Saturday, July 15, 2006

Tibet's Culture Faces Oblivion

By Gavin Rabinowitz, The Advertiser Adelaide (South Australia)

July 15, 2006 -- TIME, Tibetan exiles fear, is running out.

With the Dalai Lama in his 70s, their dreams of returning to a free Tibet are being crushed by the realisation they face a long, bleak period without an international icon to plead their case and keep them united.

Since fleeing to India in 1959 after a failed uprising against Chinese rule, Tibet's spiritual leader has personified the Himalayan nation's struggle for self-determination.

The Dalai Lama turned 71 on July 6 and, while generally in good health, the globe-trotting holy man was grounded by his doctors a day before his birthday because of exhaustion.

A second fear also haunts the exiles. If they do achieve their goal, will the Tibet they knew still be there for them?

China this month realised its decades-old ambition of linking Tibet to Beijing by train, heightening concerns that the communist leadership is trying to crush Tibetan culture by swamping it with Han, the majority Chinese ethnic group.

Another worry is the Dalai Lama's non-violent philosophy, which won him the 1989 Nobel Peace Prize, may die with him.

For now, the Dalai Lama's influence is paramount, among the exiles as well as deep inside Tibet, though his teachings and even his portrait are banned.

Nearly every day, Tibetans arrive in India after crossing the Himalayas to join the exiles in Dharamsala, where the Dalai Lama's government-in-exile is based.

Many Tibetans are wary of the Dalai Lama's "Middle Way" of working peacefully with China and settling for autonomy rather than independence.

Only the spiritual leader's moral authority has convinced Tibetans to go along with the plan.

"If His Holiness is not on the scene and one day the Chinese wake up and give their consent (to the autonomy plan), this will not be binding on the Tibetan people," said Thubten Samphal, a spokesman for the exile leadership. "We have been telling the Chinese it is wrong to play a waiting game."

That is what many believe the Chinese are doing.

"The Chinese just don't want to deal with the Dalai Lama. They feel they have an unassailable position," said John Power, a Tibet expert at the Australian National University in Canberra.
"They can wait until he dies and set their own terms."

Tibet's Chinese-appointed leader, Champa Phuntsok, has described the Dalai Lama as a threat to China's security and unity. Once the Dalai Lama is gone, the succession will be dictated by the rites and timetables of Tibetan Buddhism.

His successor will be a boy born after his death, chosen by Buddhist monks who believe him to be the Dalai Lama's reincarnation. Decades may pass before the new Dalai Lama is ready to assume leadership.

Meanwhile, the idea of fighting back appeals to many young Tibetans.

"I would have joined the fighters," Tenzin Tsundue, 31, a leading activist who spent three months in a Chinese jail in 1997, said after sneaking into Tibet from India.

But he acknowledged Tibetans will be more successful in the court of public opinion than the battleground.