Letter from Little Lhasa

By Singh, Ajay | The American Spectator, April 1999 | Go to article overview

Letter from Little Lhasa


Singh, Ajay, The American Spectator


Tibetan despair and the end of nonviolence.

However great the violence used against us, it could never become right to use violence in reply.

-His Holiness the Dalai Lama (1962)

Even though he had lived in exile from Tibet for 39 long years, Thupten Ngodup never gave up hope of returning to his homeland someday. Earlier this year, Thupten and a group of fellow exiles participated in a hunger strike in New Delhi to call on the United Nations to debate the issue of Tibetan independence. When policemen broke up their fast-unto-death demonstration, Thupten, 6o, decided to fight back. He doused his clothing with kerosene, lit a match, and set himself ablaze. "Long live the Dalai Lama," he screamed, his body a mass of flames. "Free Tibet!"

Thupten died shortly afterward, earning the distinction of being the first Tibetan activist to commit self-immolation. The Dalai Lama described Thupten's gesture as an act of "violence" that reflected the "frustration and urgency building up among many Tibetans." The 63-year-old Nobel laureate then went on to make a candid, if surprising, admission. "I have made every effort for the past zo years for the self-rule of Tibetans," he told his people. "But I have failed.... I am confused.... I have no alternative solution to offer."

During a visit to the United States last November, the Dalai Lama countered widespread expectations by refusing to make a unilateral statement that would pave the way for a dialogue with Peking on the "Tibet question." The lack of a positive response from His Holiness highlighted both his mistrust of Chinese authorities and his fear that many Tibetans would oppose any deal that would fall well short of self-determination for his people.

Among Tibetan exiles there has long been a vocal minority that favors no solution for Tibet other than outright independence. This group is prepared to take up the gun and fight for the freedom of their motherland. The Dalai Lama has tried to distance himself from such hard-liners, stressing his belief in ahimsa, or the Buddhist ideal of doing no harm. But two generations of Tibetans have put their faith in that unwavering credo of their leader and still have no real hope of seeing their motherland free. It was this frustration that led Thupten to his fiery death. Tibet watchers believe that this dramatic action could inspire others to do the same, and steer the half-century-old independence movement away from the Dalai Lama's emphasis on non-violence.

"If somebody can immolate himself, there's no reason to believe there might not be a bomb next time," says Vijay Kranti, who has written a biography of the Dalai Lama. There may be repercussions across the border, too. "If you have selfimmolations in Lhasa, there could be chaos," says noted sinologist Orville Schell. "The Chinese would come down heavily on that sort of thing."

It is these fears that bring me to Dharamsala, a small hill resort perched on the western foothills of the Himalayan range that separates the Indian subcontinent from the high plateau of Tibet. The place has somewhat wistfully come to be known as "Little Lhasa," for it is here that the Dalai Lama resides along with some 8,000 Tibetans, plus his government-in-exile. My aim is twofold: to find out if Thupten's death and the hunger strike will push hard-line exiles toward militancy; and to search for any truth behind reports of a rift between these hard-liners and the Dalai Lama's moderate leadership.

The headquarters of the Tibetan Youth Congress is located in a modest two-story wooden edifice on a road sloping uphill from the town square. The largest and most respected political organization in the exile community, it was the TYC that fired the first salvo against the Dalai Lama's administration just after Thupten torched himself, organizing a hunger strike that lasted 67 days. "We, the people of Tibet, need an answer," TYC president Tseten Norbu demanded. …

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