Thursday, July 31, 2008

Preparing to meet the Dalai Lama

A misty gray morning here on what should be an amazing day. We are scheduled to meet HH Dalai Lama later this afternoon.

After the 2:30 wake up yesterday, I went for a run up the mountain to McLeod Gang. It took about 26 minutes of straight up hill running. The placement went well as Yamini and I are working to get a syllabus and plan together. Brian came back from his placement at the hospital thrilled. Initially placed in the summer camp, teaching sports, this former Army medic and civilian paramedic wanted to use his skills as best as possible. He asked to be reassigned and again Cross Cultural staff accommodated. After seeing what they do with so little (bleaching and reusing latex gloves, an ambulance empty past a wooden bench, etc) he talked about a new path in life.

Following the placement, I crashed for an hour and was awoken by a call from HHDL’s office. Where I thought we had an outside chance to meet HHDL when he was coming or going from one of his teachings, I didn’t expect a call so soon. Tenzin Takhla, in perfect English, stated that we would need to be up at the Government in Exile’s headquarters at 11:45 so we could pass through security. Except for not bringing cameras (they would have an official photographer take the photos), little other guidance as to behavior, dress, 2qw given. He suggested we meet with the Department of Information, one of the seven cabinet level departments within their executive prior to the meeting.

First we needed clearance from Cross Cultural solutions; meeting at 11:45 meant that many of the cadets would miss their placement that day. I spoke with the country director back in Delhi to get the approval. She was thrilled, supportive, and only asked that I conveyed to the non-West Point volunteers that this was something in the works for many months to prevent a stampede.

Grabbed the guys and headed up the mountain to the Government in Exile. After a couple or wrong turns, we ended up in the small compound, about halfway up the mountain between Dharamsala and McLeod. We were met by Masood Butt, an employee of the Department of Information. He sat with us and explained the political structure and answered our questions well past the office’s closing time.

He described a judiciary that must work within the Indian judicial system (reminded me of how the U.S. military is governed when stationed abroad, through Status of Forces Agreements (SOFA)s), and a complex election allocation that polls the roughly 100,000 Tibetan refugees spread across the world to select 43 parliamentarians and their chief executive every five years. Parties have not developed in this system, instead Madison’s prediction of faction balancing faction manifests in the legislative checking the executive. Six parliamentary seats are reserved for women but more than that are serving in this parliament.

Green books given to every official refugee over the age of six, prove status and also contribution to the government. Those in India are asked to give 56 rupees a year (yes…$1.25, a little more than I’ve paid for a Diet Coke). If they are salaried by the government or more well off, they are asked to give 2% of their income. Dependent on the repatriations from Tibetans abroad (Masood estimated 3-4,000 in North America), all payments are recorded in their personal green books. He recommended asking people to produce these to prove their true Tibetan status.

As monkeys fought in a tree just outside the lobby, the guys asked some great questions, specifically about the Dalai Lama’s role and the prospects of a return to Tibet. Masood stated how the government was modeled after the Indian system, with a President serving as a nominal head of state. The Dalai Lama served this role, but far more than nominal, would be involved in all major issues.

He talked with certainty about the end of exile, “When we return to China, we will dissolve this government.” Masood stated the three main stumbling blocks for a return would be first, China’s insistence on the Dalai Lama stated Tibet’s place within China both in the past and today, second, bringing the three traditional provinces into Tibet (the current Tibetan Autonomous Region or TAR encompasses only about 50% of the land Tibetans claim) and third, the amount of internal autonomy granted to Tibet to govern within China. The prospects of all three seem dim; even if history could be rewritten, I just can’t picture the PRC allowing a democracy to flourish within its borders, especially one that claims a huge swath of increasingly important territory (traditional Tibet is the source of water for the major rivers of both China and India and therefore 35% of the world’s population).

When I asked about the Olympics, Masood began with the official answer—that the administration is not against the Olympics and the HHDL has expressed his support of China hosting the event from the start. I pressed on his opinion of the protests against the torch and how his office was prepared for what would likely occur around the world. He emphasized that the government’s ability to control the many NGOs and Tibet support groups, each with their own agenda, was limited to appealing to them, which had occurred. In a democracy, he stated, there is always space for dissent. He admitted the difficult of this period of time when stating, “The Olympics will come. They will go. But the dialogue with China and our eventual return will continue.”

After some final tips on protocol for the meeting, we thanked him and walked outside. Huge monkeys leapt from buildings, to powerlines, to trees, right past a huge banner protesting the Olympics.

Afterwards, we headed up to McLeod. Some of the guys picked up some of the beautiful, delicate white silk scarves that will be presented to HHDL, while others did a primer on Tibetan greetings. At dinner, Loc and Kris gave a fantastic reminder lecture on Buddhism. Loc doesn’t say much, but when the topic is either Buddhism or his time as a squad leader for new cadets, he has much to say. As we ate our power outage produced candlelight dinner, the guys asked questions about Buddhism and debated its merits. The guys put forward the question they would ask if given a chance and settled on Loc’s if we only had one—reconciling Buddhist philosophy with their chosen military profession.

Now headed out to our placements, I hope they get the chance to ask their question.

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