DHARAMSHALA, India (Reuters) - At a prayer meeting for the health of the Dalai Lama at his base in northern India, Tibetan refugees said they are worried that their fight for a homeland will die with the 83-year-old Buddhist monk as China’s international influence grows.
Up to 100,000 Tibetan Buddhists live in exile in India, 60 years after their spiritual leader took refuge there after a failed uprising against Chinese rule.
Ever since, the Dalai Lama has been at the centre of a struggle to keep alive the dream of a Tibet that has cultural and linguistic freedom, and freedom from what they see as suppression by the Chinese state.
The Nobel peace laureate is regarded as one of the most influential people in the world, with a following extending well beyond Buddhism.
Though he has set up a democratic structure for Tibetans in exile, many find it difficult to see how things will carry on after his death.
“It’s a Sunday but we have come to pray for his good health,” said Tenzin Dawa, an 18-year-old student in the green-and-blue uniform of his Tibetan boarding school.
As he spoke, dozens of Buddhist monks chanted nearby at a temple in the complex where the Dalai Lama lives in the hill town of Dharamshala.
“We’re very worried about him, our future. We are longing to see our homeland, heard so many stories from my grandma. But China is trying to finish our culture in Tibet.”
Rinchen, a 48-year-old Tibetan who gave only one name, said he saw similarities between the Dalai Lama and Indian independence hero Mahatma Gandhi, whose non-violent protests were instrumental in ending British colonial rule.
“He can do everything for us, he is our Gandhi,” Rinchen, a father of three, said.
“Violence can’t win it for us. We can’t even make a match box. But we need a Gandhi to win a non-violent fight.”
China considers the Dalai Lama a dangerous separatist and prohibits displays of his picture or any public show of devotion towards him.
At the same time, China denies suppressing the rights of the Tibetan people. It says its rule there ended serfdom and brought prosperity to what was a backward region, and that it fully respects the rights of the people.
The Dalai Lama, in an interview with Reuters in his office, said the power of Tibetans was “based on truth”, which would eventually win.
Tibetan exiles see China’s growing power as the biggest hurdle to their dream of securing a “free” homeland.
When the Dalai Lama escaped from Tibet in 1959, China was a poor country fighting poverty. Now it competes with the United States for global authority.
Citing Gandhi’s boycott of foreign-made clothes, Tibetan cook Tsering Dorjee and his colleagues at the temple kitchen said shunning Chinese goods could become a powerful tool for them to sustain their fight even after the Dalai Lama.
“They’re extremely powerful now, even America is scared of them,” Dorjee, 53, said outside the kitchen as visitors turned the golden-yellow praying wheels lining the temple on two sides.
“Everybody buys their products. People don’t realise they are empowering China at the cost of their own country.”
Reporting by Krishna N. Das; Editing by Robert Birsel