Friday, April 4, 2008

Remember Tibet?

Samdhong Rinpoche is often overshadowed by the Dalai Lama, but the Tibetan prime-minister-in-exile is working behind the scenes to secure a future for his people.

The efforts of Tibet’s government-in-exile—led by Prime Minister Samdhong Rinpoche and Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama—will be remembered as a persistent thorn in the side of Communist China. When the Dalai Lama fled Tibet in 1959, after eight years of harsh Chinese occupation and a failed uprising, there wasn’t much to distinguish his people from the countless other ethnic groups whose national aspirations have been steamrolled into oblivion. But today, the Free Tibet movement is a visible cause célèbre—and has been for a decade. Having won a Nobel Peace Prize and a Congressional Gold Medal—the highest civilian honor in the United States—the Dalai Lama is one of the West’s most beloved (and bestselling) spiritual advisers.

This is little comfort to the 6 million Tibetan Buddhists still living under the repressive regime of the People’s Republic of China. Since taking control of Tibet in 1951, the PRC has killed hundreds of thousands of Tibetan Buddhists (in a conservative estimate), destroyed thousands of temples and monasteries, and continued to punish open support of the Dalai Lama with imprisonment and torture. Each year, thousands more Tibetans join their fellow exiles in Dharamsala, a town in the hills of northern India where the Tibetan government-in-exile provides education, social services, and a home for its more than 20,000 refugees.

After decades of working alongside the Dalai Lama, Rinpoche, a 69-year-old scholar and monk, was elected prime minister of the Kashag (the Tibetan parliament) in 2001. He has helped parlay the international community’s sympathy into active negotiations with China for a partially autonomous Tibet. Faced with the possibility that the PRC is only humoring Tibetan demands while waiting for the Dalai Lama to die, Rinpoche has also laid the groundwork for a permanent government in exile, where future Dalai Lamas would be ceremonial monarchs and political power would reside with elected officials. In our conversation a few months before the Beijing Olympics, Rinpoche discussed how he keeps the idea of Tibetan independence alive in a China-friendly world: compromise, nonviolence, and above all, patience. Full Interview Link

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