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Theology Thursdays: As The Dalai Lama Turns 70, A Free Tibet Is Still Far Away by Sonny Inbaraj

There is a sense of celebration in this small north Indian town, at the foothills of the snow-capped Himalayas, as the cool mountain air carries strains of melodious songs for the Dalai Lama's long life, sung at the nearby Tibetan Institute of Performing Arts.

On Wednesday, thousands of Tibetans celebrated the spiritual leader's 70th birthday in Dharamsala, where the Dalai Lama based himself after fleeing his homeland in 1959 when China crushed a Tibetan uprising. More than 200,000 Tibetan refugees now live in India by official count.

"My birthday wish for the Dalai Lama is that he will be able to return to a free and democratic Tibet within his lifetime," Tseyang Tsetenyangkyi, head coordinator of Volunteer Tibet, told Inter Press Service.

Dalai means "ocean" in Mongolian, and "Lama" is the Tibetan translation equivalent for the Sanskrit word "guru". The title refers to the extent of the lama's presumed wisdom and was first bestowed by the Mongolian ruler Altan Khan on the third Dalai Lama. It is now applied to every incarnation in the lineage.

The present Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso, born on July 6, 1935, is regarded as the 14th incarnation of the Buddha of compassion, Chenrezig (the "Seeing-Eye" Lord), who long has been considered to be the patron deity of Tibet. Buddhism was introduced to Tibet in the seventh century by King Songsten Gampo, and is the primary religion of contemporary Tibetans.

While the Dalai Lama in 2001 introduced the first democratic elections for the Tibetan government-in-exile based in Dharamsala and declared himself spiritual leader rather than a temporal one to his people, in the hearts of most Tibetans he remains their leader in every sense of the word.

"From the religious point of view he [Tenzin Gyatso] is a lama to us. A lama is to be respected because we have taken refuge in him," pointed out Tseyang. "From the political point of view, he is our leader. He's everything for the Tibetan cause," added the female activist who in 1991, at the age of 10, escaped from Tibet to India by walking for 23 days across the Himalayan range.

If Tibet remains an occupied country, beyond the lifetime of this Dalai Lama, Tibetans will undoubtedly still need a respected, charismatic figure to remind the world of their existence.

"If I were to die in the next few months or before we are able to return to Tibet, there will be a new Dalai Lama," the spiritual leader was quoted as telling the Hindustan Times newspaper recently. "But if we cease to be a refugee community and live in democratic Tibet, then I don't think there should be a successor to me after I die," he reportedly said.

On October 7, 1950, as United Nations troops under US General Douglas MacArthur crossed the 38th parallel in Korea, 40,000 Chinese soldiers invaded Kham in eastern Tibet - advancing rapidly to the capital Lhasa, following a military plan laid down by Deng Xiaoping. The Tibetan forces engaged in several skirmishes, but were soon encircled.

Explaining China's motivation for invading Tibet, Chinese premier Zhou Enlai said, "The People's Liberation Army is determined to march westward to liberate the Tibetan people and defend the frontiers of China ... The patriots in Tibet have expressed and welcomed this."

In reality, only very few Tibetans felt any affection for China, or saw the country as the "glorious motherland".

By the beginning of 1959, anti-Chinese sentiment had taken hold among all sections of the Tibetan community and revolt had spread throughout Tibet. There were strong rumors in Lhasa that the Dalai Lama was to be abducted by the Chinese, to quell the dissent.

The Dalai Lama, dressed as a soldier, left Lhasa on the night of March 17 for India, just after Chinese troops began shelling parts of the capital. Two days of intense fighting ensued and the Tibetans, who were kept in the dark of the Dalai Lama's fate and feared he had been captured, started to surrender - often using white prayer scarves tied to sticks to do so.

A Chinese military document captured by the Tibetans estimated that between March 1959 and September 1960 there had been at least 87,000 Tibetan deaths as a result of military action.

Today in Tibet, according to the London-based Free Tibet Campaign, 80% of political prisoners are monks and nuns, who have historically been at the forefront of the freedom struggle, speaking out in support of the Dalai Lama.

There is no special treatment for minors; Ngawang Sangdrol, a nun, was tortured at the age of 13 when she was first imprisoned for nine months. She was arrested again at 15 and served 11 years of a 21-year sentence.

Ngawang's crime at 13 was to shout "'Independence for Tibet" and "Long live the Dalai Lama" during a protest in Lhasa. As of January 2005, says the Free Tibet Campaign, there are estimated to be at least 140 political prisoners in the Himalayan nation.

The Chinese government, excusing its failure to win the hearts and minds of the Tibetan people over the past 50 years, blames the Dalai Lama for all its troubles in Tibet. Beijing has called him an "arch criminal who splits the motherland" and a "wolf in a monk's clothing".

The Dalai Lama, awarded the 1989 Nobel Peace Prize for his dedication to Tibet's non-violent liberation, has given up his original demands for his homeland's independence and instead talks of a "meaningful autonomy" to preserve Tibet's culture, language and environment.

But the spiritual leader's non-violent approach, known as the "middle way", in addressing Tibet's future has its critics - especially among the Tibetan youth.

"We have had four rounds of talks with the Chinese over Tibet, but I really see them as being futile," said Tsering Kelsang, a Tibetan student from the south Indian state of Karnataka. "We are prepared to take the radical path to independence, but have been stopped in our tracks by the Dalai Lama," added Tsering, who lost three uncles in the 1959 Lhasa uprising.

Direct communication between the Tibetan government-in-exile and Beijing was severed in 1993. In 2002, however, they were renewed. Since then, China and Tibetan representatives have met four times to discuss a possible return of Tibetan exiles as well as the question of autonomy for Tibet. The latest round of talks was in the Swiss capital of Berne from June 29 to 30.

"I'm for the 'middle way' approach. But it doesn't mean that those who are calling for more radical action are wrong. They just have different ideas; maybe they are just tired that four rounds of talks with the Chinese have not produced anything," said Volunteer Tibet's Tseyang.

"But whether one advocates the peaceful 'middle way' or a radical approach, the goal is still the same, though the methods might differ. Different Tibetans have different ideologies, we must all try to accommodate that. That's the Dalai Lama's way," she added.

This article was published by The Inter Press Service Agency.

Sonny Inbaraj

Thursday, July 7, 2005

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