Qinghai quake: China should now directly engage Dalai Lama

By Mayank Chhaya, IANS,

The deadly earthquake in the Qinghai Province in northwestern China, which killed 1400, mostly Tibetan people, on April 14, offers an extraordinary opportunity to Beijing to allow the Dalai Lama to make his first visit home in over 50 years.

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While the Dalai Lama has been quick to request that he be allowed to visit the province, China has not so much as even taken note of that suggestion. “This time the location of the earthquake, Kyigudo (Chinese: Yushu), lies in Qinghai Province, which happens to be where both the late Panchen Lama and I were born. To fulfill the wishes of many of the people there, I am eager to go there myself to offer them comfort,” the Dalai Lama said in a statement. He had expressed a similar wish in the aftermath of the 2008 earthquake in Sichuan which killed over 80,000 people.

Although some 800 km separate Takster in Amdo, where the Dalai Lama was born in 1935, and Yushu Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture where the earthquake hit, the tragedy has the potential to considerably narrow the distance between the two sides and begin dialogue at the highest level of the leaderships for the first time.

It is a measure how eager the Chinese leadership is to demonstrate that they care deeply about Tibet’s well-being that both President Hu Jintao and Prime Minister Wen Jiabao have become personally involved in the relief efforts. While Hu cut short his visit to Brazil, where he had gone to attend a summit meeting of the Brazil-Russia-India-China (BRIC) grouping along with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, Wen postponed his visit to Indonesia. That demonstration of Beijing’s commitment to Tibet could acquire a historic dimension were it to invite the Dalai Lama to be among his people at the time of their desperate need.

The reflexively adversarial Chinese leadership can score some political and diplomatic points in allowing the Dalai Lama to visit the affected area, even if it is highly controlled. For his part, the Dalai Lama could use the visit to send a strong message of hope to the Tibetan people, generations of whom have grown up thinking of him only as a fabled figure since he was forced into exile in 1959.

Media reports suggest that it was the Buddhist monks who were out in force carrying out relief operations in the region which rises to the elevation of three miles or 15,000 feet and higher. The city of Yushu, also known as Kyigudo to the Tibetans, was reported to have been flattened by the magnitude 7.1 earthquake. Being an important city in the province, that is where the Chinese government has concentrated its relief efforts. The New York Times reported that the official relief operations were impressive with thousands of soldiers employed for the task. However, there were also reports of rising disaffection among the Tibetans outside the city who do not approve of the Han Chinese presence.

It is almost a foregone conclusion that Beijing will not entertain the Dalai Lama’s proposed visit because in its assessment his presence is bound to be a serious distraction. In their strategic thinking, China is better off waiting out the Dalai Lama’s death rather than giving him a chance to complicate the issue at this time. Even though at 75 the Dalai Lama remains in reasonably sound health, the Communist leadership is conscious that time is on the side of the Chinese state and not the person of the Tibetan leader. The leadership is bound to see the Dalai Lama’s presence in Tibet for the first time in 51 years, and that too in the midst of a catastrophe, of this scale as fraught with possibilities of igniting a revolt among the Tibetan people.

Also, at the operational level of bilateral diplomacy it would be unrealistic for Beijing to let him visit and not choose to engage him a substantive dialogue over the future of Tibet. Not talking directly with the Dalai Lama has been a far more effective approach so far for China. Why should an earthquake change that?

For one, it could send a powerful symbolic message about China’s sincerity in resolving the Tibetan question around the world. More importantly, it can have profound impact in the eventual peaceful integration of Tibet into the Chinese mainstream with the kind of autonomy demanded by the Dalai Lama.

(Mayank Chhaya is a Chicago-based journalist and writer whose biography “Dalai Lama: Man, Monk, Mystic” has been published in 20 languages around the world. He can be contacted at [email protected])