Tibet is known as the “roof of the world,” where starkly beautiful mountain peaks and windswept plateaus belie the fact that this area of nearly 500,000 square miles in Central Asia has been hotly contested for much of the past century.
The exiled spiritual and temporal leader of the Tibetan people describes himself as a “simple Buddhist monk,” but is known the world over as the Dalai Lama. ABC News Correspondent Muhammad Lila sat down with him at his home in Dharamsala, India, for a wide-ranging interview that included the subject of Tibet.
China administers the area – a quarter of its territory -- as an autonomous region but as a historic and rightful part of the Chinese mainland. But Tibetans believe China invaded a sovereign nation when its troops took control in 1950. Since that time, Tibetans – both in the region and in exile abroad -- have agitated for independence through protests and uprisings, which have been violently suppressed within Tibet. Since the 1980s, the Dalai Lama has stressed his position is not for independence but for full autonomy.
“We are very much willing to remain within China,” he said during the interview. “We should have meaningful right of autonomy, with our own culture and our own language.”
Since the 14th Dalai Lama fled a Chinese crackdown in Tibet in 1959, periodic uprisings have resulted in the imprisonment and deaths of Tibetans. The last major uprising was in 2008, before the Summer Olympic Games in Beijing. The Dalai Lama, who has lived in exile for 54 years, said he did not advocate another uprising, explaining that he believes it would only result in more suffering and tighter military control in Tibet.
More recently, protests of Chinese rule have taken the form of a string of suicides, both within Tibet and in neighboring Nepal and India. In the past four years, 114 Tibetans have burned themselves to death. The Dalai Lama pointed out that the suicides are a political issue, with the Chinese government blaming his government in exile. But he also refused to condemn the self-immolations.
“I consider myself as a spokesman for the Tibetan people so the people inside Tibet are actually my boss,” the Nobel laureate, 77, said. “I’m not their boss. How can I say, ‘You should do this. You should not do this’? Morally speaking, it’s very difficult.”
The Dalai Lama stressed that China’s infrastructure and economic investments in Tibet – the area is rich in mineral resources -- are helpful for the region. But real change for Tibet will come through policy changes by China’s leadership, including new president Xi Jinping, he said.
“If China becomes more open and more transparent and they use common sense and a realistic approach, then we can easily solve the problem,” the Dalai Lama said.
He also spoke about the role of the United States in the Tibetan cause, including President Barack Obama, whom the Dalai Lama called a “friend.”
“The Tibetan issue is not easy,” he said. “Many are supporters, and friendly, in the government, including the United States. Despite some difficulties, they really raised the Tibetan issue whenever they found the opportunity.”
He added: “I’m quite sure, whatever way they can do something, they will do.”