The 80th birthday Monday of the Dalai Lama, Tibet’s spiritual leader, is an occasion to celebrate the life of an extraordinary individual. Since his flight from Tibet to India in 1959, the Dalai Lama has built religious, educational and political institutions to serve and unite the Tibetan community in exile. He has travelled the world to promote the Tibetan cause and expound the teachings of Tibetan Buddhism. And he has formulated a conciliatory “Middle Way Approach” to resolving the Sino-Tibetan conflict that respects China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity even as it seeks to preserve Tibet’s culture, religion and identity. These accomplishments, and the Dalai Lama’s infectious laugh and warmth, explain why he is such a beloved and respected figure throughout the world.
As joyful as the occasion of his 80th birthday is, however, it comes at a grim time for the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan freedom movement. The Chinese government has broken off negotiations on Tibet’s status, accusing the Dalai Lama of deceitfully trying to split China and of inciting the 2008 Lhasa uprising, charges that are offensive in addition to being entirely untrue. In April, it issued a white paper saying that talks would not be reopened until the Dalai Lama acknowledged that “Tibet has been an integral part of China since antiquity,” something he cannot agree to since it is contradicted by the historical record and overlooks the fact that Communist China invaded Tibet and illegally annexed it in 1959.
Having rejected compromise and dialogue as the way to end Tibetan resistance to its rule, the Chinese government has opted for harsh repression, forced assimilation and the systematic effort to destroy the Tibetan religion, language and distinct national identity. Tibet has been flooded with Han Chinese settlers; monasteries have been placed under direct government control; writers have been arrested and tortured; and more than 2 million nomads have been forcibly resettled in urban areas, destroying their traditional way of life and disrupting the fragile ecosystem of the Tibet Plateau.
In response to these and other harsh measures, which the Dalai Lama has called “cultural genocide,” more than 140 Tibetans have immolated themselves in desperate protest against Chinese oppression. This further enraged the regime, which called upon local security forces to “smash disorder, in order to maintain general harmony and stability.” But as 29 dissident Chinese intellectuals said in a call for dialogue with the Dalai Lama, “A country that wishes to avoid the partition of its territory must first avoid divisions among its nationalities.”
With the Dalai Lama turning 80, a contest is already developing over his succession. In Tibetan Buddhism, reincarnation is a fundamental tenet, and only the Dalai Lama has the authority to choose whether and through whom he will reincarnate. Yet Beijing has already approved guidelines giving the communist government control of the process. This contest takes place against the background of Chinese authorities having kidnapped in 1995 the 6-year-old boy identified by the Dalai Lama as the incarnation of the Panchen Lama, the second most important figure in Tibetan Buddhism, and replaced him with another boy.
The fact that the Chinese-imposed Panchen Lama continues to be categorically rejected by Tibetans should indicate how inflammatory it would be if Beijing tried to impose its choice for the next Dalai Lama. But that’s exactly what it intends to do, except that the Dalai Lama has hinted that he might not reincarnate at all. Zhu Weiqun, a top Communist Party official dealing with Tibet, angrily called the Dalai Lama’s statement “a betrayal” of Tibetan Buddhism and accused him of taking “a frivolous attitude toward his own succession.” Such shameless impudence by a spokesman for an atheistic party would be laughable were his words not the official policy of the Chinese government.
The Dalai Lama has said that he will consult with the high Lamas of Tibetan Buddhism, as well as with the Tibetan public and other concerned people, before taking a decision on “whether the institution of the Dalai Lama should continue or not.” These words reflect a spirit of democratic inclusiveness that has characterized his leadership, including his decision to devolve political authority to a democratically elected exile government.
It is ironic that at a time of democratic malaise in the West, this “simple Buddhist monk,” as he calls himself, from a remote non-Western civilization has emerged as a fervent defender of democratic values and arguably the world’s leading exponent of nonviolence and religious freedom.
As we celebrate the Dalai Lama’s 80th birthday, let us remember the suffering of the Tibetan people and pray that it will come to an end.
Carl Gershman is president of the National Endowment for Democracy.