The Chinese government sees him as a separatist, says the Dalai Lama, during his week-long visit to Johannesburg. “That is anti-people, anti-government, anti-Communist Party. So, therefore, I am a criminal.”
And then he laughs. It is a laugh filled with irony and lightness. Calling him a “political exile engaging in activities to split China”, as a local Chinese government official did two weeks ago, is not unlike saying the same thing about Nelson Mandela pre-1990.
In person, the Dalai Lama is profoundly positive, something that belies the fact that his people have been oppressed, often brutally, for the past 50 years by one of the world’s last remaining authoritarian regimes.
His concern is that Tibetans have lost their “freedom, religious freedom and basic human rights, and also the right to express their own culture”, he told the Mail & Guardian in an interview. They have also lost the right to express their concern about the damage being done to their environment
The five decades of Chinese rule, since the People’s Republic of China invaded Tibet in 1949, have suffocated and suppressed one of the richest, most spiritual countries in the world. The Tibetan government- in-exile says about 6 000 temp- les have been razed or destroyed, an estimated 1,2-million Tibetans have lost their lives, education is state controlled and 7,5-million Chinese nationals have been resettled in Tibet, outnumbering the six million locals.
The environmental damage has been massive. The official government-in-exile website says that apart from uncontrolled mining, more than 46% of Tibet’s forests have been “indiscriminately destroyed”, removing $54-billion worth of timber between 1959 and 1985.
“So, therefore, we are complaining. Usually I describe myself as a free spokesman for the Tibetan people. If things are good, then I have nothing to complain about.”
Yet, he says: “If we look at it locally, it is almost hopeless, very difficult. But if we look at the Tibetan issue from a broader perspective, it is more positive.
“From a global level, totalitarian levels are declining. People from China themselves are much changed and still changing, changing for the better.”
The new Chinese leadership is “more human”, he says, and democratic changes in China might provide more positive change for Tibet.
It is, he says, only a question of time before the rule of law and more freedom of expression will come, bringing with it a more open society. “This is bound to come. This is a favourable situation for our cause. And meantime, to the outside world, the truth of the Tibetan situation will speak for itself.”
The Dalai Lama left South Africa this week after a visit during which he addressed packed audiences, was impressed by questions asked by Cida University students in the Johannesburg inner city, met Richard Branson and spent some time with fellow Nobel Peace Prize laureate Mandela. He was invited here by Qhuzulini John Sithole, chairperson of the African Cultural Heritage Trust, to meet with amasiko (traditional leaders) and those who live and promote a traditional lifestyle, as well as to discuss concepts of ubuntu and universal values.
Often called the “conscience of the world”, he is more than the exiled leader of the Tibetan people. Like Mandela, he is a revered elder statesperson.
On this trip he was asked about the state of the world, the conflict in Iraq and Zimbabwe and the so-called war on terror. Even on this, he is positive.
“I think the opposition to the war in Iraq, of violence is also very strong, all over the world,” he says, when asked about the state of the planet.
“Just before the Iraq crisis, how many millions of people demonstrated?
“And everywhere I think there are people who often use the words ‘dialogue’ and ‘non-violence’. These are the indications for positive change.”
He adds that in the early part of the previous century the words and concepts of non-violence and dialogue were virtually unknown. “They almost took it for granted that war was a practical means to solve problems. Now I don’t think that occurs.”
These, he says, are “positive signs”, as is the decline of many of the world’s totalitarian regimes.
“The authoritarian systems which suppress individual freedom, liberty and many other rights. started in the early part of the 20th century. Within the same century most of them are gone — not by war but by popular, peaceful means.”
Of Tibet, he adds: “More and more people around the world are showing genuine sympathy, showing genuine concern about Tibet. The Tibetan spirit inside, as well as outside, is very strong. These are favourable developments, so I am optimistic.”