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The view from the roof of the world

March 15, 2009

It's 50 years since the Dalai Lama fled Tibet, and in that time a
romanticised western vision of his country has flourished. But, argues
Patrick French, it has done little to help the cause of those left behind

Patrick French
The Guardian, Tuesday 10 March 2009

A woman stands beside Buddhist prayer flags high up on Simla mountain in
Tibet Photograph: Dan Chung/Guardian

The Himalayan region has long held a particular fascination for the
western mind. When the Dalai Lama made good his daring escape into exile
in 1959, crossing the Himalayas while the People's Liberation Army
followed in hot pursuit, Tintin in Tibet was about to be published, and
the remote land of snow peaks and deities, yaks and yetis, forbidden
cities and flying lamas was already well known through the writings of
mystics such as Madame Blavatsky, Alexandra David-Néel and T Lobsang
Rampa, author of the”bestseller The Third Eye. (Rampa was later unmasked
as a surgical truss manufacturer from Devon named Cyril Hoskin.)
Convinced that Tibet was the fountain of "Indo-Germanic" racial purity,
Heinrich Himmler had sent a number of exploratory expeditions there and,
on a single trip, Nazi ethnographers took 60,000 photographs, mainly of
baffled Tibetans with good "Aryan" cheekbones.

With the flight of the Dalai Lama and many important lamas into exile,
Tibetan Buddhism gained new followers in the United States and western
Europe in the 60s and 70s, as the half-understood precepts of a complex
religious tradition opened doors for those who were in search of a fresh
spiritual direction. The Tibetan refugees, in their turn, found
financial and social possibilities available to them through the export
of their culture that would not have been obtainable in any other way.
In Dharamsala, the little Indian hill town where the Dalai Lama made his
headquarters, there is still tension between local men and the Tibetan
exiles, who easily attract the eyes of visiting westerners.

The underlying reason for the popularity of abstract Tibet may have been
the assumption that a pure, isolated place on the roof of the world must
have harmonious mystical methods that are lost or undiscovered in more
regular post-industrial societies. So when Sandra Bullock in Miss
Congeniality or Kate Hudson in How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days wish to
bring calm back in to their lives, they instinctively namecheck the
Dalai Lama. Even Harry Angstrom, the boorish American everyman in the
Rabbit novels written by the recently departed John Updike, says: "The
only country over there I've ever wanted to go to is Tibet. I can't
believe I won't make it." Half a century after the uprising that led to
the Dalai Lama's departure, this ethereal perception of Tibet has been
updated with our knowledge of the tragedy of communist rule, and in
particular the immense damage done during the Great Leap Forward in the
late 50s and the Cultural Revolution, unleashed in 1966.

Living in exile, the 14th Dalai Lama is still seen as the face and voice
of the Tibetans but, more emotively, he is a religious leader with a
huge appeal to people of no definite religious belief. With his quirky
humour and sermons conducted in broken English in which he emphasises
love and compassion, he can reach across borders and draw enormous
crowds. But 50 years after his flight, Tibet remains under the rule of
Beijing and the Dalai Lama still faces the same quandary that he
discussed with the Indian prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, as soon as
he reached New Delhi in 1959: how do you influence a country as large
and as powerful as China, and is western support for his campaign for
Tibetan freedom anything more than gesture politics” Nehru's view was
that American and European support for the Dalai Lama's cause was
insincere, and that if the Dalai Lama went to the west in the hope of
drumming up political enthusiasm, he would "look like a piece of
merchandise". Since the early 90s, negotiations between the Dalai Lama
and the Chinese government have been stalled.

In earlier centuries - when it took several months for a messenger to
travel between the Tibetan capital Lhasa and Beijing - it was possible
for Tibet and China to have a working, symbiotic relationship without
China's nominal power disturbing Tibet's distinctive cultural identity.
But when the Dalai Lama was born in 1935 in a region controlled by a
Chinese Muslim warlord, Tibet was in a vulnerable position. Attempts by
the 13th Dalai Lama to introduce reforms had fallen foul of monastic
conservatives, and with a civil war raging in China, it was possible to
postpone the day of reckoning. For most practical purposes, the country
was in control of its own affairs. A search party was sent to locate the
nation's new ruler. They saw a house with a roof of turquoise tiles,
which matched a building seen by a monk in a dream, and inside was a
little boy named Lhamo Dhondrub who recognised a rosary and drum
belonging to the late Dalai Lama. This was taken as proof that he must
be his reincarnation: so he was taken to Lhasa and enthroned. It was a
unique and lonely childhood for the Dalai Lama, living at the top of the
Potala palace and being trained in Buddhist dialectics and ritual by
scholarly monks.

When the communists won the civil war in China in 1949 and set about
capturing territory over which they believed Beijing had a historical
claim, the teenage Dalai Lama was obliged to take up temporal power.
Initially, he and his advisers thought Chairman Mao Zedong's
revolutionary reforms would bring progress and prosperity, and for
nearly 10 years the Tibetan government co-existed with the invaders - a
decade that has now been largely eradicated from popular history. But by
1959 and the start of the Great Leap Forward, as monasteries were
destroyed and social structures undermined, the population of eastern
Tibet rose up against communist rule, and the Dalai Lama escaped.

In exile in India and Nepal, it was necessary for refugees from across
the wide Tibetan plateau to bond together and establish a common
identity. United by their reverence for the person of the Dalai Lama,
these displaced people with different dialects and customs tried to
unite and put regional and sectarian differences to one side. They
acquired the structures and symbols that foreign supporters had told
them would be helpful to emphasise the notion of nationhood; a song
written by the Dalai Lama's tutor Trijang Rinpoche was adopted as
Tibet's national anthem, and a regimental banner featuring blue and red
stripes and a pair of snow lions became the national flag. Over the
coming years, as more children were born in exile, they were imbued with
a sense of their own Tibetanness through the system of schooling set up
in refugee settlements by the government-in-exile. Many of the current
younger generation of pro-Tibet activists have never been to the country
that they consider home. When new arrivals escape across the Himalayas
today, often enduring desperate journeys, they usually have trouble
assimilating: the exiles consider their behaviour, language and cultural
reference points to be "too Chinese".

I spent the summer and autumn of 1999 in Tibet and its border areas
covertly interviewing people from all sides of the political and ethnic
divide, sometimes through a translator. By the end of this process, I
began to see quite how complicated the situation was for Tibetans inside
Tibet. Restricted from knowledge of the outside world, and of the
workings of alternative and democratic political systems, it was hard
for them to imagine a different future. Most retained a deep, hidden
reverence for the Dalai Lama, despite Beijing's vicious campaigns
depicting him as a ‘splittist" and a "wolf in monk's clothing", but
within this devotion was a sense that the battle for independence had
been lost many decades before.

Older people felt relief above all that the dark days of the 60s and 70s
were behind them. They had little option but to operate within the
system - in the bureaucracy, in the police or in politics - and the fact
they did so did not mean they were pro-communist. Their Han Chinese
colleagues were not regarded as enemies, and many Tibetans spoke Chinese
when in the "public" sphere, for example when talking about their job or
speaking a telephone number. Underlying this acceptance of Chinese
control was an intense resentment that Tibetans were subordinate and,
for example, had never held any of the key posts in the government of
the Tibet Autonomous Region.

While China has liberalised since the end of the Maoist era, the
"minority" regions of Tibet and Xinjiang remain under close supervision,
and in urban areas people are still obliged to spy on their neighbours.
At present, the country is closed to outsiders. Over the last year,
there have been repeated small-scale protests by Tibetans, which have
been suppressed brutally, and it remains difficult to obtain accurate
information about everyday life. One of the best depictions I have seen
was in last year's BBC4 series A Year in Tibet, which was criticised by
campaigners as being insufficiently condemnatory of the authorities.
Foreign journalists who wish to report from the country either have to
work under heavy restriction or rely on Tibetan refugees. A few days
ago, I had a familiar experience: a senior TV correspondent was
telephoning for advice about going to Tibet. His intention was to
intercut undercover footage filmed in border areas with interviews
conducted among exiles, since speaking to "actual" Tibetans was too
difficult and dangerous.

In the decade since my extended stay in Tibet, despite Beijing
continuing to pour money into the region in subsidies, the overall
situation has not improved. For most mainstream Han Chinese, who are
ever more aware of their country's growing economic and strategic status
in the world, the "Tibet problem" is an unwelcome distraction to the
rise of China. The new railway line to Lhasa has brought a fresh wave of
settlers, and the immediate spark for last year's protests by Tibetans
was anger that the economic advantages of recent years had gone to
outsiders. Their countrymen who study or work in places such as Xian,
Chengdu and Beijing face constant suspicion, and find it more difficult,
for instance, to get rooms in hotels. Although the Tibetan cause
regularly brings out protesters in London, Washington, Berlin and Paris,
it has little sympathy on the streets of China's cities.

This inability to gain Chinese popular support even among those who are
otherwise unsympathetic to the Communist party is the biggest single
failure of the western pro-Tibet lobby, which is caught in a cul-de-sac,
speaking to the converted and culling any messenger who dares to
question its virtue. Adversarial contest is at the heart of the west's
legal, political and academic life, and the Tibet movement operates
within that paradigm, unaware that public humiliation of visiting
Chinese leaders does nothing to improve the situation for Tibetans
inside Tibet. I noticed during last year's Olympic torch procession that
when rival groups of Han Chinese and iridescent pro-Tibet supporters
stood waving flags, neither side attempted to speak to the other. The
way in which China was routinely abused at this time caused distress to
many Chinese, and led to counter-protests and the creation of websites
such as

The ageing Dalai Lama continues to shuttle the globe selling the cause
of Tibet and attracting sympathy and admiration rather than substantive
political backing. Late last year, aware that a younger generation was
disappointed with his strategy, he offered to step down and called an
open meeting of Tibetans in Dharamsala. The government-in-exile managed
the event: contrary views were ventilated at the margins, and the
conference agreed to continue with more of the same.

He has also made ambiguous statements about what will happen when he
dies, even suggesting that he may not reincarnate and may instead
nominate a successor. If this happens, the atheist Chinese government
may usurp his authority by naming a child as his reincarnation, as they
did after the death of another senior Tibetan Buddhist leader, the
Panchen Rinpoche. Should Beijing decide to reach out and try to cut a
deal with the exiles, it is likely to be in the post-Dalai Lama era.

At present, it is not easy to see a happy outcome to the impasse between
the Chinese and the Tibetans. Road building, power projects and
nationalist propaganda have not won the hearts and minds of many in the
Tibet Autonomous Region. Beijing knows it can put down any rebellion
with force, while the Tibetans realise that, to use a traditional
phrase, open revolt would be like throwing an egg against a rock. In the
meantime, the suffering in Tibet continues.

“ Patrick French is the author of Tibet, Tibet: A Personal History of a
Lost Land, published by Harper Perennial.
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