Los Angeles Times Interview : Dalai Lama : Using Nonviolence Against a Powerful Authoritarian Regime

<i> John-Thor Dahlburg is New Delhi bureau chief for The Times</i>

On the veranda of his audience hall, in the shadow of the saw-toothed Outer Himalayas, Tibet’s “god-king,” who lost his kingdom when the Chinese invaded, walks briskly forth to greet his people. More than a hundred visiting Tibetans crowd under the corrugated roof. At the appearance of the Dalai Lama, they bow low, many so in awe they dare not look him in the face. For them, the owl-eyed, bespectacled Buddhist monk with a passion for flowers and mending watches is their nation incarnate.

The Dalai Lama fled into India in 1959, following a failed revolt. Ironically, this apostle of nonviolence escaped the Chinese by grabbing a soldier’s coat and rifle to disguise his identity.

Now 58, the spiritual head of Tibetans lives with his exile government in Dharamsala, in India’s Himachal Pradesh state. Five years ago, he won the Nobel Peace Prize. He does not hide his regret that his commitment to using peaceful and democratic means to restore Tibet’s freedom has not brought Beijing to the bargaining table--despite Deng Xiaoping’s assurances, in 1979, that any option short of independence would be considered. They have not even been enticed by the high lama’s 1988 proposal that Tibet be a self-governing entity in China, with the Chinese in charge of foreign policy and defense.


Born Lhamo Dhondrub to a peasant woman with 16 children, the Dalai Lama was recognized at age 2 as the reincarnation of his predecessor, the 13th Dalai Lama, and thus an incarnation of Avalokitesvara, the Buddhist Bodhisattva of Compassion. Since 1642, Tibet had been ruled by the Dalai Lama, whose title can be translated as “ocean of wisdom.”

On April 28, he met briefly with President Bill Clinton in the office of Vice President Al Gore. The format was designed to minimize offense to China. Nonetheless, Beijing accused Washington of “serious interference” in its internal affairs.

Wearing burgundy socks that match his sleeveless monk’s robe, the Dalai Lama spoke for nearly an hour in a long, cool room off the porch where he receives delegations. Punctuating his words frequently with his infectious laughter, he talked about policy toward China, Beijing’s “Final Solution” for Tibet and his indomitable hopes for the future.


Question: Last March, in your address marking the 35th anniversary of the Tibetan uprising, you noted with dismay that your offers to talk have failed to elicit any positive reaction from the Chinese. Has your approach been an error?

Answer: I don’t consider it a mistake. No. One of the main purposes of my proposal is to start meaningful negotiations with the Chinese government or to bring China to the negotiating table. That, so far, has failed. Another objective is to reduce Chinese-population transfer into Tibet. That also failed.

However, for the past 14 years, my approach has raised more interest on the international level and made it easier for foreign governments to support the Tibet issue. And then, in the eyes of ordinary Chinese people--I mean intellectuals and students--in their eyes, my approach is very reasonable and suitable.

Q: But what can you do now?

A: I’m waiting to see how much effect will be caused by international pressure on the Chinese government. So if, you see, that also fails--doesn’t produce a result--then I am going to ask the Tibetan people, outside (Tibet) as well as inside. The people outside I can ask openly in a referendum. Inside, through visitors, we can communicate. I can collect their views.

Now, I would like to give them some few options. One option: My approach for the past 14 years. Another option is what critics say about my approach. They say we should stand firm on independence.

Q: Speaking of choices, the United States has to decide about China’s most-favored-nation status by June 3. As you know, last year President Bill Clinton made this renewal conditional on Beijing achieving progress in certain human-rights categories, including safeguarding of Tibet’s culture and religion. Do you think the United States should continue MFN for China ?

A: The decision taken by the President last year was perfect. This year, I have no particular suggestion. However, I do feel it is very important to take a decision according to the wishes of the Chinese--those Chinese who are really carrying out the struggle for democracy and freedom.

Q: So Chinese advocates for democracy should decide an issue that also concerns your homeland?

A: I feel the Tibet issue is very much linked with the overall Chinese policy or situation. So long as the hard-line or authoritarian system remains there (in Beijing), frankly speaking, there is not much chance for change.

Q: It has been five years since the suppression of China’s “democracy spring.” Reports from China now say apathy and the desire to grow rich seem to be replacing political consciousness. Who are you pinning your hopes on?

A: Usually, I make three categories among the Chinese. The top category is the leadership and the Communist Party. Their main concern is keeping power in their hands.

The second group I consider the most important. That is the intellectuals and the thinkers and the students. These people in the last several years have really carried out a life-and-death struggle for democracy and freedom. This group is the force which ultimately will bring democracy in China. No one else. No outsider, not the United States, nobody, can bring democracy to China, except these people.

Then third, the Chinese masses. Their main concern is their daily livelihood. They may not be so concerned about democracy, but democracy is not much relevant in their day-to-day life.

I think the entire future of China, and, I think, particularly this region of the planet, is very much linked to (the second group’s) spirit and their work. So if their spirit diminishes, that is a disaster.

Q: What of the argument that imposing economic sanctions on China is counterproductive because more two-way trade will foster greater democracy?

A: More economic prosperity ultimately affects political liberalization. That is logical. But in the meantime, there is a risk that the people in the second category get the impression that the outside world doesn’t care about their struggle, that the outside world is content with the authoritarian regime in China.

The outside world is very much concerned about Russian authoritarianism, but Chinese authoritarianism seems to be OK. If that kind of impression develops among the Chinese democratic movement, I think it will be very, very harmful. If they feel more pressure in the economic field is more useful, more effective, in order to bring democracy in China and isolate these communist leaders in the public eye, then (the approach) should be tougher.

Once their spirit gets stronger, the democratic movement becomes stronger and political leaders will be compelled to carry out more liberalization. Liberalize China more, and I am 100% sure we can have a true discussion and find a proper solution to the Tibetan problem. There’s no doubt. After all, I am not insisting on complete separation from China.

Q: And what of your critics who say you aren’t hard-line enough?

A: Quite often they say, “The Chinese know only force.” It’s not a generational matter. There are many, many elder Tibetans who think violence is the ultimate answer, too. Sometimes, perhaps, I think among the younger generation, there is more attraction toward Yasser Arafat or the moujahedeen in Afghanistan. They often tell me, “Oh, look at them. Through violence, there is more publicity, more support from the outside world.”

Q: And your reply?

A: First, my fundamental belief is that human nature lies in gentleness. Human nature is compassionate, is affectionate. Therefore, using violence is against human nature.

Secondly, because of this factor, violence creates a lot of hurt in the human mind. Therefore, through violence, you may solve one problem. But you sow the seeds for another.

Then, there’s our case. Tibetans and Chinese have to live side by side in the future. In the past, we lived like that. So in order to live in a friendly, peaceful and neighborly way, while we are carrying out this freedom struggle, we must pursue nonviolence, so that our struggle will not affect our long, long friendship.

Lastly, I ask the hotheads, let them visualize this. If we follow violent methods, a few hundred guns will not be effective. At least we need several thousand, at least a few thousand . . . around 100,000. Now, from where will we get those weapons? Is there some country willing to supply us with them?

Q: But are Tibetans benefiting from China’s economic liberalization?

A: A few years ago, one European who spent some time in Tibet and knows something about economic theory told me, “In Tibet, there is certainly an economy, but it belongs to the Chinese, not the Tibetans.”

Now, because of the Chinese population increasing, local people find even small manual jobs difficult to get. One part of the blame is the Tibetans’ themselves. They cannot work as hard as Chinese people--as tailors or carpenters. Even a Tibetan-style painting is now painted by some Chinese! The ordinary Tibetan finds it easier to ask a Chinese painter rather than a Tibetan. It’s less costly, and you get the results quicker!

So you see, this gives an opportunity to the Chinese settler. Now that there’s competition under the more liberal economic system, in many cases, the Tibetans cannot compete with the Chinese.

Q: You mentioned the influx of Chinese. Is it continuing?

A: In the name of more development, now the Chinese are demolishing the old part of Lhasa. According to our information, in 1959, old Lhasa was three-square kilometers in size. Now it’s become smaller: one-square kilometer. Only that.

A few years ago, according to our calculations, the Tibetan population (of Lhasa) was about 50,000, and the Chinese population around 100,000. Now, the mayor has stated the total population at 400,000. The Tibetan population is 100,000, maximum.

Q: With this huge population disparity, can Tibetans survive as a distinct nation?

A: Time is running out. In fact, I think the Chinese leaders are thinking exactly on these lines. To the outside world, they have stated they are open to dialogue with the Dalai Lama. But whenever we approach them, there’s no response.

The latest policy is to completely suppress (the Tibetans), and in the meantime, to increase the Chinese population, so that in a few years time, the Tibetans become insignificant in their own land. Some of my friends call this the “Final Solution” of Tibet.

Q: So Tibet is doomed?

A: I do believe that the international situation is now changing, and particularly, as I mentioned earlier, that there are democratic forces in China proper. So actually, the present Chinese government, the authoritarian regime, is in a state of transition. So I’m quite hopeful.

Q: You are somewhat of an expert on reincarnation. The Chinese leadership is of a certain age. On July 6, you turn 59. How do you see the future?

A: In the Chinese case, it’s very difficult to predict. Even the Chinese themselves do not know what will happen. So I think they are very, very anxious about what will come after Deng Xiaoping.

In the Tibetan case, I don’t know. While I’m alive, I’ll do my best. After my death, then other people, the new generation, will manage.

Q: So there will be no 15th Dalai Lama? What’s to stop Beijing or Tibetan communists from announcing that you have been reincarnated as a member of the Chinese Communist Party?

A: If something happened today to me or my life were to cease, if the Tibetan people want another reincarnation or want another Dalai Lama, then certainly my reincarnation, my rebirth will take place among Tibetans. And not among Chinese! Because the real purpose of reincarnation is continuing the previous life’s work.

That means while we are outside (Tibet), if I pass away, then certainly if the Tibetan people want another reincarnation, they will find it among Tibetans, and not in Chinese hands.

But if death takes place at the time when we have already returned to Tibet, and there is some kind of freedom there, I have officially stated that the Tibetan people should decide whether the institution of the Dalai Lama should continue or not. If people feel there’s not much relevant about this institution, then it will automatically cease. That’s no problem.*