Tibetans hold their breath
Dalai Lama is widely admired for his commitment to peaceful resistance to Chinese occupation.

Now he's sick and more radical forces lie in wait

MARK ABLEY Montreal Gazette Saturday, February 02, 2002

Last Wednesday night, a few dozen Montrealers gathered in a north-end Buddhist centre to pray for the health and long life of a 66-year-old man lying in a hospital bed on the far side of the world.

The man - the 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet - is an inspiration to citizens of many nations. Winner of the 1989 Nobel Peace Prize, he has spoken constantly in favour of non-violence. Though he and up to 150,000 other Tibetans have spent most or all of their lives as refugees from Chinese occupation, he has never condemned the people of China, never supported violence against their rulers. He continues to search for a peaceful resolution that would allow Tibet a high degree of autonomy within China.

The Dalai Lama refers to himself as "a simple monk," spurning the temptations that arise from the adoration of followers and the admiration of outsiders, yet for decades he has kept up a punishing schedule of prayers, meetings, interviews, speeches and ceremonies. In April, he is scheduled to make his fourth visit to Canada. Dozens of MPs and thousands of Canadians have asked Prime Minister ChrÈtien to meet him.

But now, it seems, the Dalai Lama is exhausted. Since December, he has been suffering from pain and stomach troubles. A week ago, illness forced him to abandon the Kalachakra rituals, among the most sacred in the Buddhist calendar. Before he was flown to a hospital in Bombay, doctors said he had "a lump in his stomach."

The latest reports suggest he has a bowel infection, is responding well to antibiotics, and may leave hospital within a few days. Still, his illness has come as a warning. Tibetans, and no doubt the leaders of China, are wondering: what next?

Chokey Tsering, a Montrealer now pursuing a Master's degree in sociology at Concordia University, is among the younger generation of exiled Tibetans. As a teenager, she admits, she felt a certain weariness with the whole issue of Tibet. Now, she is just as committed as her elders.

"Among my circle of friends," Tsering says, "it seems almost sacrilegious to utter the possibility that the Dalai Lama could be seriously ill. His passing away is a taboo subject."

The Dalai Lama has pondered his succession long and hard. According to Tibetan custom, he will be reborn as an infant - there have, after all, been 13 Dalai Lamas before him. To be recognized as the authentic reincarnation, a young boy must answer a rigorous series of tests that show he correctly recalls objects from his previous life.

Traditionally, the second highest of Tibet's religious leaders - the Panchen Lama - would approve the choice, and play a major role in government until the new Dalai Lama was old enough to rule. But tradition no longer applies.

In 1989, the 10th Panchen Lama died inside Tibet. Six years later, the Dalai Lama recognized a young boy, Gedhun Choekyi Nyima, as his reincarnation. China promptly arrested the child and his family, and declared another boy to be the true Panchen Lama - a boy who is being raised under Chinese tutelage. President Jiang Zemin has instructed him to "uphold the leadership of the Party, have a deep love for the nation, for the people and for socialism."

Gedhun Choekyi Nyima has not been seen since his arrest. Now 12 years old, he may be the world's youngest political prisoner.

Such confusion, and such potential for Beijing's interference, are what the Dalai Lama wants to avoid at all costs. A decade ago, he suggested he might be the last of his lineage. Perhaps it was time, he mused, for the whole institution of the Dalai Lama to change.

In recent years, he has dropped such speculations. Having seen what happened to Gedhun Choekyi Nyima, he says he will, indeed, be reborn - but in exile. Unless there are dramatic and unforeseen changes inside Tibet, the next Dalai Lama is more likely to be born in Montreal than in the Tibetan capital, Lhasa.

Such a situation would have seemed unimaginable in the Dalai Lama's boyhood. In the 1930s and '40s, Tibet was an independent but isolated country. It had no allies to call on when Mao Tse-tung's troops invaded. After the Dalai Lama fled Lhasa and crossed the Himalayas in 1959, he set up a government-in-exile in the northern Indian town of Dharamsala.

At first, his journeys outside India were rare. In recent decades, that has changed. Thanks to his extensive travels, the Dalai Lama can meet many of the Tibetans in exile, and can lobby world leaders for the support his homeland needs. Decades of Chinese rule have led to the plundering of Tibetan resources, the demolition of most Tibetan monasteries, and an influx of Chinese settlers that has made Tibetans a minority in their own land.

Tibetan spirits were buoyed in 2000 when another young lama, the Karmapa, emulated the Dalai Lama by escaping across the snow peaks to India. Still only 16, the Karmapa shows promise of becoming a dynamic leader in his own right. But he represents only one of the often feuding schools of Tibetan Buddhism, and it's unclear whether he could ever command the respect given the Dalai Lama.

"A man like the Dalai Lama doesn't come onto the world stage very often," says Thubten Samdup, a Montrealer who is the longtime president of the Canada Tibet Committee. "He lives by what he preaches. I think that after Sept. 11, things have changed. Now when you talk about non-violent struggle, it finally strikes a chord in people."

But Samdup knows online discussions among young exiled Tibetans reveal other sentiments:

"I can just feel the anger about how the Dalai Lama has been ignored by the world community. The day he passes away, it might not take long before some crazy young Tibetan does something that would just wipe away these years of non-violent struggle. And all of a sudden, we'd be lumped in with the rest."

Meaning, of course, that after one or two terrorist incidents, Tibetans would be thrown into the same sad mix as Tamils, Chechens, Palestinians, Kashmiris and all the other Asian minorities whose grievances may well be justified but whose violent actions arouse fear, anger and harsh reprisal.

"If the world community is serious about fighting terrorism," Samdup says, "non-violent groups need to be rewarded. And if the Tibetan struggle turns to violence, the world community will have to take some blame for it."

Apart from the government-in-exile, the largest exile group is the Tibetan Youth Congress, which has 70 branches and more than 15,000 members worldwide. It adopts a more radical political line than the Dalai Lama, calling for "the restoration of complete independence for the whole of Tibet." That means not just the so-called Tibetan Autonomous Region, but also the larger area that once fell under Tibetan control, including much of what China calls Qinghai and part of the province of Sichuan.

Yet the youth congress has never repudiated the Dalai Lama. To join, a member must promise "to dedicate oneself to the task of serving one's country and people under the guidance of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, the Spiritual and Temporal Ruler of Tibet."

When the Dalai Lama is no longer alive, some Tibetans may dedicate themselves to the struggle by other methods. The Tibetan Youth Congress is seen by some as far too moderate.

"I would never think of resorting to any other means than non-violence," says Tenzin Jinpa, a Montreal nurse who was born soon after the first wave of Tibetan immigration to Canada in the early 1970s.

"But there are a lot of people who feel very upset and angry and frustrated. They want to have a free Tibet. They want independence."

Even that generation, for the moment, would never speak out against the Dalai Lama. The overwhelming majority of Tibetan refugees still live in India, and even the younger ones still tend to think, "The Dalai Lama will take care of us."

Neither generation has the same feeling of passionate allegiance to the official head of the exiled government, a 62-year-old monk called Samdhong Rinpoche. Elected last year in a free ballot by exiled Tibetans around the world, he has vowed to carry on with non-violent resistance to Beijing.

The election came at the insistence of the Dalai Lama. He wants Tibetans in exile to abide by democratic principles that will serve as a model to people inside Tibet as well - and he wants to ensure a smooth transition in case his medical troubles are more serious than is now being admitted. But, of course, his personal authority is so great that for the moment, few outsiders are likely to pay much attention to Samdhong Rinpoche.

"I think the Tibetan movement has come to be seen as more than a struggle for the liberation of a country," Tsering says. "It's become a symbolic struggle to prove that violence is not the only solution to resolving human conflict. Even though this may seem like an enormous burden for a country to bear, it is something that we've brought on ourselves in our appeals to the world community.

"We can't give up on non-violence. There is too much invested in it."

- Mark Abley's E-mail address is: mabley@thegazette.southam.ca _________________________________________________________________
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