Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama told Reuters on Monday that after his death, his successor may be found in India, where he has lived in exile for 60 years. He added that a Dalai Lama chosen by China won’t be respected or trusted. Predictably, China has rejected the Dalai Lama’s suggestion that his successor may be found in India.
This comes weeks after the 60th anniversary of Tibet’s semi-successful uprising against Chinese rule in 1959, which resulted in a massive crackdown and His Holiness’s decampment from Lhasa to Dharamshala, India.
The religious leader has since worked to gain worldwide support for self-rule for Tibet, calling for the linguistic and cultural autonomy for Tibetans within the People’s Republic of China. Immediately after the latest announcement, the US urged China to reopen talks with the Dalai Lama and resolve the standoff and territorial occupation of Tibetan land.
China and the Dalai Lama’s envoys have held nine rounds of talks since 2002 to resolve the Tibet issue. According to Scroll.in, there has been no official contact between China and his officials since 2010.
Who chooses the leader?
According to Tibetan tradition, the Dalai Lama reincarnates after his death—the soul of a senior Buddhist monk is reincarnated in the body of a child on his death, who is then appointed his successor. China, however, claims it enjoys the sole authority on that decision, as a legacy inherited from China’s emperors.
The Chinese Communist Party considers the 14th Dalai Lama a separatist promoting an independent Tibetan state; it has attempted to brand the 83-year-old Nobel Peace Prize awardee as a terrorist on multiple occasions.
In 1959, after the Dalai Lama escaped to India, China led a brutal crackdown, which killed thousands, and demolished monasteries in the remote land-locked nation.
Sixty years later, political and religious repression continues as does China’s territorial and strategic power grab; it allegedly also treats Tibetans as second-class citizens in their own country.
Protests for the freedom of Tibet have since followed, in the form of monks self-immolating and organisations around the world mobilising support for the cause.
China claims that to select the next spiritual leader, a position that wields a lot of political influence over the community as well, is a dubious gambit and must be examined with “a fine toothcomb”. That said, the Dalai Lama had given up his political duties in 2001 after setting up a democratic administration for Tibetans in exile.
Here’s what he said
Ruling out all question of returning to China as long as it was under totalitarian Communist rule, the Dalai Lama told Reuters on Monday that contact between exiled Tibetans in India and those living in their homeland and was increasing.
He also left room for doubt whether the institution of the Dalai Lama would be continued after his death; he said he would discuss it during a meeting of Tibetan Buddhists in India later this year.
“If the majority of [Tibetan people] really want to keep this institution, then this institution will remain,” he said. “Then comes the question of the reincarnation of the 15th Dalai Lama.”
Pondering what might happen after his death, the religious leader broached the possibility of finding the next Dalai Lama in India, but he categorically warned that Tibetans won’t trust a China-chosen successor. This makes it clear that the Dalai Lama anticipates some attempt by Beijing to foist a successor on Tibetan Buddhists.
“China considers Dalai Lama’s reincarnation as something very important,” the Dalai Lama, who is believed to be the 14th reincarnation of Lord Buddha, told Reuters in the interview.
“They have more concern about the next Dalai Lama than me. In future, in case you see two Dalai Lamas come, one from here, in free country, one chosen by Chinese, then nobody will trust, nobody will respect [the one chosen by China]. So that’s an additional problem for the Chinese! It’s possible, it can happen.”
History of China’s occupation of Tibet
Tibet secured independence from China briefly in early 20th century, before Chinese troops invaded the country again. This independence was a few years before the present Dalai Lama, the 14th incarnation of Tibetan Buddhism’s supreme religious leader, was enthroned as the head of the state.
On March 10, Beijing sent troops to the Buddhist Himalayan country, claiming to liberate Tibet, which it has ruled since 1951. In reality, it was only suppressing protests against the Chinese authority, which were slowly and steadily growing more violent.
Soon, China brutally crushed the fledgling Tibetan revolt, killing tens of thousands of Tibetans in the bloodshed that followed, according to the government-in-exile. Refugees poured over the border into Dharamshala to flee Chinese repression.
Despite global uproar against the decades of occupation and visible support from western nations and powerful organisations, Beijing’s stranglehold on Tibet has not weakened.
It continues to eradicate the Tibetan culture with systemic policies and has become more oppressive, reportedly stalling all flow of information into Tibet. It has become a question of basic human rights, coupled with the demand for the return of the Dalai Lama to Tibet.
According to Chinese history expert Max Oidtmann, “The primary goal of most Tibetans would be to get more respect from the Chinese state and to actually receive the privileges guaranteed to them by the Chinese constitution.”
While PM Sangay too fosters the demands for a middle path—autonomy within China—Tibetan activists around the world are at the fore of an active grassroots movement that will settle for nothing less than complete freedom and demilitarisation.
“I think the resistance spirit that was in the streets in Lhasa in March 1959 still exists with an entirely new generation of Tibetans inside Tibet, where protests and resistance continues to this day,” Lhadon Tethong, director of the Tibet Action Institute, said at a rally in Boston on March 8.
Why it matters
India’s involvement in Tibetan politics has been the source of ceaseless concern and border skirmishes—first in 1962, when Jawaharlal Nehru decided to offer asylum to the Dalai Lama after he crossed over on March 31, 1959, and then to demarcate the Indian border with the Tibet Autonomous Region of China.
And more recently, border-standoffs—notably the Doklam encounter in 2017—have regained steam, leading to an increase in surveillance and security measures across the 3,488-km Himalayan boundary.
More than 6 million Tibetans, including 100,000 living in exile in India, still venerate the Dalai Lama despite Beijing government prohibitions on displays of his picture or any public display of devotion.
Born in 1935, the current Dalai Lama was identified as the reincarnation of his predecessor when he was two years old. But his own village, Taktser, is now off limits for international reporters and non-locals.
In such times, the need to engage China on a public diplomatic forum on the Tibet issue cannot recede into the background, even though China continues to slander and spread lies about Indians reportedly training Tibetan youth for rebellion and about the Dalai Lama being a terrorist out to splinter China.
According to National Herald, the US Ambassador-At-Large for International Religious Freedom Samuel Brownback said Monday that the US will continue to support the Dalai Lama’s ‘middle-way’ approach.
He also urged China to resume formal dialogue with him or his representatives, as per reports by the Central Tibetan Administration, to restore meaningful autonomy to the Tibetan people.
Prarthana Mitra is a Staff Writer at Qrius.