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    South Asia
     Nov 11, 2009
Dalai Lama calm in the eye of a storm
By Saransh Sehgal

TAWANG, Arunachal Pradesh, India - Ignoring Chinese protests, India allowed the Dalai Lama to travel on Sunday to the monastery town of Tawang in the disputed state of Arunachal Pradesh, which lies on India's Tibetan border. There, the Tibetan spiritual leader in exile was greeted by thousands of pilgrims who had braved long treks and icy temperatures to see him.

The Dalai Lama's visit comes amid rising tensions between India and China over the sovereignty of Arunachal Pradesh, which Beijing refers to as "southern Tibet". To avoid infuriating Beijing, India has been reluctant in recent years to allow the Dalai Lama to travel to Tawang - the second-holiest city in Tibetan Buddhism after Lhasa, Tibet's capital, in the Tibet Autonomous Region of China.

Beijing has said the Dalai Lama's trip is an attempt to promote


independence for Tibet, a region that accounts for about one-sixth of Chinese territory. "The Dalai Lama is a liar ... He is always involved in activities that undermine the relations between China and other countries as well as ethnic separatist activities," Foreign Ministry spokesman Ma Zhaoxu said at a news briefing last week in Beijing.

The Dalai Lama has made previous visits to Tawang, but these merited little response from China, Vijay Kranti, editor of a newspaper for the Tibetan exile community in India, told the Los Angles Times. He said China's reaction had turned this visit into a bigger deal than it otherwise would be. "The Dalai Lama's best advertising agency is Beijing," Kranti said.

Beijing has become more sensitive and critical of the Dalai Lama's activities since bloody anti-government riots erupted in Lhasa in March 2008, marring the lead-up to the Beijing Summer Olympic Games. Since then, the Chinese government has put diplomatic pressure on foreign leaders to not meet the Dalai Lama or let him engage in high-profile political activities.

The Chinese Communist Party's (CCP's) flagship newspaper, the People's Daily, in unusually aggressive rhetoric, attacked India in mid-October as "a previous victim of colonialism and hegemony [that has] started to dream about developing its own hegemony".

As countries - including the United States - suffer the effects of the global financial crisis, many seem be shying away from the Tibet issue so as not to offend China. India, however, appears to be taking a firmer stance by allowing the Dalai Lama to visit Tawang.

But analysts say the Dalai Lama visit is India's way to show its firm grip on Arunachal Pradesh. China and India have held 13 rounds of boundary talks since 2007 over the disputed area. But these have stalled due to China's claim of sovereignty over Arunachal Pradesh, while India - which still sees its defeat in the brief border war in 1962 as a national humiliation - does not want to relinquish a single inch of land.

India claims that China has illegally occupied 43,180 square kilometers of Jammu and Kashmir, including 5,180 square kilometers ceded to Beijing by Islamabad under the Sino-Pakistan boundary agreement in 1963. China accuses India of possessing some 90,000 square kilometers of its territory, mostly in Arunachal Pradesh.

Economically and in geopolitical stature, China and India - the world's two largest countries in terms of populations and land areas - have risen fast in recent years. While trade and economic ties between China and India are growing, bilateral competition is also on the rise. One's decline could benefit the other's rise.

Wary of a growing Chinese presence in South Asia, New Delhi may see the Tibet issue as a way to limit China's influence in the region. With United States President Barack Obama about to start his first official visit to Asia, including China, now could be a good opportunity for New Delhi to play the Tibet card.

Tibetans in exile were greatly disappointed when Obama refused to meet the Dalai Lama during his visit to Washington last month. Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Joseph Harper (who will also visit China in December) and Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd also declined to meet the Dalai Lama when he visited their countries this year.

With India defying Beijing, Tibetans in exile now hope Obama will not only keep his promise to meet the Dalai Lama after his Beijing trip, but also bring up the Tibet issue during his talks with Chinese leaders. Indian politicians would enjoy seeing the US put pressure on China on this issue, and New Delhi certainly does not want Beijing and Washington to grow closer.

Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh told his Chinese counterpart, Wen Jiabao, on the sidelines of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations summit in Thailand last month that "the Dalai Lama is our honored guest; he is a religious leader". Indian Minister for Indian External Affairs S M Krishna also said that the Dalai Lama was free to visit any part of India.

India's decision to allow the Dalai Lama visit has been generally welcomed by Tibetans in exile. Professor Samdhong Rinpoche, the prime minister of the Tibetan government in exile, based in Dharamsala in India, gave a brief interview to Asia Times Online shortly before the Dalai Lama set off for his Tawang trip.

Asia Times Online: Would you like to comment on the Dalai Lama visit?

Samdhong Rinpoche: India's stand on the Dalai Lama is wonderful, exemplary and a model for the rest of the world.

ATol: Would you say India is braver than other nations in defying Beijing, in regard to the Dalai Lama issue?

SR: Yes, I agree with your view. As I said before, India stands for truth, and truth has unparalleled strength.

ATol: Do you think India's stance provides a lesson for world leaders, especially Obama's China diplomacy?

SR: Any action which is based on truth and principle always gives lessons to humanity, including [world] leaders.

Tenzin Norsang, the joint secretary of the Tibetan Youth Congress (TYC) - the most radical Tibetan group explicitly seeking Tibet independence, had a different view.

"India is using the Dalai Lama as a political tool to deal with its own issues. By letting the Dalai Lama visit the disputed territory, India is making clear its position that that Arunachal pradesh is Indian territory," he said.

"However, India's bravery towards China will definitely give world leaders a lesson, since everybody is now turning from democracy towards communism [as a result of the global financial crisis]. It surely is a lesson with long-term effects. In these changing times, India has become braver than others in not letting China bully us," added Norsang.

A young monk named Sherbu from Tawang Monastery, who saw the Dalai Lama on Sunday, described it as the "experience of a lifetime." "He waved back at us and I consider this to be a blessing for me and the people here."

Sherba Lama, a Tibetan who trekked to Tawang from a distant border village to attend the Dalai Lama's religious discourse, said, "He is our god, he is the living Buddha. A glimpse of the Dalai Lama charges you with spiritual power."

At the Dalai Lama's prayer meeting, Kiran Rijiju, leader of the Indian People's Party and a former member of the Indian parliament, said, "It's a socio-religious visit. Our neighbor [China] should not try to politicize his holiness's visit. He has come here to spread the message of peace and harmony. We want to live in peace and revive our trade links with Tibet."

It may be growing trade links between India and China - both members of the BRIC bloc along with Brazil and Russia - that has kept a lid on the simmering border tensions.

Despite verbal criticisms, Beijing has so far refrained from taking any substantial action over the Dalai Lama's Tawang visit. Chinese officials have also recently played down reports of tensions between the two countries, with some saying the tension was created by the Indian media.

New Delhi has barred foreign journalists from traveling to Arunachal Pradesh to cover the Dalai Lama's visit, which analysts have seen as a concession to Chinese sensibilities.

The Dalai Lama has also played down the significance of his visit. "My visit here is non-political," he said on his arrival. "There are a lot of emotions involved here," he said. "When I escaped from China in 1959, I was mentally and physically very weak. The Chinese did not pursue us in 1959, but when I reached India, they started speaking against me."

Saransh Sehgal is a contributor based in Dharamsala, India, who can be reached at info@mcllo.com .

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