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Beyond India vs. China: The Dalai Lama's Agenda

November 8, 2009

November 5, 2009
TIME Magazine

In early April 1959, with some 50,000 Chinese
soldiers scouring the mountains in search of him,
the Dalai Lama escaped from Tibet into
northeastern India. Beijing blamed him for
fomenting an uprising among Tibetans, which the
People's Liberation Army was then quashing. While
foreign spies and correspondents filled up sleepy
hill stations on the Indian side, the Dalai Lama
took refuge in an old monastery, guarded by a
detachment of Indian solders and a sect of 600
shaven-headed Buddhist monks. His brief sojourn
at the 400-year-old monastery in the town of
Tawang would be the first stop in a life of exile
in India. This weekend, the Dalai Lama returns to
Tawang -- and Beijing is no less irked by his
presence there now than it was six decades ago.

China claims the region where Tawang sits and the
area surrounding it as a southern extension of
Tibet, which Beijing rules; India has long
maintained that the land, which comprises its
northeastern state of Arunachal Pradesh, is an
inalienable part of its territory. Tensions over
the border dispute have flared recently, raising
the specter of a budding rivalry between the two
Asian giants who fought a brief, wintry war in
1962. Reports of troop buildups and border
incursions have increased. A visit to the state
by Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in
mid-October to campaign in local elections was
cited by Beijing as an act of provocation. (See
pictures of the Dalai Lama's 60 years of spiritual leadership.)

Now the Dalai Lama's trip, which his camp insists
is simply to deliver teachings to his faithful,
is further stoking Chinese ire. On Nov. 3, a
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman blasted the
Tibetan leader-in-exile for his "separatist"
activities. "The Dalai Lama often lies and often
engages in acts to sabotage China's relations
with other countries," said Ma Zhaoxu. New Delhi,
sensing trouble, has barred foreign journalists
from covering the event. (Read about the rivalry
between New Delhi and Beijing.)

Ever since he fled the Tibetan capital of Lhasa,
the Dalai Lama has lived as a guest on Indian
soil, free to do as he pleases provided he
refrains from directly antagonizing China. This
is not the first time he has journeyed to Tawang
from his seat in the north Indian town of
Dharamsala. But in the wake of riots in Lhasa
last year and amid the present frostiness over
the Sino-Indian border, the visit has assumed a deeper political dimension.

The monastery at Tawang is one of the largest and
oldest of the dominant Tibetan Gelupga sect and
is near the home of Tsangyang Gyatso, the sixth
Dalai Lama, born in 1683 -- a leader particularly
beloved by the Tibetans. As the present Dalai
Lama (the 14th) ages, rumors grow that his
successor may be tapped from this historic cradle
of Tibetan Buddhism in a bid to preempt Beijing,
which is almost certain to select its own Dalai
Lama once the current one passes.

In Chinese eyes, the prospect of the Dalai Lama
ginning up emotions and support in Tawang poses a
challenge to its vision of dominion over all of
Tibet. The boundary separating Arunachal Pradesh
from Tibet -- dubbed the McMahon Line -- was
drawn up by the colonial British and officials
from Lhasa in 1914, an act of map-making that
China to this day refuses to recognize. According
to Beijing, Tawang and its surroundings were
under the suzerainty of the Qing dynasty after
its armies extended China's frontiers to Tibet
and Central Asia in the 18th and 19th centuries.
If Tibet is Chinese soil — something that New
Delhi has officially recognized -- then, the
argument goes, Tawang and its monastery ought to
be as well. (See pictures of the Dalai Lama at home.)

But the facts on the ground, experts say, do not
fully support Beijing's claim. "China is trying
to impose this idea of a coherent nation-state,"
says Gray Tuttle, professor of Tibetan studies at
Columbia University in New York. "But it is
basing its claim on a premodern cultural world
where there was nothing like a modern state." Not
only was Chinese control over Tibet thin until
the 1950s, but Tibetan rule over Tawang was
nominal as well. Beyond the appointment of
certain abbots in monasteries and the occasional
payment of taxes to Lhasa, the people living
there "did not see themselves as part of a
broader empire, let alone a Chinese one," says
Dibyesh Anand, an authority on the region and a
professor of international relations at Westminster University in London.

Moreover, the ethnic group that inhabits this
remote, mountainous part of the world, know as
the Monpa, has always stood somewhat apart from
the Tibetans of the plateau, despite sharing
their religious and cultural outlook. In the days
when political power was concentrated in Lhasa,
Tibetans would look down upon the Monpa almost as
if they were a tribe of southern barbarians. But
after the Chinese invasion of Tibet in 1950, the
group on the margins found itself at the center
of a hot spot, faced with the task of aiding
compatriots who were fleeing the brutal Chinese
crackdown in 1959. As a result, the Monpa in
India aren't particularly keen to swap
nationalities. "They all fear China for what it
did during the Tibetan uprising," says Anand.

Still, as New Delhi asserts its sovereignty over
Arunachal Pradesh, many locals complain of poor
governance. Like other parts of India's
periphery, development has been woeful: roads in
the rugged terrain are poor and in many places
nonexistent, the school system is dysfunctional,
and some state officials are corrupt. The Indian
military often monopolizes the region's
functioning infrastructure for its own deployment
and strategic ends, leaving the Monpa again
sandwiched on the edge of latter-day empires.

The Dalai Lama's visit, says Anand, should be
seen not as a gesture of defiance toward China
nor a validation of democratic India but as an
act of solidarity with a community that looks to
him for guidance. For years he has pushed for
dialogue with China and quietly sought autonomy
for Tibet, but this purported "middle path" of
peaceful advocacy has made little progress and
has frustrated many younger Tibetans who are
living in exile from their homeland. Now, suggest
observers, the Dalai Lama may be thinking more of
shoring up the Tibetan diaspora as it looks
toward an uncertain future. "With him getting
older, it makes sense to try to establish a
long-term support network for Tibetans in exile," says Tuttle.

Meanwhile, border tensions around the monastery
where the Dalai Lama found asylum 60 years ago
continue to simmer. As neighbors and growing
world powers, India and China are bound to have
their differences, but, say analysts, it is in
both countries' interests to move away from the
icy, uncompromising positions where they are now
entrenched. The possibilities for trade between
India's northeast and China's southwest have
barely been explored. "Indians and Chinese need
to be more confident in their history," says
Anand. "This is history, as you see in Tawang,
which was more complicated, fluid and relaxed."
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