Filed in History


Fifty Years of Exile

Stephen Batchelor

Dalai Lama protests
A protest in support of Tibetan rights held in San Francisco on the eve of the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

If the Dalai Lama is ever to go back to Tibet, the first step would have to be a symbolic return to China. There might come a point when leaders within the Chinese government decide that they would gain more by having the Dalai Lama on their side rather than criticizing them from abroad. Ideologically, this should present no problem. “I am a Marxist monk,” the Dalai Lama reiterated several times in a speech in India on January 18, 2009, “a Buddhist Marxist. I belong to the Marxist camp, because unlike capitalism, Marxism is more ethical.” (This makes him the first Marxist to receive the U.S. Congressional Gold Medal.) There is no reason the Dalai Lama could not be invited to make a pilgrimage to Wu-tai Shan, the five-peaked mountain of Manjushri, sacred to Chinese, Tibetan, and Mongolian Buddhists alike. Not only has the Dalai Lama himself expressed the wish to do this, but such a visit would also allow the Chinese to stage a series of religious events presided over by the world’s most recognizable Buddhist without explicitly having to acknowledge the political issue of Tibet.

But it may already be too late. Paradoxically, the Dalai Lama’s extraordinary success in establishing himself as an iconic figure on the world stage might be the greatest obstacle to his ever returning to his homeland. As Patrick French has written in his sobering book Tibet, Tibet, “The Dalai Lama has come to represent too much; his return to Tibet, with the world’s media traveling in his wake, hoovering up the biggest story of its kind since Nelson Mandela’s release from prison, would be profoundly destabilizing to Communist rule.” The Chinese authorities would have to be prepared to deal with the consequences of 50 years of bottled-up emotion among millions of Tibetans being unleashed as soon as the Dalai Lama set foot in Lhasa. As things currently stand, this is not a risk they would be likely to take.

Unless cataclysmic political changes occur in Beijing, Tibet now looks as though it is on its way to becoming the New Mexico of China. It must be puzzling for the Chinese to be criticized for their treatment of Tibetans by a nation that little more than a century ago was slaughtering its own native peoples and confining them to reservations. With what moral authority, they might wonder, can those who enjoy their comfortable adobe houses in Santa Fe denounce the population transfer of Han Chinese to Central Tibet? The tragedy of Tibet offers Americans a mirror image of their own bloodstained past.

From the perspective of small stateless nations, nothing much has changed since the 19th century: the imperial powers still treat them as pawns in a great geopolitical game. Occasionally, should it suit the needs of public opinion, the Dalai Lama may be granted a few crumbs from the table of the rich and mighty. But should Tibetans in Tibet have the audacity to protest at the injustice inflicted upon them, they will be crushed, and no one will go to their aid.

As I write, Tibet is preparing itself for the 50th anniversary of the Dalai Lama’s flight to India. The Chinese regime has announced that March 28 (the day in 1959 when the Communist Party officially dissolved the Dalai Lama’s government) will be celebrated as a new public holiday called “Serfs’ Emancipation Day.” They have also forbidden all foreigners from visiting Tibet during March in order that no outsiders observe whatever repressive measures they may employ should demonstrations break out again as they did in March 2008. The center of Lhasa remains under heavy police security in preparation for any unrest.

International support for the Chinese government, however, continues to grow. On October 29 last year, the British Foreign Secretary declared in a written statement that his government no longer accepted the “outdated concept of suzerainty,” which had framed British policy toward Tibet since the beginning of the 20th century. (“Suzerainty” is a term used to describe the relations between a ruling power and its vassal states, thereby preserving, albeit tenuously, the idea of Tibet’s statehood.) “Like every other EU member state,” he went on, “and the United States, we regard Tibet as part of the People’s Republic of China.” For the exiled Tibetans, this severing of the last strand of official recognition must have felt like a slap in the face. The following month, the Chinese unilaterally cancelled the rounds of talks with the Dalai Lama’s representatives that had started before the Olympics, thereby bringing to a halt what the Foreign Secretary himself called “the only forum in which there is any realistic possibility of progress to resolve the differences between the parties involved.”

Meanwhile, a recent report by the U.S. State Department noted that the Chinese record on human rights, specifically the repression of minorities in Tibet, had worsened in 2008. “Not only will we seek to live up to our ideals on American soil,” wrote the new Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in the foreword, “we will pursue greater respect for human rights as we engage other nations and people around the world.” Yet despite these fine words, on an official visit to Beijing in February, Clinton chose to strengthen ties with China on the grounds that concern for such issues as human rights in Tibet can’t be allowed to “interfere with the global economic crisis, the global climatechange crisis, and the security crises.… We have to have a dialogue that leads to an understanding and cooperation on each of those.” Plus ça change..., as the French would say: “The more things change, the more they stay the same.”

Stephen Batchelor
is a former monk in the Tibetan and Korean Zen traditions and the author of The Tibet Guide and Buddhism without Beliefs. He lives in France with his wife, the author and meditation teacher Martine Batchelor. His website is

Archival Tibet photographs © Associated Press; San Francisco protest photo © Don Farber,

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