Geopolitics of Religion
Professor Isabel Ruck
4th April 2013
Tibet: A Buddhist Battlefield
* “In the sky, there is no distinction of east and west; people create distinctions out of their own minds and then believe them to be true.”
Every truth is hence a matter of perspective. This Buddhist proverb speaks of the absence of an absolute truth regarding what people believe. How does this Buddhist philosophy play out in geopolitics? The case of Tibet is a fascinating one. In this paper, we will explore the different factors driving change in the Tibetan resistance movement. To what extent did the Dalai Lama sanction the guerilla movement, and the consequent violence? How does the sizeable Tibetan diaspora influence the course of the resistance movement?
The Tibet-China conflict is rooted in history, with tensions beginning in 1959 after the invasion of Tibet by the newly founded People’s Republic of China. The Chinese authorities quickly quelled the Tibetan uprising, and the spiritual and political leader of Tibet, the Dalai Lama, was forced into exile, fleeing to Dharamshala, a town in North India, along with thousands of Tibetan refugees. The central issue here is sovereignty. China claims that Tibet has long been a part of its country, a claim profusely denied by most Tibetans. The Chinese use this claim to justify their occupation of the territory, while Tibetans argue that Tibet has always had a special status, specifically referring to all those periods in history during which Tibet enjoyed autonomy and self-rule. The tension between the two countries has been consistently rising over the years due to many of the policies adopted by the Chinese authorities, including curbing of cultural and religious freedoms, strict monitoring of monasteries, propaganda against the Dalai Lama and an unwillingness to engage in constructive dialogue with him. Additionally, the Chinese government has also tried to transform the demographics of the region by encouraging mass migration of the Han Chinese community, further increasing Tibetan hostility. The Chinese maintain that this is for the economic prosperity of the region, and immediately point to the statistics; in less than thirty years, the GDP in Tibet has grown twenty-fold. The country has been experiencing double digit growth, with flourishing agricultural and tourist sectors, the latter bringing in an impressive 8.5 million tourists in 2011. This influx of visitors is perhaps also reflective of a rising level of international interest in this small Buddhist nation. Buddhism, which arrived in Tibet from India back in the seventh century, has since been of paramount importance in the nation’s affairs. Buddhism has, however, become necessarily politicized in modern day Tibet, due to the fears of a Communist China. Chinese authorities fear the fervent worship associated with the religion, and strongly believe that the head of the Tibetan Buddhists, the Dalai Lama, poses a serious separatist threat to their country. The government in exile today, headed by the Dalai Lama, is located in the North Indian town of Dharamshala. It works much like any other government; it has its own system of courts, a cabinet, thousands of civil servants, runs several schools, and even runs some foreign missions. It now has a Prime Minister (Mr. Lobsang Sangay) In this essay, I argue that the Dalai Lama’s complex and changing role has a profound impact on the Tibetan guerilla movement and the consequent violence. The movement is also heavily influenced by the activities of the large Tibetan diaspora across the world. To understand the Tibetan movement, we must first look at the themes of violence and non-violence in Buddhism. The rising numbers of self-immolations that have been publicized internationally provide a lens for understanding the Tibetan psyche. Violence is strongly condemned by Buddhist principles. However, suicide, generally,...