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Dalai Lama must balance politics, spiritual role

The Tibetan leader in exile must balance his stature as a monk with the very temporal demands of politics.

By Staff writers of The Christian Science Monitor, Staff writers of The Christian Science Monitor / March 24, 2008

Dalai Lama: He has no political power, but holds a global moral authority.

Mustafa Quraishi/AP


New Delhi and Beijing

Thrust inescapably into the eye of the international storm currently raging over Tibet, the Dalai Lama enjoys unique status as both the spiritual and political leader of Tibetans worldwide. That status, however, also poses him unique challenges.

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As the symbol of Tibetan aspirations for greater freedom from Chinese rule, the Nobel Peace Prize winner is buffeted from one side by Chinese officials vilifying him and from the other by young Tibetan exiles urging him to be more strident.

He must balance the concerns of a wary Indian government – which hosts his government in exile – and the desperation that Tibetans in China have expressed through their recent unrest.

Beyond all that, he must, as a Buddhist monk, match his words and actions in the worldly political arena with the nonviolent philosophy at the heart of his spiritual practice.

"What the Dalai Lama is currently doing is walking a tightrope," says Srikanth Kondapalli, a Tibet expert at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi.

That balancing act, adds John Bellezza, a Tibet scholar who knows the Dalai Lama, is made all the harder because "his temporal and spiritual leadership don't always harmonize as well as they might. Many of his difficulties are due to the underlying tensions he feels between the two hats that he wears."

No conventional political power

The Dalai Lama, who fully assumed his office 57 years ago, has scarcely any conventional political power: he controls no territory and heads an exiled government that no state recognizes.

Instead, he has parlayed a global moral authority matched only by Nelson Mandela into a commanding influence over world public opinion that sometimes has political consequences.

United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon last week exhorted Beijing to show restraint in dealing with Tibetan unrest, for example, and the speaker of the US House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi, visited the Dalai Lama at his Indian headquarters in Dharamsala on Friday to urge the world to "speak out against China." China responded harshly, accusing Mrs. Pelosi, a longtime critic of China, of disregarding the rioters' actions.

The Tibetan leader's insistence on his readiness to talk with the Chinese government and his nonviolent approach "play very well internationally," says Brahma Chellaney, a China analyst at the Centre for Policy Research, a New Delhi think tank. "He has presented himself as a moderate, [even though] all he gets is oppression."

That has kept the Tibetan cause in the public eye in the West. But in his homeland, his 20-year-old policy of nonviolent pursuit of limited autonomy under Chinese sovereignty has proved fruitless.

Tibetans in the Tibetan Autonomous Region, as Beijing calls the area, are generally more prosperous than they were two decades ago,. But they enjoy no greater religious freedom, they complain that an influx of Han and Muslim Hui Chinese migrants has diluted their culture, and there are no signs that the government in Beijing is ready to relax its grip.

"He is the first to acknowledge that, so far, there have been no tangible results from his policy of patience," says Pico Iyer, author of "The Open Road," a portrait of the Dalai Lama to be published this week, who has talked at length with the Dalai Lama over many years.