Tibetan Buddhist lamas pray behind food offerings in a liturgy rite. Communist China is attempting to control the reincarnation of the next Dalai Lama. (Photo supplied)
Even after 70 years of Tibet's occupation by China, ethnic Tibetans across the globe, who mostly follow Lamaism, are determined to maintain their independence.
Based in neighboring India, the Tibetan government in exile has started the election process for its new parliament, scheduled to be sworn in on May 30.
The first round of elections, in which Tibetans across the world participated, ended on Jan. 3 and the results are expected on Feb. 8. According to the election commission, the final list of candidates is expected on March 21 and the general elections are scheduled for April 11.
Braving the pandemic, thousands of diaspora Tibetans took part in the ongoing polls to elect the next Sikyong (president) and new members of parliament.
Tibetans in countries including Belgium, the Netherlands, France and Spain also cast their votes on Jan. 3. According to the Central Tibetan Administration (CTA) election commission, of the total 80,000 voters, 56,000 reside in India, Nepal and Bhutan, while 24,000 live in other countries.
Eight candidates are in the race to become the next president, while about 150 candidates are vying for the 44-seat parliament.
Tibetan Buddhism is struggling to survive with all its cultural cornucopia in one of the most sparsely inhabited regions of the world, where most people lead a nomadic pastoral life.
With the Free Tibet movement, the Tibetan government in exile has been holding polls since 2011. But it has failed to yield any tangible results due to China's growing political and economic clout.
The CTA, based in Dharmashala in India's Himachal Pradesh state, swears by self-determination. But it has not made much inroads as China is using its military might and economic clout in Tibet, which Beijing claims is an integral part of China.
China claims that Tibet has been "liberated" since 1950 when its annexed the world's highest region and 10th-largest country. Until then, Tibetans lived independently under the Dalai Lama, their supreme spiritual and temporal leader.
Tibetans worldwide continue to nourish the hope of living under the spiritual guidance of the Dalai Lama, who fled to India after a failed uprising against China’s occupation in 1959.
For China, the Tibetan plateau assumes special importance due to its strategic location, sheer size and geographical command. Above all, China's major rivers trace their origins to the plateau.
Over time, many Tibetans have switched their loyalty to Beijing to reap rich dividends from the China-sponsored economic boom in the Tibetan Autonomous Region, spanning over 1.2 million square kilometers of the Himalayan region.
Under the guise of patriotism, the Tibetan way of life and culture are mercilessly crushed. Hundreds of thousands of Han Chinese workers are given sops to relocate to Lhasa, its capital, as part of state-sponsored preferential treatment to erode the local Buddhist culture.
The Tibetan nationalist struggle is connected to the incarnation of the Dalai Lama, the political and spiritual head of Tibet since 1642.
China is determined to crush all authority other than communist leadership over people in areas where it wants to impose its dictatorial rule and absolute control.
Tibetan leadership comes from the concept of reincarnation, the belief that humans are reborn after death. Superior Bodhisattvas, to which the lamas belong, can exist in thousands of human bodies simultaneously, according to Lamaism.
In Tibetan Buddhism, a branch of Vajrayana Buddhism, "the reincarnating lamas" hold sway over adherents' spiritual and temporal needs. Thus, the Tibetan issue is political and personal as far as the current 14th Dalai Lama is concerned.
On the political front, the Dalai Lama has also opted for the "Middle Way Approach," which calls for limited autonomy for Tibetans within the Chinese system.
Though the Dalai Lama has toned down his stand against China and gave up his political title in 2011 and handed over power to the CTA, he has kept Beijing guessing on his succession, leaving less room for political and cultural maneuvering by China.
On his reincarnation, the 85-year-old spiritual master has proved that he is a tough nut to crack for communist China, declaring: "At the time of my death, I will write the will of my rebirth. So when Chinese hardliners express their desire for the 15th Dalai Lama, I want to tell them that they will have to wait for another 30-40 years."
Beijing prefers a political reincarnation, while in Tibetan Buddhism it is all about spirituality.
The US, which had downplayed the Tibetan issue for decades, has sensed the danger of authoritarian China having a say in the Tibetan Lama's reincarnation.
The Trump administration passed the Tibetan Policy and Support Act last month, giving exclusive rights to the current Dalai Lama on decisions regarding reincarnation.
Tibetans are getting used to their culture's destruction as their Buddhist faith and its non-violent principles are no match for the non-negotiable diktats of an authoritarian regime.
However, they still hold hope as more than 100 countries have won their independence since China began its occupation of Tibet.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.