By B. Blair Dedrick
Washington - Tibetans are "threatened with a loss of identity," said Lodi Gyari, the special envoy of the 14th Dalai Lama, at a press conference Wednesday, five days before the Dalai Lama is to arrive for a 10-day visit.
"Tibet has a distinct culture and civilization, which, whether you like it or not, is different from China," Gyari said. "We want to preserve that."
While progress has benefited the Tibetan people in some ways, the same progress has contributed to the decay of Tibetan culture, Gyari said. Restrictions set by China have made it difficult or impossible for Tibetans to speak their own language or practice their religion.
For example, road signs are posted in Chinese, forcing many non-Chinese speaking Tibetans to ask strangers for directions in their own city, he said. Many Tibetans are sending their children to Chinese schools.
Tibet has been occupied by China since 1951, and the Dalai Lama, Tibet's spiritual leader, has lived in exile since an unsuccessful uprising in 1959. Talks between the Tibetan government-in-exile and Beijing have continued on and off since September 2002. The latest talks took place in July in Bern, Switzerland.
"We have been in direct touch with the Chinese government," Gyari said. While he said he does not agree with some of what the Chinese leadership has said, "talking is better than no talking."
"We still have differences," he said. "The gap is very wide."
In China, Gyari said, there is an element that believes the entire issue of Tibet will disappear when the Dalai Lama dies. "Nothing can be more dangerous than this perception,” Gyari said, because it is not a one-person issue.
The Dalai Lama is no longer asking China for complete autonomy, Gyari said, but for fewer restrictions over Tibetan culture and religion.
The Tibet issue "is not political boundaries," Gyari said. "It's the Tibetan people being able to preserve their identity."
In 1995, the Dalai Lama chose a boy as the reincarnation of the Panchen Lama, the second-holiest figure in Tibetan Buddhism. The Chinese government detained the boy, whose whereabouts are unknown, and selected a replacement, who has been largely rejected by Tibetans.
Gyari said the story illustrates what the issue is all about.
"It's not about a young boy, a young prisoner, but the issue of reincarnation," he said.
Tibetan Buddhists believe religious figures like the Dalai Lama and the Panchen Lama are reincarnated, and Gyari said replacing the chosen Panchen Lama disregards religious traditions that began on the plateau of Tibet.
"When a good Communist says he wants to have the final say in reincarnation – well, I think that's an issue a good Communist should stay out of," he said.
"Let the Dalai Lama have a voice. When it comes to issues like the Panchen Lama, you do not understand, and you should not interfere," Gyari said of the Chinese officials.
While he is here, the Dalai Lama will meet with President Bush, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and other leaders, according to the International Campaign for Tibet. In addition he will take part in scientific talks about the connections between spiritual, mental and physical health. On Nov. 13, he will speak at public celebration of his 70th birthday,which was in July.