Recognized as the 14th Dalai Lama since 1950, the Tibetan born as Lhamo Dondrub recently admitted he believed he should be the last to boast the religious and once-political title.
The quote, pulled from the English transcript of an interview granted to Welt am Sonntag on the 7th, reads: ‘’We had a Dalai Lama for almost five centuries. The 14th Dalai Lama now is very popular. Let us then finish with a popular Dalai Lama.’’ His Holiness’s Office, however, was quick to refute the most common interpretation—that the Dalai Lama ‘reincarnation line’ was definitely coming to an end—, its own website underscoring the fact that while ‘’personally, [he] feel[s] the institution of the Dalai Lama has served its purpose”, ”whether the institute of the Dalai Lama remains or not depends entirely on the wishes of the Tibetan people.’’ They also repeated that this is not a novel statement on the part of Tenzin Gyatso (the religious name chosen by the Dalai), having allegedly been made clear as early as 1969.
Despite this, analysts (amongst others Richard Barnett, a Columbia professor and Tibet expert) are interpreting this as a kind of ultimatum to China: in the words of Barnett, ‘’negotiate with me before I die’’. Indeed, perhaps Beijing will find itself forced to conclude some kind of agreement with the spiritual head of Tibetan Buddhism as the seventy-nine-year-old ages.
If anything, however, independence (or greater autonomy, the stated goal of Gyatso) for Tibet seems even less likely than it did in 1959, when a failed uprising forced the current Dalai Lama into exile. In the Greater Tibet claimed by separatist groups, ethnic Tibetans have become a minority since the 1990s. This is due to massive influx of Han Chinese for the construction of infrastructure, as well as an alleged sterilization and infanticide campaign. Foreign journalists and human rights monitors are banned from the areas, complicating the painting of an accurate picture. Refugees having fled the country also bring tales of torture and forced labour, as well as arbitrary detention and disappearances following brutal crackdowns on manifestations.
More relevantly to this strategy-based cultural genocide, a term which could also be used to describe Beijing’s policies targeting the Muslim-majority Xinjiang province, religious freedoms have been violated since China’s 1950 invasion of Tibet. Today’s methods, however, have a longer-term focus than forcing nuns and monks to copulate on the ruins of their temple, or the destruction of over 6 000 Buddhist temples in the thirty years following the annexation.
In 1995, Tenzin Gyatso designated a young boy, Gedhun Choekyi Nyima, as Panchem Lama (a title ranked immediately under the Dalai Lama in the Buddhist hierarchy, the Panchem Lama plays an important role in identifying and recognizing the Dalai Lama’s newest reincarnation). Shortly after Nyima was recognized as the 11th Panchem Lama, the People’s Republic of China had him spirited away allegedly for his own protection. It is impossible to know the state of the boy or that of his parents. Since, a second, government-backed candidate has emerged: Gyaltsen Norbu.
Given both the spiritual and political roles played by the Panchem Lama, it is easy to understand the value his allegiance would have for the ruling Communist Party. The Dalai Lama, identified in part by the Panchem, is incontestably Tibet’s best-known ambassador and autonomy advocate, and while Beijing hijacking the lineage may immortalize the memory of Gyatso, the advantages of creating a puppet leader are very likely to far outweigh the inconveniences caused by the initial outrage. Despite the Dalai Lama devolving his political power to a democratic government, the prestige and influence the post holds could still go a fair way to advancing Beijing’s interests in Tibet.
Another action that could go a long way to discrediting the Tibetan government-in-exile would be to refuse to disclose Nyima’s date of death. When searching for a reincarnation, Tibetan Buddhists must find an individual having been born roughly as the previous incarnation died. Given the current Dalai Lama states their resurrections are likely to take place away from the now-oppressed land of Tibet—with no restrictions narrowing down the place of birth—, forgetting to mention the Panchem Lama’s passing would presumably render the search nigh-impossible.
Gyaltsen Norbu is referred to by Tibetans as Panchen Zuma, translating roughly to ‘false Panchen’. However, faced with an incomplete or inexistent religious structure—legitimate Panchen either imprisoned or unidentified, and legitimate Dalai reincarnated far away, unrecognized, or simply ‘gone’—in the following decades, it does not seem impossible that Tibetans will either grudgingly accept the replacements offered by China’s puppet leaders or will begin to abandon aspects of Buddhism.
Given the likely catastrophic implications of this for Tibet, I advance the theory that the Dalai Lama’s talks with China (which last took place in early 2010, with my tentative prediction for resumption to be around 2025, when the Dalai is due to consult Tibetans on his fate) would focus increasingly on the liberation of Gedhun Choekyi Nyima as the Dalai ages—likely taking a much softer stance on China and Tibetan independence as an end result of the eventually-successful negotiations—, and that he will strike the possibility of permanently leaving the planet.