Twofish's Blog

March 19, 2008

What the Dalai Lama is really against Tibetan independence

Filed under: china, tibet — twofish @ 12:52 am

One reason I sympathize with Tibetans trying to figure out what it means to be Tibetan within a larger national and global community is that I have to do figure out how to do the same thing.

I’ve observed that Westerners admire Tibet because they see it as a “garden of eden.” A pure land unspoiled by modernity. The trouble is that if you don’t become modern, you become extinct, and part of the largely successful struggle that the Chinese nation has undergone is the struggle to be modern and avoid national extinction. To survive, you must have power. This means economic power and military power. You will get nowhere by throwing rocks at tanks, you must be able to build your own tanks. The question then becomes once you have power then how do you use it without either destroying yourself or becoming a monster. Very, very difficult.

There is a fundamental contradiction in Tibetan independence that I don’t think Westerners aren’t quite aware of. To become an independent nation-state, you must have an army, you must have schools that teach young people to salute the flag, you must have a power structure, you must be prepared to deal with demonstrators with a mix of carrots and sticks, you must write history books that justify the existence of the nation. You must in the end teach people to die and to kill for the motherland.

You must in short do hundreds of things that Westerners *don’t* want Tibetans to do.

It’s interesting to compare Tibet with Mongolia. Mongolia was able to achieve independence, but it had to completely destroy its Lamaist institutions to do so, and have a Marxist-Leninist revolution and basically become a Soviet satellite.  Mongolia had to create a one party state and undertake some ethnic cleansing to achieve national independence.  Tibet could have easily gone down that route.

In the 1920’s there was a major debate within Tibet about what to do, and the decision was made to keep the Lamas and not modernize, and this meant that when the PLA entered Tibet in 1951, they couldn’t shoot back. If Tibet had made different decisions in 1920, then then could have fought back in 1951, but having a huge army to fight would make Tibet today probably look something like Burma. The army that shoots the invaders would then shoot the Lamas.

This by the way is why the Dalai Lama is against Tibetan independence. An independent Tibet becomes “just another third-world country” with flags, schools, propaganda, soldiers, bureaucrats, history books, and riot police. The brutal reality of the world is that nation-states must be prepared to fight, to die, and if necessary to kill.

The Dalai Lama realizes that to have even the slightly chance of independence, Tibet must destroy its soul. I think he is probably more scared of his own supporters than he is of the Chinese army. The PLA can suppress the monasteries for centuries, but the Buddhist ideals will survive, since you can’t shoot an idea with bullets.  The PLA is not the real danger to the Dalai Lama’s ideals, the real danger is subversion from within. People use the works of Muhammad to justify suicide bombing, and it is not hard to go down that slope and have the ideas of the Dalai Lama perverted into justifying something similar, and mixing the message of non-violence with the idea of the state which is all about violence, makes this easier.

He realises this but I don’t think most of his supporters do.


  1. Great post, I agree. Destroying the soul is too big a price to pay for independence, and the Dalai Lama realizes this (and, I’d argue, so do many observers outside China). However, I cannot but wonder what your argument means for China — which is trying with all means to blame the Dalai Lama and his ‘clique’ for pushing towards independence.

    Or is this just a convenient lie that allows them to forgo open discussion and continue to deprive native Tibetans of their rights (to be treated fairly — not by measures that lead to “cultural genocide”)…

    Comment by Peter — March 19, 2008 @ 7:28 am

  2. why can we mind our own business, don’t we have plenty of things to correct here before we start telling everyone one else in the world how to live. any electorate that votes into office two crimminals/idiots like “Cheney and Bush” [twice] should not worry what is wrong with the world, mainly because there world is about to change drematically! [then they’l wonder why and for someone else to blame]

    Comment by william lanyi — March 19, 2008 @ 11:27 am

  3. Why can’t we mind our own business? Don’t we have enough to correct here before we start telling the rest of the world how to live? Any electorate which votes into office two criminals/idiots like “Cheney and Bush” [twice] should not be concerned with counselling
    others. Our country is about to change dramatically(i.e. a financial
    crisis,lost manufacturing base,110 dollars per barrel of oil, 20-30 illegal immigrants expecting full benefits… in addition to a health care crisis and a social security system
    which is about to go broke. To add to this predicament we are confronted with three inept,unqualified weird candidates. And we think we can fix the problems of others?

    Comment by william lanyi — March 19, 2008 @ 12:02 pm

  4. Actually, as far as I can tell, they really believe it. There are a number of factors here.

    1) Paranoids have enemies. During the 1990’s, Lee Teng-Hui was trying to come across as a moderate and you had Beijing looking foolish for accusing him of being a hard independence supporter that had a secret plot to have Taiwan become totally independent. Beijing argued that LTH would take any small concession and push for immediate independence. It looked crazy, insane, but it turned out to be 100% correct, as after 2001, LTH suddenly took off the mask, and said HA HA, I was fighting for independence all of the time, and if you had given me any chance to declare independence I would have!!!! HA HA!!!

    The Dalai Lama and LTH are different people, of course, but the fact that *I* was fooled by LTH means that I’m less likely to accuse Beijing of being paranoid. One bit of information that Beijing does have is that they have contacts near Lee Teng-Hui and perhaps the Dalai Lama.

    2) I don’t think that the Dalai Lama gave the order to demonstrate or to start rioting, but I wouldn’t be surprised if some of the groups around him like the Tibetan Youth Congress did. There are a lot of hardline Tibetan nationalist groups that claim the Dalai Lama as their spiritual leader, and from Beijing’s point of view, they are all one big group. It’s pretty obvious from news reports that there are splits within the Tibetan community, and one thing I think Beijing suspects is that the Dalai Lama comes across talking sweetness and non-violence, meanwhile the people around him are talking independence and national uprisings. The Western view is that the Dalai Lama is being a moderate, but I think that Beijing suspects that looking good and saying nice things while having the people around you do the dirty work is part of a plan.

    3) Finally, there is some interesting politics on the Chinese side. If you look at who has been the nastiest at talking about the Dalai Lama, it’s actually officials from the Tibetan regional government. It makes sense. Suppose Beijing inks a deal with the Dalai Lama, who loses big? The governor of the Tibetan Autonomous Region and the Tibetan Communist party bureaucrats are toast. Looking at similar situations in history, anyone in Tibet who is angry at Han Chinese is likely to be a million times angrier at any ethnic Tibetan official that cooperates with Han Chinese. That’s why I think they are trying to do everything they can to sabotage any sort of deal between the Dalai Lama and Beijing.

    Comment by twofish — March 19, 2008 @ 5:47 pm

  5. There are several mistakes in your analysis

    – DL did have an army, they were just hopeless at facing the PLA

    – Mongolia won its independence entirely due to Soviet pressure while their troops occupied Manchuria. There was no way that Tibet or Mongolia could have militarily resisted China back then, and this is even more true today.

    – DL led a CIA supported guerrilla warfare against China until the late 1960’s. This shows he has no problems using violence if he thinks it can succeed. Of course there was never a chance he could succeed through violence. You can debate about other reasons he might be having, but in the end non-violence is the only realistic choice he has.

    Comment by ugrowup — April 24, 2009 @ 6:17 am

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Create a free website or blog at

%d bloggers like this: