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Dalai Lama

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Bad Days in Burma

29 July 2012

Bad Days in Burma

By Gwynne Dyer

At last somebody in an official position has said something. United Nations human rights chief Navi Pillay has called for an independent investigation into claims that Burmese security forces are systematically targeting the Rohingya, a Muslim minority community living in the Arakan region. Even the Burmese government says at least 78 Rohingya were murdered; their own community leaders say 650 have been killed.

Nobody disputes the fact that about 100,000 Rohingyas (out of a population of 800,000) are now internal refugees in Burma, while others have fled across the border into Bangladesh. As you would expect, the Buddhist monks of Burma have stood up to be counted. Unfortunately, this time they are standing on the wrong side.

This is perplexing. When the Pope lectures the world about morality, few non-Catholics pay attention. When Ayatollah Khamenei of Iran instructs the world about good and evil, most people who aren’t Shia Muslims just shrug. But Buddhist leaders are given more respect, because most people think that Buddhism really is a religion of tolerance and peace.

When the Dalai Lama speaks out about injustice, people listen. Most of them don’t share his beliefs, and they probably won’t act on his words, but they listen with respect. But he hasn’t said anything at all about what is happening to the Rohingyas – and neither has any other Buddhist leader of note.

To be fair, the Dalai Lama is Tibetan, not Burmese, but he is not usually so reserved in his judgements. As for Burma’s own Buddhist monks, they have been heroes in that nation’s long struggle against tyranny – so it’s disorienting to see them behaving like oppressors themselves.

Buddhist monks are standing outside the refugee camps in Arakan, turning away people who are trying to bring food and other aid to the Rohingya. Two important Buddhist organisations in the region, the Young Monks’ Association of Sittwe and the Mrauk U Monks’ Association, have urged locals to have no dealings with them. One pamphlet distributed by the monks says the Rohingya are “cruel by nature”.

And Aung Sang Suu Kyi, the woman who spent two decades under house arrest for defying the generals – the woman who may one day be Burma’s first democratically elected prime minister – has declined to offer any support or comfort to the Rohingyas either.

Recently a foreign journalist asked her whether she regarded Rohingyas as citizens of Burma. “I do not know,” she prevaricated. “We have to be very clear about what the laws of citizenship are and who are entitled to them.”

If she were honest, she would have replied: “Of course the Rohingya are citizens, but I dare not say so. The military are finally giving up power, and I want to win the 2015 election. I won’t win any votes by defending the rights of Burmese Muslims.”

Nelson Mandela, with whom she is often compared, would never have said anything like that, but it’s a failure of courage on her part that has nothing to do with her religion. Religious belief and moral behaviour don’t automatically go together, and nationalism often trumps both of them. So let’s stop being astonished that Buddhists behave badly and just consider what’s really happening in Burma.

The ancestors of the Rohingya settled in the Arakan region between the 14th and 18th centuries, long before the main wave of Indian immigrants arrived in Burma after it was conquered by the British empire during the 19th century. By the 1930s the new Indian arrivals were a majority in most big Burmese cities, and dominated the commercial sector of the economy. Burmese resentment, naturally, was intense.

The Japanese invasion of Burma during the Second World War drove out most of those Indian immigrants, but the Burmese fear and hatred of “foreigners” in their midst remained, and it then turned against the Rohingya. They were targeted mainly because they were perceived as “foreigners”, but the fact that they were Muslims in an overwhelmingly Buddhist country made them seem even more alien.

The Rohingya of Arakan were poor farmers, just like their Buddhist neighbours, and their right to Burmese citizenship was unquestioned until the Burmese military seized power in 1962. However, the army attacked the Rohingya and drove some 200,000 of them across the border into Bangladesh in 1978, in a campaign marked by widespread killings, mass rape and the destruction of mosques.

The military dictator of the day, Ne Win, revoked the citizenship of all Rohingyas in 1982, and other new laws forbade them to travel without official permission, banned them from owning land, and required newly married couples to sign a commitment to have no more than two children. Another military campaign drove a further quarter-million Rohingyas into Bangladesh in 1990-91. And now this.

On Sunday former general Thein Sein, the transitional president of Burma, replied to UN human rights chief Navi Pillay: “We will take responsibilities for our ethnic people but it is impossible to accept the illegally entered Rohingyas who are not our ethnicity.” Some other country must take them all, he said.

But the Rohingya did not “enter illegally”, and there are a dozen “ethnicities” in Burma. What drives this policy is fear, greed and ignorance – exploited, as usual, by politicians pandering to nationalist passions and religious prejudice. Being Buddhist, it turns out, doesn’t stop you from falling for all that. Surprise.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 3, 4, and 5. (“At last…themselves”)



Tibetans in Flames

16 May 2012

Tibetans in Flames

By Gwynne Dyer

The number of Tibetans burning themselves to death in protests against Chinese policy has grown very fast recently: the first self-immolation was in 2009, but 22 of the 30 incidents happened in the past year. And while at first it was only Buddhist monks and nuns who were setting themselves on fire, in the past month both a teenage girl and a mother of four have chosen to die in this gruesome way.

The Chinese response has been repression and abuse. The affected provinces have been flooded with security forces, and Communist Party officials have condemned the protesters as anarchists, terrorists and rebels – or, in the words of one official, “rats” born of “weasels”.

The state-controlled media claim that the deaths are orchestrated by the Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhism, who has lived in exile in India since 1959. They also insist that the Dalai Lama’s real goal is separatism – the revival of the independent Tibet that existed until the Chinese troops marched back in in 1951 – although the protesters themselves demand only the return of the Dalai Lama and respect for their culture and religion.

The Chinese media work themselves up into a lather of indignation about the alleged intention of these “separatists” not only to fracture the sacred unity of the Chinese homeland, but to expel the large number of Han Chinese settlers who have immigrated to Tibet. As the Xinhua News Agency put it: “How similar it is to the Holocaust committed by Hitler on the Jews!”

Well, not similar at all, really. Even though many Tibetans fear “cultural genocide” if the Han Chinese immigrants become a majority in Tibet (and they are probably right to suspect that this is why Beijing subsidises the immigration), there is still a distinction between Panzer divisions and extermination camps on the one hand, and monks and teenage girls burning themselves to death on the other.

Meanwhile, the Dalai Lama goes on doing what he does best: he keeps Tibet before the world’s attention. As part of that process he visits world leaders and collects various honours like the Nobel Peace Prize – and he never attacks the Chinese regime directly.

Instead, he patiently and politely insists that China must respect Tibet’s cultural and religious autonomy. He never demands Tibetan independence, nor does he let his followers in the large Tibetan exile community talk about independence. And, of course, he laments the self-immolations.

Yet the Dalai Lama also believes that he will one day return to Tibet. He is 76 years old, but he is in good health, “so I am expecting another 10, 20 years,” he told a BBC interviewer this week. “Within that (time), definitely things will change”.

What does he think will change? Surely not the attitude of the Chinese Communist regime, which will never allow him to return to Tibet since it fears that would unleash a great wave of anti-Chinese nationalism. Well, then, he must think the Chinese regime itself will eventually change.

Of course he does. Most people who know any history think that. Despite the death of Communist ideology in China, the regime has managed to stay in power for almost a quarter-century since the Tienanmen Square protests of 1989, but it has been helped by continuous, high-speed economic growth. Would it survive a major recession?

Nobody knows, but there is certainly a reasonable chance of regime change in China in the next ten or twenty years. And that would be Tibet’s great opportunity, as the Dalai Lama must know.

The precedent is what happened when Communist Party rule ended in the old Soviet Union twenty-one years ago. The Soviet Union was the old Russian empire under a new name, and only about half of its population was ethnically Russian. When it collapsed, all the republics with non-Russian majorities took their independence.

The People’s Republic of China is more homogeneous: 90 percent of its population is Han Chinese. But in the few areas that still have non-Chinese majorities, like Tibet, separation would be possible when regime change happens in Beijing – on two conditions. It would have to happen fast, and it can only happen if the Chinese people do not see Tibetans as enemies.

It has to happen fast because the window of opportunity doesn’t stay open long: once a new regime is firmly established, no politician who wants a long career will take the blame for negotiating “the division of the motherland.” And if the Chinese worry that an independent Tibet would fall under the influence of their great Asian rival, India, or if they are under attack by Tibetan terrorists, they will be very reluctant to let the Tibetans go.

The Dalai Lama certainly knows all this, too. His job, therefore, is to keep the spirits of the Tibetans up while waiting for the window of opportunity to open – and to keep the impatient younger generation from launching some futile “war of liberation” involving terrorist attacks in the meantime. He has been successful in that for a long time, but the wave of self-immolations is a warning that patience may be running out.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 5. (“The Chinese…other”)


The Mortality of the Dalai Lama

26 June 2009
The Mortality of the Dalai Lama
By Gwynne Dyer

“The Dalai Lama equals non-violence, and without him there would be violence,” said Lhadon Tethong, executive director of Students for a Free Tibet, a couple of months ago. In Beijing, Chinese writer Wang Lixiong agreed: “If…the Dalai Lama does not return to Tibet before he dies, the moment that he dies will see general riots across the Tibetan areas of China.” And he is going to die, probably fairly soon.

The Dalai Lama will be 74 next month, and he has been in hospital three times in the past year. He presumably believes that he will immediately be reborn as soon as he dies, but the traditional search for the child who is his next incarnation could take years. Waiting for that child to grow up and become the Tibetans’ next leader will take several decades. That is a big political problem.

One measure he has already taken to ease the difficulties is to announce that he is most unlikely to be reborn in Chinese-ruled Tibet, which greatly narrows the search area for his successor: there are only 120,000 Tibetans in the diaspora, mostly descendants of the 1959 refugees. Three-quarters of them live in India, and most of the rest live in Nepal (15,000), the United States (5,000), Canada (3,000) or Switzerland (2,000).

But this almost guarantees what was already quite likely: that the Chinese authorities will “find” a rival reincarnation within Tibet and promote him as the next legitimate Dalai Lama. Even if that does not happen, the twenty-year gap while the current Dalai Lama’s successor matures leaves a political vacuum that must be filled one way or another, and he long ago suggested that he might name a regent to exercise his authority during that period.

The core of the problem is that his role as defined by tradition embodies both political and religious authority. Religious questions rarely require instant answers, and Tibetan Buddhism has flourished for many centuries despite these recurrent twenty-year gaps in the highest leadership job. Political decisions, on the other hand, need to be made promptly — so maybe the solution is to separate those two roles.

The Dalai Lama has been raising this possibility for years, only to have it repeatedly rejected by his adoring followers. He brought it up again at a congress of the Tibetan exile community not long after last year’s bloody anti-Chinese riots in Tibet, saying that his moderate, “middle-way” approach to the Chinese authorities in Beijing, seeking only autonomy and not independence for the country, was having no success.

Maybe it was time for him to take a back seat and let the younger generation of leaders in the community deal with that thorny problem as they saw fit, he suggested. The congress rejected the suggestion, reaffirming him as their political leader. They simply could not imagine a uture without him.

The Dalai Lama himself, however, knows that such a future will
arrive. So he has now released a video in which he urges the Tibetan exile community to embrace democracy and stop depending on a political leader who is essentially (at the risk of sounding disrespectful) picked at random.That may serve for religious purposes, but for the material world something different is required.

“The Dalai Lama held temporal and spiritual leadership over thelast 400 or 500 years. It may have been quite useful, but that period is over,” he says in the video. “Today it is clear to the whole world that democracy is the best system despite its minor negativities. That is why it is important that Tibetans also move with the larger world community.”

It’s a nicely crafted statement that does not trample on anybody’s religious sensitivities, but what it means is that political leadership of the Tibetan exile community must move from the Dalai Lama to an elected prime minister. Such an office has existed since 2001, but until now its holder has deferred to the Dalai Lama in all important decisions. That has to stop, says the man himself — so maybe now it actually will.

That is a neat solution to the succession problem, but it has
implications that should concern the Chinese government. A Tibetan prime minister elected solely by the exile community cannot hope to have the political authority of a “living Buddha” within Tibet.

For almost half a century the Dalai Lama has used that authority to restrain Tibetans from open revolt against China, always seeking negotiations with Beijing on Tibetan autonomy and discouraging talk of outright independence. A prime minister elected only by the diaspora could not do that even if he wanted to — which he might not.

China has never appreciated the Dalai Lama’s services, of course. In classic imperial style, it assumes that material improvements in the living standards of its subjects will make them forget their nationalist aspirations. When it turns out that Tibetans have not forgotten them, as was brutally demonstrated in last year’s anti-Chinese riots in Lhasa, Beijing blames “outside agitators” and “plotters” like the Dalai Lama, whom it calls “a jackal clad in monk’s robes.”

In fact, he has been feeding tranquilisers to the Tibetan
population for decades, in the (probably accurate) belief that Tibet cannot win its independence by violence. But a lot of Tibetans would like to try,and Beijing will miss the Dalai Lama when he’s gone.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 3 and 4. (“One measure…that

The Future of Tibet

22 November 2008

The Future of Tibet

 By Gwynne Dyer

The Dalai Lama spoke in his customary platitudes, and the Chinese regime responded with its habitual bluster, but a corner was turned in the China-Tibet dispute last week. From now on, it’s likely to get worse.

After a five-day meeting in Dharamsala, India, that gathered together Tibetan exiles from all over the world, the Dalai Lama emerged with his authority unchallenged and the policy towards Beijing unchanged.

“[The] majority of views have come up supporting the Middle Way path to the Tibetan issue…which is right,” he declared on Sunday. In other words, the Tibetans should seek only autonomy under Chinese rule, not full independence.

The regime’s official mouthpiece in Lhasa, the Tibet Daily, replied that “the so-called ‘Middle Way’ is a naked expression of ‘Tibetan independence’ aimed at nakedly spreading the despicable plot of opposing the tide of history.” The gutter-Marxist vocabulary is out of date in today’s China, but the Tibet Daily got the Chinese regime’s attitude right: the Communists have never believed that the Dalai Lama was telling the truth.

It’s because the ultra-combative Communist mind-set makes them see everyone they do not control as an enemy and a plotter. Yet the Dalai Lama was potentially their greatest ally among the Tibetans, for he calculated the odds on Tibetan independence long ago and found them to be hopeless. So he opted for the next best thing: autonomy.

For decades, he has been offering Beijing a deal. If it respects Tibet’s culture and stops trying to drown the historic identity of Tibetans under a wave of Han Chinese immigrants, he will deliver Tibetans’ loyalty to China. It has never been clear that he could actually do that, but he certainly meant to try, because he could see no other path that didn’t end in tragedy.

Unfortunately, the Beijing regime has never understood that the Dalai Lama was its best chance of reconciling Tibetans to Chinese rule. Instead, it defined Tibetan nationalism as an artificial phenomenon that was stirred up from outside by evil plotters — so the man who did most to contain the wilder extremes of Tibetan nationalism became, in Beijing’s view, the arch-plotter.

For all the sophistication of its views on other issues, the Chinese regime lives in a cave when it comes to nationalist movements among its subject peoples. When violent protests against the presence of so many Han immigrants broke out in Lhasa and other Tibetan cities last March, Beijing reflexively blamed the apostle of non-violence, the Dalai Lama. It is leaving itself nobody to negotiate with — but then, it doesn’t think it will ever have to negotiate.

Beijing’s unspoken calculation, based on the delusion that Tibetan nationalism is the artificial creation of a hostile religious leader backed by malevolent outside forces, is that it just has to stand pat and wait for the Dalai Lama to die. He’s 73 now and not in the best of health, so that shouldn’t take too long — and then Tibetan separatism will evaporate as all the fraternal Tibetan patriots are enfolded in the bosom of the beloved Chinese motherland.

I’m not exaggerating, you know. That is how they think. So it will come as a nasty surprise to the Chinese regime when the post-Dalai Lama Tibetan leadership opts for a violent struggle for full independence, and many inside Tibet answer their call.

The signs are already visible. Younger, more radical Tibetans at the Dharamsala summit bowed to the Dalai Lama’s wishes one last time, but the meeting also concluded that if China made no effort to meet his demands for autonomy, then other options, including calls for independence and self-determination, would be put forward.

Nobody talked about violence, but they didn’t have to. We already saw lots of spontaneous anti-Chinese violence in the riots last March. Tibetans feel their country is vanishing around them as more and more Chinese immigrants flow in, and their reactions are becoming more extreme.

This is bad news for Tibetans who dream of independence. The only way Tibet could ever win its independence back is during a transition in China from Communism to more or less democratic rule. That moment may come some day, and if it does a brief window of opportunity may open for Tibetan independence, just as it did for the various non-Russian republics of the old Soviet Union when Communism collapsed there in 1991.

But there is a proviso. Chinese people would only ever assent to Tibetan independence if they were sure that the country was not a threat to them. A guerilla and terrorist campaign that targets ethnic Chinese people in Tibet would produce the opposite conviction in China, and end all hope of Tibetan independence. Yet such a campaign may now be only a few years away.

Why is the Chinese regime pushing the Tibetans into this disastrous strategy? Simple ignorance will suffice as a motive for the highest leadership cadre, but surely the senior intelligence people in China understand the implications of China’s stone-walling on Tibetan autonomy.

Of course they understand, and what does that tell you? It tells you that senior Chinese intelligence officers realise that a Tibet with a violent, ethnically based separatist movement has even less chance of achieving independence than a peaceful, cooperative Tibet. So they advise their relatively naive superiors to follow policies that will make the violence inevitable.

Or do you think I am being too cynical?


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 7. (“It’s because…autonomy”; and “For all…negotiate”)