Mongolia, with deep ties to Dalai Lama, turns from him toward China

Ganbat Namjilsangarav

Mongolia, whose rulers played a role in establishing the Dalai Lama centuries ago, no longer welcomes him.

Remarks by its foreign minister last month were the latest sign that another country had withered under pressure from China over the contentious issue of the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan spiritual leader.

The minister, Tsend Munkh-Orgil, told Onoodor newspaper that the government “feels sorry” for allowing the Dalai Lama to visit Mongolia in November and that the Dalai Lama “probably won’t be visiting Mongolia again during this administration,” according to Bloomberg News. The Foreign Ministry confirmed the remarks, the Associated Press said.

The reaction by Mongolia surprised some scholars because of the country’s deep ties to the Dalai Lama, which date from the 1500s. Even the title alludes to those roots: Dalai means “ocean” in Mongolian.


The Chinese government had objected to the visit by the Dalai Lama, which began Nov. 18 and took place over four days, even though it was not made at the invitation of the Mongolian government and was religious in nature. China canceled meetings with senior Mongolian officials in response.

China has long pressured countries, including Western ones, to ban visits from the Dalai Lama, who lives in exile in India. Chinese Communist Party leaders consider him to be an enemy who advocates Tibetan independence from China, although the Dalai Lama has said he seeks only greater autonomy for Tibetans.

In one sense, Mongolia’s reaction to China, a neighbor that has the world’s second-largest economy, was predictable. Mongolia is dealing with financial problems and is seeking a loan from Beijing. Until a recent crash, the Mongolian economy had been growing fast, fueled by mineral extraction.

But, at the same time, Mongolia has tried to distance itself from China and Russia, and has become a United States military partner. It is also a traditionally Buddhist country with ancient ties to Tibetan Buddhism and to the history of the Dalai Lamas, and the foreign minister’s remarks alarmed some historians and Tibet advocates.


“This is part of a near-global collapse in diplomatic capacity to handle certain kinds of pressure from China, which is, of course, far more acute for small, landlocked neighbors than major powers,” Robert J. Barnett, a historian of modern Tibet at Columbia University, said in an e-mail.

The Dalai Lamas arose from the actions of Altan Khan, a 16th-century Mongolian leader who controlled a region next to northern China, which was ruled by the ethnic Han emperors of the Ming dynasty.

Three centuries earlier, Kublai Khan, the founding emperor of the Yuan dynasty, in an era when Mongolians ruled China, had become interested in Tibetan Buddhism and had taken on a Tibetan teacher.

But it was Altan Khan who made Tibetan Buddhism an official religion among Mongols. He did this when the head of the Gelug school of Tibetan Buddhism, also known as the Yellow Hat school, visited him in 1577. Altan Khan gave the spiritual leader the title of Dalai Lama, which translates as “ocean of wisdom.”

This bound the Mongols and Tibetans and established a relationship between Mongolian rulers and the Gelug school. Since then, the position of the Dalai Lama has been tied to complex politics in Asia. The two heads of the Gelug school preceding the one who visited Altan Khan were also given the Dalai Lama title retroactively.