THE 14th Dalai Lama and the Chinese government are jockeying for position in an arcane religious debate that could, if mishandled, see Tibet explode with unrest.
By Robert Karniol, Defence Writer
Deep Tibetan frustrations over Chinese policy flared into violence in 2008 and have recently been rekindled. But mystical activity centred on selecting the Dalai Lama's eventual successor - for some Tibetans blended with political aspirations for independence - threatens much worse.
An earlier contest between adherents of Tibetan Buddhism and the Chinese Communist Party leadership didn't go well, producing two rival claimants to the second-ranked Panchen Lama's current incarnation. The youngster recognised by the Dalai Lama in 1995 was soon snatched away by the Chinese authorities and has not been seen since, while the youngster promoted by Beijing appears to lack legitimacy among Tibetans.
'Beijing seems to have made it fairly clear that it feels time is on its side. They anticipate that upon the death of the current Dalai Lama, international support for Tibet will radically decrease.'
Ms Julia Famularo, who recently wrote a comprehensive study for the American think-tank Project 2049 Institute
The 14th Dalai Lama is 76, and Beijing's strategy in anticipating his death looks rooted in patience. It further includes a 14-step procedure issued in 1995 and reinforced with a set of updated regulations in 2007. These together aim to ensure tight central Chinese control over every phase of selecting a new Dalai Lama or Panchen Lama.
'Beijing seems to have made it fairly clear that it feels time is on its side,' said Ms Julia Famularo, who recently wrote a comprehensive study for the American think-tank Project 2049 Institute.
'They anticipate that upon the death of the current Dalai Lama, international support for Tibet will radically decrease. They seem to believe that once he dies it will (also) be much easier for them to ensure social stability and control what occurs in that region. That there will be much less pushback.'
But Ms Famularo's report, Spinning the Wheel: Policy Implications of the Dalai Lama's Reincarnation, shows that the charismatic spiritual leader is pursuing a strategy of his own to undercut Beijing's involvement. She characterises this effort as 'pro-active' and 'particularly shrewd'.
Political reforms centred on the exiled Tibetan administration in the Indian city of Dharamsala, promoted by the Dalai Lama since the 1960s, were a preamble to this effort. These culminated with the stunning announcement in March 2011 that the Dalai Lama would cede his political role to an elected prime minister and focus exclusively on his religious duties.
'If the institution's political responsibilities are cleaved off and assigned elsewhere... the rationale for the present-day Chinese state's involvement in what is now a purely religious and cultural position arguable has weakened significantly,' Ms Famularo comments in her report. However, Beijing has long applied the same oversight to China's Catholic hierarchy, despite firm Vatican opposition.
The devolution of political authority was followed in September by a bold statement on religious practice, with the Dalai Lama declaring his plans to formulate clear guidelines on the issue of his reincarnation 'so there is no room for doubt or deception'. Perhaps most critically, this raises the possibility of emanation as an alternative to his reincarnation.
'Reincarnation is what happens when someone takes rebirth after the predecessor's passing away,' he quotes 19th century Buddhist scholar and incarnate lama Jamyang Khyentse Wangpo. 'Emanation is when manifestations take place without the source's passing away.'
That is: the Dalai Lama raises the option of selecting a like-minded successor while still living, a move that would allow time to establish legitimacy while further complicating Chinese ambitions.
'The person who reincarnates has sole legitimate authority over where and how he or she takes rebirth and how that reincarnation is to be recognised,' he emphasised. 'It is a reality that no one else can force the person concerned, or manipulate him or her. It is particularly inappropriate for Chinese communists, who explicitly reject even the idea of past and future lives... to meddle in the system of reincarnation.'
Beijing's reaction was sharply hostile, with its officials placed in the awkward position of arguing theology with Tibetan Buddhism's highest authority. The governor of Tibet, Padma Choling, typically scoffed that the Dalai Lama 'must respect the historical institutions and religious rituals of Tibetan Buddhism'.
Ms Famularo acknowledged in a telephone interview that Beijing is doubtless formulating counter- strategies. And, although the Dalai Lama proclaimed that his decision on succession will be announced when he turns 90, she is equally convinced that behind-the-scenes preparations are under way to guard against alternate scenarios.
However, a botched process threatens to unleash violent unrest that could prove tragic for Tibetans and is potentially destabilising for China's international relations. Of particular concern are radicalised young Tibetans who already see the Dalai Lama's moderate approach as ineffective.
Ms Famularo understandably advocates dialogue as the clearest way to defuse tension, arguing that the international community should do more to encourage bilateral talks. She nevertheless accepts that this still offers no guarantee of a soothing outcome.