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Freedom eludes Dalai Lama, Tibetans

Buddhist leader's visit to spotlight effort to secure rights from China

Sunday, November 08, 1998

By Ann Rodgers-Melnick, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

The Dalai Lama, en route to a Western Pennsylvania visit that begins Wednesday, is now in Washington, where hopes for a breakthrough in China-Tibet relations appear to be dimming.

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Knowing that the exiled Tibetan Buddhist leader's supporters were counting on a meeting with President Clinton, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhu Bangzao warned U.S. leaders Thursday against talking with the Nobel peace laureate.

Many Tibetans consider the Dalai Lama a living Buddha. And even in Western Pennsylvania, a region with few Buddhists, seats to his Wednesday and Thursday appearances in Greensburg and Pittsburgh are hot tickets.

No meeting with Clinton is officially scheduled, though they have traditionally taken place informally.

The Dalai Lama's supporters had suggested that he propose a pastoral visit to Buddhists in China, followed by get-acquainted chat with President Jiang Zemin in Beijing. The Chinese have responded with little more than shrill denunciations of the Dalai Lama.

"We are calling on President Clinton to receive the Dalai Lama through the front door as the world's greatest living advocate of peace and nonviolence," said John Ackerly, president of the International Campaign for Tibet.

If he went to China, it would be his first visit since 1954, when he was a 19-year-old god-king trying to protect his people's rights. China occupied Tibet in 1950 and the Dalai Lama fled to India in 1959.

From there, he has denounced human rights abuses in Tibet, but no longer calls for full independence from China. Tentative talks between intermediaries that began in 1978 ended in 1987, after a vicious Chinese crackdown on freedom demonstrators in Tibet.

New hope for diplomatic movement blossomed in June, when President Clinton publicly urged Jiang to meet with the Dalai Lama.

Jiang described Tibetans as "liberated serfs," but left an opening.

"Actually, as long as the Dalai Lama can publicly make a statement and commitment that Tibet is an inalienable part of China -- and he must also recognize Taiwan as a province of China -- then the door to dialogue and negotiation is open," Jiang said.

Now, it is time for the Dalai Lama's response.

"I think the Dalai Lama is looking for some assurance from the U.S. government, and also from the Chinese, that they will reciprocate and that what he does will serve to bring both sides together," Ackerly said.

"He is willing to be very reasonable as long as he is getting some good will back."

'Cultural genocide'

The litany of destruction in Tibet since 1950 is horrific, though the worst occurred before 1980, under Chinese Communist Party Chairman Mao Tse-tung's regime. The Dalai Lama says 1.2 million of 7 million Tibetans died at the hands of the invaders. About 130,000 Tibetans live in exile.

According to human rights organizations, nearly all of Tibet's 6,400 Buddhist monasteries were destroyed. Arrest, torture and forcible re-education of Tibetans continue. The Tibetan language has been abolished from Tibetan schools. The 7.5 million Chinese now outnumber Tibetans in Tibet.

"The situation in Tibet has sadly worsened in recent years," the Dalai Lama said in March. "Of late, it has become apparent that Beijing is carrying out what amounts to a deliberate policy of cultural genocide."

The Chinese view is that Tibet is better off than it was under the Dalai Lama. The government not only denies killing 1.2 million Tibetans, but also claims there were 1 million people in Tibet in 1950, the time of its "peaceful liberation."

Tibet under the Dalai Lama "was a society of feudal serfdom, which was darker and more cruel than serfdom in medieval Europe," said a statement from Chinese Embassy press officer Yu Shuning.

"But the Dalai Lama, the top serf owner, tried desperately to retain this system, regardless of a strong aspiration of the Tibetan people for social change and advancement. This is the true reason behind the Dalai Lama's 1959 armed rebellion and exile ever since."

The truth about Tibet has never been easy to discover. Centuries of Tibetan rulers worked hard to keep out foreigners, especially Westerners. It's a difficult place to get to or live in. The world's highest mountains form its borders. Its average elevation is 14,000 feet.

In Western imagination, Tibet was associated with the idyllic kingdom of Shangri-la in James Hilton's 1935 novel, "The Lost Horizon." But that was fantasy, scholars say. Average Tibetans were a lot like average Americans, said Melvyn Goldstein, director of the Center for Research on Tibet at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland and the West's foremost historian of Tibet.

"Tibet was an unusual society because the goal of its national government was not more wealth or military might, but more spiritual power. The rule was, how many monks could they support in their country?"

'Strong case either way'

The Dalai Lama's first autobiography, "My Land and My People," acknowledges that the history of relations between China and Tibet is complex. He argues that a ninth-century treaty establishing the border of two independent nations was the only valid treaty between them.

Most importantly, Tibetans drove the Chinese out of all but easternmost Tibet in 1912. From then until 1950, Tibet was fully independent.

To the Chinese, that was just a lapse in government efficiency.

"Since the 13th century, the Chinese central government has effectively exercised sovereignty and jurisdiction of the region of Tibet. This includes stationing troops, appointing or removing local officials, approving the reincarnation of major living Buddhas and conducting the census," says a document on the Chinese Embassy Web site titled, "Dalai Lama: Tibetan People's Spokesman or Just Faithful Tool of Western Anti-China Forces?"

According to Goldstein, "If you pick and choose the parts of history that you like, you can make a strong case either way.

"There is no question that Tibet was functioning as a completely independent country from 1913 to 1951. However, the Chinese claims that Tibet was part of China are not completely absurd because they looked into international opinion as to whether Tibet was accepted as an independent country."

The problem there, according to the Dalai Lama, was Tibet's shortsighted isolationism. After driving the Chinese out, its leaders refused to join postal unions, the League of Nations or even to exchange ambassadors with other countries.

"We thought that to hold ourselves entirely aloof from the world was the best way of ensuring peace," he wrote. "It never occurred to us that our independence, so obvious a fact to us, needed any legal proof to the outside world."

When the Dalai Lama fled in 1959, not one major power declared support for Tibetan independence.

But after Mao Tse-tung's death in 1976, Beijing made overtures to the Dalai Lama and some constraints were loosened. Between 1979 and 1984, the Dalai Lama sent four fact-finding missions to Tibet.

Instead of a workers' paradise, they reported finding a nation polluted, a people grieving their lost traditions. They heard tales of oppression, torture and discrimination by the Chinese against Tibetans.

In 1987, the Dalai Lama offered his Five-Point Plan. Tibet would become a completely demilitarized, self-governing region within China, forming a buffer along the Indian border. The people would be free to practice their own faith and speak their own language. They would transform their polluted land into the world's largest nature park, while negotiations about their relationship with China continued.

"I am not seeking independence," he reiterated early this year. "As I have said many times before, what I am seeking is for the Tibetan people to be given the opportunity to have genuine self-rule in order to preserve their civilization and for the unique Tibetan culture, religion, language and way of life to grow and thrive. ...

"For this, it is essential, as past decades have shown clearly, that the Tibetans be able to handle all their domestic affairs and to freely determine their social, economic and cultural development."

'They need a homeland'

Six days after he presented the Five-Point Plan, freedom demonstrations broke out in Lhasa. At least 80 would occur over the next three years. The Chinese crackdown was severe.

When those demonstrations began, Chinese hard-liners who had always opposed increased freedom in Tibet were able to say, "I told you so," Goldstein said. Moderates lost their influence.

"So Chinese hard-line elements are in charge of policy in Tibet. And their policy is that if you give Tibetans more religious freedom, more cultural autonomy for their language, then you are fostering more separatist ideas and more anti-Chinese feeling," he said.

The U.S. government has shown increasing interest in Tibet since President George Bush first met with the Dalai Lama in 1991, Ackerly said.

But Goldstein would like to see less public lip service for the Tibetan cause from the U.S. government and more behind-the-scenes pressure on both Beijing and the Tibetan-government-in-exile for a workable compromise.

"Right now, U.S. de facto Tibetan policy is to tell the Chinese, 'We accept your sovereignty over Tibet. Just don't torture nuns in jail,"' Goldstein said.

"What we really need to do is to have a policy that is less visible but works behind the scenes to help broker or facilitate a compromise that will get what the Tibetans really need at this point in history. They need a homeland."

The Tibetan cause is at a critical juncture. The millions of Chinese who have come into Tibet are mostly transient service workers, Goldstein said.

"They haven't made the transition to owning land and starting farms. That is the final stage. If that ever happens, it is finished."

So the possibility of talks between the Dalai Lama and Jiang is crucial but controversial on both sides.

China to be democratic?

Some supporters of the Tibetan cause believe a meeting between Jiang and the Dalai Lama would be wise. "This would not necessarily be to negotiate, but to break down barriers, to build up trust and human contact," Ackerly said.

However, "There is a legitimate question of whether this government in Beijing is really worth negotiating with, or whether Tibetans should bide their time and hope that China will loosen up."

Meanwhile, Goldstein said, the Chinese must weigh whether it is better to wait for the Dalai Lama to die and take a chance that no one will replace him, or to negotiate now for fear that any successor will be far less accommodating.

Within the Tibetan movement there are those who believe that the Dalai Lama has already conceded too much by not demanding full independence, and those who believe that he must concede more to gain anything.

Jeffrey Hopkins, a Tibetan Buddhist scholar at the University of Virginia and a former interpreter for the Dalai Lama, believes that he has been "too soft" on the Chinese.

"I don't mean in terms of violence. I think that you should not concede anything until you sit down at the negotiating table."

The Tibetan Youth Congress, which is recognized by the Dalai Lama, has called for independence even if it means violence.

"His Holiness has given us democracy. People have a right to express their voice," said Nawang Rabgyl, special assistant to the envoy of the Dalai Lama in Washington.

But Tibetan terrorism could bring disaster on Tibetans and provoke an international crisis, Goldstein said.

"I am really worried that the younger Tibetans in particular will say that the Dalai Lama is a great spiritual leader, but he is simply not a political leader for our time. And they will look to models such as Yassir Arafat," he said.

To achieve more, the Dalai Lama must concede more, Goldstein said. Politically, China cannot grant democracy to Tibet but not to Shanghai.

"The bottom line of the compromise would be something that preserves Tibet as a homeland for Tibetans only. It would be an entity within China where the Tibetan language was used not only in homes but in schools and government and business," he said.

Goldstein, like the Dalai Lama, believes that in 20 years China will be a democratic nation with freedom for all of its citizens. Until that happens, he said, the Tibetans must do whatever is necessary to keep Tibetan culture from dying within Tibet.

"Sometimes you can't get everything you want all at once, especially when you are a country of 5 million people with no guns."

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