Wednesday, December 31, 2008

The Dalai Lama is APU Person of the Year

His Holiness the Dalai Lama is's Person of the Year for 2008.

Among the other contenders were Bangladesh's new Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina who was reelected after being ousted and briefly imprisoned on corruption charges in 2001. Hasina is the daughter of the country's founding leader Shiekh Mujibur Rehman. The charges against Hasina have been "frozen" but not dismissed.

Another in close contention was Thailand's ousted leader T haksin Shinawatra, who from exile abroad has managed to maintain influence in the country. Although Thaksin's party was recently booted from leadership by Thailand's courts, his supporters have turned the tables around the opposition. Using the same tactics as the latter, Thaksin supporters have taken to the streets attemtping to disrupt particularly the workings of the new parliamentary leadership.

The Dalai Lama though was judged as the person from the Asia Pacific region that most dominated the news headlines. The spiritual head of the Tibetan people, who fled Tibet in 1959, fell ill a few times this year causing worries among his people and other supporters. He was hospitalized for awhile and forced to cancel some engagements.

However, the Dalai Lama still had a year that most people would have considered very busy with his schedule taking him to a host of countries. The holding of the 2008 Beijing Olympics focused the spotlight a bit more than usual on the leader as Tibetans held many protests in the leadup to the games. China opened up a dialogue with Tibetan representatives as the event approached, but many viewed the overture as a propaganda tactic by Beijing.

The Dalai Lama reiterated his position repeatedly this year that he was seeking only autonomy and not independence for Tibet.

In December, the Dalai Lama met with French president and current European Union chief Nicolas Sarkozy, a move that sparked outrage in China. Beijing said the move could hurt trade relations between China and France. The Tibetan leader also addressed the European Parliament in Brussels, something that would have been unthinkable not too long ago.

"When China becomes more democratic, with freedom of speech, with rule of law and particularly with freedom of the press ... once China becomes an open, modern society, then the Tibet issue, I think within a few days, can be solved," the Dalai Lama said during the address.

He also said that Tibetan culture could help China solve some of its problems with corruption. Noting that modern Chinese are always thinking of "money, money, money," he said: "The best way to counter corruption is self discipline, so therefore Tibetan cultural heritage certainly can help immensely many Chinese -- already I think a few hundred thousand Chinese -- I think nearly a million already following Tibetan Buddhism."

The Dalai Lama was born Lhamo Thondup and was chosen for his office in 1937 after four years of searching in the traditional Tibetan manner. He has ruled the Central Tibetan Administration, a government in exile, since 1959 from the town of Dharamsala in northern India. He is closely associated with the Gelugpa school of Tibetan Buddhism although the official leader of the group is the Ganden Tripa.

In his most recent official statement, the Dalai Lama praised actions within China on the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. He called for the release of prisoners of conscience like Hu Jia:

I am greatly encouraged by the launching of a Charter ’08 by academics, artists, farmers and lawyers in China on the occasion of the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Their call for political, legal and constitutional reform is admirable.

I personally believe that President Hu Jintao’s call for a harmonious society is a laudable initiative that can provide space to the viewpoints being expressed by a growing number of Chinese people. A harmonious society can only come into being when there is trust among the people, freedom from fear, freedom of expression, rule of law, justice and equality.

I would like to urge the Chinese leadership to consider making efforts to bring about unity and stability in a civilized way.

I would also like to take this opportunity to call upon the government of the People’s Republic of China to release prisoners of conscience, including Hu Jia, who have been detained for exercising their freedom of expression.

At age 73, the Dalai Lama continued to travel the world in 2008 despite health difficulties and captured headlines as he tirelessly campaigned for his people. He has long been a fixture on the world stage, and this year was one of his most prominent in recent memory.