‘A Hell on Earth’

Focus/Contact Press Images
The Dalai Lama at the Central Institute of Higher Tibetan Studies, Sarnath, Uttar Pradesh, India, January 23, 2003; photograph by Manuel Bauer

“The situation inside Tibet is almost like a military occupation,” I heard the Dalai Lama tell an interviewer last November, when I spent a week traveling with him across Japan. “Everywhere. Everywhere, fear, terror. I cannot remain indifferent.” Just moments before, with equal directness and urgency, he had said, “I have to accept failure. In terms of the Chinese government becoming more lenient [in Chinese-occupied Tibet], my policy has failed. We have to accept reality.”

Accepting reality—first investigating it clearly, and then seeing what can be done with it—is for him a central principle, and now he was about to convene a meeting of Tibetans in his exile home, in Dharamsala, India, and then another, in Delhi, of foreign supporters of Tibet, to discuss alternative approaches to relieving the ever more brutal fifty-year-long suppression of Tibet by Beijing. “This ancient nation with its own unique cultural heritage is dying,” he said later the same day. “The situation inside Tibet is almost something like a death sentence.”

It was shocking to hear such words from a man who has become one of the modern globe’s foremost embodiments of patience and the power of never giving up. I had spent a week with him traveling across Japan the previous November—and the one before that—and even then he had been working hard to find common ground with China, though he was never slow to speak out against corruption, censorship, and oppression in the People’s Republic. In the thirty-four years I’ve been regularly talking and listening to him, I’ve grown used to seeing him begin each day by praying for his “Chinese brothers and sisters,” and constantly asking his fellow Tibetans “to reach out to the Chinese people and make better relations.” He was still doing all that this winter and yet there was a sense, for the first time that I had seen, that he could no longer contain his impatience and disappointment with Beijing, and was determined to speak out now, telling the world what he knew, while also urging his people to prepare for the time when their leader for sixty-nine years, who is now seventy-three years old, would no longer be among them.

The year just past was something of an annus horribilis for the Tibetan leader and his people: last March, on the forty-ninth anniversary of his flight into India, demonstrations spread across Tibet and led to a Chinese crackdown that is bringing about more deaths and imprisonments than we will ever likely know about. In August, the Dalai Lama was forced to cut short a trip to France for reasons of ill health. One week later, his eldest brother, Taktser Rinpoche, himself an incarnate lama, died in Indiana, where he had…

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