Revered Dalai Lama still key to Tibet stability

By Lindsay Beck, Reuters, Aug 14, 2005

LHASA, Tibet (China) -- "Have you ever seen the Dalai Lama?" asks a young nun in the narrow, winding streets of the Tibetan capital's old town.

<< The Dalai Lama

She keeps her eyes averted as she speaks the words that could themselves be considered subversive in Chinese-ruled Tibet.

It's nearly half a century since the Dalai Lama fled after a failed uprising against Chinese Communist rule, but despite being branded as a traitor by Beijing, the Tibetan god-king is not only remembered at home but widely revered.

Even though he lives as head of a government-in-exile in the Indian hill town of Dharamsala, the Dalai Lama's stature among Tibetans has not diminished over time.

Conscious of this, Beijing embarked on a tentative dialogue three years ago with his representatives. Analysts say little has been accomplished from four rounds of talks that the Chinese government does not even acknowledge are taking place.

But the Dalai Lama is now 70 and the prospect of his becoming a rallying point for unrest should he die in exile could be part of what is keeping China at the table.

"He's one of the representatives of our religion and you can't avoid that," said monk Nyima Tsering, wrapped in maroon robes and holding court on the roof of Lhasa's 7th century Jokhang Temple.

The square below teems with vendors selling everything from jewellery to prayer wheels as Buddhist pilgrims shuffle through a clockwise rotation of what is the temple, Tibet's holiest shrine.

Prayer and politics

As deputy director of the Democratic Management Committee at the Jokhang, Nyima Tsering is no ordinary monk -- he's a political appointee, part of a government apparatus that enforces political study alongside religion to keep monasteries in cheque.

Yet even he seems unable to fully swallow Beijing's line of the Dalai Lama as a traitor and separatist who has "taken advantage of religion to realise political goals" as Tibet's vice-chairman, Wu Yingjie, put it.

"The Dalai Lama and the Panchen Lama are both top leaders of our religion and that will never change," Tsering said. "We hope he comes back soon," he added, referring to the former.

The Panchen Lama is Tibet's second-most important religious figure but the Dalai Lama and the Chinese government recognise two different boys as the reincarnation of the 10th Panchen Lama.

While the boy recognised by the former is believed to have grown up under Chinese house arrest, the latter, Gyaltsen Norbu, is being groomed as the 11th Panchen Lama in Beijing.

Despite the dialogue, the Dalai Lama's return seems unlikely any time soon.

"There is a long way before it becomes substantive and meaningful," Kate Saunders of the International Campaign for Tibet said of the dialogue.

Nonetheless, the talks mark a change from China's 1990s strategy of waiting for the Dalai Lama's death before engaging the Tibet question.

The god-like reverence the Dalai Lama commands among Tibetans is a problem for a leadership that recognises allegiance to the Communist Party alone.

But it also means he has the moral authority to enforce a future deal that would at most offer some kind of greater autonomy, rather than the independent state some still seek.

Thumbs up

In Tibet today, even having the Dalai Lama's picture can be grounds for charges of crimes against the state and few are willing to speak openly about him.

But at the mention of his name, Tibetans clasp their hands together in prayer or give a quick thumbs up, often accompanied by broad grins -- telling signals of allegiance to the man who fled his mountainous homeland on horseback when he was only in his twenties.

No one, however, has even heard of the talks or holds out much hope of the Dalai Lama's return.

"We haven't heard anything about that. Can Western papers discuss that?" asked a 30-year-old man selling Buddhist paintings in a shop just beyond the pilgrimage circuit around the Jokhang.

"I don't think he could come back -- the government wouldn't agree," he said, adding: "We can't really talk about any of this, even with other Tibetans."

Ninety percent of Tibetans, he says, are not fond of China's rule, a worry for the government haunted by the precedent of waves of anti-Chinese riots in the late 1980s that culminated in the imposition of martial law.

"We don't like what they say about religion and we don't like what they say about our culture," the man said.

Analysts say that's where the Dalai Lama, who has renounced independence and says he is seeking only greater autonomy, is crucial in selling a deal to Tibetans that might be less than they had hoped for.

"He has the moral authority to be able to enforce that," said Saunders. "In the absence of this 14th Dalai Lama ... I think the picture would be much more uncertain."