The Dalai Lama's hidden past

Wednesday, September 25, 1996

Comment by Norm Dixon

Most solidarity and environmental groups supporting the Tibetan people's cause have not questioned the Dalai Lama's role in Tibetan history or addressed what it would mean for the Tibetan people if the Dalai Lama and his coterie returned to power.

A 1995 document distributed by the Dalai Lama's Office of Tibet aggressively states that "China tries to justify its occupation and repressive rule of Tibet by pretending that it 'liberated' Tibetan society from 'medieval feudal serfdom' and 'slavery'. Beijing trots out this myth to counter every international pressure to review its repressive policies in Tibet." It then coyly concedes: "Traditional Tibetan society was by no means perfect ... However, it was not as bad as China would have us believe."

Was this a myth? Tibet's Buddhist monastic nobility controlled all land on behalf of the "gods". They monopolised the country's wealth by exacting tribute and labour services from peasants and herders. This system was similar to how the medieval Catholic Church exploited peasants in feudal Europe.

Tibetan peasants and herders had little personal freedom. Without the permission of the priests, or lamas, they could not do anything. They were considered appendages to the monastery. The peasantry lived in dire poverty while enormous wealth accumulated in the monasteries and in the Dalai Lama's palace in Lhasa.

In 1956 the Dalai Lama, fearing that the Chinese government would soon move on Lhasa, issued an appeal for gold and jewels to construct another throne for himself. This, he argued, would help rid Tibet of "bad omens". One hundred and twenty tons were collected. When the Dalai Lama fled to India in 1959, he was preceded by more than 60 tons of treasure.



Romantic notions about the "peaceful" and "harmonious" nature of Tibetan Buddhist monastic life should be tested against reality. The Lithang Monastery in eastern Tibet was where a major rebellion against Chinese rule erupted in 1956. Beijing tried to levy taxes on its trade and wealth. The monastery housed 5000 monks and operated 113 "satellite" monasteries, all supported by the labour of the peasants.

Chris Mullin, writing in the Far Eastern Economic Review in 1975, described Lithang's monks as "not monks in the Western sense ... many were involved in private trade; some carried guns and spent much of their time violently feuding with rival monasteries. One former citizen describes Lithang as 'like the Wild West'."

The Tibetan "government" in Lhasa was composed of lamas selected for their religious piety. At the head of this theocracy was the Dalai Lama. The concepts democracy, human rights or universal education were unknown.

The Dalai Lama and the majority of the elite agreed to give away Tibet's de facto independence in 1950 once they were assured by Beijing their exploitative system would be maintained. Nine years later, only when they felt their privileges were threatened, did they revolt. Suddenly the words "democracy" and "human rights" entered the vocabulary of the government-in-exile, operating out of Dharamsala in India ever since.

Dharamsala and the Dalai Lama's commitment to democracy seems weak. An Office of Tibet document claims "soon after His Holiness the Dalai Lama's arrival in India, he re-established the Tibetan Government in exile, based on modern democratic principles". Yet it took more than 30 years for an Assembly of Tibetan People's Deputies to be directly elected from among the 130,000 exiles. Of 46 assembly members, only 30 are elected. The other 16 are appointed by religious authorities or directly by the Dalai Lama.

All assembly decisions must be approved by the Dalai Lama, whose sole claim to the status of head of state is that he has been selected by the gods. The separation of church and state is yet to be recognised by the Dalai Lama as a "modern democratic principle".

The right-wing nature of the Dalai Lama and the government-in-exile was further exposed by its relationship with the US CIA. The Dalai Lama concealed the CIA's role in the 1959 uprising until 1975.

Between 1956 and 1972 the CIA armed and trained Tibetan guerillas. The Dalai Lama's brothers acted as intermediaries. Before the 1959 uprising, the CIA parachuted arms and trained guerillas into eastern Tibet. The Dalai Lama maintained radio contact with the CIA during his 1959 escape to India.

Even the Dalai Lama's commitment to allowing the Tibetan people a genuine act of self-determination is debatable. Without consultation with the Tibetan people, the Dalai Lama openly abandoned his movement's demand for independence in 1987. This shift was first communicated to Beijing secretly in 1984. The Dalai Lama's proposals now amount to calling for negotiations with Beijing to allow him and his exiled government to resume administrative power in an "autonomous", albeit larger, Tibet. The Dalai Lama's call for international pressure on Beijing seeks only to achieve this.

There are indications that a younger generation of exiled Tibetans is now questioning the traditional leadership. In Dharamsala, the New Internationalist reported recently, young Tibetans have criticised the abandonment of the demand for independence and the Dalai Lama's rejection of armed struggle. They openly question the influence of religion, saying it holds back the struggle. Some have received death threats for challenging the old guard. Several recently-arrived refugees were elected to the Assembly of Tibetan People's Deputies.

The Tibetan people deserve the right to national self-determination. However, supporting their struggle should not mean that we uncritically support the self-proclaimed leadership of the Dalai Lama and his compromised "government-in-exile". Their commitment to human rights, democracy and support for genuine self-determination can only be judged from their actions and their willingness to tell the truth.

From GLW issue 248