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"As long as human rights are violated, there can be no foundation for peace. How can peace grow where speaking the truth is itself a crime?"

Southasian Tibet

August 2, 2008

By Tenzing Sonam
July 31, 2008

The long-term survival of the Tibetan nation could well rest with its
Subcontinental neighbours.

In March this year, an unprecedented series of demonstrations erupted
across Tibet. Forty-nine years after the escape of the Dalai Lama
into exile following their country's takeover by China, Tibetans were
united in their demands. They called for the return of their leader,
but more surprisingly they also defiantly declared Tibet's
independence. Both the Beijing government and the exile establishment
in Dharamsala were taken by surprise at the extent and passion of the
uprising. China, predictably, blamed the insurrection on the Dalai Lama.

In an effort to counter China's accusations, the Dalai Lama
repeatedly reiterated his position: that he had given up asking for
independence, that he only wanted 'genuine autonomy', and that he was
not behind the demonstrations. During his first trip outside India
after the uprising in Tibet, he met with a group of Chinese
journalists in Seattle. To them, he emphatically declared, "We are
not seeking independence. We are happy to be a part of the People's
Republic of China."

Earlier in the year, in January, during a visit to Drepung Monastery
in the Tibetan refugee settlement of Mundgod in Karnataka, the Dalai
Lama addressed a gathering of pilgrims from Ladakh, Spiti, Kinnaur,
Sikkim, Bhutan and Arunachal Pradesh. He told them, "Should the
culture and the people of Tibet, the Land of Snows, face a
catastrophe, then the responsibility of preserving, at any cost, this
world heritage, this pristine spiritual lineage of Tibet, which is in
the tradition of the ancient university of Nalanda, will rest with
you, the trans-Himalayan people living in free countries."

These two statements by the Dalai Lama underpin the historical
contradiction of Tibet's relationship with her two giant neighbours.
Politically, China has always had more influence on the internal
affairs on the high plateau; but culturally and spiritually, the
Tibetans have always looked south, to the land of the Buddha, for
inspiration and spiritual succour. Realpolitik demands that the Dalai
Lama try to find some accommodation within the People's Republic of
China. But reality suggests that the long-term survival of Tibet's
spiritual traditions and political hopes may lie with people of the
trans-Himalayan regions, in India, Nepal and Bhutan.

Diaspora avatar

The exodus of Tibetan refugees to these trans-Himalaya rimlands
following the Dalai Lama's escape in March 1959 provoked a veritable
religious renaissance in these areas, where Tibetan Buddhism has
traditionally been practiced. One reason for this was the fact that
the majority of Tibet's senior lamas, representing all four sects of
Tibetan Buddhism, had also come into exile. Another was the emphasis
that the Dalai Lama placed on rebuilding Tibet's monastic tradition in exile.

This project has been remarkably successful. Before 1959, for
instance, Drepung Monastery was Tibet's largest religious
institution; but five decades of Chinese control have now reduced it
to a shadow of its former self. It is in its exile avatar, in
Mundgod, that it flourishes, with over 3000 monks in residence. The
Dalai Lama's visit there in January was to inaugurate a new assembly
hall, considered to be the largest in the Tibetan Buddhist world. The
monasteries in exile have become beacons of learning and spiritual
practice, attracting not only monks and nuns from the entire
Himalayan rimland, but also Tibetans escaping from Tibet, desperate
to receive the religious education denied them at home.

There are other reasons why Tibet's future hopes may lie south of the
border. Last year, China announced a new regulation, the so-called
Order Number 5, which stipulated that henceforth all reincarnate
lamas would need to be approved by the state. This can only be
interpreted as a pre-emptive move to ensure that China controls the
next Dalai Lama. The Dalai Lama himself has said that if he dies in
exile, he would definitely not be reincarnated under Chinese control.
Most Tibetans take this to mean that he will be reborn among the
diaspora; but this has also sparked speculation among his non-Tibetan
followers, from the trans-Himalayan regions all the way across to
Mongolia and the Russian Buddhist republics of Buryatia and Kalmykia,
that the next Dalai Lama might be born in their midst. This is not
such a far-fetched notion: the fourth Dalai Lama was Mongolian, and
the sixth was born in the Mon Tawang area of what is now Arunachal
Pradesh. As the most potent symbol of Tibet's national identity, a
Dalai Lama born as an Indian or a Nepali or a Bhutanese citizen would
dramatically affect the dynamics of China's control of Tibet, and its
relationship with its Southasian neighbours.

For the past 50 years, India has also been home to Tibet's
government-in-exile. Although it has not been officially recognised
by any country, it has functioned effectively as a parallel
government, and has conducted an ongoing experiment in democracy.
Most importantly, under the leadership of the Dalai Lama, it has kept
the Tibet question alive, and served as a symbol of hope for the
majority of Tibetans who live under Chinese rule. If the
government-in-exile can genuinely work towards fulfilling its
democratic aspirations, it would be an inspiration for the people of
Tibet, even when the present Dalai Lama is no longer there to lead it.

The seventh round of talks between the Dalai Lama's representatives
and the Chinese government has recently ended in stalemate, with both
sides demanding that the other show more sincerity. Meanwhile, China
has stepped up its policies of religious and political repression in
Tibet, even as its campaign for the colonial transformation of the
plateau continues unabated. As Tibet's very identity as a nation
comes under threat, could it be that its traditional links with
Southasia – links that have only deepened since the China occupation
– hold the key to its long-term survival?

* Tenzing Sonam is a writer and filmmaker based in Delhi.
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