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Geopolitics

Orphans Of The Dalai Lama

The surprise March 10 announcement of the Dalai Lama's retirement from political life stunned Dharamsala, capital of Tibet’s exile community, where people fear their cause will be forgotten, and followers could turn to violence.

Orphans Of The Dalai Lama
Frédéric Bobin

DHARAMSALA - Tsering Gyatso knows nothing about Che Guevara. Nevertheless, the iconic image of the bearded Latin American revolutionary is splashed on this young Tibetan monk's T-shirt. When asked if he knows that Che Guevara was a Communist, the 22-year-old opens his eyes in quiet wonder. But Gyatso's puzzled silence does not last long, quickly letting out a hearty laugh at the irony of the situation.

Behind Gyatso, the sun is illuminating the Himalayan foothills of India. Further away, the Dhauladhar mountain range extends in glacial peaks. At this moment Gyatso is at peace. Just as he had dreamed of for years, he has rediscovered his smile.

At the beginning of the year Gyatso fled Lhasa, the capital of Chinese-controlled Tibet. He crossed over illegally to Dharamsala, a small town of the north-Indian state of Himachal Pradesh, after spending two years in jail for participating in protests in Lhasa, where he became a drifter after being expelled from the Sera monastery.

Gyatso was captivated by a dream: to meet the 14th Dalai Lama, the Tibetan religious leader. A man of many names, the Dalai Lama is also known as the "god-king," the reincarnation of Chenrezig, a bodhisattva (enlightened being). In Dharamsala, the capital of Tibetan exiles, the Dalai Lama makes a habit of meeting with all Tibetan refugees arriving on Indian soil.

Gyatso's vision, however, did not play out quite the way he had imagined. Though together with a group of other new arrivals, the young monk did have an opportunity to meet the Dalai Lama, the mood was grim. Several days before, on March 10, the Dalai Lama had announced his retirement from politics, telling his fellow Tibetan exiles it is time they govern themselves. The announcement coincided with the anniversary of the uprising in Lhasa of 1959, when the Dalai Lama first escaped to Dharamsala.

In a historic gesture, the revered Tibetan leader dismantled the institution of the dalai lama, which has played the dual role of both spiritual and political authority since 1642. The dalai lama figure, he decided, will continue to serve as a spiritual authority but relinquish political power to a "freely elected leader." His announcement is nothing less than a revolution – both secular and democratic –in Tibetan politics.

For the young Gyatso, who had just finished his journey through the heart of the icy mountain passes, the announcement came as a shock. "I was very anxious," he said. "My concern was that, alone, we wouldn't be able to continue our battle for a free Tibet."

The Dalai Lama explained that he'd made his decision with the long-term interest of his people in mind. In the end, Gyatso was convinced. "The Dalai Lama is 76-years-old," said Gyatso. "He will not always be by our side. And so we should prepare ourselves now for this reality."

Others in Dharamsala are slower to accept the momentous change. "I didn't sleep well for two nights," confessed Ngawang Norbu, the director of the refugee-welcoming center. In his office, which is adorned with portraits of the Dalai Lama and Gandhi, Norbu recalls joining the exiled administration because the Dalai Lama was leading it. "With him gone, everything will be different. The mission of serving the official institutions of the diaspora could suffer."

At first glance, Dharamsala lives up to its image. The city is perched at 5,577 feet above sea level along a mountainside of pine trees. The neighborhood of Lac Leod Gani, in the heart of the small Tibetan town known as "Little Lhasa," offers a vibrant array of colors. There are steep, winding alleyways with monks in dark red robes, Hindu shopkeepers, beggars holding bowls, and hippies wrapped in colorful wool. This picture postcard is brightened by monkeys hanging from electrical wires and cows nudging at temple doors with their noses.

But behind this tranquil appearance there is a raw emotion – one that's "difficult to explain," admitted Urgen Tenzin, the director of the Tibetan Center for Human Rights and Democracy. The Dalai Lama has been such a vital part of the Tibetan cause for so long that many simply can't imagine how this separation will play out.

One major concern is how the decision will impact future international support. "If people throughout the world know about the Tibetan struggle," said Urgen Tenzin, "it's thanks to the Dalai Lama's charisma. What will happen now to the international response to our cause?"

People are concerned as well that with the Dalai Lama's political absence, his message of non-violence might lose some if its influence. "Without him, I'm afraid that certain Tibetans will stop acting non-violently," warned Sonam Yangchen, a nun originally from Ladakh. Meeting in the famous convent of Ganden Choeling, at the center of a room where dogs with plush fur sit on pink blankets, a young nun with a shaved head adjusts her glasses before asking: "And what if we don't find a competent leader to show us the right way?"

Dolma Gyari, vice-president of the exiled parliament, is also disturbed by the Dalai Lama's decision. "We are in the process of facing one of the biggest challenges in Tibetan history," she said. Like all the Tibetans, she had been aware that the Dalai Lama wanted to retire from politics. Indeed, the "Lord of the White Lotus' made no secret of that desire. Still, his radical decision on March 10 came as a huge shock for many, Gyari included.

"This is beyond our imagination," she said, rubbing tears out of her eyes. "He is the symbol of our national unity, of our civilization!"

Read the original article in French.

Photo - Amitrunchal

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