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"We Tibetans are looking for a legitimate and meaningful autonomy, an arrangement that would enable Tibetans to live within the framework of the People’s Republic of China."

Dalai Lama visit to Arunachal Pradesh angers China as it seeks to control succession

March 27, 2017

by Lucy Hornby in Beijing and Amy Kazmin in New Delhi

Financial Times, March 24, 2017 -  The ageing Dalai Lama’s upcoming trip to a Himalayan settlement under Indian control has angered China just as its Communist rulers seek to exert control over the mystical process of reincarnating a successor to the Tibetan Buddhist leader.

“The Indian government allowing the Dalai Lama to visit Tawang is not friendly to China,” Lian Xiangmin, director of the Institute of Contemporary Tibetan Studies at the China Tibetology Research Centre, told journalists in Beijing on Thursday. “Only bad can come of the Dalai Lama going to Tawang, nothing good.”

In Tibet’s unique strain of Buddhism the succession of senior lamas, who also wield temporal power, is determined by reincarnation. The 81-year-old Dalai Lama, who has gained global celebrity during a life in exile, is the 14th of his lineage. He has said he will not be reincarnated in territory controlled by China, while the officially atheist Communist government in Beijing has declared that he will.

His planned trip in early April to Tawang, a Tibetan community in the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh in the eastern Himalayas, has raised alarm in Beijing. It follows his visit in November to Mongolia, which practises a similar form of Buddhism.

China’s foreign ministry said this month it had expressed “grave concerns” to India about the Tawang visit. The Asian giants have a prickly relationship, although ties have warmed under Narendra Modi, India’s prime minister.

Disputed borders in the Himalayas were roughly agreed in the late 19th century between the Qing dynasty in Beijing and the British in India, before being reset during brief border wars between China and India in the 1960s. China claims Arunachal as part of Tibet, which it invaded in 1950, and also vociferously objected to a recent visit by Richard Verma, former US ambassador to India.

In Tawang, the Dalai Lama will be met by Kiren Rijiju, Indian home minister, who is himself a practising Buddhist and comes from Arunachal. Mr Rijiju said the Tibetan spiritual leader’s followers in Tawang had requested his visit, and there was no reason not to permit it. Asked if the move would antagonise China, he said India would not capitulate to foreign pressure.

“We are neither going to be dominated by anyone nor shall we dominate any of our neighbours,” he said. “We give prime importance to India’s interest.”

A senior Indian official in New Delhi told the Financial Times that the Dalai Lama “is a respected religious leader, and he is free to choose where he wants to travel. He is a guest here. No political connotation need be attached to any of his activities.”

Robbie Barnett, Tibet scholar at Columbia University, said the visits opened the possibility that the successor could be sought in India or Mongolia. That is a problem for Beijing’s efforts to stifle separatist sentiment among the 6m Tibetans who inhabit the Tibetan plateau, source of most of China’s major rivers.

“China’s Dalai Lama watchers are trapped in a reincarnation sandwich nightmare,” Mr Barnett said. “This is deeply worrying to the Chinese. They’re caught in a pincer movement of the metaphysical.”

Tawang happens to be the birthplace in 1683 of the sixth Dalai Lama, whose sensuous love poems have become popular among Chinese today. The Dalai Lama’s previous visit in 2009 also triggered friction between Beijing and New Delhi.

China’s Dalai Lama watchers are trapped in a reincarnation sandwich nightmare. This is deeply worrying to the Chinese. They’re caught in a pincer movement of the metaphysical

Tibet was an ally of the Qing dynasty and “liberated” by the Chinese army after the Communists won the Chinese civil war in 1949. The Dalai Lama fled Lhasa along with 70,000-80,000 refugees after a failed Tibetan uprising in 1959 at the height of China’s forced collectivisation drive. Chinese scholars estimate there are now 200,000 Tibetans in the diaspora. Some boys born outside Tibet have already been identified as reincarnations of minor lineages.

In 1995 Beijing selected the 11th Panchen Lama, the second-most important figure in Tibetan Buddhism, after a failed attempt by senior Tibetans within China to anoint a mutually agreed choice. The six-year-old boy who was the Dalai Lama’s selection disappeared and has never been heard from again. That experience hardened the Dalai Lama’s desire to keep his succession out of Chinese hands.

However, the Mongolian option seems impractical given China’s economic dominance. The Dalai Lama’s visit there coincided with an indebted Chinese border town raising fees on copper and coal trucked from Mongolia’s biggest mines. The Mongolian foreign minister agreed that the Dalai Lama would not visit again before the Chinese reopened the border, a concession that many Mongolians, devout or not, regarded as a violation of their sovereignty.

China last year created an online database of government-certified reincarnations to solidify its “undeniable endorsement right over the reincarnation system” before the Dalai Lama’s death. The move to regulate reincarnations came after a Han Chinese actor declared himself a “living Buddha” and began collecting donations from Chinese attracted to Tibetan spirituality.

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