Fall 2008, Vol. 11, No. 2

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Spiritual Politics blog

Articles in this issue:

Table of Contents

From the Editor:
Region Matters

The Postville Raid

FLDS 1, Texas O

Is the Dalai Lama Slipping?

Lambeth Blah, Blah, Blah

Women's Ordination Revisited

Having it All

Twilight of the Religion Writers

New books

Letter to Editor


Is the Dalai Lama Slipping?  by Alexander D. Salvato

On March 14 and 15, the largest anti-Chinese protest in 50 years took place in Lhasa, the capital of Tibet. At least 13 people died, 300 buildings were set on fire, and over 1,000 Tibetans were apprehended by Chinese authorities.

Although Western and Chinese views of the situation in Tibet varied greatly, on one point both sides agreed: Tibetan Buddhists generally and Tibetan Buddhist monks in particular are obedient followers of the Dalai Lama. But on that point, both sides seemed to be wrong.

Among the more notable features of the rioting was the participation of Buddhist monks, in direct contravention of the Dalai Lama’s teachings.

The rioting broke out outside Lhasa’s Ramoche Temple on Beijing Road after two monks were beaten by security officials. In his March 19 dispatch from the city, the Economist’s James Miles wrote:

“A crowd of several dozen people rampaged along the road, some of them whooping as they threw stones at shops owned by ethnic Han Chinese…and at passing taxis, most of which in Lhasa are driven by Hans….The destruction was systematic. Shops owned by Tibetans were marked as such with traditional white scarves tied through their shutter-handles….During the night the authorities sent in fire engines, backed by a couple of armored personnel-carriers laden with riot police, to put out the biggest blazes.”

Rioting continued well into the next day, when the “occasional rounds of tear-gas fired at stone-throwing protesters eventually gave way to a more concerted effort to clear the street,” Miles wrote.  According to the official Chinese news agency Xinhua, what brought the violence to an end was the arrest of 1,315 protesters.

The Chinese government then effectively locked down the Tibetan region. Foreigners were instructed to leave and foreign press coverage from the scene all but ceased. The unrest, however, continued.

On June 5, Xinhua announced that 16 monks had been arrested May 12 and 13 in connection with three bombings in Tibet in early April. According to an article by Josephine Ma in the South China Morning Post, “In the first incident, five monks from Wese Monastery allegedly bombed the Mangkam county power transformer on April 5….On April 8, four monks from Kebalong Monastery fled after allegedly setting off a home-made bomb near the barracks of the paramilitary People’s Armed Police….In the third case, two men allegedly instructed four monks from Kebalong Monastery to bomb a Tibetan home.”

In May, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, a former correspondent from China for the paper, snuck into Tibet, reporting on May 15 that “the recent anti-Chinese protests spread across a larger area in traditional Tibet than is sometimes realized. This was, in effect, a popular rising against Chinese rule throughout Tibetan areas, and the region is still seething.”

Meanwhile, the international community sought a negotiated settlement. In a March 24 story from Washington, the Indian news agency PTI reported that India and the United States had “urged China and the Dalai Lama to hold peaceful negotiations between them to resolve the pro-independence unrest in Tibet with Washington insisting the dialogue was the ‘only’ policy that is sustainable in the Himalayan region.” According to the same story, French president Nicholas Sarkozy offered France as a go-between.

The Chinese authorities preferred instead to ramp up their reeducation program for the Tibetan population.

“Buddhist monks, civil servants, and public school students have been instructed to attend special classes in the virtues of Chinese rule and the evils of their exiled leader, the Dalai Lama,” the Los Angeles Times’ Barbara Demick reported from Beijing April 8. “Monks who refuse to speak out against the Dalai Lama in patriotic education sessions are usually expelled from the monastery and sometimes are arrested. Last month, two monks were reported by Tibetan activists to have committed suicide because of the pressure.”

In April, the Chinese did agree to meet with the Dalai Lama, conducting a series of talks with his envoys May 5-8—which the envoys described afterwards as a “failure.” The Dalai Lama then used a previously scheduled world tour to ask for the international community to pressure China to resume negotiations and allow an independent agency to investigate allegations of human rights violations. Additional talks took place in early July but made no headway.

Republican presidential candidate John McCain met with the Dalai Lama for 45 minutes on July 25 and made a public show of support. He was, he said, “disappointed by the repeated statements by Chinese officials that ascribe to the Dalai Lama views and actions divorced from what he actually represents,” adding that “such rhetoric doesn’t serve a cause of peaceful change and reconciliation.”

The Chinese authorities were not pleased.  “A statement released by Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Jianchao said ‘relevant people’ in the United States should stop ‘supporting and conniving’ with the Dalai Lama,” the Kyodo News Service reported from Beijing July 28.

In August, the Dalai Lama was hospitalized in Mumbai, India after complaining of abdominal pain. He subsequently canceled all international trips, including an October trip to Europe, “after doctors advised the Tibetan spiritual leader to rest more while he recovers from exhaustion,” the AP reported September 14.

Despite the possibility of another round of talks in October, no mutually satisfactory resolution seemed to be in sight. But to understand how such a resolution might be achieved, a brief look at Tibetan history is necessary.

Between 1911 and 1950, Tibet functioned as a sovereign state. Before that time, it was successively under the authority of first the Mongols (1244-1717) and then the Chinese, who put governmental authority into the hands of successive Dalai Lamas, understood by Tibetan Buddhists as reincarnations of the divine embodiment (bodhisattva) of compassion, Avalokiteshvara.

The Tibetans expelled the Chinese in 1911, leaving the Dalai Lama to rule over a country that was essentially a Buddhist theocracy with the monks on top. In 1950, the new Communist regime of Mao Zedong invaded the country and overthrew the Buddhist regime.

The current Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso, assumed his position at the age of 15 just before the 1950 Chinese invasion. After an unsuccessful uprising to restore him to power in 1959, he went into exile in Dharmsala, India, where he has remained ever since, the titular head of the Tibetan government-in-exile.

The Chinese view themselves not as conquerors but liberators of a province that had never really been a sovereign country. They contend that their efforts have been to aid and civilize a Tibetan population that had been under the thumb of a benighted religious ruling class.

Thus, in a June article for the Xinhua News Agency, Liu Guoyan quotes a Chinese official as saying that the “average life expectancy in Tibet has increased from 35.5 years in the period under the rule of the Dalai Lama to 67 years at present. All the peasants and herdsman of the region are covered by health and medical institutions and the level of their health has risen by a big margin. The number of school[s] in Tibet has increased to more than 1,000, the Tibetan language…has reached the international standard.”

The Chinese likewise contend that the Dalai Lama and groups allied with him (i.e., the “Dalai Clique”) have masterminded the recent revolts. According to an April press release from the Ministry of Public Security, the Chinese government “now possess sufficient evidence to prove that the Lhasa incident is part of the ‘Tibetan people’s uprising movement’ organized by the Dalai Clique. Its purpose is to create crisis in China by staging co-ordinate sabotage activities in Tibet. ‘Tibet Independence’ separatist forces led by the Dalai Lama takes the 2008 Beijing Olympics as their last straw to realize ‘Tibetan independence.’” 

In fact, the Dalai Lama has not advocated independence for his country, but rather what he calls the “Middle-Way Approach.” This is an expression of the traditional Buddhist idea that the path to enlightenment lies between the extremes of austerity and indulgence. Applying this to the current situation in Tibet, he argues that the path to resolution lies between the extremes of complete independence and the current state of Chinese authoritarian rule.

As he puts it on his website,

The Tibetan people do not accept the present status of Tibet under the People’s Republic of China. At the same time, they do not seek independence for Tibet, which is a historical fact. Treading a middle path in between these two lies the policy and means to achieve a genuine autonomy for all Tibetans living in the three traditional provinces of Tibet within the framework of the People’s Republic of China. This is called the Middle-Way Approach, a non-partisan and moderate position that safeguards the vital interests of all concerned parties-for Tibetans: the protection and preservation of their culture, religion and national identity; for the Chinese: the security and territorial integrity of the motherland; and for neighbours and other third parties: peaceful borders and international relations.

Notwithstanding the Dalai Lama, many Tibetans continue to support independence. In their view, the Middle-Way Approach sounds too much like the 17-point agreement signed by Tibet and China after the 1950 invasion, in which China promised to respect their cultural and religious traditions—a promise they regard as never honored.

They also resent the imposition of China’s population control measures, including forced sterilization and abortion, on a region that does not suffer from overpopulation. They are infuriated by the government policy that has resulted in the mass immigration of some six million Han Chinese into Tibet, which threatens to turn Tibetans into a minority in their own country. And they are dubious that the economic development brought to Tibet by the Chinese will last.

It seems clear that the rioting was timed to coincide with the run-up to the Beijing Olympic Games in August, taking advantage of the Chinese government’s desire to put as good a face as it can on its regime. In a manifesto quoted by Ching Cheong in the Straits Times April 26, pro-independence Tibetans declared, “The 2008 Olympics will mark the culmination of almost 50 years of Tibetan resistance in exile. We will use this historic moment to rejuvenate the Tibetan freedom movement and bring our exile struggle for freedom back to Tibet.” 

While it is not clear how large a proportion of Tibetans favor independence, there can be little question that the 73-year-old Dalai Lama no longer enjoys the kind of authority he once did—and that he himself knows it. Asked in a May 24 interview with the Financial Times if he felt he was losing control of his supporters, he responded, “Yes, naturally. My effort, you see, fails to bring concrete results, so these criticisms become stronger and stronger.”

 Repeatedly, he has insisted that he has been in semi-retirement since 2001, when the Tibetan exile community elected Lobsan Tenzin, a Buddhist monk, to serve as prime minister. Tenzin, known by the honorific title Professor Venerable Samdhong Rinpoche, is charged with negotiating with the Chinese.

In fact, the Dalai Lama’s power has never been as all-encompassing as outsiders—friendly and unfriendly—have tended to assume. As Dr. John Powers of the Australian National University explained in a March 19 interview on ABC Radio National, “Since very early times in Tibet the monasteries have often been at odds with the Dalai Lama….[T]he monasteries see their own interest as being somewhat different from his.” 

One monk interviewed by Nicholas Kristof in his May 18 column said, “For 50 years, the Dalai Lama said to use peaceful means to solve the problems, and that achieved nothing. China just criticized him. After he is gone, there definitely will be violent resistance.”

It seems increasingly unlikely that a weakened Dalai Lama can negotiate a successful peace between a Chinese government uninterested in talking with him and a Tibetan populace uninterested in listening. If Tibet is to avoid the violence that Buddhist thought has always condemned, it may be necessary for Western governments to acknowledge that he is not in charge and start giving some serious thought to alternative means of resolving the conflict.


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