A sometime pacifist

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 03 June, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 03 June, 2010, 12:00am


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The question of Tibet is complicated and confusing. Yet, most people outside China seem to think they have a clear idea about it. The main reason for their black-and-white view of the conflict has to do with the saintly image of the Dalai Lama. For them, it is self-evident that Tibet is good and Beijing bad; that the Dalai is a living saint and a man of peace; and that Beijing - for failing to work with him - will have to deal with much more militant or even violent pro-Tibetan independence forces when the 75-year-old leaves the scene.

Two new fascinating papers by Dr Barry Sautman have convincingly argued the conventional image of the spiritual leader is false or at least grossly incomplete and that historical Tibet was more a pseudo-state than a real state. They make me think the Dalai Lama's eventual death can cut both ways - it may even potentially be an opening to a meaningful settlement.

Sautman, a lawyer and political scientist in the social science division of the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, gives the most recent paper a provocative title, 'Vegetarian between meals'. Appearing in the latest issue of the US-based journal Positions: East Asia Cultures Critique, it examines the historical record of the Dalai Lama's stance on wars, national movements and international violence in the past half a century and finds his reputation as a pacifist and peacemaker undeserved.

The second paper, which ran late last year as part of the Contemporary Asia Studies series of the University of Maryland, argues that China's claim on Tibet is stronger both in international law and diplomacy than the Tibet independence movement. It should be read against a 2008 paper by Hong Kong barrister Paul Harris, which argues for Tibetan self-determination, though he stops short of independence. The Harris paper caused a furore at the time when it was censored by a Law Society journal. Harris and Sautman make you realise that the old clich?, about good lawyers being able to argue both or more sides, is true. But they show that the Tibet question is not as black and white as Dalai Lama fans like Richard Gere, Sharon Stone and Bjork would like us to believe.

Remarkably, for someone with a reputation as a peacemaker, the Dalai Lama has almost never opposed wars waged by India and the United States, his two main sponsors. Indeed, besides Tibet, he cannot be said to have had a sustained interest in any conflict of the past half a century. The only exception that Sautman could find was an attempt to mediate in a fight between Hindu fundamentalists and Muslims over the destruction of a mosque in Ayodhya, India.

The Dalai Lama supported India's position on Kashmir and never spoke out against its military activities there against Pakistan, or against its nuclear weapons programme. He supported the Korean war and believed the Vietnam war was good-intentioned, though it failed. He also supported the first Gulf war and accepted the US justification for the Kosovo war, as well as those for the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. In other words, he was a pacifist between wars, or 'a vegetarian between meals'.

Despite his reputation, he has also had very little or nothing critical to say about any other major ethnic or nationalist struggle, such as apartheid in South Africa, the Israeli occupation of Palestinian land, the treatment of ethnic minorities in Myanmar and Sri Lanka, or discrimination against indigenous populations in Australia and Canada when he visited those countries. In this context, it is not surprising that, though he spoke out against violence in the abstract during the Lhasa ethnic riots in 2008, he never condemned actual acts of violence against Han Chinese.

Like the Vatican, he is against abortion, homosexuality, stem cell research and euthanasia. None of this proves there is anything morally reprehensible about the Dalai Lama, but it proves he is not a pacifist or peacemaker, as most people understand the words. He does resemble, though, a politician more than a saint. And if we take away his moral and religious exceptionalism, there is no reason to think the Tibetan movement cannot produce a capable, intelligent and pragmatic leader when he leaves the stage.

Alex Lo is a senior writer at the Post