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"On my part, I remain committed to the process of dialogue. It is my firm belief that dialogue and a willingness to look with honesty and clarity at the reality of Tibet can lead us to a viable solution."

Opinion: A Follow-Up Letter to the Dalai Lama

April 17, 2009

Vinod Joseph
April 16, 2009

Your Holiness,

I hope that you have had the chance to read my
previous letter to you. (See below)

After posting my missive to you on the internet,
something important took place, something totally
different from what I had assumed, as a result of
which I have penned my second epistle.

If your holiness were to cast your mind back, you
may recall that I had ended my first dispatch on the following note.

"If the current economic recession were to
continue, China will not be able to provide
employment for many of its restless millions. If
economic unrest were to spread in China, which
now has a vast rich-poor divide, the Tibetan
Government-in-Exile might be able to bargain a
certain degree of autonomy for itself."

Your Holiness, the economic recession is
continuing, but the most affected countries are
in the western world. China is also affected, but
not to the extent western countries are. More
importantly, the chances of civil unrest in China
don’t seem to be very high. If anything, western
nations look much more vulnerable than China! The
reason for this is very simple. China does have a
large and young work force which migrated to the
cities in large numbers. Many workers are indeed
unemployed. China does not offer a safety net
consisting of the unemployment dole or retirement
pensions, as western countries do. However,
because Chinese workers have very low
expectations, and because China has benefited
from free market economy in the last 30 years, no
one in China seems to want to agitate against the
state or to turn the clock back. On the contrary,
workers in western nations have such high
expectations and take so many things for granted
that if things get really bad, they are much more
likely to revolt. In the case of an internal
revolt, China has a tough internal security
system which can suppress civil unrest to a large
extent, whilst western nations don’t have
anything of that sort. Already one hears of
managers being held hostage by French and Belgian workers!

The net impact of this development is that the
so-called liberal nation states of the world have
a lot less leverage over China than ever before.
Even before the recession, the developed nations
were unwilling to use what little clout they had
to force China make concessions over Tibet.

Your holiness, there is no doubt in my mind that
the Tibetan community has got a raw deal from
China and the rest of the world. However, rather
than cry over spilt milk, it is important to make
the best of a bad situation and move on. In this
context, your holiness, it is important to carry
out a ruthless analysis of the Tibetan situation
and your position within the Tibetan community and Buddhists worldwide.

Your holiness, I always wondered why the Tibetan
cause is not so very important to Buddhists
across the world. Why doesn’t the Tibetan
struggle mean as much to Buddhists as what the
Palestinian struggle means to Muslims? Why aren’t
your travails causing Buddhists all over the
world, including in China, to rise up in arms if
you are the living incarnation of Avalokiteshvara
(Ocean of Wisdom), the bodhisattva who embodies
the compassion of all Buddhas? Why is Sri Lanka,
a very devout Buddhist nation, so close to and
friendly with your oppressor China?

I don’t claim to be an expert on Buddhism Your
Holiness. However, I did a little bit of reading
up and this is what I found. Buddhism has two
main branches, the Theravada (or Hinayana) or
Mahayana. Theravada is prevalent in countries
like Sri Lanka, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and
various other parts of South East Asia. It is
called the southern branch of Buddhism. Mahayana
is prevalent in China, Japan and various other
parts of East Asia. Theravada’s philosophy
revolves around original Buddhist texts in Pali.
Mahayana is much more liberal and also accepts
later works in Sanskrit, in addition to the Pali
texts. The Buddhism followed in Tibet is a
version of Mahayana. However, it has substantial
differences from mainstream Mahayana especially
because it has a lot more rituals.

Unlike Muslims or Christians, there is no great
rivalry between various Buddhist sects, as befits
a genuinely peaceful religion. However, other
than Tibetan Buddhists, no other sect of Buddhism
recognizes your holiness as an incarnation of a
bodhisattva or an enlightened one! Even within
Tibetan Buddhism, there are four schools and your
holiness is the head of only one of the four
schools, namely the Gelugpa school. For Buddhists
outside Tibet, you are just a teacher, one of
many Buddhist teachers. Each Buddhist enclave has
its own head teacher. For example, in Bhutan, the
senior-most Buddhist monk is called the Je
Khenbo, who is the highest authority for Bhutanese Buddhists.

In other words, your Holiness, you have very
little authority or even influence over Buddhists other than Tibetan Buddhists.

Your Holiness, when the Chinese took over Tibet,
they said that they were rescuing Tibetan serfs
from their cruel overlords, who were all Lamas.
Your holiness, there was a great deal of truth in
what the Chinese said. Tibet was a cruel and
feudal society. The Buddhist clergy, the Lamas,
controlled most of the land held Tibetan serfs in
bondage. Of course, that did not give China the
right to invade Tibet, any more than European
countries had the right to conquer and rule the
third world. However, it must be remembered that
the Chinese revolution has managed to lift more
people out of poverty than any other movement in
the world. Autocratic China has done more for its
poor than democratic India. The point I am making
is that even though China has done its best to
erase Tibetan culture, in economic terms it has
brought prosperity to Tibet. In a way, the
Chinese occupation of Tibet can be compared to
the British colonisation of India. British rule
was a mixed bag and brought many benefits to
India, just as it drained away a lot of wealth
from India. However, unlike the British in India,
the Chinese don't claim to be inherently and
immutably superior to Tibetans. Rather, they claim that Tibetans are Chinese!

The biggest damage being done to Tibet by China
is the transplanting of thousands of Han Chinese
in Tibet. Further, the Tibet Autonomous Regions
includes only half of cultural Tibet and many
Tibetans live outside the region. Your holiness,
when my initial letter to you was published on
the Internet, a Chinese blogger pointed out to me
the success of the Plantation of Ulster and asked
why China shouldn’t do something similar in
Tibet. As your holiness knows, the Plantation of
Ulster was carried out by the British in the 17th
century by transplanting thousands of Scottish
Presbyterians in Northern Ireland and settling
them on land confiscated from the native Irish.
The British created a local population that would
always stay loyal to the crown. The Protestant
Irish-Scots have stayed true to the British flag
as a result of which Northern Ireland remains a
part of the UK. In a similar manner, why
shouldn’t the plantation of Tibet by Han Chinese
work? In my opinion, your holiness, it may very well work. Sad, but true!

Your Holiness, in the changed economic climate,
with China getting stronger than ever, what can
you do to get your community a better deal? I
don’t know, your holiness. I don’t really have
any bright ideas and I have a feeling that, neither do you.

In my opinion, your holiness, the best thing you
can do is to give the Tibetan community overseas
something that China can’t give, namely
democracy. As I (rather impudently) suggested in
my last letter, the political head of the
overseas Tibetan community ought to be a
democratically elected leader. Just as Europe
managed to create a clear distinction between the
church and the state, there ought to be a
distinction between the Tibetan state and the
Tibetan Buddhist clergy headed by you. Yes, your
holiness, I am aware that the Tibetan government
in exile ( has an elected
parliament and a written constitution. But your
holiness, everyone knows that real power still
rests with you. Of course, this is result of the
deep admiration and respect which Tibetans have
for you. But it is important that you hand over
power to a bunch of secular politicians and allow
them to control the reins entirely.

Your holiness, once democracy is firmly
entrenched within the overseas Tibetan community,
it should be left to the Tibetan community to
decide how best the struggle for Tibetan rights
ought to be prosecuted. The democratically
elected leaders of overseas Tibetans may choose
to pursue a struggle for total independence. Or
they may choose to negotiate with the Chinese and
seek limited autonomy. They may even decide agree
to become just another province of China in
exchange for cultural freedom. But that decision
(tough though it is) is for the Tibetan community
to make in a democratic manner as befits the 21st
century. It shouldn’t be up to a single
individual who owes his position to an organised religion.

Once again, I wish Your Holiness and the people
of Tibet all the best for the future.

With warm and sincere regards

A blogger from the World Wide Web

Vinod Joseph is a professional who works long
hours. When Vinod gets some free time, which is
not very often, he likes to write. When he is not
in the "write" frame of mind, he reads. Vinod?s
first novel Hitchhiker was published by Books for
Change in December 2005. Vinod blogs at The usual "employer
caveat" applies and Vinod's employer has nothing
to do with Vinod's writings. All views expressed
by Vinod are his personal views.

An Open Letter to the Dalai Lama

November 14, 2008

Your Holiness,

I hope this letter finds you in good health. You
must be very busy right now, Your Holiness,
preparing to attend the six day meet you have
convened for members of the Tibetan
Government-in-Exile in Dharamshala from 17
November 2008 to discuss the future course of
action for Tibet. I assume you are not in the
best of spirits, Your Holiness. You underwent a
surgery for removal of a gall bladder stone last
month. You have publicly stated that you have
lost hope of reaching a settlement with China
through dialogue. Ever since March 1959 when you
left Tibet and went to India, you have been
trying to obtain a better deal for Tibet and its
people. You have not only always stuck to the
path of non-violence, but you have also insisted
that your followers do the same. All of this is
admirable until one realises that, as you
recently admitted, you have not managed to wring
a single compromise out of China.

Your Holiness, are you worried that history will
judge you harshly for not having achieved
anything much for the people of Tibet, despite
struggling for almost 50 years? I don’t have an
answer to that, Your Holiness. Before we respond
to that question, why don’t we take a quick look at Tibet’s history?

The Tibetan language belongs to the Tibeto-Burman
branch of the Sino-Tibetan language family.
Tibetan is as much distinct from Mandarin as
Burmese is. Tibet has always been an independent
country. In the early 9th century, Buddhism
reached Tibet after a Tibetan king invited
Buddhist preachers and artisans from India. There
have been occasions when Tibetan kings have
defeated Chinese rulers in battle. From the 13th
century onwards, Tibet was under the control of
the Mongols who also controlled vast stretches of
China. It was when the Mongols controlled Tibet
that Buddhism spread to Mongolia. In the
seventeenth century, the fifth Dalai Lama became
the spiritual and temporal head of the whole of
Tibet. Tibet has had wars with the kingdoms of
Ladakh, Bhutan and Nepal, losing many battles and winning a few.

Since the early eighteen century, the Manchu
rulers of China have made claims on Tibet.
However, China went into a period of decline
after that and Tibet managed to assert its
independence. In the early 20th century, the
British led a few expeditions into Tibet in order
to prevent any Russian influence in the region.
The British forced the Tibetans to sign a trade
treaty which opened Tibet’s borders to British
India. In 1907, Britain also entered into a
treaty with Russia which recognised Chinese suzerainty over Tibet.

After China was defeated by Japan in a series of
battles in the early twentieth century, Chinese
control over Tibet waned. Britain, Tibet and
China held negotiations in Simla in 1913 and 1914
to resolve the boundaries between India, China
and Tibet. The negotiations broke down and Henry
McMahon, the then British Indian foreign
secretary and the chief British negotiator,
unilaterally demarcated the Indo-Tibetan border.
Approximately 9,000 square kilometres of
traditional Tibetan territory in southern Tibet
(the Tawang region) was given to India (which now
forms the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh).
McMahon also recognised Chinese suzerainty over
Tibet and affirmed that Tibet was a part of
China. China did not agree to this Simla
convention and hence, this treaty became a
bilateral agreement between India and Tibet.

Immediately after the communist takeover of
China, the communists took over parts of eastern
Tibet and initiated a process of land reforms.
Landlords were publicly humiliated and at times
executed. However, the traditional Tibetan
aristocracy was allowed to remain in place till
public unrest in eastern Tibet led to a military
crackdown, which in turn led to the Lhasa
uprising. It was at that time, Your Holiness, that you fled to India.

Your Holiness, at the time of the communist
takeover of Tibet, Tibet was a corrupt and
undemocratic theocracy. Monks held all the powers
and abused them. The peasants were oppressed and
lived in extreme poverty. One of the reasons the
Chinese were able to takeover Tibet so easily was
because it was a backward, feudal and theocratic
state. The blame for this should lie primarily on
the Buddhist clergy which kept Tibet in the dark
ages. Your Holiness and your predecessors were
always at the helm of such a state of affairs.

After Your Holiness came over to India, you set
up a Government-in-Exile consisting of a
legislative assembly (the Assembly of Tibetan
People's Deputies), an executive (the Kashag),
and a judiciary (the Tibetan Supreme Justice
Commission). You have categorised the
Government-in-Exile as a constitutional monarchy.
Elections were held and exiled Tibetans voted.
You have gone into semi-retirement and if rumours
are correct, you would like to retire
permanently. Considering the fact that prior to
the Chinese take-over Tibet was a full-fledged
theocracy, I feel that you have done an admirable
job in injecting a decent dose of democracy into
the Tibetan community. Since almost all Tibetans
are Buddhists, not many Tibetans have objected to
having you, the Dalai Lama, a living incarnation
of the Lord Buddha, as the head of the Tibetan
Government-in-Exile. This would mean there is a
shade of theocracy in the Government-in-Exile, but I feel this was inevitable.

Your Holiness, your emphasis on non-violence and
peaceful negotiations won you not only many
admirers all over the world, but also the Nobel
Peace Prize in 1989. Until you threw in the towel
last week, you have always stated that you would
be happy with greater autonomy under Chinese
authority (on par with what Hong Kong has) and
would not press for independence. However, it
cannot be said Your Holiness, that all Tibetans
have been happy with your approach. Organisations
such as the Tibetan Independence Movement, the
Students For a Free Tibet led by exiled Tibetans
and supported by celebrities like Richard Gere
have insisted that Tibet should be independent.
They have rightly said that China has been
diluting Tibetan culture by flooding Tibet with
Han Chinese. Tibet’s natural wealth, especially
its forest wealth, has been eviscerated. Most
importantly, they say that Tibet has historically been an independent state.

Your Holiness, it must not be forgotten that
Chinese rule has brought some benefits for Tibet.
There are a lot more roads and railways and
industries, though it can be argued that all
these developments further Chinese exploitation
of Tibet and facilitate Han Chinese expansion
into Tibet. We all know that sadly, in Tibet, the
Han Chinese outnumber the Tibetans.

Your Holiness, even though you have won
international acclaim and admiration, you have
not been able to persuade a single country to
take concrete measures for Tibet’s independence.
Measures such as imposing sanctions against China
and not trading with China. Please don’t laugh at
me, Your Holiness. I do realise that the mere
thought of not trading with China sounds silly.
Who can afford to not trade with China? It is not
only nation states who can’t afford to antagonise
China. A few months ago, the London Metropolitan
University awarded Your Holiness a doctorate in
recognition of your outstanding achievements in
promoting global peace. The threat of a boycott
by Chinese students forced this British
university to express regret for any offence caused to the Chinese government.

Were things always like this Your Holiness? No,
Your Holiness. It is only in the last ten years
that China became so powerful. Twenty five years
ago, China was an unknown country, tolerated
because it was a counterweight to the Soviet
Union. Your Holiness, for a couple of decade
after you went over to India, there were many
armed groups of Tibetans carrying out guerrilla
operations against China. These were not on a
very large scale and were funded by the CIA.
However, they slowly died down due to various
reasons. One of the reasons was that India slowly
distanced itself from the USA and became friendly
with the USSR, which meant that the CIA could no
longer use India as a base for attacks on China.
Your Holiness, I wonder if your insistence on
non-violence as the only option has been mainly
because you’ve known that neither the USA nor
India would provide the quantum of commitment and
support that would make it feasible for Tibetans to fight China.

Your Holiness, even during the period when China
was yet to become an economic powerhouse, you
could not persuade Buddhist majority countries
like Thailand or Sri Lanka to boycott China. Even
though Buddhists believe that you are a living
incarnation of Lord Buddha, you have not been
able to build up any following within the Buddhists among the Han Chinese.

Your Holiness, would things have been different
if you have played a less key role right from the
time you went over to India? I doubt it Your
Holiness. Your personality and charisma gave the
Tibetan cause the sort of publicity and
respectability that no secular leader could have
obtained. It is tempting to speculate on what
could have been achieved if a secular person who
believed in using all options had headed the
Tibetan Government-in-Exile right from day one.
At a time when China was fighting the USSR, could
such a person have obtained independence for
Tibet through armed action? I doubt it, Your Holiness, but we will never know.

Your Holiness, I believe that the head of the
Tibetan Government-in-Exile must not be the Dalai
Lama. It must be headed by a secular individual.
If you are to head this Government-in-Exile, it
becomes a theocracy and there is no place in the
modern world for a theocracy. However, the
Tibetan movement still needs your help. You must
not retire completely, though you have expressed
your wish to do so. You must work with the
Tibetan Government-in-Exile in order to keep the
Tibetan cause in the limelight. History has been
unkind to Tibet and its people. You have, in my
opinion, performed a stellar role in fighting for
their rights. I don’t think history will judge you harshly.

Where do we go from here, Your Holiness? I don’t
believe that there is a magic solution to the
Tibetan issue. I wonder what advice you will give
your fellow delegates at the forthcoming conference.

There will be some hotheads who will want armed
action against China. Around eight months ago, in
March 2008 there were orchestrated riots in
Tibet. Nothing much was achieved, but it did
scare the Chinese government a lot, since it was
so close to the Olympics. Next time your
followers try something like that, the Chinese
government might not be as restrained, since the
Olympics are now over and the Chinese couldn’t
give two hoots about public opinion.

I assume muscular lobbying is an option. The
Tibetan cause has supporters and well-wishers all
over the world. Your Holiness, things can change
very quickly. If the current economic recession
were to continue, China will not be able to
provide employment for many of its restless
millions. If economic unrest were to spread in
China, which now has a vast rich-poor divide, the
Tibetan Government-in-Exile might be able to
bargain a certain degree of autonomy for itself.
There might even be a fortuitous turn of events
which enables Tibetans to get their country back.

I wish Your Holiness and the people of Tibet all the best for the future.

With warm and sincere regards,

A blogger from the World Wide Web
Vinod Joseph

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