Did the Dalai Lama, the Buddhist God King of Tibet, really want to go to Myanmar rather than India when he fled his homeland in 1959?
That’s at least what he told this writer and his photographer wife on March 6, 1984 we interviewed him at McLeod Ganj, the site of his government in exile in the foothills of the Indian Himalayas.
If that had happened, today’s religious conflicts in Myanmar would have taken on an entirely new dimension as the Dalai Lama, the world’s leading Buddhist clergyman, has consistently and strongly spoken out in favor of equal rights for Muslim minorities.
The occasion on which we first met the Dalai Lama was the 25th anniversary of a failed uprising against the Chinese occupation of Tibet and his subsequent flight to India. People from Tibet, as well as Tibetan refugees in India, had gathered to commemorate the event.
My photographer wife and I had managed to convince a publicity officer from the Tibetan government in exile to allow us to meet the Dalai Lama. Because of his busy schedule, they granted us 30 minutes with His Holiness, as they respectfully called him.
But when the Dalai Lama discovered that my wife came from Myanmar, then known as Burma, they immediately began comparing the Tibetan and Burmese languages, which belong to the same language family (Tibeto-Burman).
Much to the dismay of his minders, who kept looking nervously and with some annoyance into the room where we were sitting, we ended up spending an hour and a half with the Dalai Lama. It was during those discussions that he made the stunning revelation that he had actually intended to go into exile in Myanmar rather than India.
He said that to avoid creating a problem in India’s relations with China, he had wanted to settle in one of the ethnic Tibetan villages north of Putao in northern Kachin State. He also said he wanted to be among his own people and he thought Myanmar, a Buddhist country with a neutral stance in regional great power games, would respond positively to his presence.
At the time of his flight feelers were sent out to Myanmar’s leaders, who, according to the Dalai Lama, replied that they would have loved to welcome him, but because they were involved in sensitive talks with China about their common border the timing was not appropriate.
That was in March 1959. On October 1, 1960, Myanmar Prime Minister U Nu ratified a comprehensive Myanmar-China border treaty at a grand signing ceremony in Beijing. The entire length of the two sides’ 2,185-kilometer border was demarcated.
But sitting in McLeod Ganj in 1984, the Dalai Lama was no doubt content with his chosen place of exile. After the military takeover in Myanmar in 1962, no political freedoms of any kind were tolerated. In India, the Tibetans are able run their own administration, their own schools and are free to publish religious as well as political literature.
If the Dalai Lama had settled in the mountains north of Putao in 1959, Myanmar would no doubt have felt the wrath of Beijing in a way that could have been even more devastating than Chinese support for the Communist Party of Burma insurgency in the 1960s and 1970s.
We met the Dalai Lama again in February 1993, when he paid a brief visit to Bangkok while I served as president of the Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand (FCCT).
At the time, eight Nobel Peace Prize laureates had come to Thailand to campaign for the release of Aung San Suu Kyi, who was then still under military imposed house arrest in Yangon.
Suu Kyi, then a pro-democracy advocate for political change through non-violence, had received the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize while imprisoned, hence the rather unusual gathering of prominent peace champions from around the world.
Predictably, the then ruling military junta in Myanmar sneered at the event to pressure them into releasing her.
The regime’s propaganda apparatus, then headed by the dreaded intelligence chief Lt. Gen. Khin Nyunt, even seized the opportunity to denounce the Dalai Lama as a “splittist” because he wanted independence for Tibet. Khin Nyunt and his men were firmly on China’s side in international politics.
The fact that the Dalai Lama was among the eight Nobel laureates also caused a diplomatic stir in Thailand. The Chinese protested twice to the Thai government and the FCCT also felt the heat when, prior to the arrival of the Dalai Lama, Chinese embassy officials asked us to remove an old picture of him which had hung on the wall behind the podium for more than a year.
I explained to the Chinese envoys that the photos decorating our walls were taken by FCCT members and were displayed because they were of media interest, not as icons of support for any partisan cause.
I also said that if then Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping would be willing to come and address the FCCT, we would happily have a picture of him as well on our walls. The Chinese embassy officials were not amused but the protests stopped.
The event proceeded without a hitch, with the club house packed with people as I gave the Dalai Lama a framed photograph of Aung San Suu Kyi. I did not, however, find it prudent at the time to remind him of our conversation in 1984 and his then stated desire to take up exile in Myanmar.
Given the reason for the FCCT event as well as general developments in the region since 1959, I was certain that the Dalai Lama was more than pleased to have chosen McLeod Ganj over Putao.
But if he were in Myanmar today, no one knows how the most radical of the Buddhist groups threatening Muslim minorities would have reacted to His Holiness’ appeals for communal harmony.