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Tibet's next leader?

July 20, 2010

Adam Plowright
Mail & Guardian Online (South Africa)
July 19, 2010

DHARAMSHALA, India -- For those looking for the
next spiritual leader of Tibet after the Dalai
Lama, the ageing monk's 75th birthday ceremony this month offered some clues.

Sitting next to the Nobel laureate at the front
of the stage was the imposing figure of the
Karmapa, a thick-set 26-year-old with the highest
profile among a cast of young lamas who might
fill the void that will one day be left.

Separated by two generations, the Dalai Lama and
the Karmapa share a particular bond as Tibetan
figureheads who both fled their homeland for an uncertain life in exile.

The Karmapa, who made the perilous journey in
1999, is now 26 -- the same age as the Dalai Lama
when he escaped in 1959 following a failed
Tibetan uprising against Chinese rule.

"You could say he's like a father figure to me. I
look at him as my teacher and my guide," said the
Karmapa said of the Dalai Lama during an
interview the day before the celebrations on July 6.

Both monks live in Dharamshala, the northern
Indian hill town that serves as the base of the Tibetan government-in-exile.

Built like a basketball player, the Karmapa is
modern in his tastes. He has an iPod, admits to
playing video games and revealed an impressive
knowledge of developments in the Soccer World Cup.

Throughout the interview, he spoke slowly and
guardedly, clearly sensitive to his position as a
"guest" in India and also wary of defining any
role he might play in the future.


He said he tries not to think about the passing
of the Dalai Lama, but admitted that his death
would have a "huge impact" on the Tibetan
movement and its struggle for genuine autonomy under Chinese rule.

There's "no hurry" to think about succession, he
said, before adding that he would "do my best to
give a supporting hand to the activities that the Dalai Lama has carried on".

"I would definitely look forward to leaving
behind a rich legacy of service to Tibet and
Tibetans in my own capacity," he said.

As the Karmapa, he is one of Tibetan Buddhism's
most revered leaders, along with the Dalai Lama and the Panchen Lama.

But the Panchen Lama is now a weakened
institution. The reincarnation named by the Dalai
Lama disappeared aged six -- abducted by the
Chinese, say campaigners -- and Beijing has named its own figure.

What makes the Karmapa such a potent figure is
that he is formally recognised not only by the
Dalai Lama but also by China which, prior to his
escape, had been politically grooming him as the
highest reincarnate lama under its control.

That dual recognition accords him a legitimacy
that Beijing would find it difficult to strip away retroactively.

For this reason, the fluent Chinese speaker is
seen as a possible mediator between Beijing and
the 200 000-strong Tibetan community in exile,
but he says he is viewed with suspicion in Beijing.

"For my part, I have no thought on a future
solution as such, but on the part of the Chinese
they may have their own internal worries about me
playing a political role," he said.

Speaking in Tibetan through his interpreter, he
added: "I feel myself that they should relax."

Flight to India

The Karmapa's escape from his homeland was every
bit as daring as that of the Dalai Lama.

The then 14-year-old undertook the extremely
gruelling and hazardous trek across the Himalayas
in the dead of winter, and was nearly caught on
the China-Nepal border when his party stumbled across two army camps.

His decision to leave was largely motivated by
fears that he would be co-opted as a puppet of the Chinese authorities.

"One of my major concerns was that when I turned
18, I might be given a position in the government
hierarchy. And at that point I may have to go
against His Holiness the Dalai Lama and the cause for Tibet," he explained.

During the interview, he frequently sighed and
joked about the "heavy questions" and at one
point said he felt like a chapati, the Indian
flatbread formed by squeezing dough between one's hands.

His advisers had stressed before that no
political questions should be asked, lest the
answers upset the Indian authorities who are
always anxious to avoid provoking China.

The existence of the Tibetan movement in India,
which lobbies openly for autonomy or independence
and denounces human rights abuses in Tibet, is a
constant thorn in the side of relations between the two Asian superpowers.

The Karmapa is candid when speaking about the
frustrations of his life in Dharamshala and he
gives the impression of a young man chafing at
the invisible hands holding him back.

Him as chapati dough is an instructive image: he
is a figure squeezed on both sides by India and China.

"We still have some, you know, problems," he said in English.

One of the largest is the foreign travel
restriction imposed by the Indian government,
which prevents him meeting followers overseas. A
planned trip to Europe was scuttled earlier this year.

"When I was in Tibet, I could not go to other
countries," he said. "Now I am here in India, a
democratic country that has been very kind to
Tibet, but I still have some problems, some restrictions."

In the 11 years, he has travelled just once, to
the United States in 2008, a trip described by an
aide as "very successful" that made him "very happy."

He lives in Dharamshala only because he is barred
from his monastery in Sikkim, a sensitive
northeastern Indian state that borders China.

He has also expressed a desire to go to a regular
university in India to study something either
scientific, religious or environmental, his aide
says, but the request has gone unanswered.

One of many?

"In the 21st century, time is very precious," the
Karmapa says, hinting at his frustration.

In the Dalai Lama's office, spokesperson Tenzin
Taklha stressed that the Karmapa is one of a
number of young lamas who could assume leadership
responsibilities after the death of the current Dalai Lama.

"He's certainly one of the most important
spiritual leaders. He's a charismatic, promising
leader with a large number of followers," he said.

The community in exile is braced for a huge
struggle with Beijing about the future
leadership. China has already stated it intends
to have the final say on any incarnation.

Talk about succession is met with characteristic
levity by the man in office at the moment.

"If I don't commit suicide then otherwise my body
is very healthy, another 10-20 years I can
manage, no problem ... maybe 30 years," he joked
in an interview with India's NDTV channel on his birthday. - AFP
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