Dalai Lama’s birthday offers rare reason for Tibetans to celebrate

Tibetan leader no closer to achieving greater political freedom from China

Exiled Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama interacts with chief minister of India’s Karnataka state K Siddaramaiah (left) during the Dalai Lama’s 78th birthday celebrations at Bylakuppe, about 213 km (132 miles) south of Bangalore, last  weekend. Photograph: Reuters

Exiled Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama interacts with chief minister of India’s Karnataka state K Siddaramaiah (left) during the Dalai Lama’s 78th birthday celebrations at Bylakuppe, about 213 km (132 miles) south of Bangalore, last weekend. Photograph: Reuters


The Dalai Lama celebrated his 78th birthday last weekend, and thousands of Tibetans marked the event by dancing and waving banners in India, where their spiritual leader has spent 54 years in exile.

At the same time, there was evidence of just how difficult the Tibetan situation remains. As monks were offering prayers to mark the Dalai Lama’s birthday, Chinese security forces opened fire, shooting one monk in the head, and at least six other people were badly injured during the incident in Kandze, in the Tibetan part of Sichuan province.

The Dalai Lama was at a Tibetan university in Bylakuppe, India, and he said the 150,000 Tibetans living abroad represented “six million Tibetans [in China] who have no freedom or opportunity to express what they feel”.

After more than half a century in exile, the venerated figure, who won the Nobel Peace prize in 1989, is unchallenged as religious leader but he appears to be further away than ever from achieving greater political freedoms for his Himalayan home.

Tibet has been firmly under Beijing’s command since the People’s Liberation Army marched into the overwhelmingly Buddhist Himalayan region in 1950, and Beijing claims it freed the Tibetan serfs from what was effectively a theocracy until the god-king Dalai Lama fled into exile in India after a failed uprising in 1959.

Beijing accuses him of seeking to separate Tibet from China, labelling him a dangerous “splittist”, agitating for independence. The Chinese government says it is bringing prosperity to a traditionally impoverished area.

The Dalai Lama says he does not want independence, but more autonomy for Tibetans within China. He handed over political power in 2011 to Harvard law scholar Lobsang Sangay, but retains the more significant role of spiritual leader.

Yu Zhengsheng, China’s leading official in charge of religious groups and ethnic minorities, yesterday vowed to step up the fight against the Dalai Lama.


“For the sake of national unity and the development of stability in Tibetan regions, we must take a clear-cut stand and deepen the struggle against the Dalai clique,” Mr Yu said as he visited a Tibetan part of the western province of Gansu.

The Tibetan government in exile is based in Dharamsala in northern India, a strange place as its mountainous setting gives it a Tibetan feel at times but it is still very much an Indian town.

In March 2008, violent protests focused on Han Chinese settlers left 22 dead, according to the government, although Tibetan rights groups say the figure was far higher. Officials blamed protest activity across the plateau on separatists loyal to the Dalai Lama.

Security has been high since then, but a recent fresh wave of appalling protests, with 120 Tibetans self-immolating since February 2009, has seen controls stepped still further.

Beijing says it has done much to lift the enclave out of isolation, which Tibetans believe is destroying the indigenous culture. There are reports from witnesses of a massive building programme in Lhasa around the Jokhang Temple, Tibetan Buddhism’s holiest site, and the Potala Palace, probably the most famous symbol, has been completely reconditioned.

While Beijing is keeping a hardline message in public, there are occasional hints at an easing in relations.

Last month, there were reports of an “experimental” new policy, which would allow monks and the faithful in Tibetan-populated areas of Qinghai and Sichuan to openly venerate the Dalai Lama as a religious leader but not as a “political” figure.

However, the Chinese denied any change in policy, and a spokesman from the Nationality and Religious Affair Committee of Qinghai Province sent a message, by mobile phone, to people in the region.

“There is no change in the policy of CCP and Government toward the 14th Dalai. The policy is consistent and steady. So the rumours spread by some people are only exaggeration.”

Eleanor Byrne-Rosengren, Director of Free Tibet, said Tibet was a police state, with no accountability or transparency, but said it was possible it could introduce changes later.

The destiny of the Han Chinese and Tibetans is closely linked, and Chinese emperors have been involved in Tibetan affairs for hundreds of years.


It is difficult to conceive of an independent Tibet as a political entity. The Tibetan area stretches across provinces such as Sichuan and Gansu, and it is hard to imagine China giving up such a vast swathe of land.

When you visit Tibetan Buddhist temples in Tibetan areas of Sichuan, people carry photographs of the Dalai Lama on their person, and will show the photograph and smile. Once, when visiting a monastery known for being restive, I was surrounded by young monks who, upon finishing evening prayers, chanted “Dalai Lama” under their breath as they ran past.

The big question both in Dharamsala and in Beijing is what happens when the Dalai Lama dies. The Dalai Lama has said that when the time is right, he and and the high lamas of Tibetan Buddhism will decide who will take over from him, even if the office should be continued or not.

Traditionally, a child is chosen to be the reincarnation of the Dalai Lama, a search usually limited to Tibet, but this can take years, and he has said his reincarnation would not be reborn in China if Tibet is not free.

This has raised prospects of two successors, one recognised by Beijing and the other chosen by Tibetan exiles with the blessing of the Dalai Lama.

That happened in 1995, when the Dalai Lama chose a six-year-old child, Gedhun Choekyi Nyima, to be the 11th Panchen Lama, the second most powerful figure in Tibetan Buddhism, after the 10th Panchen Lama died in 1989.

However, the Chinese central government chose its own successor, Gyaltsen Norbu, and the young Gedhun disappeared and has not been seen since.

Beijing looks set to intervene in the administration of the reincarnation of the Dalai Lama, having indicated that the title of Dalai Lama should be conferred by the central government, otherwise it is not legal.

The government has said the reincarnation of any living Buddha should respect the religious rules, historical standards and state laws and regulations.

This kind of statement is darkly comical, as the profoundly secular Communist Party intervenes in questions of reincarnation. But ultimately the decision about who holds sway in Tibet is likely to be a political, not a spiritual, matter.