I've always found the fascination of Western liberals with the Dalai Lama to be somewhat tiresome and annoying, particularly coming as it does from people who claim to value democracy and religious freedom, since he represents neither of those things. On the other hand, in the unlikely event you actually are a Tibetan Buddhist, please don't read this.
Don't get me wrong, he looks adorable and he says cool things that look great on posters. Celebrities really like him, and we trust their judgment in all things - vaccinations, for example. Plus, he's working to get those damn Chinese out of Tibet and return the legitimate government, and that's a really good cause, right? I really don't know. You probably don't know either. Maybe even Bono doesn't know, in which case we're basically rudderless.
First of all, let's be honest about exactly what the Dalai Lama is: for all intents and purposes, he's deposed royalty, pure and simple. The world is full of deposed royalty. We don't normally celebrate them - except for the royalty we deposed ourselves (locally anyway) a couple of centuries ago, but that's a subject for another rant.
I have no idea what the term "legitimate government" means for a place that's never had anything even remotely resembling democracy. Historically it means "the guys with the best army", so that would be the Chinese. In some cases however, it means "Guys your government hates a bit less less than the other guys", which favors the Dalai Lama - or at least it did for awhile. But what's best for the Tibetan people?
Whether Tibet is better or worse under Chinese rule is a matter of intense debate, even among scholars who actually know something about it. For everyone else, it's a war of propaganda. Chinese propaganda says that they "liberated" the country from a tyrannical system, and the Tibetans are better off now. What we have to realize is that what groups like "Free Tibet" say is also just propaganda with with a somewhat different agenda. The Tibetan government-in-exile is the former elite ruling class, so of course they don't like the new bosses. They've been very good about getting their version of propaganda out at least partially because they had a lot of help from the American CIA in doing so. Haven't you ever wondered why people seem to care so much more about Tibet than other troubled places on Earth? That's not an accident. It goes without saying that the CIA never gave half a shit about the Tibetan people, but supporting the Dalai Lama pissed off Chairman Mao and that was enough for them.
What is indisputable is that the popular image of pre-1951 Tibet as some sort of peaceful Shangri-La is simply horse shit. It was a primitive theocratic feudal system ruled by a monk class with the Dalai Lama (or his regent) at the top as the absolute ruler. Most people were "serfs", who had no education, healthcare, electricity, or any human rights to speak of. There is endless debate about whether "serf" meant "slave" or just "someone too poor to do anything else", but that seems like kind of an academic distinction to me. The average life expectancy was 35 years and the infant mortality rate was a whopping 43%! As for religion, it was their way or the highway - um, did I mention there were no highways? In any event, the notion that this is a society we should in any way revere or (God forbid!) emulate is just plain ludicrous.
Of course, the Dalai Lama has promised things would be very different if he returned to Tibet. He'd have democracy, freedom of religion, human rights, rainbows and ponies for everyone, but he can promise anything he wants because it's never going to happen. I'd do a really kick-ass job of ruling Tibet, too, if they just gave me a chance. The fact is, we have absolutely no idea how he would have ruled if he had remained in in charge. He'd spent his whole life being told he was effectively a deity incarnate, and such people have rarely shown a pattern of empathy.
So how did little Lhamo Dondrub rise to be Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th reincarnation of the Dalai Lama and the subject of this rant, anyway? He was selected at the age of two, a few years after the 13th Dalai Lama had died (he is a reincarnation, after all). Of course, at two, he wasn't elected or chosen based on qualifications or achievements. He was picked using what can only be called "superstitious mumbo-jumbo". That's the "legitimate government" people want to restore. Say what you want about the Pope, but at least he had to pay his dues and work his way up the corporate ladder.
While he was growing up, he chilled in relative luxury while Tibet was ruled by a regent (actually two regents who fought bitterly over the position). He formally became the Dalai Lama at the age of 15 - just in time to hand Tibet over the Chinese. For about nine years, he worked "with" the Chinese. To what extent he was a willing collaborator is debated, but he certainly didn't actively oppose them. He was also looking for a way out for himself. When he visited India in 1956, he asked if he could, you know maybe not return to his beloved country, but Nehru said it was a bad idea. In 1959, there was an uprising in Tibet, and the Dalai Lama, fearing for his safety, fled - with some help from the CIA, who supported him until 1972, when Nixon thought it might cause problems for his efforts in China. He's been dining with royalty and rock stars ever since.
So really, his big achievement was to leave his country when things got rough. He's been campaigning for Tibet and supporting guerrilla actions against the Chinese since then, but this has accomplished precisely dick.
Look, I'm sure he's a very nice guy, and in his place I'm pretty sure that in his place I would have done my best to save my own ass, too. He was, after all, just a kid at the time. On the other hand, what's the reason to celebrate this? What would we think of Gandhi if instead of risking his life to stand up to the British, he traveled the globe telling everyone what assholes they were? What about Martin Luther King? He could have had a pretty good life safely giving lectures about the South at liberal universities in the North, but he didn't choose to do that.
So that's about it. Flame on if you will.