On Tibetan Democracy Day, Dateline speaks to the Dalai Lama about the changes he's seen and his hopes for the future.
Tuesday, September 2, 2014 - 21:30

Tuesday September 2nd is Tibetan Democracy Day and marks 54 years since the first elections for Tibetans in exile, but does the Dalai Lama think he will ever see his homeland again?

Mark Davis sits down with him to reflect on the changes he's seen in his lifetime and, despite his retirement from politics, to hear of the hopes he still strongly holds for Tibet's future.

79-year-old Tenzin Gyatso is the 14th Dalai Lama and has won the Nobel Peace Prize for the crucial role he's played in reforming Tibetan politics.

He expresses hope that China's own democratic transition may not be too far off, but also concern about the wave of self-immolations in response to continued repression in Tibet.

So, where next for the Dalai Lama's Democracy?

Watch Full Interview



Today is Tibetan Democracy Day, which marks 54 years since Tibetans first voted for the leaders of their government in exile. For most of those years, the position of head of that government was reserved for the Dalai Lama. In a move which shocked most Tibetans, the Dalai Lama has now resigned from all political roles in that community seeing his function as purely spiritual, but when he was last seen in Australia, he spoke with Mark Davis about such worldly matters as Tibetan democracy, political change in China, and his thoughts on whether he'll ever see his homeland again.

REPORTER: Mark Davis


The Dalai Lama has been the cornerstone of Tibetan spiritual and political life since he first ascended to the theocratic role in 1950.

VOICEOVER: Just 15 years old, was hurriedly declared of age.

Within nine years of him coming to the throne, the Chinese army forcibly took control of Tibet, forcing the Dalai Lama to flee to India, where he established the Tibetan government in exile. From there, he began a series of democratic reforms, completely overhauling Tibet's ancient system of government and law, which has now culminated in his retirement as political leader of the Tibetan people.

REPORTER: Much of your life - I mean, you are a spiritual leader, but much of your life has been consumed with politics. Is that still part of your life?

DALAI LAMA: Still, I'm Dalai Lama, cannot retire from that.

REPORTER: The Pope can retire from the pope, apparently. Tibetans were shocked - indeed, the world was shocked - when you made that announcement. Is it because you reject theocracy, or was it for more personal reasons?

DALAI LAMA: Actually, reject. It's an old, outdated sort of system, no matter how sacred. It's outdated, so I must act according to the first century's new reality. From my childhood, I saw a lot from our old system. Ultimately, because power, in few people's hand - no independent judiciary, so since my childhood - very critical about this situation.

REPORTER: Retired or not, the Chinese still see you as a political figure, and the Tibetans still see you as a political figure.

DALAI LAMA: That most important - 6 million Tibetan people, I think 99%, they truly trust me and put a lot of hope on me. So I have moral responsibility to help them.

REPORTER: When you left, more than 50 years ago, how long did you think you would be in exile when that happened?

DALAI LAMA: At that time, you see, I think no Tibetan expect so long, they have to remain outside, no. I think, although at that time some Tibetans feel within a few years they can return, I did not feel that. I myself also not expected for over 54 years now.

REPORTER: Since your political retirement, have you had more time for spiritual matters?

DALAI LAMA: That's right. Yes. Now, all my energy, all my time, I can devote to these two fields - promotion of human value, and promotion of religious harmony. Happy life very much depends on peace of mind. Peace of mind very much related to a more compassionate heart.

A more compassionate heart is what many hoped China's new President, Xi Jinping, would bring to the relationship - especially considering the close ties between the Chinese President's father and the Dalai Lama's brother. But China's harsh persecution of Tibetans and its attempts to isolate the Dalai Lama internationally has been unrelenting.


REPORTER: China is becoming more powerful, more secure, more confident. But is it showing any sign of loosening its grip on Tibet?

DALAI LAMA: Like Hu Jintao, when he became president, his main slogan, his objective, was to build a harmonious society. It is very useful, very important. But, frankly speaking, 10 years passed - not much achieved there. I think the method was wrong - relying on the use of force. You use force, you create fear. Fear destroys trust. Trust is the basis of harmony. The hardliner believes harmony and unity can be brought by force. That's totally unscientific, totally wrong. They have to find more scientific or more realistic methods to build a happy country.

REPORTER: There's no sign of that, sir. It must be very difficult for you to retain any optimism that things are going to improve in Tibet - there's no signs of it. It must be hard on an emotional level for you.

DALAI LAMA: Yes, it is difficult, but things are changing. I always looked, last 60 years, like Chairman Mao's era, I consider an era of ideology. Then, Deng Xiaoping - they find economy more important than just ideology. So, Deng Xiaoping's era concentrated on the economic field. Now, in some ways, China a becomes a capitalist country. Socialist country - socialist, just a name. So now, Xi Jinping era. There's not much choice but to accept some liberalisation in political field.

Without even a flicker of liberalisation on display, the frustration of Tibetans in and outside of China has now reached desperation point. In recent years, displayed in a most disturbing form - Tibetans, mostly young men, setting themselves on fire as a form of political protest, almost without precedent in Tibetan history, a wave of self-immolations have occurred since 2009. 130 Tibetans have now set themselves ablaze. If they happen to survive, they're hospitalised and then imprisoned.

REPORTER: There are changes in China. There's also changes in Tibetan culture too, and some of it not for the better. I'm referring to the rather extreme pattern of violence, of self-violence, of immolation. Where's it come from, and what's your position on it?

DALAI LAMA: Very, very sad. This is a symptom of some causes. Now that, the Chinese government must investigate what it costs.

REPORTER: They are investigating, and they say you're the cause, or your clique are the cause. They believe that you're encouraging this.

DALAI LAMA: That is the hardliners' official view. There is tremendous sadness about the restriction, about Tibetan religious study. In meantime, this act - self-burning - also uses some kind of sort of non-violence - such sort of people easily shoot other people or use explosives, but still, they restrain just to sacrifice their own life.

REPORTER: They're hurting themselves. It's horrifying to me. In your view, how could a boy like this do what he did? What's he thinking?

DALAI LAMA: That's a sign of determination. Strictly speaking from the Buddhist viewpoint, it ultimately depends on the motivation. The motivation thinking about Buddhism - then the action becomes very positive. If such action is carried full of anger, hatred, then negative.

REPORTER: You have been criticised for not making a clear statement to condemn these actions. Do you condemn it, on a spiritual level?

DALAI LAMA: If I say some harsh words, and what will feel, these family members? They feel great regret.


DALAI LAMA: I cannot support, at the same time. So, best thing is - remain silence.

REPORTER: My final question - do you think you'll see Tibet again in your lifetime?

DALAI LAMA: Oh, quite definite. Things are changing.

REPORTER: Good! Thank you, sir. I appreciate your time. Thank you.

DALAI LAMA: Thank you. Bye-bye.

ANJALI RAO: Well, things might be changing, but China's President, Xi Jinping, will be visiting India in the coming weeks, and is expected to pressure New Delhi to shut down Tibet's government in exile. You can see Mark's full half-hour interview with the Dalai Lama online.





2nd September 2014