity is about to pass the Chinese leadership by, to be followed by something potentially more volatile and much more difficult to bring to a conclusion.

"One day the Chinese people are going to say, 'My God, our leaders let this opportunity go, and we're stuck in a quagmire. This is China's Vietnam, and we could have solved this,'" Prof. Bennett said. "Historically, the Dalai Lama is going to win this argument, but perhaps not in his lifetime."
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