Recent events in Tibet and the ethnic Tibetan parts of Western China this past couple of weeks have lead to much press about the China-Dalai Lama conflict and the apparent struggle for control of the region. It’s a complicated issue, fraught with deceit, mystique, sadness and an apparent inability to see towards a solution. Perhaps, however, when a solution is already to hand, it is no longer necessary to search for it.

The question of Tibet goes way back, to the middle ages, and the Mongolians. A rejuvenated Altun Khan, a direct relative of Genghis and Kublai Khan, reuniting the Mongolian empire following the death of Genghis and a factional Mongol war amongst its territories, was reclaiming parts of its Empire lost.

Tibet, always at risk from invasion from Mongols at the time, had bought off an invasion and retained autonomy by agreeing to provide blessings and salutations to Mongolian kings (khans) over the preceding centuries. Accepting Buddhism as being the closest thing to Mongolia’s own shamanistic beliefs, the Mongolian Khans, who ruled much of China at this point, where all too happy to be officially ‘anointed’ by the spiritual leader of the religion, adding a divine acknowledgement of their right to rule.

Altun however, and the Tibetan kings of the time, needed something more. Power brokerage and infighting amongst different Tibetan kings was threatening the role of Buddhism as the absolute authority over the country. Rather than have Kingly direct descendants – and their families – claim sovereignty, the Tibetan de facto King Sonam Gyatso and Altun Khan agreed, on the banks of what is now Lake Qinghai in Western China, to acknowledge the existence of “Dalai Lamas” – a supreme being and leader of the Buddhist faith, as the rightful and sole keeper of the claim to Tibet. In doing so, two Dalai Lamas were posthumously recognized, with Sonam Gyatso proclaimed by Altun Khan to be the third, in 1578. A child would then be sought, following the death of the new Dalai Lama, as a reincarnation, and as such the line would continue. Needless to say, it was immensely auspicious to the ruling Khans, seeking the blessings of heaven and divinity, and provided security for the Tibetans themselves, living under the protection of Mongolian armies from the eyes of Chinese warlords, that the next Dalai Lama would be found to be the Great Altun Khans nephew. And so the tradition began.

Over the next centuries, Mongolian power within the region declined, and the Chinese became the power brokers. But with Buddhism the dominant religion, even Emperors needed blessings from the Dalai Lama to reinforce their claims to the thrones. It was a cozy arrangement; Tibetan autonomy in return for the provision of Spiritual blessings. As long as these were thought necessary, Tibet remained free.

It was not to last. Tibet itself was divided by different Buddhist factions over the right to wield such power brokerage, and wars and skirmishes amongst Tibetan tribal factions within the region were common. Tibet, seeking to expand its borders and gain greater access to taxable lands and crops to boost its coffers, regularly invaded other nations border areas, while internal political strife between the different sects continued, most notably between the Yellow Hat and Red Hats sects of Buddhism, a civil war that lead to the Red Hat sect being dominant in Bhutan, a Buddhist country where the Tibetan Dalai Lama, a member of the Yellow Hat sect, is not welcome.

The Tibetan form of Buddhism too, developed a perversity. Deliberately layered in mysticism and magic, its many tales remain impenetrable – how else can you sell superstitious spirituality? Monks, seeing a life of opulence and power, began taxing the people not just financially but also spiritually – the religion’s rituals becoming a way to keep the people under control of the religious leaders.

Week-long circumnavigation of mountains, crawling for years to Lhasa on pilgrimage, prostrating oneself to monks, all in the hope of reincarnation towards nirvana – these may be exotic, but they where designed to subjugate a people into submission. And so the monks grew wealthy under the people’s patronage and desire for a better life, in the next one, as the very demons and Gods created by them continued to fascinate and keep in check the believers.

And so it stayed, until the dawn of a new era. Darwin dispensed with God, and science kicked open the 20th century. As superstitious beliefs worldwide began being swept away with a new pragmatism, Tibetan days were numbered. With no other industry to support itself other than the exporting of religion, it would only be a matter of time before someone like Chairman Mao declared China an atheist state, and Tibet’s main export value disappeared. Tibet now was on thin ice. A very young Dalai Lama, a country ruled by old monks with no real idea how to govern or provide for a country shorn of its only influence and patronage, meant the shortcomings of the Tibetan ruling structure began to unravel. Once the people began to starve, the ability for a government of Tibetan monks to be the practical rulers of Tibet came to an end. Tibet turned to China, and it has remained that way for nearly 60 years.

The rule of Tibet by China of course has not been without its critics. However, when one asks around the region (I travel there extensively, researching a planned book on Tibetan explorers from the 16th century), in the Northern Himalayan villages of India, of the Nepalese, and of the Bhutanese, of what they think of the prospect of Tibetan independence, it’s nearly always negative. The current Dalai Lama is seen as increasingly irrelevant, if kindly, while memories of past Tibetan aggressions run deep. The overwhelming majority of the people in Tibet’s border countries see Chinese rule as being the best for the region. “The Chinese have bought stability to Tibet” was one typical answer from a Nepali taxi driver I interviewed in Delhi “Before the Tibetans were always warlike, causing troubles. China has calmed the region down.” It’s a surprising attitude from Tibet’s neighbors, and one not often cited in Western media used to asking Richard Gere for quotes.

The other aspect not covered at all in Western reporting of the Tibet situation when violence and protests over Chinese rule flares up is what would happen if Tibet was independent? There has been little thought given to the consequences of a Chinese pull out. Many China observers are happy to be trendily sympathetic to a Tibetan struggle for independence, but what would the repercussions be?

The Dalai Lama, wise as he may be, is getting old and becoming frail. What would happen if he died as head of the country during the period while his reincarnation has to be found, educated and groomed as a successor? It’s a 20 year period. Who would rule Tibet in the interim? What infighting and political mischief would take place? It’s not hard, under those circumstances, to imagine a civil war in Tibet. And it has happened before.

While the world wants China to develop more democracy, much of it curiously seems blind to the Tibetan system of government and what it means. If we truly want to see Tibetan rule by Tibetans, then the government in exile – who have been holding talks with Beijing – will need to do better than promote reincarnation as a system of government hierarchy. I would love to believe in reincarnation. But I would love to believe in the Unicorns in Harry Potter too, and reincarnation isn’t selling well in these less enlightened days. Just because a political succession system 400 years old has failed the country it was supposed to protect does not give it a right to exist as a governmental model in the modern world, Dalai Lama or no Dalai Lama.

My question for the Dalai Lama would be this issue: How democratic do you want Tibet to be? And world leaders, and the media, if they insist on meeting him, would be well advised to ask just how his current system of beliefs actually fits in with a pragmatic and practical way to govern. Because like it or not, China appears to have solved the problem already to the satisfaction of it’s neighboring countries. If not for the Tibetan activists, and until there is a better system in place, the current Chinese rule of Tibet remains the only viable option for peace and stability. If you thought the recent riots were bad, imagine what it would be like without a stabilizing force to keep the region in check. While it remains a romantic notion for much of the West to see a return to the Dalai Lama, the practical repercussions would be very grave indeed.

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