Atlantic Monthly

The Buddhist Street

“All things,” Lord Buddha reminds us, “are ephemeral.” The two Buddhist autocrats who saw their power eroded this week in South Asia might have kept this advice in mind. From his Dharmasala lair, His Holiness the Dalai Lama lamented helplessly as the violent protests in Lhasa — and the crackdown by Beijing — proceeded apace, not obviously affected by his pleas for calm. And Jigme Khesar Namgyel, son of the Scourge of Thimpu, watched his subjects vote for a national assembly for the first time, in a ballot he himself decreed, but that still diminishes his authority.

There may be something or nothing to learn about democracy from these spectacles. The first suggests that the movement for Tibetan independence does not answer only to the Dalai Lama, and that China may have a bigger problem, with a wider and more distributed base, than it thought. Perhaps Lhasa would prefer to exchange the unquestioned rule of Hu Jintao for something more than the unquestioned rule of Tenzin Gyatso. As for the Bhutanese monarch, all signs point to democracy — except for the often and freely expressed desire of the Bhutanese to keep and revere the monarchy, with or without elections. Whatever else this shows, it should put rest to the notion that democratization of the Buddhist street is any simpler — or more welcome — than democratization of the Arab one.

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