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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?"

'A Hell on Earth'

April 1, 2009

By Pico Iyer
New York Review of Books
Volume 56, Number 6
April 9, 2009

"The situation inside Tibet is almost like a
military occupation," I heard the Dalai Lama tell
an interviewer last November, when I spent a week
traveling with him across Japan. "Everywhere.
Everywhere, fear, terror. I cannot remain
indifferent." Just moments before, with equal
directness and urgency, he had said, "I have to
accept failure. In terms of the Chinese
government becoming more lenient [in
Chinese-occupied Tibet], my policy has failed. We have to accept reality."

Accepting reality -- first investigating it
clearly, and then seeing what can be done with it
-- is for him a central principle, and now he was
about to convene a meeting of Tibetans in his
exile home, in Dharamsala, India, and then
another, in Delhi, of foreign supporters of
Tibet, to discuss alternative approaches to
relieving the ever more brutal fifty-year-long
suppression of Tibet by Beijing. "This ancient
nation with its own unique cultural heritage is
dying," he said later the same day. "The
situation inside Tibet is almost something like a death sentence."

It was shocking to hear such words from a man who
has become one of the modern globe's foremost
embodiments of patience and the power of never
giving up. I had spent a week with him traveling
across Japan the previous November -- and the one
before that -- and even then he had been working
hard to find common ground with China, though he
was never slow to speak out against corruption,
censorship, and oppression in the People's
Republic. In the thirty-four years I've been
regularly talking and listening to him, I've
grown used to seeing him begin each day by
praying for his "Chinese brothers and sisters,"
and constantly asking his fellow Tibetans "to
reach out to the Chinese people and make better
relations." He was still doing all that this
winter and yet there was a sense, for the first
time that I had seen, that he could no longer
contain his impatience and disappointment with
Beijing, and was determined to speak out now,
telling the world what he knew, while also urging
his people to prepare for the time when their
leader for sixty-nine years, who is now
seventy-three years old, would no longer be among them.

The year just past was something of an annus
horribilis for the Tibetan leader and his people:
last March, on the forty-ninth anniversary of his
flight into India, demonstrations spread across
Tibet and led to a Chinese crackdown that is
bringing about more deaths and imprisonments than
we will ever likely know about. In August, the
Dalai Lama was forced to cut short a trip to
France for reasons of ill health. One week later,
his eldest brother, Taktser Rinpoche, himself an
incarnate lama, died in Indiana, where he had
been based for several decades. Five weeks after
that, the Dalai Lama had gallbladder surgery, a
procedure that usually takes fifteen or twenty
minutes, he said, but in his case took three
hours. And just after he returned from Japan on
his first major trip since his illness, clearly
ready to talk to Beijing in a new way, China
terminated its regular meetings with his envoys,
essentially accusing him of arguing for ethnic
cleansing. It could seem as if the Chinese had
begun the talks in 2002, months after being named
host of the 2008 Summer Olympics, in order to
appease a watching world; now that the games had
been successfully completed, they could bring to
an end even the pretense of talking to Tibet.

As I watched and listened to him speak, day after
day, behind closed doors, to groups of Chinese
individuals, to members of the international
press, and to Japanese power brokers, I could not
help feeling that the Dalai Lama was newly
determined to hold nothing back. The same spirit
was evident when he said, on this year's March 10
anniversary -- the fiftieth -- of what Tibetans
call the "Tibetan Uprising," when 30,000 Tibetans
in Lhasa took up arms to protect the
twenty-three-year-old Dalai Lama, allowing him to
flee in safety from Tibet (in China it is being
celebrated as "Serf Liberation Day"), that the
Beijing government had turned Tibet into "a hell
on earth." Already, tensions have intensified
across China and Tibet because of the
anniversary, and China recently launched a
forty-two-day "Strike Hard" policy involving
arrests of dozens of Tibetans who have refused to
celebrate the Tibetan New Year (out of respect
for those who died last March). Beijing has
worked long and hard to make sure that no one in
the outside world sees what is happening inside
Tibet. But in this case, when a body falls in a
forest, all of us know that it is falling, even
if we do not witness it firsthand.

The first thing the Dalai Lama said to me when I
met him on the opening day of his recent tour, in
his Tokyo hotel, was, "My surgery was very
successful!" He had visibly lost a lot of weight
in the three months since I'd seen him last, but
his recovery from the gallbladder operation had
been unusually fast, he told me, and his doctors
had said that his body was that of a man in his
sixties. Certainly, anyone who saw him opening
his arms to the Chinese intellectuals eager to
have a photo with him, receiving Mongolians
gathered to present ceremonial blue scarves to
him in the lobby of his hotel, talking to
Japanese politicians in his suite, and just
making sure that he shook hands and conversed
with every last waiter, bodyguard, and interested
passerby would have felt she was seeing the
affectionate, mischievous, and attentive man the
world knows. Every time he began speaking about
the situation in Tibet, though—and on this tour,
as not before, the questions even from Buddhist
monks were political—he spoke with the unwavering
clarity and passion of a man whose charges are trapped in a burning house.

You can see something of how the Tibetan leader
works in the world by simply noticing how he
allocates his time on such a trip: he delivered
two major talks to the general public, on his
favored theme of "secular ethics" -- the logical
basis for thinking of others, whether or not you
have a religion; he flew down to the southern
island of Kyushu to offer Buddhist teachings to a
group of four hundred or so (often feuding)
Japanese Buddhists who had invited him to their
country for that purpose; he even spent an entire
morning visiting a girls' school in the
provincial capital of Fukuoka, since his first
priority is always education, and helping those
young enough to be in a position to shape the future.

Yet the first day of his trip was dedicated to
talking to Chinese residents in Japan: two and a
half hours in the morning with a group of
fourteen professors, and three hours in the
afternoon with a boisterous, animated crowd of
two hundred or so students and others. And much
of the next two days was spent speaking to the
Japanese and international press and television
about how things stand in Tibet today, and urging
them to try to go themselves and offer an
"independent, objective, unbiased investigation"
into what is really happening behind the black curtain China has yanked down.

Whenever he was asked, he did not hesitate to
tell his listeners about a new Chinese policy of
beating Tibetans as soon as they are arrested;
about the eighty-year-old Tibetan man who had
asked why monks should be arrested for calling
for basic human rights, and who was himself
imprisoned and subjected to beating; about
reports of Chinese trucks in Tibet last March
packed with dead bodies being taken away to be
buried. He had not had the chance to
"independently cross-check" every report, he took
care to stress, so they should not all be taken
as proven fact; but other reports have suggested
that at least 140 Tibetans were killed last March
alone, and more than nine hundred have been taken
into custody, often after having been beaten.

After the demonstrations last March spread with
unprecedented speed and intensity across the
Tibetan Autonomous Region and China proper,
Tibetan hopes had been raised when Chinese
President Hu Jintao called for a special meeting,
for the first time acknowledging in public that
the Chinese were holding talks with delegates
from the Dalai Lama. Several world leaders were
speaking then of boycotting the opening
ceremonies of the Olympics in August and much of
the world was looking to China to show some sign
of good faith and loosening oppression in the
months leading up to the games. The Dalai Lama
never supported a boycott, and appealed to
Tibetans not to disrupt the carrying of the
Olympic torch around the world. He had reason, he
said, to hope that the Chinese government might budge a little.

But when the two sides met for their seventh
round of talks, in July, he told the Chinese
professors in Tokyo, "There was nothing new from
the Chinese side. It was the usual allegations against us."

I happened to see the Dalai Lama later that
month, at the Aspen Institute, and there he
startled many of us by saying, for the first time
that anyone could remember, "My trust in the
Chinese leadership is this thin now" (he held his
fingers a tenth of a centimeter apart). "I really
don't know what I can do." In the meantime, as he
often freely acknowledged in Japan, his "Middle
Way" policy -- of not seeking full independence
from China for Tibet, but only a "genuine and
meaningful autonomy," whereby China could control
Tibet's defense policy and foreign affairs, while
Tibetans might enjoy the freedom to take care of
their culture, their religion, and their special
environment -- was coming under more and more
criticism. So, he said, he would step aside and
allow others to come up with a "new, wiser, realistic" approach.

He might almost, with his candor and frank
self-criticism, have been reminding the Chinese
of what they lack. Democracy has always been a
particular passion of this Dalai Lama, as both
one of the secular practices of the wider world
that Tibetans can now usefully learn from and an
idea perfectly consonant with the Buddha's own
belief that all beings are equal, and each person
should rule himself. Within his first year in
exile, in India, he was beginning to draft a
constitution for Tibetans to allow them democracy
for the first time in their history (and to allow
for the impeachment of the Dalai Lama). In the
years since, he has systematically extended the
possibility from a democratically elected
parliament to a democratically elected cabinet
to, in 2001, a democratically elected prime
minister in exile (currently the scholarly monk
Professor Samdhong Rinpoche). Even as the king of
Bhutan, educated by some of the same Buddhist
teachers as the Dalai Lama, more or less imposed
democracy on his reluctant people last year, and
Nepal next door edges a little away from
monarchy, the Dalai Lama continues to hope,
sometimes in vain, that his people will take
responsibility themselves for shaping their own futures.

It is not always easy to appreciate from afar how
radical this Dalai Lama is in dispensing with any
tradition he feels to be outdated (he is
sometimes more radical, as well as more open to
other views, than the conservatives in his own
community would like). "The Dalai Lama
institution came about around six hundred years
ago," he told the Chinese students in Japan, "and
for more than three hundred years the Dalai Lama
has been spiritual and temporal head of the
Tibetan people. But that time is gone." A Dalai
Lama might no longer be useful, he seemed to be
implying, especially since, upon his death, China
will likely produce a young boy of its own and
pronounce him Dalai Lama. New times require new
solutions. It now seems more than possible that
the Dalai Lama will in some way, explicit or
otherwise, designate his own successor from among
the young lamas around him and ask Tibetans to
treat him as their leader, whether or not he
bears the name of "Dalai Lama." Tibet no longer
has the luxury of being able to look for a young
child and then wait another fifteen years for him to come of age.

Still, I've always noticed that his pauses are
longest whenever I ask him about how to persuade
his people to break their centuries-old habit of
deferring to the Dalai Lama in everything. His
government-in-exile can look after the 2 percent
of Tibetans who live outside Tibet, and this
March, in place of the teachings he usually
offers to the public outside his home, in
accordance with classic Tibetan custom, he is
personally ordaining one thousand new Tibetan
Buddhist monks in southern India. But as he told
me four years ago, "When I go, I don't know. All
depends on the respect of the Tibetan people for
their popularly elected leader. One hundred
percent popular, impossible! But 60, 70 percent,
and still 30, 40 percent, opposed: it can create some problems."

As most observers note, it is in China's
interests to try to resolve the Tibetan situation
now, if only because no other Tibetan is likely
to be as forbearing or as open as the current
Dalai Lama, let alone as intimately acquainted
with the leadership and entire history of the People's Republic.

Throughout his week in Japan -- and even as he
reiterated that this is the "darkest period in
Tibetan history" -- the Dalai Lama took pains to
stress, over and over, his "great faith in the
Chinese people," and his eagerness to spend an
entire day just talking to regular Chinese gave
proof of that. "The Han Chinese are a hardworking
people," he told the Chinese professors.
"Wherever they settle, they have Chinatowns; they
have their own culture; they keep intact." What,
in other words, was the government in Beijing
afraid of? Did it think that loosening up on
Tibetan culture and religion would somehow erode
the strength and integrity of a proud Han culture going back millennia?

"China's ambition to have a superpower," the
Tibetan leader told some TV interviewers, as he
sat calmly within a circle of cameras, "is right!
Theirs is a most important nation, an ancient
nation." Tibetans themselves stood to gain from
these developments. "Every Tibetan," the Dalai
Lama said, as he often does, "is in favor of
modernization." None wishes to go back to the
seclusion and backwardness of old. Yet to be a
superpower brings with it certain obligations,
having to do with democracy, rule of law, and
freedom of the press. "Manpower, military power,
monetary power, that is already there in China,"
he said. "But moral power, moral authority is lacking."

Over the decades I've known him, the Dalai Lama
has always been adept at pointing out, logically,
how Tibet's interests and China's
converge—bringing geopolitics and Buddhist
principles together, in effect—and at arguing,
syllogistically, for how the very notion of
enmity is not only a projection, nearly always,
but, in today's globally interconnected world, an
anachronism. But now, with the skill of one
trained for decades in dialectics and personally
familiar with the last few generations of Chinese
history, he seems more and more to be holding the
Chinese government up against its own principles.
"Chairman Mao, when I was in Peking, said, 'The
Communist Party must welcome criticism.
Self-criticism as well as criticism from
others,'" he noted pointedly in Tokyo. But now
the Party seemed to be all mouth and no ears.
Deng Xiaoping, he reminded another audience,
always stressed "seeking truth from facts," the
very empiricism the Dalai Lama would love to see
more thoroughly deployed. "When President Hu
Jintao talks of a 'Harmonious Society,' I am a
comrade of his," he told the Chinese scholars.
"Even today I have points of agreement with Marxist thought."

His argument, unexpectedly, was that Communists
in China today are not Communist enough, as they
ignore Marx's ideas of ethics and equality (which
the Dalai Lama has long admired) and move ever
further from the purity and self-sacrifice of
their early years. "Mao Zedong was a true
idealist, a real comrade, initially," he told the
Chinese students. "But in '56, '57, that
disappeared." The result, he said, was that "the
Communist Party in China today is something very
special; it is a Communist Party without
Communist ideology." At one point, he even said
to his Chinese listeners, "Maybe in some ways I'm
more 'red' inside than the Chinese leadership!"

In recent months, the Dalai Lama seems to be
returning more and more to the extended meetings
he held with Mao and other Chinese leaders when
he spent several months in Beijing and traveled
around China in 1954 and 1955, so impressed by
much of what he saw that "I actually said that I
wanted to join the Communist Party" (as he told
the Chinese intellectuals). He remembered Mao
treating him almost as a son, feeding him with
his own chopsticks, and in 1955 a time when "Mao
looked at me and said, 'Tibet in its past history
has been a powerful nation. But now it is weak.
We are keen to help you. After twenty years,
Tibet will be a powerful, great nation. It will
be your turn to help us.'" Especially when
Chinese are around, he recalls Mao pointing to
two generals and telling the Dalai Lama, "I sent
these two to Tibet in order to help you. If they
are not doing well, or acting according to your
wishes, then let me know, and I will drop it."

"Past history is past history," he acknowledged
more than once in Japan. Yet by giving his own
firsthand account of what he remembers, more and
more, and by stressing his admiration for what
those on the Long March and Mao in his early
years achieved, he seemed to be asking the
current leadership in Beijing what would sustain
its people beneath their thoughts of money and
control. In the course of his sixty-nine years in
power, the Dalai Lama has seen one country after
another -- in the West and more recently in
places like Japan and Taiwan -- gain prosperity
and modern institutions and then come to him
asking what to do with their sense of emptiness,
their broken families. At some point, he
suggested, China is going to have to find
something to support it at some level deeper than just growth rates.

It is common, especially in recent months, to
hear people asserting that the Dalai Lama is a
wise and even heroic spiritual leader who is
nonetheless a little out of his depth in the
cut-and-thrust of realpolitik, which observes
rules and priorities very different from the
monastic ones. And indeed, to the surprise of
many, he has long maintained that Tibet should,
in the future, separate church and state, one
reason why, were he to return to Tibet, he would
not seek any political position. Yet listening to
him in Japan -- and in India, America, and Europe
in recent years -- I've been struck by how much
more practical and concrete his proposals sound
than those of the Chinese leaders or of the Tibetans around him.

Tibetans are outnumbered by Han Chinese by more
than two hundred to one, so any act of violence
toward the Chinese will bring only more suffering
on those Tibetans in Tibet who have suffered too
much already (and, for that matter, on many Han
Chinese). Nor has Beijing ever shown itself very
responsive to provocation from abroad or to
direct challenges to its authority. The one
reason why Tibet has won the support of most of
the world is that it has so far refused the path
of violence; a single terrorist attack on Chinese
roads or power stations might win the headlines
of the world press for a few days and then
squander the world's goodwill forever. In any
case, the Dalai Lama and his fellow exiles are in
India as spiritual refugees. If they were to
engage in political mischief from there, they
would not only enrage China and imperil their
fellow Tibetans, but also put their hosts in a
difficult position, and even perhaps precipitate
a confrontation between the two great Asian powers.

The fact that the Dalai Lama's policy has reaped
no evident fruits so far, however, only makes
more and more of those concerned about Tibet
desperate for another approach; given the odds
against them, many feel that they might as well
ask for the impossible (even the Dalai Lama's
eldest brother was an outspoken advocate of
independence, and not the Dalai Lama's
conciliatory call for "autonomy"). Yet when the
meetings to chart a new policy took place in
India in November, the Dalai Lama remained
completely absent so that no Tibetan would try to
follow him -- and again the Tibetans decided to follow the Dalai Lama's course.

This leads to the difficult position of Tibetans
following the way of peace even as many of them
hunger for something more decisive. Many in the
Tibetan community and abroad, centered around the
Tibetan Youth Congress, call for nothing less
than full independence. "But I always ask them,"
the Dalai Lama said, "How are you going to attain
independence? Where are you going to get the
weapons? How are you going to pay for them? How
are you going to send them into Tibet? They have no answer."

Meanwhile, though 98 percent of all Tibetans --
those inside Tibet itself -- have essentially
been silenced through Chinese control, discreet
inquiries from their cousins in Dharamsala
suggest that they are at once entirely behind
their exiled leader; yet they find it hard to
hold on to their patience (as they watch their
neighbors imprisoned or tortured, and monks and
nuns arrested if they do not denounce their
spiritual leader). Traveling regularly to Tibet
since 1985, I have been surprised to see Tibetans
growing ever more strongly committed to the Dalai
Lama and their distinctive heritage -- even as
Lhasa and other parts of their country are turned
into generic Chinese versions of Las Vegas --
precisely because they are being stripped of
external ways of defining themselves. Their
leader and their culture and their religion are
the only ways they can remind themselves that
they are Tibetans, and not just Chinese citizens with an exotic background.

The stakes in Tibet right now could not be
higher, even for those of us who live very far
away from Asia. In China, Tibet is sometimes
referred to as the "Third Pole," an indication of
how much its huge quantities of ice and snow,
almost as great as those of the North Pole, are
subject to the ravages of global warming.
Americans and Australians and French people may
have taken up Tibetan Buddhism, the Dalai Lama
told an overflow crowd of three hundred crammed
into a twentieth-floor breakfast room in Tokyo's
Foreign Correspondents' Club, but without Tibetan
practitioners for at least a generation or two
more, Tibetan Buddhism might not survive.
Tibetans are glad and grateful for all the modern
facilities and material opportunities that
Beijing has brought them, he constantly stressed,
but that did not mean they felt they should give
up their distinctive cultural tradition and basic
freedoms of speech and religion in return.

As Tibet enters its second half- century as an
oppressed nation -- this fall marks the sixtieth
anniversary of the arrival of People's Liberation
Army troops in eastern Tibet—there is a sense
that what happens there has implications for us
all, not just in its environmental consequences,
but in its political ones as well. How China
deals with Tibet will affect its relations with
Taiwan, and if Beijing does come to its senses
and takes a more enlightened and farsighted
approach to Tibet  -- as small a threat to it,
population-wise, as Idaho might be to the US --
it will inevitably win the respect of the larger
world and do much to secure its own legacy. Part
of the unusual fascination of the China -- Tibet
issue, after all, is that it seems to suggest a
larger question beyond the geopolitical: How much
can anyone live on bread alone, and to what
extent does some sense of inner wealth either
trump or at least make sense of all the material
riches we might gain? It's no surprise, perhaps,
that 100,000 Han Chinese have already taken up
the study of Tibetan Buddhism, and their numbers are rising quickly.

The Dalai Lama has done his bit by announcing
himself "semi-retired," something like a "senior
adviser," in his own words; if Beijing thinks he
is the cause of the recent disturbances and
problems in Tibet, he has been effectively
saying, he will gladly take himself out of the
equation altogether to see if that can help. The
Tibetans in Tibet have endured a lifetime of
oppression with uncommon patience and fortitude.
Now it remains only for China to be as
"realistic" and transparent in its handling of
Tibet as, the Dalai Lama noted, it was in the
wake of the tragic earthquake in Sichuan last
summer. His final words to the Chinese students,
some of whom were sobbing and working Tibetan
Buddhist rosaries as he spoke, were "Investigate,
investigate. Analyze, analyze." He left the
Chinese professors with the words, "Keep out the
propaganda. Keep out our Tibetan side, too, our
emotions. Study the situation!" Two days later,
however, as he was addressing the journalists in
Tokyo's Foreign Correspondents' Club, another
Tibetan man was imprisoned, for five years,
according to Human Rights Watch. His crime?
Daring to tell relatives abroad about what is happening inside Tibet.

--March 12, 2009
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