“WE ARE facing our own extinction,” the 14th Dalai Lama, spiritual leader of the Tibetan people, warns an audience of 450 of his compatriots, before cheering them up with his habitual, chuckling, hopefulness. Most of the listeners have newly arrived in his seat in exile in Dharamsala in northern India, on the other side of the Himalayas from his homeland. Almost ever since he fled Tibet with some 80,000 followers, after China put down an uprising in 1959, he has been worrying about the threat to the existence of Tibetan civilisation. Every year it looms larger.
Out of a population of some 6m, 130,000 Tibetans are in exile, three-quarters of them in India. They have done well at keeping alive their traditions and their dreams of returning home. Two prospects are now making those dreams fade. The first is the imminent completion of a railway linking central Tibet with China. When it opens for passengers in 2007, the pace of immigration of Han Chinese will pick up. Tibetans, already a minority in cities, may simply be swamped.
Second, as the Dalai Lama himself puts it in an interview with your correspondent, is the fact that “my death would be a serious setback.” This sounds odd from an incarnation of Avalokiteshwara, the Buddha of Compassion. It is also an understatement. Lobsang Nyandak Zayul, a minister in the exile government the Dalai Lama heads in Dharamsala, is starker: “There will be chaos. We really are scared.”
The Dalai Lama, 70 last July, seems in rude health. But he will not live forever. His supporters argue that it is China that should worry, and seize the opportunity he is offering to reach an understanding with its Tibetan minority. Karma Gelek Yuthok, a monk who is the top civil servant in the education ministry, lists three reasons: no future leader will enjoy the Dalai Lama's command over Tibetan loyalties; he is asking not for independence, but merely “genuine autonomy” for Tibet; and he prohibits violence.
Since 2002, there have been four rounds of talks between the Dalai Lama's representatives and Chinese officials. Optimists see this as evidence that these arguments are beginning to work. But many Tibetans fear China just wants to placate international opinion and is playing for time. In this analysis, China sees the Dalai Lama not as the solution to its Tibet problem, but as the problem itself, which death will fix.
China knows that the deaths of Dalai Lamas, and the discovery of the next incarnation, have often involved intrigue, turmoil and division. There would be a search for the new incarnation—a gifted boy identified through oracles, portents, clues left by his predecessor, and the intervention of senior lamas. During the interregnum, regional, religious and other tensions among Tibetans that the Dalai Lama's authority helps to conceal might resurface. The Dalai Lama has said that he will be reincarnated only if Tibetans still need the institution. It is hard to find a Tibetan, however, who does not think he will come back. The Dalai Lama expects the infant 15th to be found outside Tibet. After all, “the very purpose of reincarnation is to carry my task forward.”
This prediction makes it harder for China to meddle in the reincarnation process. It does not, however, make it impossible. The senior lama traditionally most involved in identifying and tutoring a young Dalai Lama is the Panchen Lama. The tenth Panchen Lama died in 1989 and two young men—one recognised by the Dalai Lama and most Tibetans and another by the Chinese—carry the title of the 11th. The “Tibetan” panchen has been in custody since 1995 (for his own protection, says China). “Our Chinese brothers and sisters,” explains the Dalai Lama, “have created complications.” China might use both panchens to endorse a pretender to the Dalai Lama's succession.
The only person who might perhaps, in the short term, enjoy a little of the Dalai Lama's prestige among both Tibetans and foreigners, is Ogyen Trinley. He is claimant to the title of 17th Karmapa, the head of one of the main sects of the Kagyud, or “Black Hat” school of Tibetan Buddhism, which in the 17th century lost state power to the dalai lamas' own Gelugpa school.
ReutersFamiliar but unrecognised
Ogyen Trinley, recognised by both the Chinese government and the Dalai Lama as the incarnate Karmapa, was born in Tibet, but in 1999 fled to India. Now still only 20, the Karmapa lives in a Dharamsala monastery. On an October morning, his waiting room is crowded with a tour group from Hong Kong. The karmapas' international following has helped their sect grow rich, and fuelled a power struggle.
A promised “interview” with the Karmapa requires a permit from a sleepy Indian police station. It turns out to be a couple of questions squeezed into the end of a busy morning spent granting audiences to devotees, and draping khataks, white silken scarves, round their necks. Two panicky monks say that “political” questions are not allowed, and rush off to fetch a breathless official from the exiled government to reinforce the message.
The Karmapa, whose smile can light up the neighbourhood, seems tired and rather dour. After a few minutes, his interpreter snaps his notebook shut with authoritative finality. The Karmapa has just answered a question about whether he was right to leave Tibet: “I pray it was the proper decision.”
It would not be surprising if he is having doubts. He seems to have traded one form of captivity for another. The Indian security around him is heavy. His travel is restricted. He is not allowed to visit his predecessor's seat in Sikkim, a Himalayan kingdom annexed by India in 1975. Nor, it appears, does he have the freedom others in India take for granted, to speak his mind. The Karmapa is in a delicate position. There is in India a rival claimant to the incarnation, with some influential backers. With much treasure at stake, the dispute has already involved fistfights in monasteries and courtroom battles, and could turn nastier still.
Some Tibetans think there are other factors, too, behind India's sensitivity about the Karmapa. His flight provoked some suspicions of Chinese connivance, and raised questions about his motives. If he is a Chinese agent, it is hard to imagine better cover. In exile, he is both living embarrassment to China and a threat to its hopes that, with the passing of the 14th Dalai Lama, its Tibet troubles will be over. India, intent on closer ties with China, probably does not want the Karmapa to antagonise Beijing.
Not just Hollywood
The fear that the Dalai Lama's death will be a disaster for the Tibetan cause looks justified. His fame as a Nobel-prize-winning guru and friend of the stars has produced little concrete benefit: no government recognises his. But top politicians as well as private citizens are drawn to him. Because of him, Tibet is sand in the wheels of China's drive to become a respected international citizen. And, under him, India has given Tibetans a home big enough to encompass the dream of cultural survival.
Even critics of Tibetan culture—with, for example, its mass monasticism, often starting in childhood—do not want its destruction. China has apologised for the ravages of the Cultural Revolution of 1966-76 and stresses its new-found respect for Tibetan tradition. In India, the idea of Tibet as a distinct culture with a vibrant future is kept alive in schools and monasteries. In Dharamsala, one of several “Tibetan Children's Villages” (TCVs) teaches—and houses—more than 1,900 children. Most were born in Tibet. Their parents sent them on the dangerous trek through high passes in the Himalayas, to receive a decent education in India.
One 12-year-old girl arrived just a couple of months ago with her seven-year-old sister, after an arduous month-long journey. Her mother brought them, and then risked arrest again to return to Tibet. Mother and daughters may never meet again. On arrival, the girl, who came from eastern Tibet, near what Tibetans regard as the border with China, spoke almost no Tibetan, although she was fluent in Chinese.
Dickensian in DharamsalaAFP
Most travel in the winter months, when the bitter cold and snow make it easier to escape detection (as well as to die of frostbite and hypothermia). The reasons for coming are economic as well as political. Some Tibetans cannot afford to put a child through a Chinese school. Some of their richer compatriots send children to school in China. Phuntsog Namgyal of the TCV says its “prime aim” is to inculcate a sense of Tibetan identity and culture. To his regret, because of a lack of Tibetan-language materials, and because the children have to sit Indian exams, the medium of instruction from age 11 is English.
For many, a Tibetan education will not disguise the growing realisation that they will probably die in India. There must be a strong temptation to abandon Tibet as a lost dream and do as well as they can in the outside world. Dolma, a young Tibetan political-science student in Delhi, reckons that, if they had the chance to go back to a free Tibet tomorrow, half the young Tibetans in India would prefer to stay put.
The Dalai Lama, however, thinks only “a very small minority” are losing their Tibetan identity. Karma Gelek Yuthok, of the education ministry, is a self-confessed pessimist. He frets that the Tibetan schools in India have failed both in equipping children to win scholarships at the best Indian colleges, and in providing a grounding in Tibetan language and culture. This he feels especially keenly. Preserving the culture was, after all, “the core purpose of our coming into exile”. Worse, he is worried about the “quality of human beings” the schools are turning out.
Young Tibetans abroad might become assimilated into exile, just as there are fears that those at home may grow up assimilated into China. Between 2,500 and 3,000 Tibetans still escape to India each year, mostly through Nepal. More than one-third are under 14 years old. Among adults, the largest groups are monks and nuns. India has branches of the most famous Tibetan monasteries. But at the audience in Dharamsala, there were lay-people of all ages, including the very old and infirm.
The journey to India is getting harder. Nepal is racked by insurrection, and in January King Gyanendra, to curry favour with China, ordered the shutting of the Dalai Lama's representative office, and of a Tibetan welfare centre, though the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and a transit centre still function. At a reception centre in Dharamsala, a handwritten poster from a newcomer tells of the rape of three Tibetan women in Nepal. It advises readers to tell their friends to travel in large groups.
The Tibet Transit School (TTS) near Dharamsala was founded in 1993 for arrivals from Tibet aged 18-30. A group of students give the usual three explanations for the decision to come to India: to see the Dalai Lama, to get an education and to flee the lack of opportunities at home. (The Dalai Lama himself, a pragmatic sort of idealist, adds a fourth: the belief that from India it is easy to secure entry to America.)
In some places, particularly in the eastern parts of historic Tibet now incorporated in the Chinese province of Sichuan, there is virtually no education available. TTS's director, Chhoeze Jampa, says three-quarters of his students have to start from scratch, learning to read and write. When he inaugurated the school, the Dalai Lama encouraged its students to return to Tibet later on. Mr Jampa says that 60% of his graduates have returned home, or tried to.
Two new arrivals, still at the reception centre, strapping young men in their 20s, were among just three out of a group of 51 who reached Nepal and India. They had each paid guides 4,000 yuan. That is nearly $500, a huge sum, which they made by selling caterpillar fungus, a prized Chinese medicine. Their parents had brought them up not to get into trouble with the Chinese authorities, and they had not told them their plans.
The group walked by night from Lhasa to the border. After 17 days' hiking, they were resting on a mountaintop when they were ambushed by Chinese police, who opened fire. The two escaped by ditching their luggage and hiding in the hollow of a riverbank. They finished the journey to the border with a seven-day walk without food or money, and sick from the cold.
Life back in their village, of settled nomads and farmers, was not so bad. There is even a school now, though it does not use Tibetan beyond the primary years, and it came too late for them. They endured this ordeal simply to see the Dalai Lama. This they achieved, at the audience. Given the chance to call their village to leave a message for their parents that they are safe, the first, tearful, news one tells the friend who answers the phone is that they have seen His Holiness. (“He looks just 40!”)
When they left home, they meant simply to make their pilgrimage and return, smuggling tapes and pictures of the Dalai Lama for the friends they left behind. Having heard, however, that they could attend TTS, they made plans to stay five years. This resolution was already wavering after the phone call home.
No direction home
Most exiles in India, however—some 100,000 of them—are there for the long haul. Tsultrim Dorgee Chunang, general secretary of the Tibetan Youth Congress (TYC), loyally puts the Dalai Lama's lifespan at 110. Even so, he argues, Tibetans should be preparing for life without him, but are not. The Dalai Lama himself has, in his way, done his bit to prepare them. He has imposed a sort of democracy. There is a largely elected, 46-member, parliament and, since 2001, a directly elected prime minister.
However, there is something in Mr Chunang's charge that many exiled Tibetans refuse to take responsibility for their own futures because they rely on the Dalai Lama. The Tibetan Women's Association, for example, went through a protracted debate over its stand on the Dalai Lama's proposal of a “middle way” short of full independence. The conclusion was to follow the Dalai Lama, whatever his position may be.
The TYC has not dropped the demand for independence, but does not criticise the Dalai Lama. Mr Chunang says it would see autonomy only as a stepping-stone to independence, and that the TYC's commitment to non-violence might weaken when the Dalai Lama dies. The railway will make an obvious terrorist target.
This sort of talk allows China, which professes not to understand such differences of opinion, to accuse the Dalai Lama of insincerity. But it is also why so many Tibetans fear the Dalai Lama's death and urge China to make the most of his willingness to compromise. The Dalai Lama himself takes encouragement from stirrings of sympathetic interest in Tibet within China, and from his conviction that China's “totalitarian system” will change.
“If you look locally,” he concedes, “it is almost hopeless.”“But from a broader perspective, there's hope.” China's continued vilification of the Dalai Lama personally, however, gives little hint of a readiness to treat with him. Rather, it speaks of an aggressive rising power determined the Dalai Lama will die on the wrong side of the mountains, and the wrong side of history.
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