The Dalai Lama Visits Mongolia: Who's Slapping Who with the Yellow Hat?

Two months ago, on November 18th, 2016 His Holiness the Dalai Lama arrived in Mongolia. He had been invited to speak by the Gandantegchinlen Monastery on issues of materialism and faith in the twenty-first century. Normally this would not be a newsworthy event outside of Ulaanbaatar and yet it made many Western headlines. This visit was significant because the Dalai Lama’s confirmed the identity of the 10th Jebtsundampa Khatagt, which signalled the growing importance of Mongolia in future Tibetan-Chinese relations. This however, was completed missed by many Western news sources who spun this even as significant because of economic reasons.

They focused on the day after the Dalai Lama left Mongolia when China issued harsh economic sanctions as punishment for allowing His Holiness’ visit.

Now, there has always been a song and dance of displeasure when the Dalai Lama visits Mongolia, as he has done nine times between 1982 and 2016. It begins with a standard notice from Beijing upon the Dalai Lama’s arrival asking the Mongolian government to refuse him entry, which is always ignored. Then there is promptly some sort of reaction from Beijing, either public statements of unhappiness or in recent years, the closing of borders (2002) and the cancelling of flights to Ulaanbaatar (2009).  

In November, however, there was an increase in the severity of that reaction. The Chinese government not only postponed talks to discuss providing a 4.2 billion dollar loan to Mongolia, they also dramatically increased import taxes to Mongolia and closed one of the borders between the two nations. In response to these actions the Mongolian Foreign Minister Ts. Munkh-Orgil stated that “Dalai Lama’s visit by the invitation of Gandan Monastery negatively affected two countries and these two countries have a misunderstanding… The government feels sorry for this… [the Dalai Lama] probably won’t be visiting Mongolia again during this administration.” This appears like a strong statement, but Mongolia is holding elections in July and the current regime is not able to run again so this is a meaningless promise.

Despite that, this is the story that many news outlets used as an example of China’s powerful reach and disregard for the conventional liberal sensibilities concerning diplomatic relations. Such a reaction is predicated on one simple assumption – that there was nothing unusual or provocative about the Dalai Lama’s visit to Mongolia.

This position is not unfounded. For, the Mongolian government explicitly stated that this was a spiritual visit with no overt political content. This is mostly true, however, the covert political content of the Dalai Lama’s visit was actually enormous in significance and worthy of a reaction from China.

On the last day of his visit in Mongolia the Dalai Lama announced that he was convinced of the identity of the recently identified candidate for the title of Jebtsundampa Khatagt or 10th Patriarch. This lama-boy is the leader of a school of Buddhism practiced by the majority Mongolians and of which the Dalai Lama is the spiritual head. This is a position of immense spiritual and political power in the Gulup School of Buddhism.

In 1991 it was revealed that the 9th Patriarch had been living in India with the Tibetan government in exile after fleeing communist forces. He later returned to Mongolia where he received citizenship and passed away in 2012 in the very monastery the Dalai Lama was visiting in November. Since 2012 there have been various indications from the Dalai Lama that the 10th Patriarch has been found in Mongolia, but his identity and location have been kept a secret for fear of Chinese interference.

The declaration from the Dalai Lama that the identity of this boy has been confirmed places Mongolia in a position of strategic importance. For, the eventual death and reincarnation of the current Dalai Lama will involve a confirmation and selection process that includes a number of lamas, including the Jebtsundampa Khatagt. This search will also include the Panchant Lama, a very controversial figure because he was selected by the Chinese government after the boy selected by the Dalai Lama vanished in Tibet. The birth of a Mongolian lama to be involved in this search gives that nation an important bargaining chip against China.

With all this additional context quite a different story emerges. This visit was significant for the Mongolian government for it signaled the emergence of an important opportunity in their future to affect Tibetan-Chinese relations. China noted this and responded with policies attempting to remind Mongolian how much they rely on Chinese trade. Now, China is more powerful and over the past six years has accounted for 80-90% of the exports from Mongolia. So it is important for Mongolia to keep relations with China civil, as seen by their response. However, that has never meant that the Mongolians do not commit small acts to assert their independence – and as symbols of defiance go, the Dalai Lama is a pretty good one.

Written By: Corrin Bulmer

Corrin is first and foremost a Vancouverite. The city’s landscape, and the ten years she spent working here, forged within her an appreciation for diversity and an interest in how that ideal manifests in the global stage. While at Mount Allison University, Corrin continued to pursue her interest in the complexities of identity creation by completing a degree that focused on international issues through the lenses of religious studies and history. As a founding member of the Indigenous support group on her campus her passion for Indigenous nation to nation relations within Canada is also strong. In the MPPGA program she has been able to expose herself to many new questions through courses and projects. Currently, she is wondering about the persistence of quantifying qualitative variables within the global decision making process.