Tibetans are speaking out following the Dalai Lama’s apology after a video of him kissing a young boy went viral, claiming that the act is being intentionally misinterpreted and misused by Chinese Communist Party (CCP) propagandists to discredit the spiritual leader.
In the viral video, the Dalai Lama can be seen kissing a young boy on the lips and asking him to “suck my tongue” during a public event in late February at the Dalai Lama’s temple in Dharamshala, India.
Tenzin Gyatso, the 87-year-old spiritual leader who was exiled from China, was condemned by many social media users who described his behavior as “inappropriate” and “disgusting.”
The backlash then prompted the office of the Dalai Lama to apologize for the act, which they categorized as “innocent and playful,” on Monday.
Since then, many Tibetans have also spoken up, arguing that the Dalai Lama’s act was intentionally misinterpreted as a way to legitimize the Chinese occupation of Tibet.
Tsering Kyi, a U.S.-based Tibetan journalist, said that the video’s emergence as a point of controversy is the result of an attempt to discredit the Dalai Lama, a target of the CCP for decades. In an interview with Vice World News published on Tuesday, Kyi said:
I still remember when the great Christian spiritual leader, Desmond Tutu, visited the Dalai Lama in India, and they hugged and kissed like two pure kids. It was a beautiful display of love, but some people with dirty minds interpreted it as something else back then too. English is his second language, so sometimes His Holiness uses words that make some people uncomfortable. However, it doesn’t necessarily mean that he intends to be negative.
On the same day, Australian anti-CCP activist Drew Pavlou
tweeted a photo of the meeting between the two leaders. “Sadly everything in the modern Western world is too hyper sexualised. The Dalai Lama jokingly made a kissing face to greet his friend Desmond Tutu, only those with a severe case of porn brain could see this as sexual,” he said in his tweet.
According to the Institute of East Asian Studies at the University of California, Berkeley, to stick one’s tongue out is a sign of respect, agreement or greeting in traditional Tibetan culture.
“It’s been our traditional way of greeting,” an anonymous Tibetan in India also told Vice. “I have also seen him being playful with Tibetans. For us, it is sad that it has been misinterpreted by the international community. The event was held more than a month ago, why are we seeing this just now?”
While it is unclear what caused the video to resurface and go viral, the individual noted that they saw many pro-Chinese social media accounts tweeting the video last Friday.
“Expression of emotions and manners today has been melted together and become vividly westernized,” Namdol Lhagyari, a Tibetan activist in exile, wrote on Twitter.
Bringing in narrative of other cultures, customs and social influence on gender and sexuality to interpret Tibetan way of expression is heinous. It is intriguing and heavily disturbing for me individually on how this issue has been used as a political weapon and scandalized to suit various sections of the world. With due respect, I don’t see the need of apology for the playful and tongue-in-cheek demeanor His Holiness the 14th is applauded worldwide for.
Timothy Grose, an associate professor of China studies at the Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology in Indiana, also told Vice that the clip is being weaponized by supporters of the CCP who believe the Dalai Lama to be a separatist and a “CIA puppet.”
“The Chinese seizure of this part of Tibetan history is meant to fit [its] claim of liberating Tibet,” Grose said.
Tibetan human rights groups have reportedly documented online campaigns in the past that sought to discredit the Dalai Lama, with some viral posts accusing him of owning slaves — a claim that has been dismissed as inaccurate by Tibetan historians.
The Dalai Lama, who fled to India in 1959 when Tibet was annexed by China, has worked to draw global support for linguistic and cultural autonomy in his remote homeland. He currently lives in a compound next to a temple in Dharamshala.