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.