Azad Essa
Azad Essa

Dalai Lama: Do I feel guilty?

While studying in Delhi some years back, the sociology department organised a “study trip” for our class to the north Indian hill station town Dharamsala, where his holiness, the Dalai Lama has lived in exile for the last five decades along with about 8 000 Tibetan refugees. Like most “study trips”, there was no studying as such, instead, I remember escaping a bunch of kids trying to lynch me for conversing with them in some made-up Tibetan dialect. I remember laughing hysterically at my European classmates cheeky fascination with the holy (read: sexy) Buddhist monks, and of course, the highlight of the trip, witnessing the Dalai Lama lead a prayer in The Tsuglagkhang Temple complex or the Dalai Lama Temple.

I had always felt that the Dalai Lama, as holy as he was, spent far too much time touring, lobbying and smiling with his palms together at liberal Westerners only too keen to maintain the regurgitated rhetoric, “the Chinese are bad”, to actually forward, pressure real changes to China’s stranglehold over their Tibetan quest.

That whole luxurious first-class passive resistance guise was a thing that died with Gandhi, Luthuli and John Lennon. Tibetans needed action and here was their leader dining with the world’s elite only too kind to provide aid and candid support by the profits generated by rapidly proliferating trade with China.

Tibetan resistance always seemed like an accepted way of life, the talk and inaction institutionalised, the deal sealed ajar. Having received the Nobel Prize almost 20 years ago, when was he ever going to get his hands dirty to get a hold of the main prize?

Still, the Dalai Lama was no joke, even one of my closest mates, a Chinese sports journalist turned astute academic attested to be in awe of seeing him in the flesh, to be inimitably drawn to the special values of non-violence forwarded by this leader in a world only too quick to resort to violence. He did, however, provide me with a rather jaundiced account of the situation in Tibet; a timid apologist Chinese version that got me feeling all fuzzy inside.


The Tibetan museum in Dharamsala is a powerful collection of original text, images and installations documenting the community’s flight from China to India and showcases the Chinese occupation of Tibet and documents the 1959 great escape of a young Dalai Lama to India. The entire getaway and relocation to India is well documented with a number of strapping “before the border” and “after the border” photographs. There were also snaps of Tibetan rebels or freedom fighters with rifles ready to defend themselves in the advent of an attack from the Chinese.

Needless to say, my Chinese mate walked up to me with an amused look on his face. Wasn’t it strange he asked, to have documented an escape so purposely and thoroughly? Moreover, with all the posing going on in this “middle of the night type getaway”, was it not obvious that the Chinese government let the holy man escape, and if they wanted they could’ve put a bullet into him that very night or later? And, he continued, while the Tibetan struggle has been always presented as vehemently non-violent; what were all these Tibetan freedom fighters doing with weapons?

“I don’t know”, I replied, grinning at my friend’s now obvious struggle with what he’s seen and now knows with what he clearly thought he knew; ardent nationalism versus proof of dodgy human-right records. Just then, as if he hadn’t enough on his mind, one of our classmates, a North American girl, obviously scarred by the dismal images, walked over to him, tapped him on the shoulder and looked him right in the eye and asked rather solemnly: “I want to know … when you see this … do you feel guilty?”

He shrugged.

I thought to myself — this was probably the same question white South Africans faced from all foreigners.

But I wondered if it was a fair question to ask my Chinese friend who never did benefit from his country’s continued conquest of Tibet. At the same time, there were real abuses in Tibet. Did this mean that as a thinking citizen, he ought to feel guilty, even if he was merely a silent bystander to his country’s policy?

Is it his fault China has this insatiable phallic-like urge to pin down Tibet as their flagship project?

The Germans were and are picked on for obvious reasons and today Americans are tormented most of the time for their meddling in the Middle East, their rather imperious accent and specifically (and I’d wish they would know it) defending Tom Cruise. Is it reasonable to chastise them for the actions of the government they voted in?


Some days ago, the Dalai Lama was refused a visa to enter South Africa. Though our presidential spokesperson denied any suggestions that the ban was a result of Chinese pressure, a Chinese embassy official confirmed that Beijing warned the visit could harm bilateral ties between the two countries.

Other reasons given for refusing a visa for his holiness, was that the focus of the conference, next year’s World Cup would shift to Tibet (read: Tibet is on the verge of a revolution and the 2010 World Cup will suffer) Please, hit me baby one more time.

Funny enough, refusing the visit has achieved nothing but turn the spotlight on China’s shenanigans in Tibet and reaffirm South Africa as a ruthless, amoral player in international politics.

In fact, disallowing the Dalai Lama to participate in the conference hardly belittles the Tibetan movement, hardly trims the wings of a movement that hasn’t flapped in years. The decision therefore only serves as to further taint South Africa as a country that considers flaky trade to be more important than giving a voice to the oppressed. So what if we have $10 billion worth of trade with the Chinese? Will they really pull out because we allowed an impotent holy man to speak?

First, it was South Africa’s despicable decision to vote against a UN Security Council resolution aimed at sanctioning the military junta running Myanmar in 2007. Then it was Mbeki’s “no crisis in Zimbabwe” comment last year following the general elections which only just found some semblance of a resolution a month or so ago.

Now it is this refusal to allow the Dalai Lama because the foetal Chinese imports, which killed our manufacturing industry, might also just die a premature death. Sure, invading a country is not quite the same as denying a visa to a jet-setting freedom fighter who won’t fight. But the South African government — the post-counter-revolutionary Mbeki-era government — is disregarding the liberation struggle; fast forgetting the concept of solidarity with oppressed communities and rapidly losing credibility as the vanguard of human rights, free speech and equality on the continent.

I remember now how my friend replied to the question posed to him about guilt by the Canadian whose great grandparents probably maimed French Canadians.

“I don’t think I feel guilty,” he said.

I think he just felt sick.

  • kgomotso

    I’m sick to my stomach really. We’re really proving to be a piece of work when it comes to our international relations. I’m sure all those people who supported the Anti-Apartheid movement are shocked beyond belief. We made the international news on every single channel last night. Wow, nice move Foreign Affairs, and way to lift the nation’s sagging morale.

  • Owen

    Well said and no, I don’t feel guilty either. Never have and never will.

  • Lesedi

    I LOVE IT – ‘(read: Tibet is on the verge of a revolution and the 2010 World Cup will suffer) Please, hit me baby one more time.’ – You’re my hero of the week!!

  • jan lombard

    Every nation, like every person, has a soul it either enriches or drag down –
    That a previously oppressed SA can bow to an oppressive bully marks a sad low point in the spiritual development of this nation- We have taken from the good side of the scale and added to the dark side not just for SA but also set example with other nations selling that much of their soul. Its like banning Gandhi from the peace forum.
    It marks the moral integrity or lack of it in SA.

  • Dave Harris

    Azad, “that sick feeling” you describe captures the essence of what I felt when I heard about the visa denial.
    – Its what one feels when one witnesses an injustice that is going to have grave consequences but is powerless to do anything about it.
    – Its what happens when hope starts to fade as you see more clearly that the the ideal you once thought the ANC as a liberation movement stood for is a sham.
    – Its what happens when you witness the cowardly silence of people that you once admired within the ANC

    When you sacrifice your core beliefs, the road ahead unfortunately becomes a lot darker and treacherous. The ANC are about to learn some hard lessons from its people and the world.

  • Captain Asthma

    Well put Azad.

  • Lyndall Beddy


    Are you trying to make a point, or boasting about how well travelled you are?

  • Shubnum Khan

    Great piece!

  • Nicos

    Well, Azad, I share your view on the situation. it’s sad to see the SA act in this way: power, interests etc over principles. Not that I am moved by the theocratic and undemocratic monk who has assumed a god-given role to lead his people for life, but the Thibetan quesion is a different matter: it is an issue of principle, the Thibetans have a right to self-determination.

  • CB

    When asked by a North American girl if he felt guilty, why didn’t your Chinese friend simply reply by asking her if she felt guilty about the Native Americans …?

  • La Quebecoise

    2 quick points;

    yes kgomotso, we who supported the anti-apartheid movement since the 70s are shocked, but we’ve been shocked since the early 90s when it was clear that the ANC believes that they achieved their goal all by themselves; no whites, no ‘coloureds’ no foreigners, we ‘useful idiots’ as one of your ‘white liberals’ called themselves when ANC arrogance finally sunk in; such hubris. this is just another example of it. If you judge a man by the company he keeps, it doesn’t look too good for SA does it?

    And Mr Essa, you can tell by my name that I am from Quebec, and my ancestors were ‘kept in their place’ by the Anglo-Scots wealthy, but I’m not sure anyone was maimed. Your point is interesting tho. Black SA think they’re the only people in the world who have suffered discrimination, and that just shows how cut off from the world and from reality black Africa really is. And with no vision of what a better future could be, apart from Maseratis and Mercs, there is little chance that you’ll get there.

  • Siobhan

    “…a jet-setting freedom fighter who won’t fight…spent far too much time
    touring, lobbying and smiling with palms together…”

    You’re right, Azad, the ‘study trip’ did not entail study. If it had you would learned a few things that might alter your perspective. Pick a book. Any book written by the Dalai Lama on any subject. Read accounts of the early exile in India where uncertainty and isolation greeted each new arrival from Tibet. Wooden buildings, unpaved roads, and insufficient means to look after the refugees meant decades of struggle. There was no luxury or excess–unless suffering is excessive and it is.

    Read the memoirs of lama who spent their lives in Chinese prisons. Read the accounts of tourists who witnessed and photographed Chinese soldiers dressed as monks brandishing automatic weapons. Ask yourself where in a police state would monks of all people obtain weapons?!

    The Dalai Lama owns nothing. His travel is paid for by exiled Tibetans in the ‘West’ and people who have the means to try to ease the burdens the Dalai Lama carries. His diet is the same as it was in Tibet with the addition of fruit. He eats twice a day, usually soup and rice. He rises before the sun and meditates for four hours before beginning his day. He did not initiate travel–the increasingly genocidal policies of the Chinese made it necessary to seek UN member nations for assistance.

    Visit Dharamsala again, Azad, and see what you think.

  • Siobhan

    Oh, and one more thing: how exactly would you suggest that a man who has taken vows never–under any circumstances–to use violence or to condone it, should ‘FIGHT’? You may be tired of the whole ‘first class passive resistance thing’, Azad, but you are hardly the point.

    It’s 1950. You are faced with an overwhelming force, an invasion of your country of a few million people by a country with a population of a billion, how do you ‘FIGHT’? Yes, Tibet had an ‘army’ of a few thousand soldiers–on horseback. They also had ancient repeating rifles and a few hand guns. Their function was to stop bandits from robbing and killing people on the borders of Tibet. FIGHT the Chinese? They tried. And died.

    Buddhism forbids us to allow others to die for us; it is the equivalent of murder. The Dalai Lama faced an impossible dilemma: betray Buddhism by encouraging violent resistance or negotiate with the Chinese. At age 16 what would you have done, Azad? The Dalai Lama tried diplomacy. 50 years later he is still trying and he cannot give up.

    Tibet has suffered unspeakably in the 50 years. The young especially are angry and impatient: the opposite of Buddhist discipline. The Dalai Lama entreats them not to use violence but he cannot control them. Read the Amnesty reports on Tibet–and Burma if Aung San Suu Kyi’s passivity irks you.

    Tibetan Buddhism can teach us much, Azad, if we want to learn.

  • jacqueline

    A great piece of writing; your blog stands out!
    We happen to have discussed some of your points over dinner last night, and the whole situation certainly does make one wonder…

  • Azad Essa

    thanks for the comments people! we definitely seem to have lost the plot and its difficult to stomach.

    lesedi: you are my hero/heroine (?) for pointing out my favourite line also 😛

    captain asthma – are you the electronic music legend?

  • Azad Essa

    CB – he is too polite. he took out his frustration on me later.

    Lyndall – are you for real? i already boast about my travel in my profile. come on lady, give the post one more shot :)

  • Azad Essa

    siobhan, thanks for reading as always. and your point is noted.

    just consider this though. as honourable as the dalai lama is, can you deny that his cause (the exotified buddhist peaceful resistor) is merely used and abused as a geo-political tool in international politics? the west loves buddhism. because it is peaceful – a festish for zen? or because it does not pose a threat to their way of life? or is it really something that they want to strive towards even though their governments trade with the chinese, their kids play with chinese toys etc etc?

    where exactly does autonomy for the tibetan people fit into all of that?

    sure, we can honour such a noble cause and perhaps he cannot break his principles, but what about the rhetoric on ourside?

  • Gratitude

    The Dalai Lama is the spiritual leader of Tibet not us indigineous Africans,we have nothing to lose nor gain.

  • brent

    Azad, you seem to imply that the Dalai Lama and Tibetians should get up and ‘fight’ the Chinese. Check the figures and re-think your mild distaste of the ‘peaceful’ Tibetians:

    China 1.2 billion
    Tibet – less than 10 million plus over the past 50 years China has shown very plainly that they will use force and to hell with the world.

    SA’s liberation struggle that we are so proud of:

    +- 5/6 million whites
    +- 30 million disenfranchised, plus assistance from 5 neighbouring states – Tibetians assistance in terms of arms – zero from other states.

    Why does a great country (1.2 billion) with thousands of years of history fear a ‘backward’ country/people of less than 10 million??


  • Gill

    Excellent piece. I’ve also always felt uncomfortable about how the world unquestionly (and with a lot of ignorance) embraces the Dalai Lama as a great envoy of peace. And you’re right, Azad, about South africa giving up the moral highground long before this saga. I’ve just blogged about it and this post at my website. Check it out at:

  • Anna Varney-Wong

    In order to apologise, South Africa should offer the Dalai Lama free citizenship as Canada did when they were placed in a similar situation. The banning of the Dalai Lama, an international icon of peace and compassion is disgraceful and flies in the face of our hard earned liberation which we fought for so long. Many died and even more were imprisoned – are we really going to give our Rainbow Nation away?

    We must boycott the World Cup in SA if the Dalai Lama’s banning is not withdrawn.

  • Sipho

    @Gill and Azad

    Azad, have you studied any Buddhism on your trip or since? Not from an intellectual perspective, but from introspection of your mind in meditation? Do you understand how conflict arises from the mistaken perspective of illusory, self grasping egocentric reference framework?

    The idea of loving kindness and caring for all beings as if they were your own mothers is something alien to most people. Yet this is the core ideal that His Holiness lives by and which all Buddhist practitioners live by.

    And this is not at a conceptual level but far deeper than that…right to the core of your being.

    Buddhism is just a name, it is really a very humanistic practice and only requires one thing. It’s not belief at all. It’s observation of the operation of your own mind. His Holiness’s actions springs forth from that. In Tibetan Buddhism, he is seen as an incarnation of Chenrizeg, the deity of compassion. Nobody should embrace anything unquestionably. It is up to each of us to make observations and to study and use our own powers of reasoning before embracing it.

  • Lyndall Beddy


    I don’t know if you realise it but SA was the largest economy in Africa by the end of the 19th century already. Tanzania kept sanctions against us, at great cost to themselves.

    We don’t need China, China needs us. In fact China needs Africa more than Africa needs China.

    Besides Sarkozy met officially with the Dalai Lama – and China threw a fit, but the European Union and France survived did it not?

    And Gordon Brown met unofficially with the Dalai Lama in the home of the Archbishop of Canterbury – and China did not make a murmer.

    So what is wrong with our diplomats that they create such a crisis?

  • Dave Harris

    Azad, while I share your disgust for the SA government’s actions, I differ from you on your views of the Tibetans, Buddhism and its relationship with the west. You have a lot to learn in that area. Having studied in India, you should know better about non-violence and its power to transform, but on the other hand, it seems like you don’t quite believe in this ‘first class passive resistance thing’. The are many reasons why the west empathizes with the plight of the Tibetans and the west is so fascinated with Buddhism.You have a long way to go, my friend. If only you would care to open your eyes.

  • Paul Smith

    The last line sums it up for me. I still feel sick. And ashamed to be South African. I’d be happy to put my SA passport through the shredder.

  • Felas

    People must understand internation relations and politics is not always based on doing what is right. The timing is always important may be in some other time the Dalai Lama would have been allowed. There is too much hipocrisy in this world, we have more powerful western countries giving half-hearted attention to the international human rights issues including the UN. All arguements raised here are quite correct, that is, in the ideal world, in the real world a decision needs to be taken based on the realities not what is “ideal” or “right”.

  • David Brown

    Skitting thinking about the latest International gaffe by SA Foreign affirs -the division in the cabinet the loss of so much in terms of autonomous position internationally.Chinese party gives money to ANC invest heavily in SA. No need to do any of this neutrality would make us useful. Motlante is no Moeshoesh which is what Sa needed to tight rope this peroiod in history . What a mess. Steam clean the foreign affairs but wo is there to do it?

  • Siobhan

    Points taken and thanks for your response.

    What I believe ‘westerners’ see in Tibet is the same thing that people in South America, India. Russia and even here in SA, see: an example of a people who transformed themselves from a quite savage warrior cullture into a pacifist culture based on the strength of an idea: THAT EVERY THOUGHT AND EVERY ACTION HAS CONSEQUENCES THAT WE CANNOT BEGIN TO APPRECIATE GIVEN OUR LIMITED UNDERSTANDING OF WHAT CONSCIOUSNESS IS AND HOW IT AFFECTS THE UNIVERSE.

    That is the basis of the Buddhist first principle: DO NO HARM. Easy? Oh, no. Because we cannot see the longterm results of even our best intentions, we cannot be sure that what seems ‘harmless’ right now will not have ill affects in the future. The only ethical philosophy under those circumstances is the Buddhist Middle Way grounded in non-violence.

    Tibetan peasants practiced a more primitive and shamanic form of Buddhism than the monks and lamas but even the peasants absorbed the principle of REFRAINING FROM HARM and as long as they had access to Buddhist teaching through the DL and the lamas, they were able to maintain a non-violent society. 50 years of Chinese abuse has inevitably eroded that ethic but most Tibetans still hold the DL in the highest esteem, even reverence because he represents nearly a thousand years of Buddhist practice and is the embodiment of Tibetan Buddhism.

    The novels of Eliot Patison are worth reading; they contain much truth.

  • Jeff

    Exactly what “realities” are you referring to?
    The government keeps referring to the “national interest”. They refuse to explain what this is.
    They are conflating the “ANC interest” with the “national interest”.
    Bunch of mealy-mouthed hypocrits.

  • Lyndall Beddy

    I don’t know if you all have really grasped the point yet – we are the ONLY country EVER in the whole world to deny the Dalai Lama a visa!

    And the same people who were pouring in investment and Aid to SA because we were the “modern miracle” of reconciliation, have gone into shock.

    The damage is HUGE!

    We have lost our brand identity!

  • Saberah Gumede

    of all the people they can ban, why the Dalai Lama? they can’t ban the druglords? human traffickers? But the Dalai Lama! Eish

  • Azad Essa

    thats a good point lyndall.

    we look really silly.

    perhaps china is financing….should i say it?

  • Lesedi

    Azad: Heroine – Lyndall: We are the only Country to have done a number of things, and we seem to always try and outdo ourselves when it comes to decisions that make you go ‘hmmmm’, so the kind of decision making process that brought us here sounds about right and in terms of our ‘brand identity’ i think we have been on the road to losing that for some time – the way i see this is; Straw-Camel-broken back!

  • Lesedi

    p.s. I’m also not sure about this business of shredding ones passport Mr. Smith! You’ll be hard pressed to find a place to go where you wont be plagued with the same sentiment at some point – Main dish/ side dish – it usually is the same [email protected] dish!

  • hendrik

    It seem that people forget much quicker than you can actually comprehend .Imagine inviting PW Botha and denying a visa to Mandella ,any country ,doing this during the apartheid days will have done the same in essence as the government has done ,denying the Dali Lama entry,but denying the Dali Lama is much worse Because this government was till recently a liberation minded gov.How all that has changed .What Rubbish we make of the liberation struggle.And when I felt so proud, being a SA citizen because I so firmly agreed that all one can do is working towards ,creating a HUMAN-RIGHTS CULTURE.Howe soon ,before I find myself in the midst of a police/military state ?are people truly that mindless and careless???

  • minsk

    For those of us not too knowledgable about Tibet its impossible to know if the Dalai Lama merits his accolades and status. But lets assume the worst: That he’s a fraud, a charlatan, a rabble rouser and as Trevor Manual claims a representative of an anachronistic and oppressive fuedal system. It is still to our shame that we denied him a visa.

    He is no physical threat to our community, is a recognised leader and has something to say to us. By the founding principles of our republic, no voice is to be silenced by prejudice and we are free to decide right from wrong as our conscience dictates so long as we do others no harm. Are we now to be treated as children again by a patriachal state? Who else could be banned from entry by the same brand of policy: John Pilger, Noam Chomsky, Louis Farrakhan? The ethics on which a state are founded are always hard won. They can be quickly washed away by the wise fools who preach expedience though.

  • Anna Varney-Wong

    It seems crazy to think we could be like Tibet soon. I guess the main difference is the majority of our population arent Buddhist – only a small minority is. People are only hearing the rumblings now – they dont realize what these mean yet.

  • Olga

    Interesting post – Siobhan I echo your sentiments entirely. Mr Essa – no disrespect but instead of being an armchair critic and claimant that passive resistance died with Ghandi, why not propose your alternative strategy as to the most effective way forward for Dalai Lama? That ought to be a very interesting post.

    Lyndall – I hardly think you can compare France/ EU and South Africa. Best you research some basic macro-economic facts about who the economic mights are in the world before making statements like China needs Africa more than Africa needs China.

  • Nad Ko

    I agree – absolute nonsense that China is the economic panacea of the world. They own a substantial number of American govt bonds (definitely not 50%) They acquired the bonds not because they wanted to assist the USA economically but because it was in their own interest.
    Neither would they recall those bonds either – because if the USA goes bust they will follow suit. They need the USA and the EU to keep their economy afloat, nothing else!!.

  • meofcourse

    Hihi, I like ur description of “the Chinese sports journalist turned astute academic,” and the Canadian, and kinda happy I wasn’t there that time so I can’t be confused with ur European friends finding the munks sexy (O+M?!)Oh, and I agree with Olga, what is your alternative?

  • shafinaaz

    Congrats on winning the Best Political Blog at SA Blog Awards 2009