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JULY 17, 2000 VOL. 156 NO. 2


Stephen Dupont/Contact Press Images for TIME.
Monks debating at Sera Monastery, Lhasa.

Tibetan Tragedy
As time and tyranny tear into the cultural fabric and spiritual soul of an ancient land, believers hope a new leader-in-exile can complete the Dalai Lama's mission
By ANTHONY SPAETH




The world's image of Tibet—a land of breathtaking beauty, intriguing spirituality and intractable political travails—is really based on two Tibets. One is a vast landmass under the control, and a very tight one, of the People's Republic of China. The other is a widely scattered diaspora of Tibetans who rejected Chinese rule with their feet. The center of that displaced tribe is the Indian mountain town of Dharamsala, where a virtual Tibet has arisen. Maroon-robed monks with shaven heads climb steep lanes for audiences with the Dalai Lama, Tibet's exiled God-King, who has lived there since his escape from China in 1959. Prayer flags fly high atop houses and monasteries: Tibetan tradition says blessings float down from the flags on the mountain breezes.

Few blessings have been showered on the people of either Tibet for the past 50 years. Within China, Tibetans are jailed for nationalist utterings, forbidden to display photos of the Dalai Lama and faced with the very extinction of their culture. The exiles don't have it easy either: they have waited for four decades for the miracle that would send them home with some guaranteed freedoms. Hope is running out—and time, too. The Dalai Lama is generally viewed as the only person capable of striking a decent deal for his people with China. Last week he turned 65. Should he die, many Tibetans feel their cause will perish with him.

But late last year, an intriguing bridge between the two Tibets was spanned. A 14-year-old monk climbed out of his bedroom window in Tsurphu Monastery, 80 km north of Lhasa, and, by foot and by car, made his way surreptitiously to Nepal and then to Dharamsala. His name is Ugyen Trinley Dorge, but his title is Karmapa, the highest lama in the Kagyupa sect of Tibetan Buddhism. Like the Dalai Lama, the Karmapa is an incarnate: he is the 17th incarnation of a wise soul. Now 15, he is barely out of childhood, although strikingly tall and authoritative in voice. China seems stumped: it officially recognized his authority in the past and has yet to denounce him for his escape. Within Tibet, it remains legal to display the Karmapa's pictures. Since January, they have sold like hotcakes.

Spiritually the Karmapa is not the Dalai Lama's successor. (His is a different sect entirely.) But for Tibetans despondent over the impasse, the boy represents new hope that the struggle can continue, and possibly be resolved. Though the Karmapa was once considered a helpless captive of China, his daring escape made him a hero overnight. For now, at least, the Dalai Lama insists he's not a successor. "Not in that way," he told Time. But he concedes that the Karmapa will be an important leader. "I have told him—and I have said this publicly—that my generation is growing old, and the time has come to prepare the next generation of spiritual leaders."

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Dissent: A nun's tale of arrest and torture
Viewpoint: Both sides must compromise before it's too late
Photo Essay: Web-only exclusive--photographs of a forgotten homeland

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SPOTLIGHT

MILESTONES

TRAVEL WATCH: Finding Rustic Charm Down on the Farm

Can a 15-year-old boy upset, for better or worse, a standoff that is half a century old? Perhaps so, considering the treatment he is receiving in India. The Dalai Lama's government-in-exile has housed the Karmapa in an empty religious-studies center in Dharamsala, where he lives with a few helpers, a sister who preceded him into exile—and more than 30 guards. He doesn't get out often, and every trip has to be planned well in advance. His sect has a vibrant monastery nearby and a headquarters in the Indian state of Sikkim, but the boy's public life has been restricted to daily audiences open to the devout and the curious, including many Western tourists. His aides say his day is dull even by the standards of a Buddhist monk and that he is lonelier in exile than he was in China. He has made the passage that is familiar to all of those who have moved between the two Tibets, from the unfree homeland to the limbo of exile.

There is no easy solution to the Tibetan impasse. The arguments between the conflicting sides have barely budged in four decades, as if Tibet were some enigmatic Buddhist riddle that must be played out eternally. But times have changed. Just look at the thaws around the region. Beijing now manages a highly autonomous Hong Kong with a surprisingly light hand. Taiwan's new President Chen Shui-bian has invited his communist counterparts across the strait for a summit. North Korea's Kim Jong Il, head of another of the last communist holdouts, turned on the charm last month and suddenly a Korean rapprochement seems possible. Is there hope for Tibet?

If Tibetan culture is to survive, time is of the essence. Beijing has flooded Tibet with Chinese settlers—Tibetans may now be a minority in their major cities—and cracked down on political activity, religious training and the teaching of the Tibetan language. "Tibetan culture has at least one more generation in it inside Tibet," says Ron Schwartz, a sociology professor at Memorial University of Newfoundland and author of a book on the anti-Chinese riots of 1987 and 1988. "Beyond that it would be difficult to say." In other words, a political miracle may be the only hope that there will be a Tibet for anyone to go home to.

Tibet, particularly in its cities, is a bubbling mix of modernization, intimidation and a rapid influx of ugliness. Old neighborhoods are being demolished. Brothels with Chinese sex workers flourish. Signs posted at monasteries instruct the clergy to denounce the Dalai Lama. Tibetan study courses at Lhasa University have been largely dropped—the few that remain are for students from abroad. Young Tibetans are becoming frivolous, parents complain, with the overnight import of consumerism. Portraits of the Dalai Lama have to be hidden from neighborhood spies.

In the other Tibet, life in exile is hardly paradise. The religious education in India is fine—some monks come for training at the Sera Monastic University in the southern part of the country and return afterward to Tibet. But Dharamsala was meant to be a temporary refuge, and the wait has gone on too long. The old now doubt that they will ever achieve their dream of going home, and their progeny show more interest in motorbikes and migration to the West. Tashi Choezum, a 58-year-old refugee in Bylakuppe, a Tibetan settlement in southern India, says she put her nine children through school so "they would fight for Tibet." But most now live abroad—one more loose thread in a fraying community.

The past few weeks have been good for the Dalai Lama and, if you watched TV, splendid for the Tibetan cause. His Holiness had his sixth meeting with Bill Clinton, sandwiched between talks with U.S. congressional leaders and Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. He spent time impressing backers on the West Coast. Late last week, the World Bank got caught up in the fray. It couldn't decide whether to lend China the funds to pay for the transfer of thousands of farmers onto fertile land in Qinghai province. Tibetan organizations abroad criticized the project as part of Beijing's plan to colonize areas populated by Tibetans. When it looked as if the World Bank might cancel the loan or impose new restrictions, China angrily said it didn't want the money and withdrew its request.

To Beijing, however, such conflicts are mostly sideshows. China has possession of Tibet—with its tourist potential, mineral wealth and position as a buffer against India—and that, to paraphrase the old bromide, is nine-tenths of the battle. Tibetan groups proclaimed the collapse of the loan as a major victory. But the resettlement is still likely to take place, and without the outside world's financing and supervision. Politically, the communists don't need to dangle in front of Tibetans the "one country, two systems" formula that helped win Britain's agreement to return Hong Kong in 1997. Tibet has been in China's grasp since the People's Liberation Army invaded in 1950. Tibet's two waves of nationalistic uprising—a major one in 1959, and a pair of riots in Lhasa in the 1980s—make Beijing nervous, particularly with revered leaders like the Dalai Lama and the Karmapa overseas.

Within Tibet, Beijing has responded to the threat by launching one of the oddest and most extensive efforts at social engineering the world has seen. China says it wants to bring development and modernity to a historically backward land, and by some measures it has. Office and apartment blocks with blue tinted windows, ubiquitous throughout modernizing China, have sprouted around Lhasa, the spiritual cradle of Tibet. Discos and karaoke bars throb in the shadow of the Potala Palace, the Dalai Lama's former seat of power. Nearby is the new Lhasa Department Store, a sumptuous oasis in which wide-eyed monks experience their first, nervous escalator rides. Tibet's gdp rose 9.1% last year, according to official figures, which also show that the per-capita income of farmers and herdsmen jumped 7.9%. And Beijing insists that Tibetan traditions are being respected. It recently released a 29-page document extolling preservation efforts and detailing the sums spent: $36 million yearly to keep monasteries going, more than $6.6 million on repairs of the Potala Palace. Talk of an attempt to extinguish Tibetan culture, the report says, is "prattle."

Swamping Tibetan culture is probably a better description. In the so-called Tibetan Autonomous Region, ethnic Tibetans now number 6 million, or only 44% of the population, according to the Dalai Lama's government-in-exile. China disputes those figures, but its own census data is from 1990, before the most recent waves of Han Chinese immigrants. At the Sera Monastery outside Lhasa, novice monks still debate one another on Buddhist doctrine, a traditional training. But they do so at set times so that busloads of tourists, including many ethnic Chinese, can watch. On top of that are the police-state methods, highly evolved and ultra-vigilant, of smothering nationalism. Neighborhood spy networks operate as they did during the Cultural Revolution; there are political detainees and recurring reports of torture of prisoners.

China's hope, surely, is that economic development will take the steam out of Tibetan nationalism—and to a certain extent this is happening. Religion is fading as the central element of identity within Tibet, which has led to the appearance of what some foreign analysts call "secular" Tibetans. These are the urban folk who hang out at places like the Princess Bhrikuti Dancehall, a couple of blocks from the Potala Palace. On any given night the place is packed with businessmen, officials, Generation X-ers—all Tibetan, none Chinese. They have cut deals with their consciences to thrive in the neocolonial business atmosphere.

Nonetheless there is a hint of subversion in the air. Princess Bhrikuti, for whom the bar was named, was a wife of the Tibetan warrior king who introduced Buddhism to the Tibetan court. This is a jab: Chinese propaganda frequently mentions Songtsen's other wife, an ethnic Chinese princess, as evidence of the strong links between the two lands. On stage, a man belts out a song about two cranes, one that died and the other that flew away. That's an allegory: one crane is the Dalai Lama, the other the late Panchen Lama, his No. 2, who passed away in 1989. The conversation is very much about modern Tibet, and a visitor is reminded that China's spin regarding development should be received skeptically. According to the United Nations, the average local life expectancy is 60 years, compared with 75 in Shanghai. Tibet's grain output tripled from 1952 to 1980—but has barely budged since. The U.N. Development Program's human development index ranks life in Tibet on par with that in Zimbabwe or Equatorial Guinea. The us-and-them feeling is pervasive at the Princess Bhrikuti, a bit like Prague during the cold war. But whether the complaints are jovial or bitter, they are always very discreet.

There are bars in Dharamsala, too, thousands of kilometers from Tibet but close to the headquarters of the Dalai Lama and the large, empty structure that is the Karmapa's new home. In those watering holes, the talk is hot-headed. "I want to go blow up a few bridges," says one young Tibetan, who has a college degree, loves mtv and has never seen his homeland. "The Chinese don't care because we don't do anything about it." It's a common refrain. Some young exiles, after a few beers, wonder aloud why Tibetans can't be as brutal as the separatist Tamil Tigers of Sri Lanka. But come daylight, most of their energies are directed toward more practical affairs, like getting visas for the U.S. There are 120,000 Tibetans in India: the majority were born there. "Two generations have been brought up in exile," says Tsten Norbu, president of the Tibetan Youth Congress, an exile group. "They don't have a sense of belonging to Tibet."

This alienation poses perhaps the biggest risk to Tibetans' hopes of regaining meaningful autonomy in their homeland. Many young exiles have no patience for the Dalai Lama's "middle path" of peaceful negotiation, and life in India doesn't offer many opportunities either. Politics is a controlled affair: much of the government-in-exile is run by the Dalai Lama's relatives. Religious leaders spend a lot of their time traveling to the West to gather sympathetic cash for their sect or monasteries. Even the Dalai Lama is worried. "Some monks," he said in a recent speech, "are becoming businessmen, selling dharma [divine law] for more dollars." The result is an exile community fast losing coherence.

Standing above it all, still larger than life, is the Dalai Lama. Tibetans and their supporters have invested enormous hopes in his ability to somehow make things right. But some within the exile community fear that Tibetans will follow his nonviolent injunctions until he expires—taking with him the entire Tibetan cause. That, they reason, is what Beijing is banking on. With only token pressure from the West, China has little cause to do otherwise. "Short of radical political change, I don't see the iron laws of empire relaxed even among the most pro-Western Chinese leaders," says Graham Hutchings, China watcher at Oxford Analytica, a London-based international consultant group. "The game is moving rapidly China's way." For Tibetans, it looks like only a miracle could turn the situation around.

A kind of miracle occurs every time a top Tibetan lama dies. His soul is reborn, and his followers, using premonitions and traditional divination techniques, seek out the new incarnation. Beijing has gotten involved in the last two major searches—for the Panchen Lama and the current Karmapa—creating much consternation. To prevent that happening after his own demise, the Dalai Lama has said he will be reborn outside of China's borders—so that Beijing can't control his successor's upbringing and training. For a people whose fate is in the hands of an elderly holy man and a teenage monk, that plan has actually brought some hope—but it is of the faint, fatalistic kind so familiar to the people of both Tibets.

—Reported by Jaime A. FlorCruz and Mia Turner/Beijing, Meenakshi Ganguly/Bylakuppe, Michael Fathers/Dharamsala, Jacob Sullivan/London, Deborah Jones/Vancouver, Barry Hillenbrand/Washington and bureaus

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