Dr Andrew McGarrity on the Dalai Lama's visit

20 June 2011

With the Dalai Lama in Australia at present, Tibetan expert Dr Andrew McGarrity sheds some light on some of the recent issues surrounding the spiritual leader…

As lecturer in South Asian and Indo-Tibetan Studies at the University of Sydney, Dr Andrew McGarrity has been following the Dalai Lama's current visit to Australia with keen interest. Unsurprised that Prime Minister Julia Gillard declined to meet with the Dalai Lama due to Australia's relations with China, Dr McGarrity understands the cultural context behind why the Chinese Government is sensitive about the Dalai Lama's influence on the West. He explains, 'the Dalai Lama has won the public relations war with the Chinese authorities, if it is a war, and the Chinese government's attempts often seem to come across as somewhat ham-fisted…When the Chinese government and Chinese people see protests in the West for the Dalai Lama, they can get angry with the country the protests are held in, and think it is all part of that nation's attempts to split apart China. But of course it is not the government doing it at all, it is the people doing it."

While he believes that the power of the Dalai Lama is mostly through being a religious teacher and inspiring people in the west, he doesn't necessarily believe that this translates to political power, and not being allowed to meet with the Prime Minister is an example of this.

"The Dalai Lama doesn't have the economic clout, nor the military clout that China has" Dr McGarrity states, and he thinks that traveling the world globally "is the only way for him to raise Tibetan issues, and in a way it is far better that he is doing it in a non-violent matter". Andrew is concerned, however, that there is a danger that people in the west can begin to romanticize Tibet as a place of purity while believing on the other hand that China is hell on earth. He points out, "the Tibetans had their politics and they had disputes and squabbles like everybody; they had their murders and intrigues…you really can't make Tibetans slaves to an impossible ideal, it was neither a place of purity, nor was it completely barbarous".

The real issue is that Tibetans are seeking autonomy within China, rather than an independent Tibet and this is another misconception that the West often holds. Dr McGarrity believes that "the crucial danger with that is that it separates human rights issues in Tibet from human rights issues in China, and really they can't be separated". A shared history in the Cultural Revolution, where people from both countries suffered human rights abuses, makes these issues undeniably connected.

Dr McGarrity points out that, similar to in the West, there is a lot of genuine Chinese interest in Tibetan Buddhism, especially among the Chinese middle class, but the Chinese authorities tend to be keen to separate Tibetan Buddhism per se from the figure of the Dalai Lama, and they often imply that the Dalai Lama has become a focal point for Western attempts to break up China.

Andrew believes that the funds that the Dalai Lama raises through his books and public lectures do help support the Tibetan government in exile and its welfare programs, but what does he think of the Dalai Lama recently relinquishing his position as the head of the Tibetan government?

"He's actually tried to do this a few times and I hope this time it works. When he has done this before, the parliament have simply voted to give all the power back to him. He certainly has been very much at the forefront of trying to institute democracy, reforms and modernisation, as did his predecessor the 13th Dalai Lama. Again part of the Chinese claim was that Tibet was barbarous and backward before the Chinese were there and to a certain extent it was, but then so were many countries at one time. They didn't need China coming in to help them", Dr McGarrity states. He likens the role of the Dalai Lama outside of government to a constitutional monarchy like Australia, in that we have an elected parliament but the Queen is head of state, though "in practice the Queen doesn't exert any power".

With the economic liberalization of China changing the scope and reach of Chinese power, it is impossible to know where this will lead their relationship with Tibet. The Dalai Lama has stated during his Australian visit that the repression of China cannot last forever, so it is an interesting time to monitor these developments. Dr Andrew McGarrity sums up how drastically issues of politics and national influence can change by highlighting, "In the 1950s, would anyone have thought the Soviet Union wouldn't be around anymore?"

Contact: Kate Mayor

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