Tibet's Next Incarnation

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Photograph by Sumit Dayal for TIME

Otherworldly Mist shrouds the Indian mountain redoubt of Dharamsala, home to the Dalai Lama and fellow exiled Tibetans

He has never been to Tibet, never breathed the thin air of the high plateau, nor spun a prayer wheel in the shadow of the great Buddhist monasteries. Yet on Aug. 8, 43-year-old Lobsang Sangay was sworn in as the head of the Tibetan government-in-exile. Born in a refugee camp in India and educated in the U.S., Sangay holds no passport or nationality, only a travel certificate. He expresses homesickness for a place that exists in the foreign mind as an otherworldly haven, and in the Tibetan one as an occupied homeland. "Like all of us in exile, I will never be completely at peace until I go to Tibet," he says when we meet in Dharamsala, a scruffy settlement in the Himalayan foothills of India where the Tibetan refugee community coalesced five decades ago. "The question is: How do we get there?"

Sangay's inauguration as Kalon Tripa, or Prime Minister, comes at a critical moment for Tibet — both for the 5.4 million Tibetans living inside China and for the 150,000 or so who have chosen exile. Young refugees whose votes carried Sangay to office are questioning their movement's longtime commitment to nonviolent resistance, while an ongoing crackdown by Chinese security forces has failed to suppress dissent within Tibet.

Unlike protest campaigns in the 1950s and '80s, the new wave of demonstrations has flared across the entire Tibetan Plateau, from what China calls the Tibetan Autonomous Region to Tibetan-dominated parts of Sichuan, Qinghai, Gansu and Yunnan provinces. Beijing routinely blames Tibet's exiled spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, for political instability on the high plateau. But many Tibetans argue that the Nobel Peace Prize laureate in fact prevents a violent uprising from erupting in the region. "There is so much anger in Tibet now; it is only because of His Holiness that the people don't rise up," says Tsering Migyur, a Mandarin-speaking undersecretary in the Dalai Lama's office in Dharamsala. Migyur should know. For decades he was a senior officer for the Chinese police and military intelligence in Lhasa, serving as a minority poster boy. In 2000, however, he defected to Dharamsala. "China believes that once the Dalai Lama dies, the movement will lose power," says Migyur. "But the Dalai Lama is actually China's best friend because the next generation will not be so accommodating."

The vast terrain has languished in a state of suspended political animation since 1950, when Chinese communist forces began marching in. Nine years later, rather than further submit to atheist overlords, the Dalai Lama escaped by horseback over the Himalayas to exile in Dharamsala. His flight precipitated an exodus of Tibetans to India, which granted them a refuge that has lasted for generations. Ever since, the cleric who was deemed at age 4 to be the 14th incarnation of a Tibetan deity of compassion, has been reviled by Beijing, which calls him "a wolf in monk's robes."

The intervening 60 years of communist rule have done little to quell the reflexive resistance of Tibetans, who believe their land was effectively independent when the Chinese invaded. (Beijing maintains that Tibet has been part of China for centuries.) China has brought modernity — roads, railways, power stations — to Tibet, but relations between the country's ethnic Han majority and Tibetans have worsened in recent years. A mass migration of Han into Tibet threatens to culturally and economically overwhelm the sparsely populated but resource-rich plateau, sparking fears that Tibetans will become a minority in their own land. "We cannot afford to carry out our fight generation after generation," says Ogyen Trinley Dorje, the Karmapa or third most senior monk in Tibetan Buddhism, who fled Tibet as a 14-year-old and has lived in Dharamsala since 2000. "If our culture is gone, if our religion is gone, even if we get our independence, what's the point?"

Today, the global space for anyone Beijing deems an enemy has shrunk as governments and corporations scramble to accommodate China's rising power. With his tireless globetrotting, jovial air and commitment to nonviolence, the Dalai Lama has single-handedly saved Tibet from the dust heap of obscure ethnic struggles. "Free Tibet" remains a chic crusade worthy of Hollywood's attention. But the Dalai Lama, though in fine health, is 76 years old. While Tibetans believe he will be reincarnated, disputes over which child will be the next Dalai Lama will no doubt break out between the exiled holy men in Dharamsala and the political men in Beijing. It will also take time for the next Dalai Lama to grow up — unless the current spiritual leader takes the unprecedented step of ending the line with him, a possibility he raised in a Sept. 24 statement.

To protect his flock in this uncertain era, the Dalai Lama has cleaved what had been indivisible since 1642: the entwined spiritual and secular duties of his post. In March the Dalai Lama announced his political retirement to a tearful parliament in Dharamsala. The next month Sangay, a Harvard Law School graduate who wrote his doctoral thesis on the Tibetan government-in-exile, was elected the new Kalon Tripa. The People's Daily, China's mouthpiece, said Sangay was a "terrorist poised to rule."

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