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Review | Beyond Shangri-La By John Kenneth Knaus

Posted by Rebecca G. Aguilar, M.Ed. on December 11, 2012

Beyond Shangri-La by John Kenneth Knaus

ISBN-13: 9780822352341
Publisher: Duke University Press
Publication date: 12/3/2012
Pages: 355

The 14th Dalai Lama declined an invitation in early March of 1959 to attend an opera performance at a Chinese army compound in Lhasa. The invitation included the ominous condition that no bodyguards could accompany him to the performance. Leery staff and family urged Tenzin Gyatso to flee to prevent possible abduction by the Chinese.

After consulting advisors and an oracle, the 23-year-old Dalai Lama left Lhasa on March 17 under cover of night. Fear of provoking China and its claim of suzerainty over Tibet held back Britain and India from rendering assistance. The United States watched as events unfolded.

John Kenneth Knaus, who served as a CIA operations officer in the Tibetan Task Force, has written an absorbing and solidly researched history of American involvement in the affairs of the Dalai Lama and Tibet. Beyond Shangri-La: America and Tibet’s Move Into the 21st Century, released December 3 by Duke University Press, follows the author’s work at Harvard University’s Fairbank Center for East Asian Research.

As a research associate there, Knaus explored the papers of William Rockhill (Theodore Roosevelt’s envoy to China) as well as the National Archives and the libraries of 20th century U.S. presidents. He conducted interviews with ambassadors and members of Congress as well as the Tibetan government in-exile and family members of the Dalai Lama.

According to Knaus, the 14th Dalai Lama’s exile from Tibet launched an uncertain era of engagement with the United States government. The next 50 years would cast him as a respected religious leader and “a major foreign affairs embarrassment for Mao and his successors.”

“Moreover the Dalai Lama and his followers early on appreciated that their departure from Shangri-La and entrance into the world beyond would call for an extraordinary combination of creativity and patience as they established a niche of their own.”

Beyond Shangri-La answers for Washington’s apparent bystander status as Tibetans suffered religious persecution, environmental devastation and a loss of national identity, culture and language from armed invasion and forced assimilation.

CIA operatives trained and armed paramilitary fighters in an ambitious covert program through the 1960s. The Tibetan cause at the outset became an appealing way to challenge Communist China. When Henry Kissinger began efforts to normalize relations with China in 1970, he would end the clandestine program and the Dalai Lama and Tibetans would be left standing alone.

Knaus writes that Tibet began to take hold of American consciousness in 1987 when the Dalai Lama presented his five point peace proposal before a formal session of the Congressional Human Rights Caucus. One week later, riots and demonstrations broke out in Lhasa and the violent response of the Chinese government was condemned by the United Nations.

The Tibetan’s cause sat square with the advocacy efforts of influential personalities with powerful networks. Upon the request of the Dalai Lama, Robert Thurman, Richard Gere and Philip Glass founded Tibet House to preserve and showcase Tibetan history and civilization.

In 1989, the year the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to the Dalai Lama, the crackdown on Tiananmen Square protestors would unsettle Americans and place the Tibetan leader in a position of moral authority evident in Buddhist compassion.

Secretary of State Madeline Albright would initiate staffing of the Tibet Coordinator Office, which monitored the status of the government in-exile in the absence of a special envoy. Senator Dianne Feinstein and her San Francisco banker husband, Richard Blum, pushed for a major piece of Tibet legislation signed into law by President George W. Bush in 2002.

“By the last decade of the 20th century the Dalai Lama and his people had gained the enthusiastic support of a sizable number of influential members of the United States Congress and the pledged support of the White House and the State Department to help them find a peaceful resolution to their dispossessed status.”

Despite the goodwill the Dalai Lama has engendered, Knaus expects the United States may presently have less to negotiate with as it asks China, which holds one-sixth of its public debt, to resolve the status of Tibet.

Beyond Shangri-La by John Kenneth Knaus is a highly worthwhile read and an absorbing history of United States foreign policy toward Tibet.

Category: Nonfiction, Tibet

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