Dalai Lama wants to return to Tibet but China no longer keen...

Dalai Lama wants to return to Tibet but China no longer keen to play ball

Rajeev Sharma,

The likely departure of the 14th Dalai Lama to China-controlled Tibet a few months ago so the ailing spiritual leader, who is said to be suffering from cancer, could breathe his last there, appears to have been staved off for now. While his suspected return to Tibet has been a major diplomatic embarrassment for India, it has not been without twists and turns.

The full range of the entire behind-the-scene process involving the Dalai Lama, India and China is now slowly unravelling. The 83-year-old Dalai Lama has been in negotiations with the Chinese for his possible return to his native place, Tibet, for well over a year. That’s because he is afflicted with terminal prostate cancer which is in its final stage.

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Until a few months ago, China played ball with the Dalai Lama believing that it would mean the end of the Tibetan dream for an autonomous, if not independent, Tibet. But now the dynamics seems to have changed.

The initial plan, when secret talks between the Dalai Lama and China were going on smoothly, was the flight of the Dalai Lama from India by a private jet following agreement with China. He would take a flight to another country, possibly in Europe. From there he was to fly to China and re-installed at the Potala Palace in Lhasa. It wouldn’t have involved the Indian government and was to be presented as a ‘visit’ to Tibet to avoid a diplomatic issue. What was, however, finalised was that he wouldn’t return to India.

As per this plan, Central Tibetan Administration (CTA) President Lobsang Sangay and the CTA would remain in Dharamshala in India’s Himachal Pradesh along with the majority of the Tibetans. There are 85,000 Tibetans in India, 8,000 of whom live in Dharamshala alone. The CTA’s role was to be to look after the Tibetans and to manage the Dalai Lama’s image and rights. Since information would be difficult to obtain from China, the CTA was to be used to bypass this process.

This is where the West stepped in. Nancy Pelosi, minority leader of the US House of Representatives, has made the unusual step of publishing an opinion piece in the Boston Globe calling upon China to allow the Dalai Lama to return. Interestingly, she has called for him to be able to return “for a visit or to stay permanently”. This ties in with the information that the Dalai Lama may “visit” Tibet, though it will be a permanent move.

Then there are other China-specific indications that the Dalai Lama is moving closer to returning to Tibet as there have been reports since mid-2017 of this eventuality. This coincides with the renovation work on the Potala Palace in Lhasa, which began in July 2017 shortly after the Dalai Lama’s 82nd birthday. The workers were told they were preparing it for the Dalai Lama. Consequently, the number of Tibetans travelling to India reduced because they believed he would soon be in their country of origin.

An article in The Stewardship Report indicates the slow pace and number of Tibetan refugee arrivals to India. This was pegged at just two.

The return plan remains an open secret at the moment. Lobsang Sangay has been calling for this since March 2018 (after they’d secured another round of US funding) when the tempo picked up. During his March visit to Israel to sensitise Tel Aviv about the Dalai Lama’s “political” standing, Sangay said that Tibetan pontiff would be back in Tibet within the year, although he complained about the way it was publicised.

It may be recalled that the Dalai Lama holds a US passport and can leave India whenever he wants. It is obvious that the Dalai Lama would never fly direct to China from India.

There are, however, multiple sets of Chinese doubts. While the Dalai Lama may want to go to Tibet to breathe his last there, China would well like to avoid this. It might appear that the Chinese enticed him, which will not be good optics on the world stage. It would be a propaganda coup for the US and reignite the Free Tibet movement with the Dalai Lama being the ultimate martyr.

While China is in the driving seat at the moment, the Dalai Lama’s team is putting together all the pieces of the story. However, secret negotiations remain stalled. The reason is China wants access to all his medical records and, more importantly, wants the Dalai Lama to be examined by Chinese doctors. This demand is not acceptable to the Dalai Lama.

The current Chinese position is that they are steadfast on their demand and have given the Dalai Lama a take-it-or-leave-it kind of offer. If this does not happen, as it hasn’t and may not in the future, the Chinese are likely to block his return to Tibet, even for a brief visit. The mood in China is that he will die in exile now and serve as a powerful example for what happens if their authority is challenged. Thus, it may be too late for the Dalai Lama to return to China.

(The writer is a strategic analyst and a columnist who tweets @Kishkindha)