Exiles of a Different Kind: Time for the Dalai Lama and Aung San Suu Kyi to Move On
It’s never easy to criticize Nobel laureates, especially the Dalai Lama and Aung San Suu Kyi, who are among the most courageous and inspirational people of our times. However, after decades of impasse, it’s worth asking whether they should reconsider their tactics.
Due to restrictions forced upon them by rigid governments, they both seem to have hit a wall in terms of their ability to affect events in their homelands. One is a roving protester exiled from his home; the other is an imprisoned leader exiled from the world.
The Chinese and Burmese governments, bent on national unity under one almighty party, both seem determined to stifle them until they pass away. Foreign leaders and media titans, who have championed them for decades while at the same time seeking access to markets and resources, are increasingly unlikely to sacrifice business interests for human rights.
Thus the game is most likely over. Suu Kyi, 64, will probably never have the chance to claim the leadership she won in the 1990 election. The Dalai Lama, 74, will never lead an independent Tibet; realizing this, he only seeks cultural and religious autonomy within China.
At the very least, world leaders should press China and Burma to reverse their situations: the Dalai Lama has to go home to Tibet, and Suu Kyi should be allowed to travel abroad. Even if this is viewed as a white flag of surrender, and a sign of international support for the two governments in question, this freedom of mobility would empower the Dalai Lama, Suu Kyi and their supporters in the long run, and also benefit China and Burma.
Letting Suu Kyi out to do what the Dalai Lama has been doing for 50 years would bring Burma’s plight – which, above all other issues, is extreme poverty and ignorance – to the attention of every country she visits. Nobody will expect her to become an ambassador for the Burmese government. But she could at least put Burma into the media spotlight, and move it higher up Washington’s agenda alongside smaller nations such as North Korea, Afghanistan and Iraq. She alone can be a lightning rod for the tourism, foreign investment and grassroots development efforts that have gone instead to Thailand, Cambodia and others, which have also experienced despotic governments that brutalize opponents.
The return of the Dalai Lama to Tibet would reinvigorate Tibetans, who often put spirituality above politics and economics. Thousands, perhaps millions, of exiles and tourists would follow him home. China would benefit, because many would buy tickets on Chinese trains and planes, and spend money at Chinese-run hotels and restaurants. Visitors would also notice the efforts to integrate Tibet into China’s overall development, and meet young Tibetans who want to learn Chinese and join China’s upward mobility.
If nothing changes for these leaders, however, they could both lose touch with social and cultural evolution in their homelands and abroad.
During the Dalai Lama’s recent visit to the FCCJ, it was ironic to note that several people in the audience have done what the Dalai Lama has not done for some time: walk inside his house, the Potala Palace in Lhasa. We wanted to tell him that visitors still find it a wonderful place, even with the Chinese flags and police cars out front. We wanted to tell him about the new breed of Tibetans who’ve adapted to the last 50 years, in ways that even the Dalai Lama couldn’t imagine. Most importantly, we wanted him to see the Chinese in a whole new light; a people who are trying their best to cope with the same walls that Beijing hardliners build around the Tibetan exile movement.
Yet the Dalai Lama, like the wise old Buddhist monks of Burma, seems more interested in saving our souls from suffering and modern stress. Admitting he knows little about economics, he blamed the global downturn on “greed, greed, greed, and speculation.” He challenged us to review modern education, which has “failed to build inner strength.”
“If moral values are based on religious faith, it never can be universal,” he said during his 35-minute opening speech. “We should simply use our common sense, and latest scientific findings.”
The gap in generations and cultures came to light when an FCCJ moderator asked a young Xinhua reporter to come forward. Like others in the packed room, he appeared starstruck just to stand before a man who is the Mahatma Gandhi of our time. But the Chinese reporter couldn’t publicly show admiration for the Dalai Lama. With professional composure, he carefully toed the line of his bosses in Beijing. He told the Dalai Lama that Chinese were learning about compassion in schools, and going to Tibetan restaurants and shops in Beijing. The winner of a Chinese-style American Idol type TV show, he explained, was a Tibetan girl for the second time in four years.
At first, the Dalai Lama seemed puzzled, and his assistants tried to explain American-Idol-type TV shows. Then the tone of the love fest at the FCCJ suddenly changed. The Dalai Lama showed his combative side, the fierce resolve of a lifelong rebel, a punk in monk’s robes. “You have no freedom. That’s unfortunate,” he said to the reporter. He went on to chastise Xinhua and the Chinese government for demonizing him and the Tibetan autonomy movement and lying to the people.
“Please go to China, without security persons, with free access to see reality,” he told reporters. “If China says the majority of Tibetan people are happy, then we are wrong, and we should apologize. Investigate what is the real situation. Propaganda won’t solve it. Transparency is lacking in all these authoritarian countries, especially China. Money power alone cannot buy trust. Transparency builds trust.”
There was a different mood in the room. The Dalai Lama didn’t need to tell reporters who’ve been working or traveling around China for years that we “have no freedom.” I couldn’t help thinking: “We know what it’s actually like inside China; sadly, the Dalai Lama does not.”
It’s not like 1959. The government isn’t a monolith. Mao is like an inside joke, a souvenir from the distant past. On any given evening, people crowd into Internet cafes in the city of Xining in Qinghai Province, smoking, drinking, hungry for porn and massages. They gorge on as much as they can eat and afford. They migrate across the country, via efficient trains, deluxe buses and spiffy airports, dreaming they can make it rich. Many of them hide Tibetan flags and Dalai Lama pendants, and cheer for those Tibetan contestants on TV. They say one thing – the politically correct version – while feeling something else. Just like honne and tatemae in Japan. Just like Thais when dealing with royalty, or Burmese talking about the junta. Just like Americans talking about Tiger Woods and his “transgressions.” Everybody knows there’s a difference between official bullshit and reality, and we toe the line and ride the gravy train, in order to get by. Just like China, 2009.
But how can we tell the Dalai Lama this? He’s our hero. He hugs us like children. He charms us by making fun of himself and his role, saying the surgery to remove his gall bladder “scientifically proves the Dalai Lama has no healing power.” When talking about a controversial visit to a Chinese border area, he quips, “The Chinese government sees me as a troublemaker, so it’s my duty to make trouble.”
He speaks in parables, about an Andean bird that feeds its baby because of biology, not religious faith. “Everybody comes from our mother. Each of us, deep in our blood, has this potential to show affection to each other. This does not come through religious faith or constitution, but by nature and biological factor.” And somehow, through his mental power attained from meditation and Tibetan belief that he is the chosen one, he makes us realize in our own way that we are that South American baby bird.
Yet, as his answer to another reporter’s question rambles on for 10 minutes, we can’t help wondering what further exile will do to him. Even his account of the March 2008 Tibetan uprising seemed secondhand and questionable. “After lunch, we received a call. They sent a message to me,” he said. “Now, in some parts of Lhasa, people are already moving in demonstration.” He was referring to a march from Drepung Monastery toward the Potala Palace on a Monday that led to Friday’s riots and a Chinese security crackdown across western China. “I immediately felt hopelessness, helplessness. I felt the same feeling as 1959. Chinese security didn’t take action, but took pictures, movies. They deliberately created a false picture. I was told that Chinese military officials brought in weapons to monasteries to prove Tibetan violent demonstrations.”
Whether this is true or not, it’s hard to imagine how anyone, even the Dalai Lama and Suu Kyi, can feel the pulse of a nation from a position of isolation. Perhaps aware of this himself, the Dalai Lama made an extra effort, at the end of the press conference, to reach out to the Xinhua reporters. It was a moment when the complexities of the China-Tibet relationship crystallized into a simple human encounter. He greeted them in Mandarin, and patted their backs and caressed their arms, to impart his warmth to them, and feel their vitality. “You see, this is why they call me the Devil,” he quipped, drawing laughter from the crowd.
An older Xinhua reporter smiled and said to the Dalai Lama in English, for all to hear, one word which China, for its own benefit, should be repeating all the way to Lhasa: “Welcome.” ❶