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The Dalai Lama’s Realistic Message

Article by William McKenzie July 23, 2015 //   5 minute read

It's tempting to dismiss the rhetoric of religious leaders when they laud ideals like the common humanity of all individuals. The comments may seem well-meaning but not at all practical.

Context, though, is everything.  That was certainly true when His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama spoke this month with young Burmese leaders at the Bush Institute.

The Tibetan Buddhist leader urged them to remember that "the world belongs to humanity." In his gentle voice, he implored the collection of human rights activists and rising leaders to know that Burma belongs to its broad range of people, the same way that America belongs to its 300 million people. The U.S. does not belong to Republicans or Democrats, he reminded them.

Personal experience is a great teacher and it certainly has taught the Nobel Peace Prize winner the realities of losing one’s liberties. "At age 16, I lost my freedom," he told the group. That happened after China invaded Tibet.

"At age 24, I lost my own country," he then recalled, referring to when he was forced to flee Tibet for neighboring India. The 80-year old exile has lived there ever since.

The Burmese leaders he addressed hail from a country where their own liberties, including religious liberties, are too often undermined. Yes, conditions have changed some over the last decade. The government recently announced that in November the nation will have its first open general election in 25 years. That same government also has released some political prisoners in recent years.

Still, freedoms are limited. In June, for example, the government filed charges against 17 journalists.

What’s more, Rohingya Muslims are so oppressed in the Buddhist-dominated nation that thousands of them seek freedom through the perils of the open seas in crowded, rickety boats captained by smugglers. The Economist recently described Rohingya Muslims the most oppressed people on earth.  Time labeled them "The Nowhere People."

So, the Dalai Lama's observations were not mere plaudits. He was signaling to the students that no one stands above them, not even rulers who seek to limit their freedoms.

His words were reminiscent of Pope John Paul II buoying protesters working to free his native Poland in the 1980s. After one young Burmese democrat asked how he and his colleagues can endure in their struggle for liberty, the Dalai Lama urged them to persevere in believing that nations belong to their people. The power of that truth, he said, is mightier than the power of a gun.

In an interview before the Dalai Lama spoke, several young Burmese leaders participating in the Bush Institute's Liberty and Leadership Forum described the way in which the government undermines dissent. "By hand picking people to arrest, the government creates a sense that your time may be coming" said one young Burmese leader.

Arrests have hit close to home with the Forum's participants. Phyoe Phyoe Aung, a member of the inaugural Liberty and Leadership Forum class, sits in jail because of her human rights work. Another has been forced into hiding.

The Burmese students I spoke with also described the way nationalists use Buddhism to limit the freedom of others. They cited proposals to require several layers of approval for non-Buddhists to marry a Buddhist. Also, the government has a Ministry of Religious Affairs that promotes Buddhism. Marrying nationalism with a particular religion is often a deadly toxin, making it hard for individuals with different beliefs to fully participate in their own faith.

Of course, Burma is not the only nation facing growing restrictions on religious freedoms. The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom asked in April that the State Department add eight countries to its list of "countries of particular concern."

That designation corresponds with U.S. law and notes when religious liberties are severely under attack. Those eight nations are the Central African Republic, Egypt, Iraq, Nigeria, Pakistan, Syria, Tajikistan, and Vietnam. They join Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan.

The  antidote to the denial of religious freedoms, as well as other liberties, is the truth that the Dalai Lama emphasized, including to a larger audience of 5,000 people at SMU's Moody Coliseum. And that truth is self-evident, as we say in this country: Power derives from the people, not from the government.

William McKenzie is editorial director at the George W. Bush Institute in Dallas.