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Menon gives powerful insights into Freedom in Exile

Rajan Menon discussed the Chinese-Tibetan conflict at Linderman Library on Feb. 27.

“Try as they might, the Chinese have not won the war of the soul. They may have won the war of the soil, but they have not won the war of the soul.” This was one of many insights into the Chinese-Tibetan conflict offered by Rajan Menon, Lehigh’s Monroe J. Rathbone Distinguished Professor of International Relations, during his talk in Linderman Library yesterday.

In the latest of year’s worth of events designed to prepare the campus community for the His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama’s July visit, Menon gave his informal lecture to staff, community members, and the Class of 2011 students who read Freedom in Exile: The Autobiography of the Dalai Lama this past fall as part of the Summer Reading Program.

From this autobiography, first-year students learned about the Dalai Lama and his experiences as the spiritual and political leader of Tibet, and those who attended Menon’s talk discovered even more about issues surrounding the Tibetan-Chinese conflict.

“A game Tibet cannot win”

Despite Tibet’s winning of the “war of the soul,” as Menon put it, he admitted that Tibet’s current chances of achieving independence from China are fairly bleak. One million Tibetans have died as a direct or indirect cause of Chinese infiltration, and of the 6,267 monasteries that once stood in the country, only 13 remain.

On the flip side, the Chinese economy has grown at a rate of 80 to 90 percent since 1970, and by 2050, it will easily be the largest country in the world—a power that gives China the ability to integrate Tibet even more than it already has.

“Today, the Chinese are systematically moving into Tibet as soldiers, construction workers, party officials, school teachers, and university professors,” Menon said. The Chinese economic infiltration of Tibet is proceeding in a way that is insurmountable. “This is a game Tibet cannot win,” he said.

Not that Tibet hasn’t tried. In 1959, a Tibetan rebellion was quickly quelled by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) of China. “This showed that not only could the PLA put down a rebellion easily, it would do so without hesitation,” Menon said.

Then, in 1988, Tibet offered China what they viewed as a win-win bargain: they said, “We will accept that we are part of China, we will renounce the notion of carving out a separate sovereign area.” In return, they asked for the right to resurrect their faith, to rebuild their monasteries, and to define and learn their cultural affairs as they saw fit. “China essentially said, ‘no,’” Menon said.

To illustrate the position of Tibet in the world, Menon likened it to the Island of Melos during the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta in ancient Greece. Sixteen years into the war, the Athenians approached Island of Melos and told them they had two choices—they could either sign an alliance with Athens, or Athens would destroy them.

“It was a case of ‘the weak must do as they are told, and the strong will do what they want,’” Menon said. “You could say that the Tibetans are the Melians in the sense that, despite the attachment to the Dalai Lama and other factors, fundamentally, no country in the world has been willing to jeopardize their relationship with China on behalf of Tibet; Tibet always loses in that equation.”

Economic power versus the power of forgiveness

Despite their plight, the Tibetans remain optimistic. The sense of faith is strong, and people stubbornly refuse to accept that there is anything threatening about the current state of affairs. “The Tibetans see what is happening as a blip on the radar—ultimately, they think everything will turn out OK.” In a way, Menon said, this is cruel logic.

A large part of this optimism comes from Tibetan’s Buddhist faith. The first Buddha was an Indian Prince, a human being who achieved enlightenment and made a point to say he was not a god and shouldn’t be treated as such. So Buddhists have a strong faith—not a faith in a supreme being, but faith in righteousness.

The Dalai Lama, both a spiritual figure and a practical leader of affairs in Tibet, helps set the forgiving tone. Despite the destruction and banishment of his people, the Dalai Lama does not have a cross word to say about any Chinese leader. “He says, ‘we must separate the deed from the doer,’” Menon said.

According to Buddhist philosophy, sorrow exists in wanting things, and as long as we continue to covet and desire material things, we will never be able to escape sorrow. Buddhists also believe that although most people are either living in the past or future, in order to gain insight, they must live life in the present. “The point is that even the most central event in Freedom in Exile—the loss of independence of Tibet and the loss of its culture—is portrayed in this rather philosophically unique, Buddhist, forgiving kind of way,” Menon said.

Although Menon admitted the situation currently does not look good for Tibet, it’s not completely hopeless. He said the only way that Tibet stands a chance at independence is if there is a significant crisis in China itself. “The most likely form of that crisis will be a significant downturn in economic growth,” he said.

This situation doesn’t sound likely given China’s current strength, but it’s not impossible. Menon reminded attendees of the fall of the Soviet empire. “If this was 1982 and I had told you that the Soviet system would collapse between 1985 and 1990, you would have thought I was insane,” he said. So we overlook the possibility. “It probably won’t happen in my lifetime or yours, but it could happen.”

In the meantime, with the help of the teachings of the Dalai Lama, the Tibetans will hold hard and fast to their faith, their optimism, and their sense of forgiveness, and as a result, they will maintain their victory in the war of the soul.

For the latest information on the Dalai Lama’s visit, check out Lehigh’s Dalai Lama Web site.

--Elizabeth Shimer Bowers

Photo by Douglas Benedict

Posted on Thursday, February 28, 2008

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