10 March has a double significance in the history of Tibet. On that day in 1959 the Dalai Lama fled the Chinese occupation.
On March 10 2008 Tibetan monks took to the streets of Lhasa protesting Chinese oppressive policies. The Chinese authorities brutally suppressed the uprising. Until today, there has been no independent investigation of those events. Significantly the Tibetan government in exile and the Dalai Lama were accused by the Chinese government of masterminding the uprising.
On the Lunar New Year day we had a rare and privileged opportunity to meet the Tibetan spiritual leader in Dharamsala, India. His Holiness the Dalai Lama is of course well aware of what the Chinese government thinks of him. A wolf in a monk’s robe, the devil, referred the easy-going 74 year-old jokingly to himself. On a serious note he said that he had offered his government’s files for inspection to prove that there had been no steering of the uprising from Dharamsala.
It is difficult not to believe the Dalai Lama. He comes across as a very warm and generous person, yet not at all naïve or gullible. He has all the socialite’s skills, but nothing of what he said was remotely banal. Some of his views could be considered optimistic. He praised the European Union, for example, for its ability to put the common cause above the interests of individual nations. Cynics could react to such a statement with a condescending smirk. But coming from one bespectacled Buddhist monk thousands of miles away from Brussels those words inspired and energised. Because they resounded with a clear sense of direction, endeavour, the inner essence of notions that can sound both grand and vague in some other places.
The Dalai Lama’s political priority is clearly the well-being of ordinary Tibetans. But not the independence of Tibet. China continues to label him a dangerous separatist, despite the fact that the “genuine autonomy” the Dalai Lama has been calling for is based on the respect of territorial integrity and the constitution of China. The Dalai Lama’s ‘middle way’ approach to the status of Tibet is actually too moderate for some of Tibet’s supporters. But as often is the case it is the moderate and wise voice that is considered to be the most dangerous by an oppressive regime. The opponent’s radicalism is a blessing for an aggressive power seeking to justify its aggression. It is the Dalai Lama’s unique moral authority that makes him the devil in the Chinese book.
Why would otherwise Beijing refuse – after the nine rounds of talks with the government-in-exile – to acknowledge that it is better to deal with a constructive counterpart? Or does China actually seek to radicalise the Tibetan opposition and then crush it even more cruelly than was the case in the wake of 10 March 2008?
The danger of the Dalai Lama’s moral authority is not only, and perhaps not mainly, in the powerful influence it has on the Tibetans. There is growing evidence that many honest Chinese people, scholars, lawyers, students and simply travellers challenge the propaganda misrepresenting the Dalai Lama’s message. It is not only about the Tibetan ethnicity, a Tibetan autonomy, the distinctive culture with its language and religion, clearly endangered by the Chinese government’s policies. It is also about the essence of humanity. About compassion. About the values that may be in the way of nationalist statehood, like that lone Chinese hero on the famous video, in the way of a tank on Tiananmen Square.
The Dalai Lama is admired by many in the world. It is useful to ask oneself about the reasons for that admiration. A religious leader, he is respected by many who otherwise tend to make religious faith responsible for a lot of ills of the modern world. Buddhism is of course not associated with fanaticism that leads to violence. But with all the problems that might stem from religion generally, are faithless cynicism, greed and moral indifference really so much better? Or rather, are religious fundamentalism and heartless materialism true responses to each other? In reality they coexist, justifying each other’s claim to political power.
As an alternative to that unholy coexistence, spirituality represented by the Dalai Lama tries to harmonise human nature with human rights. That’s what makes him unique and that’s what deserves the world’s admiration and support.
The European Union, valued so highly by the Dalai Lama, must not let down the Tibetan people. This is a crucial moment for the EU to revitalise its support for the Dalai Lama’s call for genuine autonomy in Tibet. To demand an independent international investigation of what happened in Tibet two years ago, of the reasons for and the consequences of the uprising of 10 March 2008, is the least the EU can do. By insisting on its right to know the truth, European nations would defend the rights of a truly endangered people as well as the values they claim to be at the foundation of their union.
Heidi Hautala MEP
Chairwoman of the Subcommittee on Human Rights in the European Parliament