For a while now there has been some confusion regarding the future among the almost 150,000-strong exiled Tibetans resident in India. There is similar uncertainty regarding the future direction in the wider community of Tibetan exiles settled abroad.
A combination of factors has contributed to this state of affairs. Important have been the sharp differences that erupted in the course of the elections to the post of Sikyong in 2016. The electoral contest was between the former Speaker of the Tibetan Parliament-in-Exile, or Assembly of Tibetan People’s Deputies (ATPD), Penpa Tsering, and Lobsang Sangay, the incumbent Sikyong contesting a second term. Notwithstanding publicised interventions by the official Nehchong “Oracle” and the Dalai Lama to calm things down, matters got exacerbated with the sudden “removal” of Penpa Tsering from his post in New York, which caused turbulence at the Five Fifty Conference held in Dharamshala in 2017. The action resulted in a vertical division in the Tibetan government-in-exile, with Penpa Tsering’s supporters launching a campaign against Lobsang Sangay. The differences have acquired wider political overtones, with supporters of the “Middle Way” mainly backing Penpa Tsering, and some backing Lobsang Sangay. The latter also has the backing of the supporters of “Rangzen” (independence).
The quiet resistance by the “old guard” to the loss of authority and privilege is another complication. Many of them were among the first batches of Tibetans who escaped to India along with the Dalai Lama and command personal loyalty and respect among the Tibetans.
The different Tibetan Buddhist lineages (sects) have also been quietly building bridges with the communist Chinese authorities in Beijing. High-ranking monks of the lineages are travelling to Tibet and China and many have received funds from the Chinese authorities to renovate their original monasteries inside Tibet. Importantly, in some cases, the reincarnations of prominent monks have been “discovered” inside Tibet and once they were formally recognised in compliance with procedures stipulated by the Chinese authorities their “enthronement” has been facilitated, and often funded, by the Chinese government. By doing so they have implicitly accepted Beijing’s assertion that it is the final authority to approve the reincarnation of “tulkus” or “living Buddhas” and high-ranking lamas. This has not gone unnoticed.
In the midst of these developments, China’s anxious efforts to prevent emergence of a situation of “two Dalai Lamas” like that of “two Panchen Lamas” have of late gained higher profile. Beijing is making persistent efforts to persuade the Dalai Lama to “return” to his “motherland”, or, at the least, afford some form of legitimacy to China’s occupation of Tibet. Channels of contact and communication exist between Beijing and the Dalai Lama, as evidenced by the visit of Prof Samdhong Rimpoche, possibly among the Dalai Lama’s closest and trusted advisors, to China in November 2017. More recently, last month the state-owned China Central Television showed a clip of Rinzin Wangmo, daughter of the Xth Panchen Lama, visiting the important Ramoche and Jokhang monasteries in Lhasa and Tashilhunpo in Shigatse, accompanied by her children.
Adding to this uncertainty among Tibetans is the extended sojourn in the United States of Uyghen Thinley Dorjee, who has been approved by China and the Dalai Lama as the XVIIth Gyalwa Karmapa, though the title is contested by three other claimants. Uyghen Thinley Dorjee has been in the US nearly a year now and is reported to have as yet given no indication of when he plans to return to India to emissaries who met him. News reports confirm that he attended the Dalai Lama’s 83rd birthday celebrations in New York.
Woodstock in the US is the second monastic seat of the XVIth Gyalwa Karmapa. The Karma Kagyu is one of the wealthiest lineages of Tibetan Buddhism and has almost 320 Kagyu Dharma Chakra Centres around the world. A Chinese who claims to have met Uyghen Thinley Dorjee in Dharamsala and recently again at the Mont Blanc store in Woodbury in the US, posted a blog this March. He claimed that Uyghen Thinley was “restricted while in India” but in the US he was free. There were no bodyguards around and Uyghen Thinley moved about freely. Mischievously, the author claimed he initially thought that “in India the police around Karmapa did not let him go out, but when he asked the head of the police in Dharamsala he was told they were listening to the government in exile!”