Jan 03, 2006

Tibet: The Fear of Extinction

Tibetans have reason to be afraid: A rail link from China could swamp their dwindling numbers with Han Chinese and, as the Dalai Lama puts it, 'My death would be a serious setback.'

Tibetans have reason to be afraid: A rail link from China could swamp their dwindling numbers with Han Chinese and, as the Dalai Lama puts it, 'My death would be a serious setback.'

'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 of 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 civilization. Every year it looms larger.

Out of a population of some six million, 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, 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 good 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 recognized 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.

Ogyen Trinley, recognized 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.

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 recognizes 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 apologized for the ravages of the Cultural Revolution of 1966-76 and stresses its newfound 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" 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.

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 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 criticize the Dalai Lama. Chunang says it would see autonomy only as a stepping-stone to independence, and that the TYC's commitment to nonviolence 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, it is almost hopeless," he concedes. "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.

Source: The Hamiltion Spectator