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Launching The Endgame

by Jayadeva Ranade, The Times of India, May 28, 2009

Dharmsala, India -- Mention of Tibetan Buddhism conjures up images of ochre-robed monks in remote monasteries chanting 'Om mane padme Om'. The reality is different.

Just beneath the surface, Tibetan Buddhism's religious hierarchy is riven with rivalry with different sects vying for dominance. The claim to seniority of Ughen Thinley Dorje, one of the claimants to the XVIIth Gyalwa Karmapa of the Kagyu sect, assumes importance in this context. The rivalry is intensifying as they jostle to position themselves for the post-XIVth Dalai Lama phase.

The international Buddhist movement being cobbled by China has now been drawn into the competition. Here it is a dead serious struggle for leadership between China's communist leadership and the highest ranking personage of Tibetan Buddhism, the Dalai Lama. The outcome will not only affect the Dalai Lama's future and that of the Tibetan refugee diaspora, but also usurp India's cultural space.

After decades of patient manoeuvring, China has initiated the 'endgame' to finally resolve the Tibet issue and eliminate opposition by a Dalai Lama to its hold over Tibet. Systematic efforts to undermine the current Dalai Lama's pre-eminent position and prestige within the Tibetan Buddhist hierarchy, reduce his influence among Tibetans inside China and restrict his international support base have been expanded and given impetus.

For the past three decades, the present Dalai Lama disarmingly advocated the cause of Tibet and its people in international forums and foreign capitals. He effectively became the 'face' of Buddhism for the world. He created awareness and canvassed material and diplomatic support, which exerted pressure on Beijing and put China on the back foot. To deflect international pressure, the Chinese communist leadership commenced negotiations with him. It decided to lure him home to China and, failing that, wear him down through protracted negotiations intended to whittle down his demands.

China's policy has been to wait out the Dalai Lama. Chinese Tibetologists calculated that Dalai Lamas on average do not live beyond 45 years they have been very wrong in this case! China assesses that opposition would fade as Tibetans would be leaderless, that as in the Panchen Lama's case Beijing would have the decisive say regarding the next Dalai Lama and that the Tibetan problem would resolve itself thereafter. The communist leadership also decided, though as part of efforts to assuage popular discontent in the wake of economic reforms, to loosen controls on religious worship and in 2006 cautiously began describing Buddhism as a non-aggressive and old Chinese religion. Official endorsement of Buddhism, it was calculated, would later afford legitimacy to Beijing's claim to recognise the next Dalai Lama.

The 50th anniversaries of the uprising in Lhasa and the Dalai Lama's flight from Tibet marked the launch of an intensified campaign against the Dalai Lama to show that his popularity was on the wane. The Chinese leadership crafted a multi-pronged propaganda and diplomatic offensive. China's wealth, at this time of international economic crisis, helped reinforce the campaign. Large numbers of armed security personnel were deployed throughout Tibet and stringent security measures implemented to suppress protests. There were only a rash of minor protests in smaller towns while Lhasa remained peaceful.

On the diplomatic front, the Chinese Communist Party leadership for the first time sent a delegation of Tibetan Buddhists, led by a 'living Buddha' of the Kagyu sect, to the US to 'explain' the issue to representatives of the US administration and Congress. G20's convening in April indirectly benefited Beijing, which made a meeting between Chinese president Hu Jintao and French president Nicolas Sarkozy on the sidelines dependent on France clarifying its position on Tibet. France capitulated and assured that it would not 'support Tibet independence in any form'. Earlier, last October, Britain revised its 94-year-old position on Tibet and, claiming that the concept of suzerainty was outdated, declared Tibet as part of China. These diplomatic successes have impacted on the Dalai Lama's campaign.

China also decided to expand and internationalise the campaign against the Dalai Lama so as to legitimise its claim to a leadership role in a Buddhist movement. The beginning was the first World Buddhist Forum in 2006. The Chinese-nominated Panchen Lama was given international profile. After three years, the second World Buddhist Forum convened in Wuxi, Jiangsu two months ago and was attended by over a thousand religious personages including heads of different Buddhist sects.

The Dalai Lama was again excluded, but this time labelled a 'disruptive element'. Representatives of Shugden Diety worshippers, opposed to the Dalai Lama, were invited. The Chinese-appointed 11th Panchen Lama's stature as second-highest ranking Tibetan Buddhist Lama was sought to be reinforced by his valedictory address to the forum.

This forum was a major victory for an additional reason. Its closing session was held in Taiwan, with which China's relations have begun warming rapidly. Taiwan became a joint organiser of the event indirectly supporting China's claim to leadership of any international Buddhist movement. In addition to sharing a common view on the border issue, including disputed borders with India, the two entities now share a common viewpoint on Buddhism, especially Tibetan Buddhism, and China's role.

The writer is a former additional secretary in the cabinet secretariat, government of India.

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