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Debunking the Dalai Lama

March 31, 2009

The Times (South Africa)
March 30, 2009

THE POWER OF ONE: The 14th Dalai Lama, Tenzin
Gyatso, abandoned the demand for Tibetan
independence without consulting his people, says

The democratic credentials of the Dalai Lama remain suspect

The Tibetan leader has been elevated above his failings, writes Jeremy Cronin

WE’VE had the dotcom bubble burst and the
sub-prime loan bubble burst. The rumpus around
the government’s refusal of a visa to the Dalai
Lama should serve to burst another bubble.

I’m not particularly referring to a prevailing
view that the visa refusal has punctured South
Africa’s international reputation, which might
well be the case in certain quarters. I’m
referring to something more general, more
insidious: the grand illusion of the 1990s of an
ideologically free, transcendent set of universal
values laid down by the International Monetary
Fund, Amnesty International and the Nobel Prize committee.

Let me first concede that the government’s
handling of the Dalai Lama invitation has been
clumsy. We were told the visa was declined
because we didn’t want the Dalai Lama’s presence
in South Africa to distract world attention from
2010 soccer World Cup preparations. The refusal
has achieved exactly the opposite.

We were told that refusing the visa was our own
decision. The next day, the Chinese ambassador
said his country had raised the matter with our
government. The two statements are not
necessarily in contradiction, but where’s the
harm in saying our sovereign decision was
informed by, among other things, China’s concerns?

I can hear many readers saying: Outrageous! I
might be inclined to agree. But how many of these
scandalised voices are the same voices that spent
the last decade telling us we couldn’t do this or
that because we’d scare off foreign investors
(presumably those in New York and London and not
those, who now have the serious money, in Shanghai)?

South Africa has been fortunate to have four
Nobel peace laureates and we have felt a
legitimate sense of collective pride in our
winners. But let’s not delude ourselves that
these awards have somehow been free of ideological framing.

For instance, the joint award in 1993 of the
peace prize to Nelson Mandela and FW de Klerk
assumed a problematic symmetry. It was a symmetry
that implied South Africa had been involved in a
“race war”, the leaders of the two sides came
together and, in a spirit of conciliation,
delivered their respective and bellicose
constituencies … and we’ve all lived happily ever after.

Which brings me to another Nobel laureate, Tenzin
Gyatso, better known as the 14th Dalai Lama. I’ve
heard a colleague, Health Minister Barbara Hogan,
describe him as “a brave man who has fought for
the liberation of his people”. Others view him as an ascetic holy man.

In 1911, when China’s last dynasty was
overthrown, all Chinese officials were expelled
from Tibet. The 13th Dalai Lama proclaimed what
many Tibetans consider an independence
declaration — though no one in the international
community recognised Tibet at the time.

In the 1930s, the Chinese Communist Party, still
embroiled in a protracted civil war, recognised
in principle the right to Tibetan
self-determination. In the late- 1940s, this
principle seems to have been dropped quietly . In
1950, a year after victory, the People’s
Liberation Army overran Tibet’s eastern province.

Tenzin Gyatso, who had by then become Dalai Lama,
signed an agreement acknowledging China’s
sovereignty over Tibet. He made no attempt to
rally the Tibetan people to defend their
independence. The ruling elite was reassured by
China’s promise not to tamper with the theocratic
political system underpinned by feudal oppression.

But the presence of Chinese troops in eastern
Tibet fanned patriotic sentiments. These were
exploited by landlords fearing that, sooner or
later, the Chinese would implement land reform.
The CIA air- dropped arms into Tibet and trained Tibetan irregulars.

In 1959, there was an uprising in the capital,
Lhasa. It was brutally suppressed by the Chinese,
with tens of thousands of deaths. The Dalai Lama
had conveniently fled into India before the
uprising, taking 60t of treasure with him. None
of the major protagonists emerged with much glory from this episode.

The democratic credentials of the Dalai Lama,
living in Indian exile for the past five decades,
remain suspect. Without consulting Tibetans, he
openly abandoned the demand for independence in
1987, a shift he first secretly communicated to
Beijing in 1984. The autonomous region of Tibet
is one of the poorest parts of China. Whether as
a result of deliberate policy, or because of
market forces, ethnic Chinese now outnumber Tibetans in the territory.

Three things at least are clear. One, there are
serious, unresolved cultural and developmental
challenges in Tibet. Two, there are sharply
contested versions of how to resolve these
challenges. And three, Tenzin Gyatso (aka the
Dalai Lama) might be a fellow laureate, but he is
no Albert Luthuli or Nelson Mandela.

* Cronin is deputy general secretary of the SA Communist Party and an MP
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