|The Dalai Lama in the Chumbi Valley in 1951|
For the occasion, I wrote this article for Power Politics.
As the Dalai Lama, the revered Tibetan leaderturns 82, it is worth taking a look at his momentous life and achievements, but also where he did not succeed. But let us start by the Nobel Laureate’s first steps in the political arena.
The Tragedy of Tibet
On October 7, 1950, Chinese troops crossed the Upper Yangtze and began their ‘liberation’ of Kham. Ten days later, after sporadic battles, Chamdo, the capital of the province fell and Ngabo Ngawang Jigme, the province’s Tibetan Governor immediately surrendered to the Chinese.
It would take more than two weeks for the information to filter out. Till October 25, the Tibetan government in Lhasa knew nothing, the Indian government had heard nothing, and the Chinese were keeping quiet; further, Robert Ford, the radio operator working for Lhasa, had been taken prisoner. Other governments, depending on India for news, were not ‘informed’ either.
Finally, the Chinese themselves announced that Tibet was ‘liberated.’ A brief communiqué of the New China News Agency (Xinhua) stated: “People’s army units have been ordered to advance into Tibet to free three million Tibetans …the conquest of Tibet was a ‘glorious task’ which would put the final seal on the unification of communist China.”
Hardly three weeks later in Lhasa, in the midst of preparations for a proposed debate on the Tibetan issue in the UN, the Gods spoke through the Nechung State Oracle: “Make Him King”.
Thus, Tenzin Gyatso was enthroned as the Fourteenth Dalai Lama of Tibet at the young age of fifteen. The mysterious ‘God King’, as the foreign press called him, had become the temporal and religious leader of Tibet.
During the following eight years, the young monk, surrounded by the traditional regalia tried his best to be a go-between his people and the Chinese Communist authorities. It was an impossible task and on March 17, 1959, the Dalai Lama decided to leave his native Land of Snows and take India’s direction.
The Dalai Lama’s Three Commitments
Since then, the Tibetan leader has wandering across the planet spreading his message of compassion and universal responsibility. He often says that he has three commitments in life.
The first one is the promotion of human values such as compassion, forgiveness, tolerance, contentment and self-discipline. He also speaks of ‘secular ethics’. For the past three decades, wherever he travels, he shares these human values. One remarkable fact about the Dalai Lama is that he is able to place ‘humanity’ before his own self, before his own community and even his own nation. In this he has been extremely successful.
For his second commitment is not Tibet, but the promotion of religious harmony and understanding among the world’s major religious traditions. Are there many religious leaders in today’s world who are ready to admit: ‘several truths, several religions are necessary?
This message too is acknowledged by millions.
His country, Tibet, is only his third commitment (he always insists on this order); he says: “as a Tibetan [who] carries the name of the ‘Dalai Lama’, Tibetans place their trust in me. Therefore, [my] third commitment is to the Tibetan issue.” Unfortunately during the past 50 years, the Tibetan issue, though a cause célèbre, has practically not advanced and in several domains, even regressed. China is ‘bigger’ today than it was two or three decades ago, and Beijing is belligerent and not ready for any type of compromise.
Apart from these 3 commitments, the 14th Dalai Lama will go down in history for some bold choices he has made for Tibet.
On March 30, 1959, the Dalai Lama crossed the Indian border at Khenzimane, north of Tawang. During the following months, some 80,000 Tibetans joined him and settled in India, Nepal and Bhutan.
On April 29, 1959 from the hill station of Mussoorie, the Dalai Lama formed a Tibetan Government-in-Exile, also known as the Central Tibetan Administration (CTA); a year later the CTA moved to Dharamsala, where it is still located.
The process of democratization then started. What he couldn’t do during the nine preceding years in Tibet due to Chinese objections, the Dalai Lama could now set up: bringing modern democratic practices into the old theocracy; the Tibetan leader did not want to be the last word for each and every political decision. As a first step, on September 2, 1960, the Tibetan parliament-in-exile, then called ‘Commission of Tibetan People’s Deputies’, came into being.
On 10 March 1961, the Dalai Lama formulated a draft Constitution of Tibet, incorporating traditional Tibetan values and modern democratic norms. Two years later, it was promulgated as the Tibetan Constitution-in-Exile.
The process continued during the following years; in 1990, the Tibetan Parliament was empowered to elect the Kashag or the Council of Ministers, and was made answerable to the Parliament. A Supreme Justice Commission was also instituted.
The Parliament soon drafted a first Constitution, known as the “Charter of the Tibetans in Exile”. Today, the CTA functions as any democratic government; this deeply irritates China, which is still governed by a one-Party system.
The Tibetan Charter adheres to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and provides equal rights for all, without discrimination on the basis of sex, religion, race, language and social origin. It also defines the role of the three organs of the government: judiciary, legislature and executive as well as other statuary bodies, namely the Election Commission, the Public Service Commission and the Office of the Auditor General.
In March 2011, the Dalai Lama took the final jump, perhaps changing Tibetan political history forever; he renounced temporal power and handed it over to an elected leader (currently Dr Lobsang Gyatso).
What is remarkable is that he had to fight to ‘impose’ these democratic institutions on the Tibetan ‘masses’, who often thought “the Dalai Lama is wiser, why do we need human governance when we have a divine one?”
But in his wisdom, the Tibetan leader knows that in the long run, democracy is a more stable system than theocracy or autocracy like in China.
Stopping divisive sectarian practices
The Dalai Lama’s second gift to the Tibetan nation is that he succeeded to unite the three historical provinces of Tibet which have too often been divided in the course of the Land of Snows’ checkered history.
In his Address to the U.S. Congressional Human Right's Caucus in Washington DC on September 21, 1987 (known as the ‘Five-Point Peace Plan’), he stated: “It is my sincere desire, as well as that of the Tibetan people, to restore to Tibet her invaluable role, by converting the entire country - comprising the three provinces of U-Tsang, Kham and Amdo - once more into a place of stability, peace and harmony.”
The fact that all three provinces have been represented since the first days of the Parliament in exile is a telling example.
The Apostle of Peace
An interesting book, titled “Destined for War – Can America and China Escape Thucydides’s Trap?” was recently released in the US. Graham Allison, the author, studied 16 cases in the last 500 years where an aggressive rising nation threatened a dominant power; in 12 cases it ended with a war. Studying the case of the US and China, the author asks “Can a collision course be avoided?”
For Allison, the rise of China offers a classic Thucydides trap. In 1980, China’s economy was only a tenth the size of the US economy. By 2040, Allison reckons it could be three times larger, as a result the two nations, Allison argues, are “currently on a collision course for war”, which he says can be averted only if both demonstrate skill and take difficult and painful actions to avert it.”
The Dalai Lama, who has ceaselessly worked for World Peace, has helped to change the perception of millions on this planet about war and peace. This contribution to humanity will certainly be an important factor to avoid a conflict, if the planet is confronted with a ‘war trap’.
|Will Macron, the President meet the Dalai Lama?|
For his own country, the Dalai Lama vouched for a Middle-Way Approach in his dealings with China to find a permanent solution of the Tibetan tragedy. He wrote: “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 …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.”
Though this has not brought the expected results, one can hope that one day a solution will be found based on this principle and without disregarding the fact that Tibet was an Independent country before 1950.
But the end of the tunnel is still far away.
Rule by incarnation: a difficulty
It is unfortunate that the ‘rule by incarnation’ practiced in Tibet has often been unsatisfactory; there are several reasons for this.
First, it is difficult to be sure that the choice of a new reincarnated lama is the right one. During some troubled periods of Tibetan history, the Mongols or the Manchu dynasty could use their influence to steer the choice, through the Golden Urn system or other ways. The selection of the correct candidate has always been a major problem in Old Tibet.
This was true not only for the Dalai Lamas and the Panchen Lamas at the top of the hierarchy, but also for ‘local’ hierarchs who presided over a county, a province, a school of Buddhism, a monastery or even over a particular lineage.
Another reason that made this system unworkable was the gap of 20 odd years between the death of a Lama and the time when his reincarnation became eligible to take over.
Of course there are exceptions as in the case of the present Dalai Lama, but such examples are rare and often the Lamas have to depend on estate managers or regents who have more knowledge in mundane matters.
This is a serious issue which has not been tackled so far.
Atheist China’s expertise in religious matters
In 2007, the Chinese State Administration for Religious Affairs in Beijing issued State Order No.5 stating the “Management Measures for the Reincarnation of Living Buddhas in Tibetan Buddhism”. The Party decided to play the ‘religion’ card to solve the Tibet issue.
Soon after, Beijing then started to promote ‘Living Buddhas’ working under the Communist Party.
The objective of the new policy was clearly to control the future reincarnation of the Dalai Lama. The same year, Beijing appointed the largest ever number of clerics to Tibet’s regional advisory body and started promoting its own ‘Living Buddhas’, such as Gyaltsen Norbu, China’s own Panchen Lama.
In September 2011, the Tibetan leader decided to counter Beijing by speaking about his own reincarnation. He explained the general phenomenon of reincarnation which could take place either by the voluntary choice of the concerned person or at least based on the strength of his or her karma, merit and prayers. The Dalai Lama clearly stated that the person who reincarnates has the sole legitimate authority over where and how he or she takes rebirth and how that reincarnation is to be recognised. According to him, no one else can force the person concerned, or manipulate him or her.
He believes that the Chinese interference in the spiritual process is brazen meddling which contradicts their own political ideology and reveals their double standards.
The fact remains that politically, the situation of the Tibetan refugees in India and elsewhere in the world is not rosy. For them, the ‘Rise of China’ is rather worrying and it has resulted in a number of unfortunate self-immolations in Tibet.
But hope remains, as no Dynasty has lasted forever; in the meantime, the Dalai Lama likes to quote this beautiful prayer of the Indian sage Shantideva:
As long as space endures,
as long as sentient beings remain,
until then, may I too remain
and dispel the miseries of the world