In 2008, Beliefnet editor Valerie Reiss asked Professor Robert Thurman, an American authority on Tibetan Buddhism (he was ordained as a monk in 1965 by the Dalai Lama), to discuss the basic issues underlying the current conflict in Tibet. He sent back these answers as he traveled by plane from Delhi to Bhutan.
1. What's the source of the most recent flare-up of violence in Tibet?
Sixty years of Chinese Communist invasion, occupation and anti-Buddhist thought reform (over a million dead) underlie the recent protests and the violence that resulted from China’s heavy-handed response to peaceful expressions of dissent by monks and lay Tibetans. Add to that ongoing colonization and cultural genocide—brought to a head by floods of Chinese in-migrants—plus a hard-line local rule by revived cultural revolutionary cadres who vilify the Dalai Lama daily, and accelerating marginalization of the Tibetans in their own Tibet, and it’s understandable why things have reached this point.
2. Who are the main players?
The whole six million Tibetan people in all of Tibet (the whole plateau), not just in the Tibet Autonomous Region, as this astounding, spontaneous, self-sacrificing wave of protest signals that "the Dalai Lama clique" the Chinese keep mentioning is actually six million strong.
3. What is the goal of the Tibetan Buddhist protestors--Tibet sovereignty?
Yes, of course, freedom in their own homeland, all of it, is the dream of all Tibetans. But the demand is not necessarily pinned to this or that exact strategy; it is not organized to a specific end, other than freedom in general. Meaningful autonomy within a “one-country-two-systems” approach associated with China, as long as it bestowed freedom at home, would suit everyone just as well as sovereignty and recognized nationhood, in the present circumstances.
4. When the Dalai Lama talks of the Middle Way in terms of Tibet, how does it relate to his faith, and how can that work, if we're talking about cultural genocide?
His Middle Way can only be understood in the context of the two extremes it moves between. One extreme is unilateral surrender to China's propaganda claims that it has always owned Tibet, which is simply not true historically, but never mind, Tibetans [should] just give up and accept an overwhelming Chinese colonial presence. The other extreme is to use any means possible to reclaim full sovereign independence and fight for it, including violence if necessary.
The Dalai Lama is principled in his adherence to nonviolence due to his Buddhist faith, and so he cannot go for the violent option. And he is determined to preserve the freedom of Tibetan Buddhism in its homeland, so he cannot acquiesce to the surrender of the Tibetan national identity that the Chinese cultural genocide policy demands, remaking the Tibetans into Chinese (an impossibility, of course).
Therefore, he sincerely proposes a genuine autonomy within a Chinese Union, offering a legitimate, voluntary union with China to avoid violence from either side, since a century of nationalist as well as communist propaganda has convinced most Chinese people that Tibet somehow belongs to them. He backs such an arrangement on the condition of receiving from Beijing a real autonomy within the whole plateau (including all ethnic Tibetan areas over 12,000 feet in altitude, so as to protect the four million Tibetans who live outside the present Tibet Autonomous Region, which is less than half of traditional Tibet). This "one-country, two-systems" arrangement for the regional Tibetan government requires a withdrawal of Han colonists and military occupation, and economic and environmental self-determination.
Under this arrangement, China would get real ownership of Tibet resulting from Tibetan self-determination as part of China, and Tibetans would get real internal freedom in their homeland, to practice their Buddhism and maintain their way of life and restore their delicate environment. This is the Middle Way proposal, in brief outline.
5. What is the goal of the Chinese government?
Full ownership of Tibet, which has huge mineral, agricultural, herbal, and water resources and seems to have almost a million square miles of room for huge Chinese population centers, plus access to disputed areas of Northeast and Northwest India, to which China claims ownership, and a dominating position in relation to the countries of Southern Asia.
6. Why is China opposed to the Dalai Lama and the monks in Tibet?
They fear his spiritual popularity, not only with Tibetan Buddhists but with the one billion traditional and so potential post-communist Buddhists of China, and most importantly they fear that, if they acknowledge his legitimate claim to represent the Tibetan people and negotiate a solution to the problem with him, the world and then their own people will come to learn of the historical fact that Tibet has been and really is a different nation with a different culture and a distinct high altitude environment, and this will eventually lead to the loss of Tibet. They also have a domino-theory fear, that if Tibet were to regain its independence, then Xinjiang (East Turkestan), Inner Mongolia, and Manchuria would also lay claim to their independence, since none of those nations and areas within current Chinese borders consider themselves Chinese.
7. Reports say that some Tibetans have used violence in their protests. Why? Is that a contradiction to the fundamental tenets of Buddhism?
It certainly does seem that some Tibetans burst into violence, burning shops that had deprived them of their livelihoods (Tibetans are being squeezed out of all but the most menial occupations, and Chinese merchants have replaced Tibetans in the marketplace), and so on. It also seems that Chinese soldiers were dressed as monks, then getting themselves photographed throwing rocks and so on, and Chinese plainclothes agents tried to dress themselves up as Eastern Tibetans to parade with knives in front of cameras. Tibetans using violence clearly violates their Buddhist ethics, and some have done so out of decades of pent-up frustration. If any more of them do so from now on, the Dalai Lama has said he will resign as head of the movement, just as Gandhi always called off any nonviolent movement if any participants lost the discipline and blew up into violence.
8. What will happen if the Dalai Lama resigns from his political post as the head of state of the Tibetan Government-in-Exile?
Even now, the Tibetan movement is being officially run by Samdhong Rinpoche, the prime minister of the Tibetan Government-in-Exile. That would simply continue. However, whether resigned or not resigned, the Dalai Lama will inevitably be called upon to speak for the Tibetan nation inside and outside of Tibet.
9. Is the Dalai Lama's life in danger from these events?
Certainly. If the cultural revolutionaries in charge of Tibet just now, Zhang Qingli and Qiangba Puncog, had their way, no doubt an assassination would have already been attempted. However, it seems that those Chinese leaders who really want the world's admiration, in order to build up some soft power to go along with the hard power they have been acquiring, would not issue such an order, and will eventually replace the hard-liners and come up with a more sensible policy.
10. What does the Dalai Lama mean when he says that China is committing "cultural genocide"? How do we all lose out if Tibet is virtually erased?
Since the "Dalai Lama clique," as the Chinese keep mentioning, is now dramatically revealed to be all six million Tibetans, the declaration of the Chinese officials that they will "fight the Dalai Lama clique unto the death" openly proclaims their intention to eliminate all Tibetans who insist on being Tibetan, Buddhist, devoted to the Dalai Lama, and determined to have their freedom under one arrangement or another. The destruction of the Tibetan-ness of the Tibetans amounts to cultural genocide, though tragically, since the Tibetans will not give up their identities, it too easily turns into plain genocide.
11. What will it mean if the next Dalai Lama is elected instead of reincarnated as they have been for centuries?
The incarnation lineage that is now responsible for Tibet as "the Dalai Lama" cannot be replaced by an elected lama – that is not what was intended. That succession will continue as a lama in the Drepung monastery.
The Tibetan people will definitely find out who is the true reincarnation of this Fourteenth Dalai Lama and elect him!
12. What about the Olympics? If the U.S. supports having them in Beijing, is that a vote against the Dalai Lama and Tibetan monks?
Not at all. The Dalai Lama himself supports the Beijing Olympics. The enmity comes only from the Chinese side. The Dalai Lama always wants the benefit of the Chinese as well as that of the Tibetans. He is not against the Chinese. He wants to enter a union with China, voluntarily, as the outcome of a process of self-determination, as soon as China commits to respecting the Tibetans and allowing them to have a true internal autonomy. So if holding the Olympics makes the Chinese more confident, less paranoid and afraid of losing Tibet, then he believes they will feel secure enough to be more generous with Tibet and their other minorities, such as the Uighurs, Mongols, and Manchus, and also with their neighbors.
13. What can individuals do to help resolve this issue in a peaceful, nonviolent way?
We can speak up, tell the Chinese they must open up and be more transparent, and more gentle and kind, and rely more on good deeds to impress the world rather than on aggressive deeds hidden by propaganda and deception.
14. What are some good resources for people who want to know more?