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Tibetan Buddhism’s Dalai Lama may not be the last after all

Claims that he'd be the last in a centuries-old line may be a political move, analysts say

The Dalai Lama’s most recent suggestions that he may be the last in a centuries-old line may have been a political move to coax Beijing into negotiations, analysts say, three years after the religious leader “devolved” his political powers at the head of his government-in-exile to an elected official.

Wherever there are ethnic Tibetans in China, one can find hidden icons of the Dalai Lama, who adherents of Tibetan Buddhism believe to be an incarnation of the Buddha of Compassion.

Although Beijing has called the religious leader and political figure a “wolf in monk’s clothing,” Tibet scholars say the Chinese government recognizes the Dalai Lama’s enduring authority among the nation’s restive Tibetan population.

That may explain why the Dalai Lama told German newspaper Die Welt this week that he may be the last, said Robert Barnett, a leading scholar on Tibet and professor at Columbia University.

“The Chinese have a real chance of winning over the Tibetan population if they allow the Dalai Lama to come back and treat him well, and he acknowledges them for doing that,” Barnett said. “This remains the main bargaining chip for the Dalai Lama — it’s hard for the Chinese to see a way forward without him, but it’s difficult to see a way with him.” 

The advocacy of celebrities such as Richard Gere have put pressure on governments to push for a dialogue between the Dalai Lama and Beijing in the past, but talks on compromise have always stalled amid Tibet’s calls for autonomy from Beijing. The last negotiations between Chinese officials and Tibet’s government-in-exile hit a wall in February 2010.

The idea “that there’s no certainty that the Dalai Lama will return as a spiritual leader or in any other role is a way to pressure China,” Barnett said.

Beijing has on occasion signaled efforts to declare its own Dalai Lama. If the Dalai Lama-in-exile rejects the following Dalai Lama’s reincarnation, that would stymie efforts for China to establish its own, more malleable religious leader.

Politics as usual

As China's economy and worldwide influence have grown, the Dalai Lama’s diplomatic visits to traditionally supportive Western nations have diminished. Last week, he canceled a visit to South Africa after encountering visa troubles, which international media suggested was a sign that Pretoria desires closer trade ties with China more than the presence of the spiritual leader at a conference of Nobel peace laureates.

With his comments in the German media, it appears the Dalai Lama may be playing one of his last cards, one that is both religious and political. 

Despite having “magnanimously [and] completely devolved his political power in 2011,” according to Tenzin, a spokesman for what had been until then the Tibetan theocracy-in-exile who like many Tibetans uses only one name, it appears that the Dalai Lama remains politically invested in Tibet’s future.

Barnett said it is a Tibetan tradition for a Dalai Lama to express doubts about his reincarnation, out of “humility.” But in this case, “it’s a way of signaling to the Chinese, ‘This is a bargaining chip — negotiate with me before I die.’”

The 14th Dalai Lama, whose given name is Tenzin Gyatso, was proclaimed to be the reincarnation of his predecessor in 1950. In 1959, after failed negotiations with China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA), which had crossed into Tibet in 1950, he fled to India.

Many Americans first learned of the Dalai Lama from Hollywood personalities like Gere, an outspoken practitioner of Tibetan Buddhism who was banned from presenting at the Academy Awards in 1993 after publicly condemning the Chinese government.

The Gere Foundation, which Gere created in 1999 to promote Tibet’s separation from China, did not respond to interview requests from Al Jazeera.

The Dalai Lama saw a surge in popularity in the 1990s, around the time of the publication of his book “The Art of Happiness,” which explained how living compassionately could improve one’s quality of life.

The Dalai Lama also won the 1989 Nobel Peace Prize, some say as a signal of international displeasure with Beijing after the Tiananmen Square crackdown on July 4 that year.

Tibet was also what Barnett called a "pawn" in the West’s relationship to China during the height of the Cold War. Between the late 1950s and 60s, the CIA offered covert financial and military support to the Dalai Lama and paramilitary guerillas fighting against the PLA incursion.

It was after former President Richard M. Nixon started making overtures to Beijing that the support stopped, and Tibet’s newly formed government-in-exile started making its own bid for hearts and minds in America and the West.

“The Tibetan exiles reinvented themselves as a kind of human rights issue appealing to the middle classes in the West — to public opinion and public consciousness,” said Barnett, “It was really something of a phenomenon in international politics. It’s very rare to have a refugee community get on the agenda like that.”

For Barnett, the Richard Gere phenomenon wasn’t “just candy floss,” but also never achieved its full purpose.

“It was meant to get talks with China, and it did that,” Barnett said, explaining that while Gere's voice pushed international governments to pressure Beijing into talks with the Dalai Lama and his representatives, those talks never resulted in a working agreement between Tibet’s government-in-exile and Beijing.

A lead to follow?

For other embattled groups in China, few have found friends in the international community quite like the Dalai Lama. But it’s not for not trying.

“I believe that one day we will have someone like Richard Gere in the future,” said Dilxat Rexit, the Sweden-based spokesman for the World Uyghur Congress, the self-professed government-in-exile of the Uighurs, a predominantly Muslim ethnic minority originating in China’s far-western region of Xinjiang.

Xinjiang, which abuts South and Central Asian nations including Pakistan and oil- and energy-rich Kazakhstan, is of great strategic and economic value to Beijing. In September of last year, China signed a slew of contracts with neighboring nations to import oil and gas directly into the region. Uighur rights activists have said religious repression is one means of controlling a restive Uighur public that Beijing sees as a threat to its commerce.

In recent months, other religious restrictions imposed by local governments have barred women wearing traditional headscarves from entering public venues. In one case in Aksu, authorities placed the Chinese flag at the head of a mosque, in an apparent bid to make worshippers bow to a symbol of the state.

Although Rexit acknowledged that Tibetan issues have ebbed and flowed in the public consciousness together with Gere’s fame, “it is my big hope that people in a position to speak up for us will raise their voices.”

Still, Rexit said he feels a dalliance with “Hollywood stars” will help but won’t solve Uighur rights issues.

“We hope Hollywood stars will look at our cause,” Rexit said in Mandarin, “but Uighur problems will only be solved by Uighurs in the end.”

Rexit said that the Uighurs have no iconic figurehead comparable to their Tibetan counterparts because of cultural differences.

“We are Muslims – we don’t have a religious leader. That’s one of the major reasons why we don’t have a similar figure.” 

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