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Dalai Lama 'a religious dictator'

The Dalai Lama, Hollywood's favourite 'freedom fighter', stands accused of repression. But his admirers in the West remain silent. Brendan O'Neill reports

The Dalai Lama, head of the Tibetan government-in-exile and Buddhist spiritual leader, has become a Gandhi-like figure since he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989. He is revered by many for his peaceful opposition to China's 50-year occupation of Tibet and for defending religious freedom - and nowhere more so than in Hollywood, where Richard Gere, Martin Scorcese, Emma Thompson and other stars are leading members of his fanclub. According to Gere, the Dalai Lama's humanity is 'profoundly transforming and liberating'.

But the Dalai Lama stands accused of being a human rights abuser. Since 1996 his government-in-exile has suppressed a Buddhist deity known as Dorje Shugden, banning its religious worship and ostracising those who refuse to comply. As a group of Tibetans commented in an open letter, 'Your image is Dalai Lama, your mouth is Mahatma Gandhi, but your heart is like that of a religious dictator' (cited in 'A report on the Dalai Lama's abuses of human rights and religious freedom', James Belither, 1997).

The deity Dorje Shugden has been worshipped by Tibetan Buddhists for over 350 years. But in March 1996 the Dalai Lama decided that it was an 'evil spirit' and issued a government decree instructing people to stop worshipping it. A letter sent from his Private Office urged Buddhist monasteries to 'ensure total implementation of this decree by each and everyone...If there is anyone who continues to worship [Dorje Shugden], make a list of their names, house name, birth place...Keep the original and send us a copy of the list' (New Internationalist, August 1998).

China continues to rule Tibet; but the Dalai Lama's government-in-exile enjoys autonomy in its base in northern India. Thousands of Tibetan exiles in India pay taxes to the government-in-exile and observe its laws. This means that the Dalai Lama's decrees have a powerful impact and the ban on Dorje Shugden has affected thousands of worshippers.

The Indian human rights lawyer PK Dey has collected at least 300 statements from people who have been threatened or attacked for failing to comply with the Lama's decree. 'Those worshipping Shugden are experiencing tremendous harassment', says Dey. 'This is not in any particular part of the country but everywhere where there are Tibetans.' (Now magazine, Delhi, January 1998)

One 72-year old woman, Mrs Sonam Bhuti, whose family has worshipped Dorje Shugden for generations, told the Office of the Notary in Delhi how Tibetan officials ransacked homes in her neighbourhood in December 1996: 'They forceibly [sic] taken out the idols and the paintings [of Dorje Shugden] from their houses and burnt the painting and broke the idols, saying that if we found any such thing in your houses in future the same thing would [happen] to you what has happened with the idols and the painting.'

On 18 April 1996 the Tibetan Department of Health wrote to doctors threatening to sack any who continued to worship Dorje Shugden: 'In case there is anyone who doesn't abide by the addresses of His Holiness to give up Shugden worship...such persons should submit their resignation.' On 19 May 1998 the Department of Religion and Culture advised welfare and settlement officers of the conditions under which Tibetan monks and nuns can leave the country. Condition number three requires 'attestation from their monastery that neither the host [nor the] invitee is a devotee of Dhogyal [derogatory name for Dorje Shugden]'. Tibetan ministers have even proposed amending the constitution to ensure that Shugden worshippers never become judges or serve on a jury.

The 10 most prominent Shugden worshippers have been named as 'enemies of the state' and 'Wanted' posters have been put up in Tibetan settlements giving their names and addresses. They, and others, have fled in fear. Around the time this was happening the Dalai Lama told Mother Jones magazine: 'If the situation was such that there was only one learned lama, a person whose death would cause the whole of Tibet to lose all hope of keeping its Buddhist way of life, then it is conceivable that in order to protect that one person it might be justified for one or 10 enemies to be eliminated.' (November/December 1997)

There is no outlet in Tibet or northern India for Shugden worshippers to protest about what is happening. The only independent newspaper in Tibetan exile society, Democracy, was forced to close in March 1996 after it criticised government-in-exile policy. As the journalist Jamyang Norbu noted in Tibet News: 'Not only is there no encouragement and support for a free Tibetan press, there is instead a near extinguishing of freedom of expression in Tibetan exile society.' (Autumn 1997) When Shugden worshippers appealed to the Dalai Lama to revoke his decree they were told by his government that 'concepts like democracy and freedom of religion are empty when it comes to the well-being of the Dalai Lama' (cited in New Internationalist, August 1998).

Perhaps it is not surprising that the Dalai Lama should be able to suppress debate in Tibetan society. More disturbing is that the Western media has also been largely silent about this. It seems that for many the Dalai Lama is beyond reproach; as Hollywood's and the liberal media's favourite good guy he can do no wrong.

'It's not the politically correct thing to do, to criticise the Dalai Lama', says Dan Coote of the British branch of the Dorje Shugden Coalition. When Coote sent out press releases at the beginning of this year he was told by some journalists that 'they would not touch this story', because it was 'too critical' of the Buddhist leader. 'There seems to be a double standard', says Coote, 'where some freedoms are seen as worthy of support, while others are ignored'.

Reproduced from LM issue 115, November 1998

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