As protests spread across Inner Mongolia, I wondered about who might be able to answer some questions on the subject. One consequence of the lower visibility of Inner Mongolian issues is that there are far fewer activists in the spotlight than there are for Tibet or even Xinjiang. I reached out to Arjia Rinpoche, and was delighted to find that the Rinpoche himself and his staff were willing to give me some of their time.
Arjia Rinpoche was born in 1950 to an ethnically Mongolian nomadic family in Qinghai province. At a young age he was identified as the reincarnation of the former abbot of Kumbum Monastery, a major monastery near Xining that is renowned as one of the six great Gelugpa Tibetan Buddhist institutions. This privileged position made him a natural target during the tumultuous Mao years, however, and he would spend 16 years in a labor camp before being released in the 1980s. He returned to find Kumbum in ruins and dedicated years to rebuilding it before finally choosing to escape to the United States and live in exile. Since then he has run the Tibetan and Mongolian Buddhist Cultural Center in Bloomington, Indiana, and released an autobiography entitled ‘Surviving the Dragon’ two years ago.
TCH: Inner Mongolia has generally been much less restive than Tibet and Xinjiang for the last few decades. Why do you think these protests are happening now?
Arjia Rinpoche: The situations in Tibet and Inner Mongolia have much in common. In the 50s, there were many conflicts and confrontations. The Inner Mongolian People’s Party at that time aggressively sought for independence. However, the Communists really cracked down then and accused them of being “Counter Revolutionaries.” They managed to sabotage the movement by taking some of the leaders of the protesters and promoting them to Chinese leadership.
After this turbulent period, things seem to have quieted down, but Inner Mongolians were still restive. Then two things heated up the pot: a) the resettlement plan whereby 20 million (I think that’s the number) Han Chinese settled in Mongolia and caused Mongols to be a minority and b) the Mongolian Autonomous Region was carved up into 7 prefectures that were controlled by the Chinese, thereby making Mongols unable to hold any power. Their energies were reduced and they seemingly became quiet.
Now with [the killing of Mongolian herdsman] Mergen, the pot has boiled over. Long-held grievances have come out in the open and caused the protests to become very active. The Mongols want to protect their culture and their environment.
TCH: You called for Mongolians to refrain from further protests- what is the best way for them to move forward?
Arjia Rinpoche: I am not against protests, but they have to be planned very carefully in advance. The spontaneous ones usually don’t succeed. It is important to have a non-violent protest that is not around the time of sensitive dates such as June 4 (Tiananmen Square) and other Chinese holidays
TCH: In your life you have seen China go through many changes. How hopeful are you that conditions in China will improve over the coming years?
Arjia Rinpoche: China is definitely changing because of the economic transformation; however, the control of the communist regime is stronger than ever. Even though there are many improvements, there is no freedom and crackdowns are harsh and violent and very common. The central government wants to control everything, particularly the minorities and especially with issues dealing with the Muslims and His Holiness [the Dalai Lama] and Christianity. However, even the “regular” Chinese people are becoming very dissatisfied with this measure of control. All we can do is wait and hope.
TCH: Your staff informed me that you are traveling through Mongolia- how close are the bonds between Mongolians in China and in Mongolia? Is there much interaction between the two groups?
Arjia Rinpoche: There is little or no interaction. Mongolians in the free republic find the situation to be too sensitive and try their best to avoid any political issues. I, myself, will be aware of this sensitivity during my present trip and will concentrate my efforts solely on charitable and religious matters.
TCH: Is there anything else you think foreigners should know about the situation in Inner Mongolia today?
Arjia Rinpoche: They should know the history and they should be well aware of the complexity of the issues and particularly of the intent of the Chinese Communists to maintain total control.
I would like to thank Rinpoche and his staff for their cooperation. I hope readers and the internet at large find his answers enlightening.