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A Tenacious Fighter's Low-Key U.S. Quest : Exiled Dalai Lama Quietly Presses His 28-Year Campaign for Tibetan Liberty

September 22, 1987|K.E.S. KIRBY | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — For one of the world's most tenacious fighters, His Holiness the Dalai Lama is disarmingly serene.

The manner is unprepossessing, almost self-effacing, as comfortable as the maroon monk's robe and lace-up oxfords he wears. The voice, rich and resonant, is given to laughter and bursts of Tibetan when the proper word is elusive in English. The cheekbones are high and sculpted, the smile as broad as the Tsangpo River that irrigates his arid, otherworldly homeland of Tibet.

The Dalai Lama, spiritual and political leader of the world's 6 million Tibetan Buddhists, is one of the world's most famous refugees, forced into exile after the Chinese invaded Tibet in 1949 and suppressed a rebellion there in 1959. But although his adversary is the world's most populous nation, he is nearly three decades into his fight for independence from Beijing and says he is far from alone.

World Opinion Is Helpful

"I feel, you see, I can serve much better from outside Tibet," he said Monday, his gesturing hands accenting virtually every phrase. "In the meantime, world opinion is also very helpful."

During a 10-day U.S. visit, he is meeting with congressional leaders to press the cause of Tibetan independence, conferring with former President Jimmy Carter, who visited the region in June, and giving teachings on Buddhism as well as participating in interfaith services.

From Washington, he will carry his message to Bloomington, Ind., Washington, N.J., and New York, where actor Richard Gere will announce plans for a proposed Tibetan cultural institution in the United States.

The Washington stopover coincides with Senate consideration of a House-passed resolution condemning Tibetan human-rights violations by China, including 1.2 million deaths--one-sixth of the population--imprisonment and torture of hundreds of thousands, and the destruction of more than 6,200 monasteries containing priceless art and literature.

If the massiveness of the ruination in Tibet seems dramatic, the details of the life of the Dalai Lama, whose given name is Tenzin Gyatso, are no less so.

In 1937, at the age of 2, he was recognized as the reincarnation of his predecessor, the 13th manifestation of Chenrezig, the Buddha of compassion. Traveling from Lhasa, a delegation of lamas arrived in the remote village of Taktser in disguise after prophecies by Tibet's three state oracles indicated that the 14th Dalai Lama would be found there.

Before the child Tenzin Gyatso, they placed several articles that had belonged to the 13th Dalai Lama, along with fake duplicates. Asked to choose one object from each pair, the boy unhesitatingly picked all the genuine items. In addition, he bore the eight physical marks--ranging from large ears to stripes like a tiger's on the back of his legs--that help distinguish the Dalai Lama from all other men.

The joyous lamas knew they had found the reincarnation.

While still a teen-ager, the Dalai Lama assumed full political power as head of state after the Chinese occupied Tibet. And, as relations with Peking deteriorated, he fled the massive 1,000-room Potala Palace, establishing the Tibetan government-in-exile in the hill town of Dharmsala, in northern India.

The question of whether the Dalai Lama--certainly the most worldly wise and political of his lineage--will ever be able to return to his homeland still looms large, although prospects are generally considered dimmer than they were even two years ago.

Representatives of the government-in-exile had been negotiating with Chinese officials about such a visit since the early 1980s, but the talks broke down after China insisted that the Dalai Lama renounce the cause of Tibetan independence and spend most of his stay in Peking. Now, many observers feel that the time for reconciliation may have passed.

But for the Dalai Lama, the question is far from settled. He said in an interview that he remains in direct contact with the Chinese government and has not ruled out a visit home.

And in an address to the Congressional Human Rights Caucus on Monday, he urged "earnest negotiations" between the Chinese and his government and proposed a five-point peace plan as a "first step" toward resolving the future status of Tibet.

"We wish to approach this subject in a reasonable and realistic way, in a spirit of frankness and conciliation and with a view to finding a solution that is in the long-term interest of all--the Tibetans, the Chinese and all other peoples concerned," he said.

Then, in a display of the fighter's spirit underlying the mild exterior, he told the congressmen that today the Tibetan people "are, at best, second-class citizens in their own country, deprived of the most basic democratic rights and freedoms. All power is wielded by colonial officials of the Chinese Communist Party and army."

Indeed, one of the Chinese policies that worries Tibetans most--and one the Dalai Lama addressed on Capitol Hill--is that of importing ethnic Han Chinese onto the high Himalayan plateau.

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