Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Dalai Lama — Freedom Fighter or just a great Salesman

by Yau-Man Chan, Mar 15, 2009

Earlier this week, on my way to lunch, I had to weave my way through throngs of students queuing up to try to get tickets to see the Dalai Lama who will be speaking at the university (University of California, Berkeley) in April. This is the 50th anniversary of his exile from Tibet — when the Chinese government annexed his country.  The Dalai Lama, his family and his “court” escaped and are now all living in exile in Dharamsala, India. With no country to run, his full time job is now the chief propagandist for the Tibetan government-in-exile, and by all accounts, he is really good at it.

As attested to by the long line of admirers waiting to get tickets to hear him, some of whom camped out overnight to be guaranteed a spot up front, his message of non-violent resistance to the Chinese occupation struck a chord with idealistic young students.  In my casual conversations with a few random students in line, it became quite apparent that none of them really know anything about Tibet, her history, her culture or what happened 50 years ago.  All they know about the Dalai Lama is what is reported by an uncritical press which succeeded in cultivating enormous respect for “His Holiness.” But how is he deserving of this adoration?  Is it just pity for having lost his mountain feudal kingdom that he is accorded this unearned respect and privilege?  The Western presses have by and large been willing propaganda tools for the Tibetan government-in-exile since day one, 50 years ago.  When it comes to total lack of objectivity in reporting, cuddling the Free Tibet movement is as bad as it can get.  It also helps to have Hollywood on their side too!  Hollywood stars and starlets may not know who Gordon Brown is or even the name of our Vice-President but they all know the Dalai Lama.

It is certainly easy to see how the Dalai Lama can be such a lovable figure. He is quite good looking — as a young man he was very handsome and now in his 70’s, he still has the face and smile that everyone wants in a grandfather.  He speaks passable English with a hint of Oxford-British accent which further endears him to American audiences.  In the U.S., press on both the right and the left end of the political spectrum incessantly fawn over him and never even pretend to cover him objectively.  He is a poster-boy for the right — any victim of the evil Chinese communist bully gets a free pass in any political discourse with this crowd.  He is easily the darling of the political left — his plea for a non-violent resolution of his homeland dispute with the Chinese government brought out the Gandhi-complex among Hollywood elites weened on the anti-war movement which in turn helped command the attention of the celebrity obsessed press.  His latest book “The Universe is a Single Atom” (2006) upped the ante for New-Agers, bringing respectability to all manners of “quantum reality” woo.  With so much pseudo-science packed in one volume, he can make Deepak Chopra’s works read like real physics.

My fellow blogger Brian Dunning has done a podcast recently about Tibet which included some reality of Tibet and Tibetan society not commonly reported, so I will not repeat many of his points here.  But call me a curmudgeon, for I have a less charitable view of the Dalai Lama. Every time I run into people demonstrating to help free Tibet or ask me to sign a petition to “Free Tibet”, I usually stare at them and ask them “Free Tibet for what? To go back to their feudal system with slaves and let the Dalai Lama lord over his minions?” Of course, whenever I bring this up, I’m accused of being a stooge of the Chinese government or worse.  Just to set the record straight, I am a very severe critic of the Chinese regime as there are a lot to criticize them for — both my father and mother have lost members of their family to that regime for no other reason than owning enough properties to be considered capitalist dogs during the Cultural Revolution. However, the one-sided reporting of all the goings on in Tibet raise the skeptic ire in me.  Every time there is a demonstration in Lhasa, especially when bloodshed is involved, it’s always the Chinese Government’s fault and the Dalai Lama has nothing to do with it. Really?  Did the Western press just reprint press-releases from the Tibet Government-in-exile and did they actually check to see if he or his minions cooling their heels in luxury in Dharamsala may or may not have encouraged an uprising?

How many heads of state are addressed as “His Holiness?”  Actually according to the official Tibet government, his full title is: Holy Lord, Gentle Glory, Compassionate, Defender of the Faith, Ocean of Wisdom ! Aren’t such flowery honorifics reserved for leaders in totalitarian states like North Korea (“Dear Leader”, “Great Leader” etc.)  or reigning monarchs with no real powers like the Queen of England?  Is it possible that being addressed as “His Holiness” is important for a politician who wants to get a free pass from a cynical public.  When he repeats the oft quoted figure of 1.2 millions Tibetans killed by the Chinese during their brutal annexation exercise, “His Holiness” does not have to provide proof or cite sources and no one in the popular press found it necessary to check up on those figures. Given that the population of Tibet in 1950 was 1.5 million from Chinese sources and 4 million from Tibet government-in-exile source, the 1.2 million casualty number has to be highly suspect.  (The 1994 Report of the Conference of International Lawyers on Issues Relating to Tibet cited a population of 1.8 million in 1964 and 2.1 million in 1990.)

He was selected as the re-incarnation of the Buddha when he was TWO years old.  In 1950, at the age of 15 — yes — fifteen — as in 1 — 5 — he was installed as the political head of state and government — not just a titular head like some baby monarch of the past but one with real power.  In 1954, when he was 19, he went in person to engage in peace talks with Chinese Chairman Mao Tse-Tung and Premier Chou En-Lai.  Did he really think that these two seasoned revolutionaries and survivors of years of political struggles and now undisputed leaders of the most populous country would take him seriously?   Just imagine if the Iranian government were to send a teenager to negotiate with the U.S. to try to reestablish diplomatic relations, we would be highly insulted and the rest of the world would laugh — and deservedly so.  Well, of course “His Holiness” was not a teenager then, he was re-incarnated, so he was already really a few hundred year old even though his chronological age was only 19. No really! This is what happens when a group of people actually believe fantasies of their own making and assume that everyone else will play along.

Accurate reporting of the Dalai Lama and Tibet is very rare — even in the age of Internet communications. Almost all articles not written by the Chinese Government are Pro-Dalai Lama. Any articles critical of the Dalai Lama are immediately suspected as being propaganda of the Chinese.  There is definitely a conspicuous absence of articles describing the conditions of the Tibetan peasants, or comparing pre and post-Chinese occupation Tibetan society. Whether it’s Times, Newsweek, Harpers, New Yorker or National Review, popular magazines in the U.S. all paint a rosy picture of a smiling avuncular Dalai Lama driven from his peaceful Utopian mountain paradise and appealing to the world to help him return. (“Help” usually means “send money.”) It is not until the curious readers get their hands on more academic publications like Foreign Affairs or Asian Journal of Political Science that a more studied picture of the real Tibet can be understood in context with its history, religion and culture.  Among popular press, this UK Telegraph’s article from last year, Myth and Reality in Tibet is a rare exception. The March 2008 article opened with this observation:
The myth, of course, is an outgrowth of Tibet’s former inaccessibility, which has fostered illusions about this mysterious land in the midst of the Himalayan Mountains — illusions that have been skillfully promoted for political purposes by the Dalai Lama’s advocates.

And for a peek into the lives of the serfs under the old regime, this from historian Michael Parenti’s Friendly Feudalism is most telling: 

Young Tibetan boys were regularly taken from their peasant families and brought into the monasteries to be trained as monks. Once there, they were bonded for life. Tashì-Tsering, a monk, reports that it was common for peasant children to be sexually mistreated in the monasteries. He himself was a victim of repeated rape, beginning at age nine.  The monastic estates also conscripted children for lifelong servitude as domestics, dance performers, and soldiers.

Parenti’s well documented account of conditions of women under the Lama-regime will outrage any of the women students standing in line waiting for tickets to hear “His Holiness” expound on the rights of men and pleas to “free” his country:

Not all Tibetan exiles are enamored of the old Shangri-La theocracy. Kim Lewis, who studied healing methods with a Buddhist monk in Berkeley, California, had occasion to talk at length with more than a dozen Tibetan women who lived in the monk’s building. When she asked how they felt about returning to their homeland, the sentiment was unanimously negative. At first, Lewis assumed that their reluctance had to do with the Chinese occupation, but they quickly informed her otherwise. They said they were extremely grateful “not to have to marry 4 or 5 men, be pregnant almost all the time,” or deal with sexually transmitted diseases contacted from a straying husband. The younger women “were delighted to be getting an education, wanted absolutely nothing to do with any religion, and wondered why Americans were so naïve [about Tibet].” 

That there are so few articles in the popular press with a more balanced evaluation of post-occupation Tibet is certainly the Chinese government’s own fault. Their heavy-handed censorship and mishandling of the foreign press have time and again backfired on them. If the Dalai Lama and his government-in-exile have done everything right in cultivating the Western press, the Chinese government has done everything wrong — antagonize and alienated them and worse, alienated the Western media consumers.  Suppose CBS were to do an honest 60-Minutes feature piece and highlighted some positive aspects of Tibetan peasants especially that of women today as compared to the abject feudal days of the Lamaist rule, no one would believe them — or worse, accuse the producers of being propaganda tools by only interviewing pro-Chinese peasants.

By all accounts, Tibetan society before being “liberated” and occupied by the Chinese, was a dastardly backwards serfdom run by monks, monasteries and feudal lords. If the very uptight Chinese government will just let the world press free run of the country, Western media consumers might just find out how much happier the Tibetans are with their lot in life now compared to before “liberation” when the ruling feudal lords and monastic authorities literally “owned” the peasant population. But because the Chinese government’s credibility among the Western press is practically nonexistent, no one would believe them or any reports from the field as to the satisfaction with life from ordinary Tibetans today. The Chinese government, by their own repressive press policy, denied themselves a great opportunity to tell their side of the story to the world while the Dalai Lama jets around the world merrily cashing checks from a naive un-skeptical American public who found a hero figure in him.

Is it important for the young people standing in line waiting for tickets to adore His Holiness know a little bit more about Tibet? Yes, because naively, I like to belief that they are the future leaders of this country and it is time they stop seeing the politics of the world in black and white.  40 years ago, we found ourselves entangled in the Vietnam War and lost tens of thousands of lives without understanding what it was all about.  It was a lot more than just the “good guys” democracy-loving South Vietnamese versus the evil Commie Vietcong — it was nationalism, it was ethnic Chinese urban intelligentsia versus indigenous rural natives, etc.  Then 30 years later we repeated this exercise in ignorance with Iraq, again not understanding that it’s a lot more than just Saddam the “bad guy” versus the “good guys,” the Iraqi people.  We are now mired in it because we were clueless as to the depth of hatred for each other among the Sunnis, Shiites, Kurd and other minor factions — all of whom we ignorantly lumped together as “the Iraqi people.”  I doubt if we will ever go to war over Tibet but we all have the responsibility to not be cheerleaders for every cause that make us “feel good.” The least we can do before we write checks to every freedom fighter that descends on our campuses is to make sure that he/she is not just a slick salesman.

Finally, to point out the motes in the Dalai Lama’s adoring fans eyes is not to say we endorse the Chinese actions in Tibet 50 years ago. But by the same token, romanticizing the old misogynistic aristocratic theocracy of the old Tibet and ignoring the social and civil progress post-occupation, and blindly supporting the figurehead of the old regime, would be equally counterproductive.

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