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Dalai Lama leaves the succession question 'up to the Tibetan people'

The 14th Dalai Lama

NEW DELHI -- The 14th Dalai Lama recently made waves by suggesting that, perhaps, the Tibetan way of choosing a successor to his spiritual post may have run its course.

     According to Tibetan tradition, the next Dalai Lama would be found by seeking the previous leader's reincarnation. However, the process of lama succession has become increasingly politicized. China has called for the tradition to continue, though some Tibetans fear the rulers in Beijing may seek to use it for their own ends.

     The Nikkei recently spoke with the Dalai Lama, 79, about the future of his role and the Tibet-China issue in general. 

Q: Tibetan spiritual leaders have been chosen in the same fashion for centuries. Yet you have cast doubt on whether that tradition will continue. Why?

A: As early as 1969, I publicly stated that the very institution of the dalai lama, and whether it should continue or not, is up to the Tibetan people. In principle, I still believe that.

     I think maybe four years ago, [during a gathering of Tibetan Buddhist leaders] in November 2011, we raised this question of the future of the dalai lama institution. We decided that when my age reaches around 90, we will have one meeting and finalize [a decision].

Q: Do you think the rebirth system should end with you?

A: Yes. If the Tibetan community, Buddhists and Mongolians -- the majority of people -- feel that the dalai lama institution is not relevant, then there is no question.

     The Chinese consider the dalai lama to be politically important. In 2001, I took a semi-retired position. In 2011, I completely retired [from political life]. The dalai lama institution has no importance in the political field.

Q: Even so, the Chinese government has long harbored concerns about your political influence.

A: I think 99% of Tibetan people trust me and believe me. I think you can make a distinction between the Dalai Lama, the person, and the dalai lama, the institution. As far as the institution is concerned, in 2011 I not only retired but also [ended] a four-century-old [political] tradition. Even if the 15th Dalai Lama comes, [the role will carry] no political power.

     That is decided. [The individual will be] only a religious leader, like any other religious leader.

Q: But perhaps Beijing does not believe that? The Communist Party government, which is officially atheist, has sought to assert authority over the selection of reincarnated senior lamas.

A: They consider the dalai lama institution to be politically important. They want to assert their power; they want to control the dalai lama institution. This is their old thinking.

Q: Sarah Sewall, the U.S. Department of State's special coordinator for Tibetan issues, met you in Dharamshala on Nov. 15. She proposed financial support for public health. What else did you discuss?

A: The special coordinator from the State Department has been coming to India [for years]. Whenever I pass through Washington, she always comes to see me. This is just routine. This time, they offered some help in the health sector.

Q: On three consecutive occasions you have been denied entry to South Africa, most recently for this year's Nobel peace summit. What do you make of this?

A: Oh yes! The Nobel peace summit [had been held] in Rome, in Warsaw, in Japan ... so then they chose Cape Town, South Africa, as the venue. The two Nobel laureates from South Africa sent me an invitation and, naturally, I accepted. However, when we approached the South African Embassy, they refused to give me a visa.

     Some hard-line Chinese government officials consider me a demon. Since the South African government refused to give me permission, the other Nobel laureates boycotted. Finally, they moved the venue to Rome with the help and cooperation of the mayor. Now they are organizing and I will [attend the summit] there.

Q: Liu Xiaobo, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2010, is imprisoned in China.

A: Yes, Liu Xiaobo! There are people who are appealing [for his release]; I am also one of them, [though] not formally.

     On one occasion in Warsaw, I also [called for the release of] Aung San Suu Kyi, who was under house arrest in Burma. We prayed that one day she would be able to participate in the Nobel summit. Today, Aung San Suu Kyi can participate. Now, we hope that Liu can participate. In my eyes, Liu poses no danger to the Chinese government.

     Chinese President Xi Jinping is more realistic. In Paris and in New Delhi, he publicly [talked about] preservation of Chinese culture. Buddhism is very important in Chinese culture, and he mentioned that Buddhists should carry more responsibility in preserving [that] culture. This was quite surprising and new for a Chinese communist leader.

Q:So you think the Xi government is softer, or more pragmatic, than the last administration?

A: It seems like that.

Q: Self-immolation cases in Tibet have been on the rise since 2009, with negligible results in terms of Chinese policy.

A: We have got mixed signals. The deputy party secretary in the autonomous region of Tibet, when he met an Indian reporter before Xi was to visit India, he mentioned [plans for me to make a] pilgrimage to a special site. He stated that the talks are going very smoothly.

     Two months later, the party secretary in the autonomous region said some harsh words about [me]. So there is some confusion between them. Similarly in the eastern part of Tibet, they made very harsh statements toward me.

Q: You have said that you are not demanding Tibetan independence, just a high level of autonomy. What is the status of dialogue with China toward that end? 

A: [At this point], they are not dialogue partners for us. In 2010, we had our last meeting with Chinese officials.

     As early as 1974, we decided that we would not seek independence, for our own interests. Chinese writers in the last few years have written around 1,000 articles that support our approach and are very critical of Chinese government policy. 

     At the government level, hard-line officials still repeat that the Dalai Lama is a "splitist." The whole world knows we are not seeking independence. They deliberately call me a separatist. Among leaders like Xi, there is a more realistic approach. 

Q: Are you hoping the Chinese government will initiate the next round of dialogue?

A: It is entirely up to them. Our position is the same. We are not seeking independence, [even though] Chinese officials always accuse us of claiming Greater Tibet. 

     China sets up autonomous regions [where] minorities have different degrees of autonomy. We ask the Chinese government that [the entire] Tibetan area ... [be granted] the same right to preserve our culture, language and religion. 

Q: What is your view of the Hong Kong student movement, which some say is destabilizing China's "one country, two systems" concept?

A: The students of Hong Kong are using freedom of expression and are very concerned about democracy. This is their right. At the same time, the Chinese government always says, "Democracy, democracy!" But still there is tight control.

     The spirit of the Hong Kong movement is good. They should keep it. However, sometimes their approach needs to be more realistic. Just shouting slogans may not achieve their goal.

Q: What do you think about Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi?

A: He is very active, very efficient. He goes many places and makes good friends everywhere. I met him when he was chief minister of Gujarat. We had a very nice conversation.

Interviewed by Nikkei staff writer Satoshi Iwaki

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