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Bloody Sunday, election, Irish, Ireland, British, Ulster, Unionist, Sinn Féin, SDLP, Ahern, Blair, Irish America

Dalai Lama will settle for a Northern Ireland style resolution

(by Liam Clarke, Sunday Times)

Whenever Hu Jintao, the Chinese President, finds time to dip into Jonathan Powell's account on the Northern Ireland Peace process it will encourage him to talk to the Dalai Lama. Since the Chinese government believes the Buddhist monk is orchestrating rioting in Tibet, in Powell's book that makes him the right man to speak to.

Tony Blair's former adviser likes to tell the story of how Seamus Mallon complained that the British government was for negotiating with Sinn Féin because they had the guns. "my answer to that is 'Yes and your point is?'" Powell replied.

The recent history of Northern Ireland has been a demonstration of the fact that you can't choose the leader of your opponents – only a person of their choosing can deliver their support. So if China wants peace in Tibet in time for the Olympics they must talk to the Dalai Lama, the one man who has the moral authority to speak for the Tibetan community. That authority is fading, however. Many see his policy of non violence as weakness.

The Chinese government is generally impervious to international opinion; it is a huge country with enormous economic clout and a stable government. It doesn't worry about critical editorials in Europe or hard hitting comments from foreign politicians. Pressure on such a country usually only works if there is upheaval and conflict within the ruling elite.

But this is a special time. China is looking forward to the Beijing Olympics, which it hopes will boost tourism and build business links with the rest of the world. It has no choice but to invite the cameras in, and is more sensitive than ever to western opinion.

This is also the first time in generations that the Chinese government has attempted to encourage Buddhism, which it regards as a distinctly Asian religion with world reach and potential for tourism. So far Cha'an Buddhism, known as Zen in Japan and the west, and Pure Land schools have been the focus. The Shaolin monastery, a Cha'an institution, has become a major tourist attraction. Its monks travel the world demonstrating their mastery of the body and mind. Shaolin and other Cha'an monasteries and sites has tremendous potential in attracting high value "pilgrimage" tourism from the West where Zen is well established.

In November China will host the Second World Buddhist Forum under the title "a harmonious world with friendly relations in all circles". Conflict in Tibet would cut right across this event but having the Dalai Lama or his representative in attendance would guarantee its success.

The Dalai Lama or his advisers knew that this year would be a moment of opportunity and backed peaceful protests. The Tibetan government in exile is already in dialogue with the Chinese, but focusing international attention can lend them leverage. The subsequent descent into violence and the crackdown by the Chinese troops is horribly reminiscent of the early days of the civil rights movement in Northern Ireland, when a settlement could have been reached between the government and a moderate civil leadership. When it wasn't decades of communal violence followed.

The Chinese invasion of 1950 was followed by the plantation of the most prosperous regions of the country by Han Chinese settlers and traders. The Chinese did their best to make the region prosper. Tibet is exempt from central government taxation and its own regional administration receives a 90% subsidy from Beijing. There have been huge infrastructural projects. The Shanghai-Tibet railway has opened up a country whose mountainous location makes aviation difficult to mass tourism and trade.

The Han immigrants and the investments have fuelled economic growth which has benefited the Han most. Western regions have benefited least of all.

In Ulster unrest was fuelled by decades in which the west of the province was the poor relation of the industrialised east and Catholics in general were at a disadvantage.

Northern Ireland is healing these divisions through anti discrimination laws and a devolved administration in which both traditions have entrenched positions.

In the Dalai Lama the Chinese have a Tibetan leader who will settle for this, and may even be prepared to forego entrenched power sharing. During his 2004 visit to the Scottish Parliament he suggested that Tibet had much to learn from Scottish devolution.

In recent days he has been repeating, that unlike some exile groups, his policy is not independence but self government within China. The example of Hong Kong shows that the Chinese are capable of allowing different regions to pursue different policies when there is a powerful enough reason to do so.

In Tibet there is a lot at stake, and not just in terms of image. Reaching accommodation with Tibetan Buddhism would attract top end tourism for Buddhist retreats, pilgrimages and "experiences" from its many adherents in the affluent west. There would be celebrity endorsement from people like Richard Gere who has suggested establishing a "spa Tibet" resort complex.

There is hard economic potential too. A major mineral deposit, with an estimated value of $128 billion, has been discovered under the Tibetan plateau. This could double China's zinc, copper and lead resources, making the country less dependent on outside powers for industrial raw materials as well as bringing long term jobs and prosperity to the Tibetan region.

That is the sort of peace dividend which we can only dream of for Northern Ireland, but it will take the Dalai Lama to deliver it.

In the 80s he exchanged cordial letters with Deng Xiaoping, the Chinese President. He expressed polite support for "communist ideology" and "Lenin's policy of the equality of minorities" and calling for its proper implementation. However he refused invitations to visit the country instead sending low level delegations. In 1989 he declined an invitation to attend the funeral of the Panchen Lama, who had married a Chinese army officer and died in Beijing, despite being told that it would be an opportunity to engage in high level talks.

Tsering Shakya, a Tibetan historian, believed that the Dalai Lama's advisers "badly misjudged the situation" and had lost an opportunity.

"Once the Chinese leaders lost interest in the issue any prospect of reaching a compromise was effectively ended" he wrote.

The Dalai Lama, who was born of Chinese speaking parents, is a remarkably modern man who won't make the same mistake twice. If he is gone, a new leader is likely to take decades going through the long learning curve which he has already traversed and things could get complicated.

A long term Chinese strategy for dealing with the Dalai Lama has been to wait for his death and then choose his successor who, they believed, would be born in their territory. When some high Lamas die a young boy is picked out who is pronounced the Tulku or re-incarnation of the dead monk.

Ludicrously for a communist regime which espouses materialism, the Chinese have already picked two boys and pronounced them Tulkus in important Tibetan lineages. They are the Panchen Lama, who is traditionally the spiritual leader of Tibet, and the Karmapa, who heads the important Karma Kagyu school of Tibetan Buddhism.

Without the Dalai Lama's imprimatur the Chinese choices have been largely ignored by most Tibetans. It would be foolish to think that choosing a new Dalai Lama would be any more successful.

The Dalai Lama has already started raising questions over the whole business of Tulkus. He has said that he cannot be sure that re-incarnation really happens and that if it is true, he feels inclined to re-incarnate in the west. He says he may also come back as a woman, or he might not re-incarnate at all.

So it might be just as well for the Chinese to negotiate now. Matters could get highly complicated in the future.

March 25, 2008
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This article first appeared in the Sunday Times on March 23, 2008.

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