In Tibet, a Clash of Approaches

Wall Street Journal
FEBRUARY 20, 2009, 1:44 A.M. ET

As Anniversary of Exile — and Protests — Nears, Dalai Lama’s Brother Advises Calm


[Dalai Lama’s family] Associated Press

His Holiness the Dalai Lama, head of state and spiritual leader of the people of Tibet, third from right, is shown with his family in Delhi, India, in 1956. From left to right are, Dalai Lama’s mother; his elder sister; eldest brother Thubten J. Norbu; elder brother; Gyalo Thondup, brother; Dalai Lama; his younger sister; and his youngest brother.

KALIMPONG, India — Nearly 50 years after the Dalai Lama fled Tibet with his followers to India, his older brother lives on a quiet hilltop here just beyond his Himalayan homeland, like an exile among exiles.

At 80 years old with a stooped back and bad knees, Gyalo Thondup remains one of Tibet’s strongest supporters of better ties with Beijing. That is an increasingly unpopular stance among younger exiles, as their bitterness toward China grows over years of fruitless dialogue and a violent security clampdown.

Relations have become sufficiently tense that the Dalai Lama’s envoys have suspended talks with China. Still, Mr. Thondup has maintained his largely improvised role in trying to bring the two sides closer together, courting Chinese officials to try to defuse tensions. His wristwatch is set to Beijing time.

[Dalai Lama’s brother] Peter Wonacott
Eighty-year-old Gyalo Thondup remains one of Tibet’s strongest supporters of better ties with Beijing.

“Even if we don’t agree, I will go and talk to them,” says Mr. Thondup during an interview at his home in the Indian trading town of Kalimpong. “It’s in the interest of China and Tibet, we must live peacefully. We must deal with each other.”

The message is being put to the test as the anniversary of the Dalai Lama’s flight approaches. Last year, protests in Tibetan areas of China to mark the March 10, 1959, popular uprising in Tibet turned violent and were crushed. Now there have been reports of fresh protests and arrests.

On Thursday, a Communist Party official in Tibet warned Buddhist clergy against political activity. Lobsang Gyaincain, a member of the standing committee of the regional Communist Party, demanded that monks and nuns recognize what he called the “reactionary nature” of the Dalai Lama clique, as well as plots to use temples and clergy to carry out “infiltration and disturbances,” the official Tibet Daily reported.

For its part, China has declared March 28 “Serf Emancipation Day” to celebrate the toppling of Tibet’s feudal leadership five decades ago.

A Tibetan exile task force postponed dialogue with China until the anniversary passes. “At the moment we are much more concerned with the situation on the ground,” said Lodi Gyari, special envoy of the Dalai Lama. “His Holiness has advised caution and restraint.”

Some Tibetan exile groups want to see the Dalai Lama take a tougher stand toward China — an approach Mr. Thondup opposes. The Tibetan Youth Congress is planning a series of pro-independence rallies in the weeks ahead. One protest in Dharmsala, the north Indian town that serves as headquarters for Tibet’s government in exile, will burn effigies of Mao Zedong and Chinese President Hu Jintao, as part of the traditional “sweeping away of evil spirits” ahead of the Tibetan New Year, according to the group’s president, Tsewang Rigzin.

Mr. Thondup himself isn’t likely to muster much of an effort to counter these forces, and says he is ready to step aside for a younger generation. “I’m coming to the end of what I have to contribute,” he says. “I’ve talked too much.”

He is blunt about why he hasn’t achieved more in three decades of talks with Chinese officials. “How can a person discuss morality, reason and compassion with gangsters?” he says. “Of course,” Mr. Thondup chortles, “they think I’m a gangster, too.”

[Gyalo ] Gyalo Thondup
This undated photo shows Gyalo Thondup, the Dalai Lama’s older brother, meeting with Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping to discuss Tibet issues.

Mr. Thondup’s relationship with China began shortly after his brother was tapped as Tibet’s spiritual leader in 1937. In the early 1940s, a regent dispatched Mr. Thondup, then 14 years old, to Nanjing to learn Mandarin. In the wartime capital, he befriended China’s leader, Chiang Kai-shek, and eventually married the daughter of a Nationalist general. After the Communists came to power, he fled China and wound up in India.

In an attempt to defend Tibet in the 1950s, Mr. Thondup entered the world of clandestine resistance, eliciting aid from the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency for the training and arming of Tibetan fighters who were parachuted back into Tibet. Most of the agents were caught or killed

With his brother’s consent, Mr. Thondup met in 1979 with the Chinese leader, Deng Xiaoping, and embarked on 14 years of talks. The talks failed to reach a settlement and Mr. Thondup bowed out of his role as envoy. Still, he continues to engage his old contacts.

Following the protests a year ago, he called and met with Chinese officials to complain that their demonizing the Dalai Lama would inflame Tibetan anger; he claims top leaders later toned down their rhetoric.

After the Dalai Lama’s envoys walked away from talks with China in November, Mr. Thondup met in New Delhi with Chinese embassy officials. In those meetings, he argued that they had misconstrued as calls for independence the Dalai Lama’s demands for meaningful autonomy in Tibet. Days later, he lobbied fellow Tibetans to avoid provoking Beijingand stick to a middle way. He also has urged more people to travel to China and to study Mandarin.

“Tibetans have to deal with China carefully,” he says. “In order to solve our problems, we have to know each other.”

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