Interview with the Dalai Lama

Uncertainty surrounds the future of the Tibetan movement as the 14th Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso, turns 77. Last year, the Tibetan spiritual leader announced he would relinquish his political roles, a position the Dalai Lamas have enjoyed since the 5th Dalai Lama, Lobsang Gyatso (1617-82). The decision came at a time of new challenges facing the Tibetan movement. More than 40 Tibetans in Tibetan areas across China have set themselves on fire in the past year to protest Chinese policies, with some calling for the exiled leader’s return. The self-immolations have triggered accusations from Beijing of a plot being instigated by the Dalai Lama. Negotiations with China have stalled after the Tibetan leader’s envoys resigned last month, citing a hardening Chinese stand.

The 14th Dalai Lama discussed these challenges in a wide-ranging interview with Ananth Krishnan in his residence in the hill-station town of McLeod Ganj, Dharamsala, in Himachal Pradesh, on July 6, his 77th birthday. Following his decision to devolve power to a leader elected by the exiled Tibetan community, the Dalai Lama said he was, for the first time, “sleeping soundly.” At a time when some Tibetans are calling for more radical ways to voice concerns, he spoke of his determination to follow the “Middle Way” approach of finding a solution to the Tibetan question within the framework of the Chinese Constitution. He said it was in Tibetans’ own interest to remain within China “in order to modernise,” provided Beijing guaranteed meaningful autonomy. If China was “thinking in a more realistic way,” the Dalai Lama said, “then we are always ready.” Excerpts.

After you made the decision of relinquishing your political authority, how has the adjustment been, for you and for Tibetans?

I am very happy. In fact, one of my secrets is that the day I formally announced or handed over all my political responsibility, that night I had very unusual sound sleep. No dreams. Just very sound sleep. I really feel, in any case, I am getting older. Our struggle is an issue or struggle for the rights of a nation. That responsibility should be carried on by the Tibetan people themselves, and should not rely on one person.

During our election, I noticed that in the Tibetan community, they are really showing genuine interest and a sense of responsibility... This is also not only my own retirement but also that of a four-century-old Tibetan tradition. Now that has ended. Proudly, voluntarily, happily.

Your special envoy in talks with Beijing, Lodi Gyari, resigned last month. Do you share his concerns that China is moving further away from trying to reach a solution?

In the last 10 years, we have had nine meetings. Because their policy is something fixed, there has been no effect. Therefore, the two envoys also feel frustrated and they resigned. That does not mean we have no interest to talk. Now there is a new elected leader [Lobsang Sangay]. As soon as he was elected, he made it clear that as far as our relationship with the Chinese government is concerned, the Middle Way approach will continue. There is no change on our side. Once the [Chinese] leadership is thinking in a more realistic way, then we are always ready.

Following recent problems, such as the 2008 riots in Tibet and now the self-immolations, Beijing has claimed the incidents were planned in Dharamsala. You have said there needs to be a fact-finding mission.

That is very important. After the 2008 crisis, even Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao, who is usually considered more moderate, blamed all these crises as being instigated from Dharamsala. Then I immediately responded, saying please send some Chinese officials and check all of our records. But there was no response.

When the first self-immolation happened, again I expressed that. The Chinese still blame everything on us. If the Chinese have the confidence, they must allow the international community to see the truth. That is very important. If they do not allow, it is an indication that they have the feeling of guilt, that they have something to hide.

Since 2008, local conditions are much worse… On the other hand, I met a number of Chinese who told me that after the 2008 crisis, they paid more attention about the crisis and feel genuine sympathy. In that respect, there is some benefit. The Chinese propaganda always says the Tibetan people are very happy, that they were liberated from the feudal system under the Dalai Lama. So now their propaganda is on shaky ground.

Following the immolations, more people may be aware of problems, but on the other hand, some Tibetan poets and writers have expressed a concern that young Tibetans must be encouraged to cherish their life and not give it away. Do you share their view?

This is a very, very delicate political issue. Now, the reality is that if I say something positive, then the Chinese immediately blame me. If I say something negative, then the family members of those people feel very sad. They sacrificed their own life. It is not easy. So I do not want to create some kind of impression that this is wrong. So the best thing is to remain neutral. Right from the beginning, when this sort of event happened, what I said, and still I am insisting, is this is not happening due to alcohol or family quarrels.

Now the Chinese government must carry thorough research, what is the cause of this, and not pretend that nothing is wrong. Like [former Chinese leader] Hu Yaobang said in the early 1980s when he came to Lhasa, he publicly apologised about what they had done, the past mistakes. He promised they would follow a more realistic policy. Now for that kind of courage, that kind of spirit, the time has come.

Do you still have the belief that a solution to the Tibetan issue could be found within the Chinese Constitution, for meaningful autonomy?

That is the only way, the only realistic way. Number one, many Tibetans inside Tibet want independence, but according to the circumstance, the Dalai Lama supports the Middle Way approach, which is the best, realistic way. I have met, personally, quite a number of Tibetan intellectuals, some old, some young, and they all express to me they fully realise that our approach is the best approach.

Second, in order to find the solution to the Tibetan problem, Chinese support is very important. The solution must be found between Chinese and Tibetans. We have to find understanding or support from our Chinese brothers and sisters. Also, at this moment, [Tibetans] have never had the experience of democracy. Even in the refugee community, the Khampas, Amdos, U-Tsang [the three traditional Tibetan regions] people sometimes have unnecessary competition. Tibet is a huge area and a majority of Tibetans are uneducated and never experienced democracy.

And most important [Tibet is], materially backward. Tibetans also want to modernise Tibet. In order to modernise Tibet, remaining within the People’s Republic of China is in our own interest, provided they must give us meaningful autonomy so that we can carry any activity regarding preservation of our culture, we can promote our language and carry out full protection of the environment. So that is a mutual benefit. Realistically speaking, separate Tibet, at this moment, I don’t think it is really a benefit to us. Our approach for meaningful autonomy is not only for the Tibet Autonomous Region but for the entire area where the Tibetan population exists [in Sichuan, Gansu, Qinghai and Yunnan provinces]. The Chinese Constitution itself recognises Tibetan areas — Tibetan autonomous regions, prefectures or counties. So we are asking the Chinese government that all the areas that the Constitution recognises as a Tibetan area should have the same right of meaningful autonomy.

Some Tibetans feel India is going too far to accommodate China’s concerns on Tibet, especially after Hu Jintao’s visit to New Delhi this year when many Tibetans were detained and not allowed to protest. Do you feel so?

No. I think maybe in the late 20th century and beginning of 21st century maybe [the Indian government was] overcautious and had a reconciliatory attitude. For example, my visit to Tawang [in 2009], in a Cabinet meeting they had a discussion on whether I should go, but ultimately I was able to go. Now the government of India has a more realistic position than in the past. For some period, there were no significant people supporting Tibet or expressing consideration for Tibet. Now, more and more people express support. I told [a meeting of groups] that this is due to Chinese pressure, so we should thank the Chinese! I also told the Tibetans now we, whether Amdo or Khampa, have a very remarkable unity. That is also due to Chinese suppression, so we must thank the Chinese government.

On the issue of reincarnation, when the next, the 15th, Dalai Lama is chosen, China has said it will not accept your choice. In fact, the Communist Party has issued regulations on reincarnation. If China chooses its own Dalai Lama, will there be a division in the Tibetan community?

After a meeting with Tibetan religious leaders [last year] we had a consensus and I made a formal statement where I made very clear that when my age reaches around 90, then I will convene a bigger meeting. Then I will decide [on the issue]... In order for the Chinese government to take responsibility for the Dalai Lama’s reincarnation, then the Chinese Communists should first accept religion and particularly Buddhism, and they should accept the theory of rebirth.

If the Dalai Lama becomes 100 per cent pro-Chinese, then Tibetans will not respect the Dalai Lama. Like what happened with the Panchen Lama. [China appointed a Panchen Lama in 1995 in place of Gendun Choekyi Nyima, who was chosen by the Dalai Lama as the 11th reincarnation and was subsequently disappeared.]

I think the Panchen Lama himself now knows that. Recently during these crises, he has remained very silent. He is quite wise. It looks like the Chinese Panchen Lama is more wise than the Chinese leaders.