Deity Goes into Retirement: Tibetans Face Uncertainty in Post-Dalai Lama Era

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The 17th Gyalwang Karmapa could play an important role in choosing the Dalai Lama's spiritual successor. The Karmapa, a much-loved but controversial figure, is a 26-year-old monk and the third-ranking member of the hierarchy of Tibetan spiritual leaders. But following the suspicious discovery of a large amount of cash in his monastery, some police investigators in India speculate that he could be a spy for the Chinese, a "sleeper" planted in the nest of Tibetan exiles by forces on the other side of the Himalayas.

Some things are happening very openly in Dharamsala, the home of the exile government in India, where there are democratic elections, a reshuffling of power is taking place and objective police investigations are being conducted. In the People's Republic of China, on the other hand, true tragedies are unfolding, largely hidden from the eyes of critical observers.

In mid-March, a roughly 20-year-old monk called Phuntsok protested loudly against Chinese oppression near the Tibetan Kirti monastery in China's Sichuan Province holding a picture of the Dalai Lama in his hand. Then he poured gasoline on his body and set himself on fire. He died from the burn wounds, but according to Tibetan exiles, Chinese officials also beat him while he was dying.

An angry crowd that had quickly gathered at the site of the self-immolation blocked the path of security forces. Then a special unit that was brought in brutally forced its way through the wall of people and surrounded the monastery, which was known for being "defiant." Tibetan exiles quote eyewitnesses who reported that the monks were regularly targeted by officials, being subjected to torture and brainwashing. Two Tibetans allegedly died, 300 monks were taken away and the rest were ordered to exercise humiliating "self-criticism" and disparage the Dalai Lama. Kirti was literally starved to death.

Another monk, 29-year-old Tsewang Norbu, set himself on fire in Dawu in Sichuan Province last week, shouting "freedom for Tibet" as he was dying.

"Our hands are tied," says Professor Samdhong Rinpoche in a tone of despair, sitting in his modest office in Dharamsala. Rinpoche, 71, is the previous prime minister of the Tibetan government-in-exile.

The cleric's only explanation for the particularly brutal approach that China's rulers are taking at the moment is the nervousness that has taken hold in Beijing in light of the revolutions in North Africa. "They fear a 'Jasmine Revolution' in China, which is why they are lashing out at minorities, civil rights activists and religious people," he says.

He is already looking forward to his future job at a university. "You know, I think I'm quite a decent teacher," says Rinpoche, keeping a straight face. "But I fear I was always something of a failure as a politician."

Nothing has been achieved in his government's relationship with the People's Republic, says Rinpoche. "We have made more and more compromises, while Beijing has remained inflexible and has rudely insulted our leadership." And yet, he is quick to add, his words should not be misinterpreted as criticism of the Dalai Lama. "There is no alternative to the peaceful middle way of His Holiness."

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