Italian lesson for the Dalai Lama

2008-04-15Asia Times

BEIJING - Perhaps the Dalai Lama, king-god of Tibet, head of Lamaist Buddhism and icon of the present anti-Chinese protests, could have something to learn from Italy. Italy is the only country to have faced a problem similar to that of China with the Dalai Lama: of the occupation of a territory previously governed by a religious monarch. In the case of Italy, it was the pope, in the case of China, it is the Dalai Lama.

Between the two experiences there are very many differences. Italy and the Vatican shared the same capital, Rome. China, on the other hand, has Beijing as its capital, and Tibet stops at Lhasa. Italy has a major Catholic population, faithful, therefore, in spirit to the pope. In China, only a small minority is Lamaist Buddhist.

With that said, there is no experience in the world as similar as that of Italy and China, of dialectic and unity between state and church.

Here, there is a crucial problem for the Dalai Lama, whether as a religious or political leader. The Chinese government does not object to the Dalai Lama as a religious leader, but it opposes with force the political role of the Dalai Lama, icon of a possible future independent Tibet.

It is true that the Dalai Lama no longer asks for the independence of Tibet, but neither has he absolutely renounced independence for the mountainous territory. The renunciation of independence is presented like a temporary solution and other future political settlements have not been renounced in conclusive terms. To accept this limited renunciation, for China it means to admit the future possibility of the independence of Tibet, a politically destabilizing admission for Beijing.

Furthermore, in particular, the Tibetan government in exile in India, constituted of Tibetans who fled from Tibet at the time of the 1959 anti-Chinese uprising, it fights for the return of an independent Tibet. Besides, for "Tibet", the exiles do not think of the present Tibet Autonomous Region, but of the historical Tibet, a region approximately a quarter of Chinese territory that comprises all of the province of Qinghai, parts of Sichuan and of Gansu and Xinjiang.

The Tibetans in exile emphasize that the Chinese occupation of Tibet was an invasion. Perhaps, in that it was no different from the Italian occupation of Rome, taken by the cannon shells of Porta Pia in 1870. Neither one looks much different from the cavalry charges of the American army against the Indians in the same period.

The "invasion" of Tibet occurred 80 years after Rome was taken by the Italian state, and approximately 60 years after the defeat of the last Indian rebels in the United States. Fifty-seven years have now passed since Chinese troops marched into Lhasa.

To touch on history once again after such a long period is complicated, delicate and dangerous for all. Moreover, political geography, like physics, does not tolerate a vacuum or weak links. An independent Tibet not stable under the Chinese orbit will have to fall under another orbit, and in the area there is only India and Pakistan.

Any withdrawal of China from Tibet would be a concession of this fact to these two powerful neighbors, something that at the very least would destabilize the balance of the region and of the world, raising the specter of a war in which millions could lose their lives. This, without counting the loss of Chinese territory, to which the majority of the Chinese would not be at all favorable.

Therefore, we would like to argue that there are at least three powerful arguments for which the issue of Tibet's independence should be completely shelved: too much time has passed; the Chinese will not now, nor ever, renounce a quarter of their territory; and such a renunciation would destabilize the region and the world.

In other words, the political backdrop to the Dalai Lama looks similar to that when the pope had to renounce his temporal powers with the Lateranensi Pacts in 1929, 59 years after the takeover of Porta Pia.

There remains the problem of a homeland for Tibetans exiles, a noble issue, one of principle but perhaps hard to resolve.

In the past, the northern states of the US waged war against the Confederates of the South when they proclaimed secession from the Union. Today, it is still taboo to think of a single homeland for Kurds, a population straggling Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Syria.

The recent history of Yugoslavia after the end of the Cold War proves the difficulty in creating national states where there was a transnational union. An independent homeland for Tibetans could create problems a thousand times greater than those of the former Yugoslavia.

Perhaps, then, we should stop talking about the invasion of Tibet, of the past destruction of its temples, of staging beauty pageants with the name "Miss Tibet" without "China", as happened a few months ago in Malaysia. This is history that cannot be rewritten.

There are thousands of real problems to face: safeguarding Tibetan culture, and the spread of its faith. These are all sacrosanct, but surely not at the cost of Tibet's isolation from the world. The rail link between Lhasa and Beijing is the fruit of modernity, the development of transport and communications, and not simply the brutality of the Chinese wanting to invade the region.

Sure, the Chinese should not use religion, such as the control of and the selection of the Lamas, to assert their political agenda in Tibet. But at the same time, one should not have pro-independence Tibetans using the religious prestige of the Lamas to assert their political agenda for Tibet.

As an inspiration, there is the renunciation in principle of the Vatican to the political control of Rome that has created the conditions for rapprochement with the Italian state.

If we could suggest something to the Dalai Lama, it would be to look at the Italian experience, knowing also that there are enormous differences: the Chinese are not Lamaists, and Lhasa is not the capital of China. These two elements, ultimately, will weaken the possibility of negotiation between the Dalai Lama and Beijing.

The margins for negotiations with Beijing today are tighter. There is mutual distrust and there is the conviction in Beijing of their ability to control the situation. When the Dalai Lama dies, Beijing will choose another who will be under its control. In response, the Dalai Lama could also reincarnate in America and have a successor elected among the Lamas abroad. But such a solution will only sanction the creation a Lamaist church outside Tibet, which, like the Catholic one of Avignon, in the Middle Ages, will be condemned to the political non-influence in China and Tibet, for the single reason of being far away and out of touch.

Paradoxically, the single way for the Dalai Lama to make a mark would be for him to try to re-enter China, at any price. This could re-establish unity between Lamaists in and out of Tibet. This would force Beijing into dialogue with the Lamaists, something that today can simply be disregarded. (2008-04-15 Asia Times)


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