Power before prayer

It is time for Tibetans to ignore the Dalai Lama's policy of non- violence, argues John Billington

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WE HAVE seen how when a head of state is out of touch with the people dangerous divisions can open up. There is some danger that the Dalai Lama, unquestioned head of state of the Tibetan people, may now be getting out of touch with his followers.

Tibet is in the doldrums. Nothing seems to be happening, and the media have little to report, for the Chinese have successfully dampened down the flow of news - never more than a trickle at best - from the country.

Not all Tibetans share the Dalai Lama's faith that non-violence will restore Tibet to its people or persuade the Chinese to leave. Jamyang Norbu, one of the country's most controversial but respected intellectuals, argues that the myth that Tibetans are a uniquely "spiritual" people may satisfy the need of some westerners to idealise Tibet, but ignores the sacrifice and courage of the many freedom-fighters who took on the largest army in the world.

It is perhaps not widely known that some Tibetans feel betrayed by the Dalai Lama's espousal of non-violence. Nor is this new. In 1956, when the Khambas and Amdowas of eastern Tibet put up a heroic resistance to the Chinese, support was lacking from the Dalai Lama, who appeared to favour conciliation with the enemy. He was of course, at 21, very young to be leading a country. No doubt he was intimidated and virtually a prisoner of the Chinese, and he may well have believed that it was suicidal to stand up to the military machine. It can be argued that his altruistic concern was to save the lives of his people. Nonetheless, not all Tibetans share this view.

Looking at how a small country such as Vietnam humiliated the powerful US military, the Afghans did the same to Russia, the Palestinians keep their cause in the world news by violence, and even the so-called "stone- age" inhabitants of Irian Jaya are willing to face death rather than submit to Indonesian occupation, many Tibetans wonder if they might not be better placed if they did something, rather than nothing.

We in the West must not sanctify Tibetans. They are people of flesh and blood like us, with the same aims in life; they want better schooling and healthcare; they want employment; they want a country to call their own; they want the benefits of technology. Just because there is a spiritual vacuum in our own lives doesn't mean we should foist on to others the burden of being more saintly.

I feel embarrassed when some of my colleagues in the Tibet movement speak in reverential tones of the Dalai Lama, as if merely invoking his name were a mantra to ward off all problems. He has never claimed to be infallible, nor to have a monopoly on the truth. He says of himself that he is a simple monk and that his greatest wish is to give up political responsibility. He has tried to instil in his people a love of democracy and to wean them off uncritical adulation of himself. He wants them to stand up and take part in the 20th-century as a people capable of independent thought. Western adherents who follow him uncritically are damaging the cause and making it difficult for his people to debate issues concerning their future.

There was, for example, a more militaristic side to Mahatma Gandhi than is sometimes acknowledged. Gandhi was proud of the contribution of the Indian army in both world wars, and when Pakistan invaded Kashmir, he proclaimed that "Any ... encroachment on our land should be defended by violence, if not by non-violence". Although a devout follower of ahimsa himself, Gandhi was enough of a realist to know that non-violence alone would not get the British out of India. His followers therefore were free to adopt less peaceful measures.

Tibet is faced with annihilation. The Chinese are not going to play a fair game. They despise weakness. They want the land of Tibet and its wealth for themselves. They have double-crossed the Dalai Lama repeatedly, and refused to negotiate. They are not serious about finding a solution to the Tibetan problem - except the "final solution" which is the extinction of Tibet's separate identity. And they have no intention of taking any notice of the faint moral reproach of the rest of the world. They can brazen that out a little longer until the Dalai Lama dies.

There are times when even a small nation must choose to resist or die. Pacifist inertia is not a solution. As Edmund Burke said: "It is necessary only for the good man to do nothing for evil to triumph." Non-violence has become an article of faith among the Tibetan leadership, and the award of the Nobel Peace Prize, combined with the unthinking adulation of many western followers of His Holiness, have contrived to inhibit all rational discussion. Yet history may see this as a betrayal. Not to stand up to the bully may be to betray your own people.

Mahatma Gandhi was a political leader first, and a religious man second. He led marches, endured imprisonment, and faced death; he inspired his followers to resist. Samdhong Rinpoche, a professor at the Institute of Higher Tibetan Studies in Varanasi in India and chairman of the Assembly of Tibetan People's Deputies, has taken upon himself the cloak of the Mahatma, and plans to return to Tibet next year with a group of trained followers to lead a campaign of non-violent civil disobedience. Many Tibetans, seeing the Dalai Lama travelling the world on yet another lecture tour, feel this is not enough. It feeds the spiritual needs of the West, but not of Tibetans impatient to get back their homeland. Perhaps it is the Dalai Lama who should be leading the campaign of civil disobedience.

Between military confrontation and doing nothing there is a spectrum of options, the central aim of which must be to make life difficult for the Chinese. Agitation, boycotts, satire, and hunger-strikes are means of peaceful non-cooperation. A step up from this are forms of sabotage involving damage to property but not to people. At the higher end of escalation of confrontation, and capitalising on the idealism that Tibet inspires, might be a form of volunteer International Brigade. It is not for me to suggest the policy that Tibetans should follow. My point is that a variety of options need arguing through by Tibetans themselves.

An essential reform is also needed within the Tibetan administration. A future Tibetan government needs to separate the clerical administration from the lay, with government securely and exclusively in the hands of lay people. Many people will mourn such a change from the traditional pattern that served Tibet so well until 1950. But the Buddhist establishment in Tibet has consistently opposed all attempts to modernise the country. Its concern is with the timeless sphere; temporal rule in future must be secular. Moreover, it has become corrupted by its very success with westerners, as witness the proliferation of spurious "reincarnations" of tulkus, rinpoches, abbots, and geshes to meet western demand, and inflate the importance of some sect. The Dalai Lama himself has suggested that his own successor should probably be elected or appointed on seniority, more like a president or a Pope. Other Tibetan religious leaders should follow suit.

The Dalai Lama is in a difficult position. He wants to return to being a "simple monk". He has said on many occasions that he would like to renounce his temporal role as political figurehead. He has sought to persuade his people to take upon themselves more democratic responsibility and to produce leaders who will relieve him of the responsibility for his nation's destiny.

Fear of opposing the Dalai Lama and of opposing those who follow him with blind faith, has prevented any plausible Tibetan leader from emerging. But it has not silenced the mutterings of criticism. Jamyang Norbu is not the only articulate Tibetan who is questioning the Dalai Lama's non- violence. In support of his views he cites two comments, one by Mahatma Gandhi, and one by the present Dalai Lama's predecessor. This is Gandhi, in 1920: "I do believe that where there is only a choice between cowardice and violence, I would advise violence. I would rather India resort to arms than that she should become a helpless witness to her own dishonour." And this is the Thirteenth Dalai Lama at the conclusion of his political testament in which he foretold the invasion of Tibet by the Chinese: "We should make every effort to safeguard ourselves against this impending disaster. Use peaceful means where they are appropriate; but where they are not appropriate, do not hesitate to resort to more forceful means."

When I think of Tibet I think of the small farmers, yak-herds and small traders who make up the bulk of the rural population. I think of the dispossessed: of their land, their professions; their cultural artefacts, their mineral and forest resources, and their relatives. It is these Tibetans that western supporters must seek to help. That is what the Dalai Lama wishes. He does not want to be a cult figure for western fan-clubs. We must not make out of the Dalai Lama a cultural icon, nor deny to Tibetans the right to defend their country. We have passports. They don't.

John Billington was chairman of the Tibet Society of the UK from 1993 until this year.

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