Tibetans Hold Their Breath

Dalai Lama is widely admired for his commitment to peaceful resistance to Chinese occupation. Now he's sick and more radical forces lie in wait


MARK ABLEY Montreal Gazette

Saturday, February 02, 2002

Last Wednesday night, a few dozen Montrealers gathered in a north-end Buddhist centre to pray for the health and long life of a 66-year-old man lying in a hospital bed on the far side of the world.

The man - the 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet - is an inspiration to citizens of many nations. Winner of the 1989 Nobel Peace Prize, he has spoken constantly in favour of non-violence. Though he and up to 150,000 other Tibetans have spent most or all of their lives as refugees from Chinese occupation, he has never condemned the people of China, never supported violence against their rulers. He continues to search for a peaceful resolution that would allow Tibet a high degree of autonomy within China.

The Dalai Lama refers to himself as "a simple monk," spurning the temptations that arise from the adoration of followers and the admiration of outsiders, yet for decades he has kept up a punishing schedule of prayers, meetings, interviews, speeches and ceremonies. In April, he is scheduled to make his fourth visit to Canada. Dozens of MPs and thousands of Canadians have asked Prime Minister ChrÈtien to meet him.

But now, it seems, the Dalai Lama is exhausted. Since December, he has been suffering from pain and stomach troubles. A week ago, illness forced him to abandon the Kalachakra rituals, among the most sacred in the Buddhist calendar. Before he was flown to a hospital in Bombay, doctors said he had "a lump in his stomach."

The latest reports suggest he has a bowel infection, is responding well to antibiotics, and may leave hospital within a few days. Still, his illness has come as a warning. Tibetans, and no doubt the leaders of China, are wondering: what next?

Chokey Tsering, a Montrealer now pursuing a Master's degree in sociology at Concordia University, is among the younger generation of exiled Tibetans. As a teenager, she admits, she felt a certain weariness with the whole issue of Tibet. Now, she is just as committed as her elders.

"Among my circle of friends," Tsering says, "it seems almost sacrilegious to utter the possibility that the Dalai Lama could be seriously ill. His passing away is a taboo subject."

The Dalai Lama has pondered his succession long and hard. According to Tibetan custom, he will be reborn as an infant - there have, after all, been 13 Dalai Lamas before him. To be recognized as the authentic reincarnation, a young boy must answer a rigorous series of tests that show he correctly recalls objects from his previous life.

Traditionally, the second highest of Tibet's religious leaders - the Panchen Lama - would approve the choice, and play a major role in government until the new Dalai Lama was old enough to rule. But tradition no longer applies.

In 1989, the 10th Panchen Lama died inside Tibet. Six years later, the Dalai Lama recognized a young boy, Gedhun Choekyi Nyima, as his reincarnation. China promptly arrested the child and his family, and declared another boy to be the true Panchen Lama - a boy who is being raised under Chinese tutelage. President Jiang Zemin has instructed him to "uphold the leadership of the Party, have a deep love for the nation, for the people and for socialism."

Gedhun Choekyi Nyima has not been seen since his arrest. Now 12 years old, he may be the world's youngest political prisoner. Such confusion, and such potential for Beijing's interference, are what the Dalai Lama wants to avoid at all costs. A decade ago, he suggested he might be the last of his lineage. Perhaps it was time, he mused, for the whole institution of the Dalai Lama to change. In recent years, he has dropped such speculations. Having seen what happened to Gedhun Choekyi Nyima, he says he will, indeed, be reborn - but in exile.

Unless there are dramatic and unforeseen changes inside Tibet, the next Dalai Lama is more likely to be born in Montreal than in the Tibetan capital, Lhasa. Such a situation would have seemed unimaginable in the Dalai Lama's boyhood.

In the 1930s and '40s, Tibet was an independent but isolated country. It had no allies to call on when Mao Tse-tung's troops invaded. After the Dalai Lama fled Lhasa and crossed the Himalayas in 1959, he set up a government-in-exile in the northern Indian town of Dharamsala.

At first, his journeys outside India were rare. In recent decades, that has changed. Thanks to his extensive travels, the Dalai Lama can meet many of the Tibetans in exile, and can lobby world leaders for the support his homeland needs. Decades of Chinese rule have led to the plundering of Tibetan resources, the demolition of most Tibetan monasteries, and an influx of Chinese settlers that has made Tibetans a minority in their own land.

Tibetan spirits were buoyed in 2000 when another young lama, the Karmapa, emulated the Dalai Lama by escaping across the snow peaks to India. Still only 16, the Karmapa shows promise of becoming a dynamic leader in his own right. But he represents only one of the often feuding schools of Tibetan Buddhism, and it's unclear whether he could ever command the respect given the Dalai Lama.

"A man like the Dalai Lama doesn't come onto the world stage very often,"

says Thubten Samdup, a Montrealer who is the longtime president of the Canada Tibet Committee. "He lives by what he preaches. I think that after Sept. 11, things have changed. Now when you talk about non-violent struggle, it finally strikes a chord in people."

But Samdup knows online discussions among young exiled Tibetans reveal other sentiments:

"I can just feel the anger about how the Dalai Lama has been ignored by the world community. The day he passes away, it might not take long before some crazy young Tibetan does something that would just wipe away these years of non-violent struggle. And all of a sudden, we'd be lumped in with the rest."

Meaning, of course, that after one or two terrorist incidents, Tibetans would be thrown into the same sad mix as Tamils, Chechens, Palestinians, Kashmiris and all the other Asian minorities whose grievances may well be justified but whose violent actions arouse fear, anger and harsh reprisal.

"If the world community is serious about fighting terrorism," Samdup says, "non-violent groups need to be rewarded. And if the Tibetan struggle turns to violence, the world community will have to take some blame for it."

Apart from the government-in-exile, the largest exile group is the Tibetan Youth Congress, which has 70 branches and more than 15,000 members worldwide. It adopts a more radical political line than the Dalai Lama, calling for "the restoration of complete independence for the whole of Tibet." That means not just the so-called Tibetan Autonomous Region, but also the larger area that once fell under Tibetan control, including much of what China calls Qinghai and part of the province of Sichuan.

Yet the youth congress has never repudiated the Dalai Lama. To join, a member must promise "to dedicate oneself to the task of serving one's country and people under the guidance of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, the Spiritual and Temporal Ruler of Tibet."

When the Dalai Lama is no longer alive, some Tibetans may dedicate themselves to the struggle by other methods. The Tibetan Youth Congress is seen by some as far too moderate.

"I would never think of resorting to any other means than non-violence,"

says Tenzin Jinpa, a Montreal nurse who was born soon after the first wave of Tibetan immigration to Canada in the early 1970s.

"But there are a lot of people who feel very upset and angry and frustrated. They want to have a free Tibet. They want independence."

Even that generation, for the moment, would never speak out against the Dalai Lama. The overwhelming majority of Tibetan refugees still live in India, and even the younger ones still tend to think, "The Dalai Lama will take care of us."

Neither generation has the same feeling of passionate allegiance to the official head of the exiled government, a 62-year-old monk called Samdhong Rinpoche. Elected last year in a free ballot by exiled Tibetans around the world, he has vowed to carry on with non-violent resistance to Beijing.

The election came at the insistence of the Dalai Lama. He wants Tibetans in exile to abide by democratic principles that will serve as a model to people inside Tibet as well - and he wants to ensure a smooth transition in case his medical troubles are more serious than is now being admitted. But, of course, his personal authority is so great that for the moment, few outsiders are likely to pay much attention to Samdhong Rinpoche.

"I think the Tibetan movement has come to be seen as more than a struggle for the liberation of a country," Tsering says. "It's become a symbolic struggle to prove that violence is not the only solution to resolving human conflict. Even though this may seem like an enormous burden for a country to bear, it is something that we've brought on ourselves in our appeals to the world community.

"We can't give up on non-violence. There is too much invested in it."

- Mark Abley's E-mail address is: mabley@thegazette.southam.ca


Looking beyond the middle path


Pawan Sharma Dharamsala,

Sunday, February 3, 2002 (The Hindustan Times)

Young Tibetans believe it's time to look at armed struggle as an alternative.

They are young and restless. They believe the Dalai Lama's middle path approach hasn't worked despite all these years of struggle. They want more teeth for the struggle and they want to fight, believing that's the only way to gain independence; not for them the Dalai's stepped down demand for autonomy for Tibet.

A former president of the Tibetan Youth Congress says, "People inside Tibet have not given up but our government in-exile has, deciding to bend before China. Tibetans are not a threat to China. China needs Tibet and not the Tibetans. Today time is running out for Tibet. When the Tibetans inside Tibet are staging demonstrations repeatedly, our leadership should not have compromised on its stand by demanding genuine autonomy in place of independence." Lhasang Tsering resigned in 1990 in protest against the Dalai Lama's decision to settle for genuine autonomy for Tibet "I am not prepared to become a most successful refugee," says Tsering, who has steadfastly refused to toe the government-in-exile's line. He turned down a job offer from it and sells books to make a living.

Most youngsters like Tsering believe autonomy for Tibet is not something the Chinese will even consider. Autonomy for Tibet, they reason, would mean trouble for China: it will encourage movements in provinces like Eastern Turkistan (Xinjiang) Southern Mangolia and Manchuria to demand the same. A serving official of the Tibetan Youth Congress says: "There is already unrest in these provinces. If autonomy is allowed for Tibet these three provinces will also demand the same. Due to these reasons there is no hope of Tibet getting autonomy. We will have to win independence."

They believe a great opportunity was lost in the late 1980s when protests were taking place in Tibet, just a few days after the Dalai Lama unveiled his Five-Point Peace Plan for Tibet. "It was at this period when unrest was growing inside Tibet. People inside Tibet were demonstrating their will.

They had not lost hope and it was an encouraging development for the government in-exile which unfortunately softened its stand and started begging for autonomy," says a former office bearer of the TYC.

Some of these youngsters are actually trained in guerilla warfare and are now openly saying they are tired of waiting for the peaceful movement to succeed. They believe an armed struggle is the only way to their goal.


A proxy war of succession


HT Correspondent New Delhi,

Sunday, February 3, 2002 (The Hindustan Times)

The Dalai Lama will not be around forever, but India's border with Tibet will. New Delhi has more than a passing interest in what happens if the present de facto head of the Tibetan exile community passes away.

The first reason is that China will almost certainly jump into the fray when the present Dalai Lama dies. In every previous occasion when a lama has had to be selected, China has immediately picked out it own candidate. Having a domesticated Dalai Lama, the head of the dominant yellow hat Buddhist sect, would be a major feather in Beijing's cap.

As the present Dalai Lama said last year, the Chinese "are waiting for me to die.they are thinking of setting up a committee to look for a Dalai Lama reincarnation."

Following the Karmapa dispute, New Delhi has reportedly urged the Dalai Lama to announce a successor before he dies. The Tibetan leader has refused. He has only said the next Dalai Lama must be born in a "free country" -- in other words where Tibetans are free to practice Buddhism.

In any case, according to Tibetan Buddhist tradition, a high lama can choose the place of time of their deaths and fix the location of their successors. And the Dalai Lama has indicated that his reincarnation will appear outside Tibet. The question for New Delhi is whether India has so much at stake in the Dalai Lama's succession that it cannot leave the succession to chance.

China-watchers in India are divided on the issue. One school believe India should not get involved in what one observer called the "intricacies of internal Tibetan politics". New Delhi's earlier interference in a lama struggle is one reason there are now three Karmapa Lamas running around.

This school of thinking argues the Tibetan cause gives India some propaganda points but nothing in real leverage. India can therefore take a more relaxed view about the Tibetan leadership issue. Proponents argue that if there are two Dalai Lamas, Tibetans are sure to plump for the one with anti-Chinese credentials.

The present Dalai Lama rightly refuses to undermine tradition because, if he does, his successor will be hobbled by questions regarding his legitimacy.

"This will rebound in Beijing's favour," says an analyst.

A more aggressive group of China-watchers, presently entrenched in South Block, sees Tibet as an arrow in India's arsenal against China.

The Dalai Lama is a cause celebre in the West and, points out a MEA official, "The Indian embassy in Washington has basked in his reflected glory for years." Says an official, "Every time we wanted to up the ante with China, we have used the Dalai Lama as a counterweight." Fear of losing this is one reason they feel India cannot be just a passive observer about the Dalai Lama's passing away. The succession cannot be allowed to go "wrong".

Critics argue this grossly overestimates India's influence and underestimates the Tibetans' own hatred for China. A Dalai Lama appointed through India's influence is no more likely to be accepted by Tibetans than one chosen by Beijing.

A concern by all Indian specialists is that the next Dalai Lama reincarnation will take years to grow into the larger than life sandals of the present religious leader. This will make it harder to keep the West focussed on Tibet. It will also raise the possibility of radical, violent elements within the Tibetan movement striking out on their own. It is believed only the present Dalai Lama's enormous prestige has kept these elements in line.

India could thus face the headache of a Tibetan terrorist group operating from its soil. And in a post-September 11 environment this would be a definite no-no, one which could hamper India's policies not only in regard to China but also Pakistan and Kashmir.

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