As thousands of people all over the world marched through towns and cities last Saturday to mark the 52nd anniversay of the Lhasa Uprising in Tibet, His Holiness the Dalai Lama announced that he will devolve his power to the Central Tibetan Administration (aka Tibetan Government in Exile) and the Kalon Tripa (elected Prime Minister). This move ends the role of the Dalai Lamas as political leader of Tibet established by Ngawang Lobsang Gyatso the Great Fifth Dalai Lama in the 17th century. This is both an important move towards true democracy and a strategic move in terms of the future of the relationship between Tibet and China.
To explain and understand what this move means for Tibet there is some background to go over. The Chinese government recently passed a law that reportedly states that no Buddhist lama may be reincarnated without their permission. This is a misunderstanding of the law, what it actually states is that no lama may be recognised without the permission of the Chinese government. As with any position of power derived from “divine mandate”, the process of being recognised as a Tulku (reincarnated lama) is somewhat tenuous and has been open to abuse even before the meddling bureaucrats from the Chinese State Council. They were correcting an oversight on their part that created one of the most controversial political prisoners in the world. In 1995 a 5 year old boy from Nagchu province called Gedun Chokyi Nyima was arrested. He had recently been recognised by the Dalai Lama as Tibet’s second most important religious leader, the Panchen Lama. It is believed he has been kept under house arrest in Beijing for the last 16 years and a new, Chinese government approved, Panchen Lama was selected and enthroned. When the Dalai Lama dies, it is the role of the Panchen Lama to recognise the next reincarnation of the Dalai Lama. So by controlling the Panchen Lama they can legitimately control the selection of the Dalai Lama and all subsequent Panchen and Dalai Lamas. Of course, the legitimacy is questionable as no Tibetan or practitioner of Tibetan Buddhism recognises the Chinese Panchen Lama.
For many years there has been speculation about what the Dalai Lama will do as he grows older and his death gets closer. The Dalai Lama has achieved the position of Tulku, this is a lama who is able to choose the manner of their reincarnation. With this in mind there are four options open to him. The first is to decide that he will not reincarnate again until Tibet is no longer under occupation, though this would go against his desire as a bodhisattva (an enlightened being who goes through the cycles of rebirth to help others achieve enlightenment). The second is to publicly state where he will be reincarnated, ie. not in Tibet thereby deligitimising any Dalai Lama claim from the Chinese government about a Dalai Lama from Tibet, he has taken this step already. The third is to recognise his own reincarnation before he dies. This is a complicated and tenuous method that, whilst legitimate and not without precedent, would create problems for the Tibetan government in the eyes of those who do not believe in reincarnation. The last is the option he has taken, to give up his political power before he dies so that legitimate governing mandate for Tibet will never be controlled by the Chinese government.
The future of Tibet will depend on the negotiations between members of the Tibetan Government in Exile (TGIE) and the Chinese government. This is where change will come from. Pressure from campaigners and activists, like Students for a Free Tibet, creates a space for these negotiations to happen whilst affecting change on a day-to-day basis in Tibet. The risk with this transition is that the Chinese government will refuse to recognise the authority of the TGIE and will claim political power still resides with the Dalai Lama. This whole pantomime about a government that believes religion is the opiate of the people trying to wield religious power is evidence of the power of the Tibetan independence movement. Without people watching and campaigning for Tibet, the Chinese government would never acknowledge the authority of the current Dalai Lama, let alone the TGIE. Our task now is to force them to acknowledge the authority of the TGIE and to keep the negotiations open. And we do that through political campaigning, through education and through non-violent civil-disobedience.
Google have announced that they may be closing their services in China following a “highly sophisticated and targeted attack on our corporate infrastructure originating from China”. They went on to say that the attacks, originating in China were directed at advocates of human rights in China.
Well the first thing to say is “About f**king time!”. As an activist in the Tibetan freedom movement I have received numerous attacks on my email account, as many as 10 in one day during the Olympics! Some of these are more sophisticated than others – the vast majority are VERY easy to spot as they use broken English and contain attachments from people I don’t know. Others are much more clever. One I received during the Olympics appeared to be from a colleague, they had cloned her email account and had written the email in fluent and clear English. It just so happened that I was sat in the office with that particular colleague at the time. In another instance I received an email appearing to be from a former colleague and friend who had recently left. The email address was right and the personal facts in the email – they knew where he worked and that he had recently left – were also right. They also knew our most basic security procedure – not opening attachments unless they were expected – and said in one email that they would send a document in the next. To be sure I rang the person the email was supposed to have come from and he had no knowledge of it at all. The attachments in both these cases were sent to an expert in computer viruses who did some analysis and found that the emails had some very sophisticated zero-day viruses and had originated in China. Though it cannot be definitively proven, it is widely believed that the attacks come from civilians in China who are recruited by the military specifically for this purpose, often from leading computer science universities.
It is telling that Google has gone public with this before talking to Chinese officials. This will have pissed the Chinese government off no end (always a good thing in my book), but also meant that unless there is a serious commitment to more openness from the Chinese government it makes it more likely that Google will leave.
I suppose one more year would have been too much to ask. But seriously, Tibetan film-maker Dhondup Wangchen has been sentenced to 6 years in prison for crimes as yet unknown. His trial was held behind closed doors and he was not allowed independent legal representation as the Chinese government stopped his lawyer from being able to attend. His family was not told of the trial nor of the verdict.
Dhondup Wangchen was originally arrested in March 2008 after making his film Leaving Fear Behind, in which Tibetans inside Tibet spoke out against the occupation and how they believed the Olympcis being in China would imapct on Tibet. It is a very powerful and moving film which you can watch on Free Tibet TV.
If you want to do something about this, Students for a Free Tibet have a campaign calling for his release.