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Los Angeles Times Interview : Dalai Lama : Using Nonviolence Against a Powerful Authoritarian Regime

May 15, 1994|John-Thor Dahlburg | John-Thor Dahlburg is New Delhi bureau chief for The Times

DHARAMSALA, INDIA — On the veranda of his audience hall, in the shadow of the saw-toothed Outer Himalayas, Tibet's "god-king," who lost his kingdom when the Chinese invaded, walks briskly forth to greet his people. More than a hundred visiting Tibetans crowd under the corrugated roof. At the appearance of the Dalai Lama, they bow low, many so in awe they dare not look him in the face. For them, the owl-eyed, bespectacled Buddhist monk with a passion for flowers and mending watches is their nation incarnate.

The Dalai Lama fled into India in 1959, following a failed revolt. Ironically, this apostle of nonviolence escaped the Chinese by grabbing a soldier's coat and rifle to disguise his identity.

Now 58, the spiritual head of Tibetans lives with his exile government in Dharamsala, in India's Himachal Pradesh state. Five years ago, he won the Nobel Peace Prize. He does not hide his regret that his commitment to using peaceful and democratic means to restore Tibet's freedom has not brought Beijing to the bargaining table--despite Deng Xiaoping's assurances, in 1979, that any option short of independence would be considered. They have not even been enticed by the high lama's 1988 proposal that Tibet be a self-governing entity in China, with the Chinese in charge of foreign policy and defense.

Born Lhamo Dhondrub to a peasant woman with 16 children, the Dalai Lama was recognized at age 2 as the reincarnation of his predecessor, the 13th Dalai Lama, and thus an incarnation of Avalokitesvara, the Buddhist Bodhisattva of Compassion. Since 1642, Tibet had been ruled by the Dalai Lama, whose title can be translated as "ocean of wisdom."

On April 28, he met briefly with President Bill Clinton in the office of Vice President Al Gore. The format was designed to minimize offense to China. Nonetheless, Beijing accused Washington of "serious interference" in its internal affairs.

Wearing burgundy socks that match his sleeveless monk's robe, the Dalai Lama spoke for nearly an hour in a long, cool room off the porch where he receives delegations. Punctuating his words frequently with his infectious laughter, he talked about policy toward China, Beijing's "Final Solution" for Tibet and his indomitable hopes for the future.

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Question: Last March, in your address marking the 35th anniversary of the Tibetan uprising, you noted with dismay that your offers to talk have failed to elicit any positive reaction from the Chinese. Has your approach been an error?

Answer: I don't consider it a mistake. No. One of the main purposes of my proposal is to start meaningful negotiations with the Chinese government or to bring China to the negotiating table. That, so far, has failed. Another objective is to reduce Chinese-population transfer into Tibet. That also failed.

However, for the past 14 years, my approach has raised more interest on the international level and made it easier for foreign governments to support the Tibet issue. And then, in the eyes of ordinary Chinese people--I mean intellectuals and students--in their eyes, my approach is very reasonable and suitable.

Q: But what can you do now?

A: I'm waiting to see how much effect will be caused by international pressure on the Chinese government. So if, you see, that also fails--doesn't produce a result--then I am going to ask the Tibetan people, outside (Tibet) as well as inside. The people outside I can ask openly in a referendum. Inside, through visitors, we can communicate. I can collect their views.

Now, I would like to give them some few options. One option: My approach for the past 14 years. Another option is what critics say about my approach. They say we should stand firm on independence.

Q: Speaking of choices, the United States has to decide about China's most-favored-nation status by June 3. As you know, last year President Bill Clinton made this renewal conditional on Beijing achieving progress in certain human-rights categories, including safeguarding of Tibet's culture and religion. Do you think the United States should continue MFN for China ?

A: The decision taken by the President last year was perfect. This year, I have no particular suggestion. However, I do feel it is very important to take a decision according to the wishes of the Chinese--those Chinese who are really carrying out the struggle for democracy and freedom.

Q: So Chinese advocates for democracy should decide an issue that also concerns your homeland?

A: I feel the Tibet issue is very much linked with the overall Chinese policy or situation. So long as the hard-line or authoritarian system remains there (in Beijing), frankly speaking, there is not much chance for change.

Q: It has been five years since the suppression of China's "democracy spring." Reports from China now say apathy and the desire to grow rich seem to be replacing political consciousness. Who are you pinning your hopes on?

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