The Next Saffron Revolution

The streets of Dharamsala, India, ordinarily a gantlet of signs for yoga schools and other New Age trekker traps, have turned into a huge open-air photo gallery of bloodied Tibetan corpses. It's a gruesome sight—awful enough, in fact, to crack the fabled composure of the Himalayan town's best-known resident, the Dalai Lama, the exiled spiritual leader of some 6 million Tibetans. In a 45-minute interview with NEWSWEEK last week in Dharamsala, his first print exclusive since Beijing's latest brutal crackdown on ethnic-Tibetan unrest, he said he'd been driven to tears by images of the violence. "But at the deeper emotional level there is calm," he said. "Every night in my Buddhist practice, I give and take. I take in Chinese suspicion; I give back trust and compassion. I take their negative feeling and give them positive feeling … This practice helps tremendously."

Mantras may be a comfort to the Dalai Lama, but thousands of younger Tibetans are only hardening in their fury. Every attempt to silence the protests seems almost calculated to do the opposite. For decades Beijing has demonized the Dalai Lama, relentlessly exploiting the anti Tibetan prejudices of the country's Han ethnic majority against him. China's leaders have blamed him for every obstacle they've met in trying to subdue Tibet, fantasizing that the cause of Tibetan independence will die with its 72-year-old living symbol. "That is a total miscalculation," he told NEWSWEEK last week. "The older generation may go away, but the newer generations carry the same spirit. Sometimes it's even stronger … There are some young leaders—unfortunately even militant leaders—coming up."

But China's decision makers seem almost impatient for a showdown. They couldn't have been surprised by the outbursts of the past two weeks, in the run-up to this summer's Beijing Olympic Games. After all, the best time for protests is when the world is watching. Yet even as Chinese riot police battled Tibetans—amid a virtual communications blackout on all but China's state-run media, not only in the Tibet Autonomous Region but in cities across China's mountainous west—Beijing reaffirmed its plan to send the Olympic torch up Mount Everest and straight through Lhasa on the way to the Aug. 8 opening ceremonies.

There's no point staging such a spectacle (scheduled for early May, at the start of climbing season) unless the international press is there to tell the world about it. There will almost surely be demonstrators, unless half the population of Tibet is dead or in jail. Chinese authorities are no doubt hoping the current disturbances will help identify potential troublemakers. But every suspected organizer who's taken off the streets is likely to become a martyr in the eyes of other Tibetans.

No other Tibetan has the necessary stature to strike a deal with Beijing. But rather than negotiate with the Dalai Lama, China's top men have set out to rally public sentiment against him. Prime Minister Wen Jiabao blames him for the recent violence and denounces his calls for dialogue as "nothing but lies." Zhang Qingli, the autonomous region's party boss, goes further, calling the Dalai Lama "a jackal wrapped in monk's robes, a monster with a human face." Anti-Tibetan resentment is rising elsewhere in China thanks to Internet censorship and state-run TV's flimsy attempts to minimize the Tibetans' losses (approximately 99 dead by late last week, according to the Dalai Lama's aides).

Meanwhile, the Dalai Lama is losing his ability to rein in his more militant followers. The tension became visible when he spoke with representatives of five exile groups that had organized a nonviolent march from Dharamsala to the Tibetan border. While he stopped short of ordering them to stand down, the Dalai Lama said he tried to make clear the "consequences" of going ahead. "The situation is very, very critical," he said at a Thursday press conference. "Under such circumstances, if we create [an incident] on the border, that might help the Chinese." And he has even less control over the chants of "Free Tibet!" now ringing not only through the exile community but even across remote mainland cities. "I lack the authority to say 'Shut up'," he said. "And I don't want to."

Although few Tibetans openly challenge the Dalai Lama's nonviolent "middle way," dissent is rising among younger Tibetan exiles. "Look at what the Dalai Lama's middle way has brought us in the last 50 years," says Tseten Dorjee, a member of the Tibetan Youth Congress, one of the groups that organized the march to the border. "He got a few medals, some awards and Western followers. But what did we get? Nothing! … If someone in desperation picks up arms to fight for his freedom, I am all for it."

Violence is a recurring theme in Tibet's history. Tibetan kings in centuries past sent armies into Chinese territory to expand their empire. To this day the Khampas of eastern Tibet still pride themselves as horseback warriors. One particularly memorable recent video clip, from the distant grasslands of Gansu province, features dozens of ethnic Tibetan rebels galloping full tilt on horseback and then tearing apart a Chinese flag. "If you look at history, we've had great warrior kings," says Sherab Woesar, a coordinator of the march. "It was only after Buddhism came that the Tibetan people started being more spiritual and thinking twice before killing even a mosquito. I won't be surprised if the Tibetan people decide to take up arms to fight for their land. Free Tibet is our aim, and we'll employ any means to achieve it."

Many young exiles are mentally preparing for a protracted freedom struggle. They see this moment as a "historic opportunity" to reclaim their homeland. "I know I will never be able to fight for such a cause ever again," says Woesar. "It's time now for do or die." Others talk of looking to younger spiritual leaders such as the 17th Karmapa, who fled Tibet eight years ago and now lives in Dharamsala. His political activities are tightly restricted by the Indian government, but his popularity among local exiles is rising as he matures into a handsome, articulate Buddhist teacher. "There should be no problem of lack of leadership if Tibetans decide to launch an all-out armed struggle for independence," says Tseten Dorjee. "Today's young, well-educated Tibetans can think clearly and can elect a collective leadership or another charismatic leader."

In some ways the current crisis is far more serious than the last big eruption of Tibetan unrest, in 1989. Then the protests never spread beyond the Tibetan capital. This time the flames have leaped to far-flung ethnic enclaves. The Dalai Lama credits Chinese oppression with unifying the inhabitants of ancient Tibet, which encompasses parts of modern-day Sichuan, Qinghai (the Dalai Lama's birthplace), Yunnan and Gansu provinces. But mobile phones, digital cameras and the Internet have undoubtedly helped. China's leaders used to think exposure to modern ideas would cure Tibetans of their devotion to the Dalai Lama and other "outmoded superstitions."

They could not have been more mistaken. While boy novices at the Longwu Temple in Qinghai province chanted late afternoon sutras in a gilded prayer hall last week, older monks sat nearby sharing news they got from colleagues via wireless phone about arrests and body counts at other lamaseries across the region. Another monk flipped through a series of images on his digital 35mm camera showing scenes from the previous week, when Longwu's lamas defied rings of riot police to hold an incense-burning rite at a mountainside altar. A senior lama opened his IBM laptop, and there was a long wait while it powered up. "Viruses, probably," he grunted, but finally he managed to call up video footage from a night of clashes in February between Tibetans and police in the surrounding town of Tongren. He said he had just talked by phone with an old classmate of his in Aba—a Tibetan area in northern Sichuan province—where reports of 150 dead were circulating. Police there reportedly stormed the Kirti lamasery after monks raised the Tibetan flag.

A middle-aged monk, sporting hiking boots under his monk's robes, used his mobile phone to show clips of the Dalai Lama, downloaded from the Voice of America (VOA) via a specially rigged satellite dish. "When something happens here, we just send it out," said the monk in hiking boots. His mobile phone contained clips of the Dalai Lama receiving the Congressional Gold Medal and delivering a recent speech in Tibetan—and the e-mail addresses of such networks as Radio Free Asia and Tibet Web. In Lhasa the mere possession of a still photo of the Tibetan leader would be enough to get the monk hauled away for questioning.

Makeshift satellite dishes have been set up in several of the temple compound's courtyards, although it takes a close look to distinguish them from the solar reflectors the monks use to heat their kettles of yak-butter tea. The middle-aged monk said he's had satellite TV for the last 10 years at his mud-and-brick house, some 40 miles away and two miles high, where he can pick up Chinese-language VOA broadcasts and Germany's Deutsche Welle Television. It's not much tougher than turning the dish toward the right satellite and punching a 10-digit code into the signal receiver, he said, adding that his home is a favorite gathering spot in the village. "Local teachers come over to watch TV."

Beijing keeps dumping more fuel on the fire. Authorities unplugged Longwu's broadband Internet access just as the riots were breaking out in Lhasa, making the monks angrier than ever. As if that weren't enough, police set up a blockade to prevent a repetition of the incense ritual. In frustration, two young lamas protested by beating themselves bloody with stones. A third slashed himself with a knife and remained in the hospital recovering late last week, according to a colleague. "Without freedom, what's the use of living?" the colleague asks. Even some of the most privileged young Tibetans seem to agree. Last week in Beijing and other major cities, Tibetan students at elite universities for ethnic minorities held silent protests and candlelight vigils for victims of the crackdown. A senior party official in the Chinese capital was openly upset the morning after the vigil in that city. "Look!" he said. "The troubles have even spread to Beijing!"

Many Chinese think Tibet should be grateful for a decade of unprecedented economic development. But Tibetans say the real beneficiaries have been the ethnic Han Chinese. The boom's crowning achievement, the Beijing-Lhasa rail line, has brought thousands of Chinese migrant workers and carpetbaggers in its first year of service but scant prosperity for natives of the autonomous region. "We thought there'd be employment, but only the cleaners are Tibetan," says a Lhasa resident who requested anonymity for fear of retribution. Worse, housing construction for the newcomers destroyed valuable cropland; now Tibetans are blaming the train for the skyrocketing price of barley flour to make tsampa, their national dish. A year ago tsampa flour was 14 cents a pound; today it's five times that price. Yak meat has jumped from $1.70 a pound to $2.10. Tibetans say they can't even die in peace anymore. Traditionally they have honored their dead by "sky burial"—leaving the body in an open-air mortuary to be picked clean by giant Himalayan vultures. But the birds have abandoned the old burial sites, driven away by too much human commotion. "Now there are no vultures," says a Lhasa resident. "Old people are very worried where they'll go."

The week's most hopeful news came after Britain's prime minister, Gordon Brown, spoke by phone with his Chinese counterpart. Brown later disclosed that Prime Minister Wen promised to reopen talks on Tibet if the Dalai Lama would renounce violence and give up the cause of Tibetan independence. If Wen is serious, the talks can start immediately. The Dalai Lama has called only for greater autonomy since 1987, when he formally stopped seeking full independence, and his longtime commitment to nonviolence helped him win the Nobel Peace Prize two years later.

In his interview with NEWSWEEK, the Dalai Lama repeated his willingness to sit down with Chinese leaders. He spoke of his "great respect" for both Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao, especially the latter. "He seems very gentle," the Tibetan leader said. Hu was the party secretary in Tibet during the 1989 crackdown, when hundreds of Tibetans were reportedly killed, but the Dalai Lama said he'd like to meet with him too. "I would urge them to find out what is really going on in Tibetan minds and what is happening on the ground," he said. "I always like to quote Deng Xiaoping and say please seek truth from facts." China's leaders need to listen not just to him, but to the angry young exiles. They're saying openly what most Tibetans in China don't dare express. "As long as I am alive, I am fully committed to amity between Tibetans and Chinese," the Dalai Lama said. Beijing may not get a better chance to make peace.