The Dalai Lama’s Embrace

Financial Times
March 20, 2008

At the end of a two-hour press conference this week in northern India, the Dalai Lama amiably greeted the crowd of journalists before him. As he turned to me, his face lit up with interest. “Chinese?” he asked.
“American,” I offered. He nodded with approval and then unexpectedly took my face in his hands and squeezed my cheeks like an affectionate grandfather.


The Dalai Lama asked what part of China my parents hailed from and exclaimed “Ni hao”, or “hello” in Mandarin. Only talks between Tibetan leaders and their Chinese counterparts would resolve the conflict engulfing his homeland, he offerred. Then Tibet’s spiritual leader clasped me to him and gave me a bear hug.

I was told later that the Dalai Lama’s ardent followers believe that even a look from His Holiness can change one’s destiny. Who knows then what a bear hug might do.

Such an embrace might dramatically alter my destiny, but it is also a larger symbol of the Dalai Lama’s ultimate hope that Tibet and China can one day achieve the breakthrough in relations that has proved so elusive for nearly 50 years.

Such a wish has been thrust to the forefront over the last week after the biggest protests in two decades erupted in violence in the Dalai Lama’s homeland.

The world is on tenterhooks as it watches the events in Tibet that are the most dramatic blight on China since 1989 when Chinese military shot pro-democracy student demonstrators in Tiananmen Square.

After door-to-door searches, China imposed a deadline this Monday demanding that organisers of the protests in Tibet give themselves up to authorities. Chinese authorities say more than 100 people have done so.

The protests in Tibet sparked an allegedly brutal crackdown by Chinese military forces. China says 13 people have been killed while the Tibetan government-in-exile estimates the death toll is closer to 100. Foreign media have been barred from entering Tibet so information about deaths is gleaned from mobile phone calls and horrific images of corpses purportedly emailed from Tibet.

One young monk I met in Dharamsala carried a picture of his cousin, a pretty 16-year-old girl with rosy cheeks, who he says was shot dead during a peaceful protest in Amdo Ngawa, a Tibetan region in China’s Sichuan province.

In the Dalai Lama’s long press conference this week in Dharamsala, the northern Indian town that is home to the Tibetan government-in-exile, the spiritual leader denounced violent demonstrations in Tibet and threatened to resign if bloodshed spirals out of control.

Yet he also lamented China’s “rule of terror” in Tibet and denied accusations from Chinese authorities that he masterminded the recent protests. Independent agencies should investigate recent events in Tibet and the international community must press for Chinese restraint toward demonstrators, the Dalai Lama urged.

As events continue to unfold in Tibet, pro-Tibet demonstrations are gathering momentum around the world. In Dharamsala, home to the Dalai Lama since he fled Tibet in 1959, hundreds of crimson-robed monks and ordinary Tibetan citizens have been marching daily through the town’s hilly streets shouting slogans. Hundreds more are staging a hunger strike.

In support of the Tibetan plight, many shops are shuttered and strung with Tibetan flags and banners. “One world, one dream, free Tibet” read one banner that showed hands breaking Olympic rings depicted to look like chains.

This pro-Tibet display in India is a far cry from the furtive unease I sensed while traveling in Tibet a decade ago. In three weeks of traveling from Lhasa, the capital, to the Nepal border, no one spoke openly about politics or pro-Tibet sentiments.

Even asking a Tibetan about these issues felt like an invitation to danger; rumours abounded of Chinese spies who strove to stamp out dissent. Trucks packed with Chinese soldiers rumbled through Tibetan streets.

Many Tibetans initially greeted my Chinese face suspiciously until I told them I was American – a piece of news that instantly warmed wary looks.

Yet in spite of Tibetans’ trepidation, their devotion to Tibetan Buddhism was obvious and remarkable. Each day crowds of pilgrims circled around the Johkang, Lhasa’s holiest temple. Their countless prostrations over the years had rubbed the stones in front of the temple silkily smooth.

Pictures of the Dalai Lama were banned in Tibet but if you gained a Tibetan’s trust they might reveal a small portrait of His Holiness revered in secret.

Given this hushed atmosphere a decade ago, the recent demonstrations in Tibet are astonishing and symbolic of long-simmering tensions that have finally spilled over.

Pro-Tibet voices are getting louder and more demanding in India, which hosts some 120,000 Tibetans. Many Tibetan advocacy groups in Dharamsala display portraits of the Dalai Lama alongside Mahatma Gandhi, both icons of non-violence.

Here, people voice opinions unlikely to be heard in public in Tibet. While standing on a street corner in from a chanting pro-Tibet crowd in Dharamsala, Sonam Dorjee, an executive member of Tibetan Youth Congress, said: “Many countries have an economic love affair with China. But each country must stand for its moral authority and support the Tibetan cause.”

Tibetans in exile are more than ready to take up the pro-Tibet charge as all eyes focus on China in the run-up to the Beijing Olympics. A march across India to protest the Olympic games was halted by Indian police last week but has since resumed.

In one march in Dharamsala yesterday, demonstrators wore signs that read: “World Stand Up: Don’t Watch Another Genocide” and “China Stop the Lies.”

One young man wore a hand-lettered sign that summed up the feelings of many Tibetans refugees here: “Thank you India for the support. But we want the freedom to go back to Tibet. I miss my family.”

But other voices expressing fear about the still-evolving crisis in Tibet can be heard too.

According to Urgen Tenzin, executive director of the Tibetan Centre for Human Rights and Democracy, more than 1m Tibetans have been killed by Chinese forces since 1959, a figure that Chinese authorities would undoubtedly quibble with.

No one is disputing that the latest protests in Tibet and the subsequent military crackdown have added to the death toll. And, warns Mr Tenzin: “Unless there is international intervention, I think the situation could get worse.”

In the throes of the recent turmoil, Tibet’s future could change. One prays that change would be for the better.

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