By Maura Moynihan
DHARAMSALA—When the Dalai Lama fled to India from Chinese-occupied Tibet in 1959, India’s prime minister Nehru had to face the wreckage of his faith in Hindi Chini Bhai Bhai—Indian and Chinese brotherhood. Nehru granted sanctuary to the young Dalai Lama and took a personal interest in the education of Tibetan refugee children.
Many of the Tibetan delegates who gathered in Dharamsala’s Tibetan Children’s Village at the conclusion of last week’s Special Meeting were educated upon this hillside above the golden expanse of the Kangra Valley. And it is the voice of the younger generation that is now transforming the dialogue about Tibet and the People’s Republic of China.
For almost 50 years, the rituals of the Tibetan exile government have been observed with a quiet dignity. On Saturday, Nov. 22, the auditorium of the Tibetan Children’s Village was filled with faces from across the Tibetan plateau as senior officers sat before a vast tapestry of Lhasa’s Potala Palace and a golden throne bearing a photograph of the Dalai Lama.
Delegates and journalists alike were impressed by the strength of Tibetan nationalism and identity present at the Special Meeting.
“There was a real sense of unity here all week,” said Pema Thinley, who lives in Japan. “Whether we support the Middle Way or independence, we know that our country was stolen and that Rangzen, independence, is our right. We all feel that way.”
Karma Choephel, speaker of the parliament of the exile government, affirmed a set of resolutions from the Special Meeting: that support for the Dalai Lama and for non-violent activism is unanimous, that the majority of participants support the Dalai Lama’s Middle Way policy, and that the exile government calls upon the Chinese leadership to stop their vicious rhetorical attacks upon the Dalai Lama “which are an insult to many Chinese Buddhists, and to the people of the world who have great respect for His Holiness’ work for world peace and global harmony.”
A ‘final chance’
Gyari Dolma, head of the People’s Assembly, spoke to the press corps. Gyari is a Khampa princess and the sister of Lodi Gyari, the Dalai Lama’s special envoy for talks with the Chinese. In the 1950s, their mother led a raid on a Chinese garrison in Kham.
“The ball is in China’s court,” Gyari said. “The Tibetan exile government will suspend negotiations with Chinese Communist Party officials. His Holiness the Dalai Lama has done everything he can possibly do to negotiate in good faith.”
Gyari said that the Tibetan exile government will offer China a final chance to make peace through the Middle Way approach. If there is no progress in two or three years, the policy will shift to a call for independence. For many younger delegates, this was a victory; for others, it was not enough.
“In my group, I advocated for independence,” said Tashi Phuntsok, who flew in from Canada. “Before this meeting, I would have been shut out at once, but this time people were listening. We all know what is happening inside Tibet. We all feel this pain, because our people are being harassed, arrested, tortured—just for expressing their opinions or for showing any loyalty to the Dalai Lama.”
“Last year, independence wasn’t even on the table,” said Tenzin Tsultrim, who is studying for a doctorate in political science at Delhi University. “But I’m still not happy with the results of the Special Meeting. The exile government wants to give the Middle Way two or three more years, when China is keeping over 100,000 new plainclothes police and advanced surveillance systems [that were] installed for the Olympics last summer.”
No hope for change
“China will continue to use these tools to terrorize and oppress a helpless population in Tibet, so waiting and hoping for change from the Chinese Communist Party is unrealistic,” he said.
Tsewang Rigzin, president of the Tibetan Youth Congress, agreed: “I would demand Rangzen right now.”
Many younger Tibetans feel that the exile government is unwilling to acknowledge the failure of the Middle Way policy and that older officials often discourage critical thinking and analysis.
“The older generation was protected by the Dalai Lama all these years,” said a young exile who recently quit working for the Dharamsala government. “Without him, the Tibetans will be orphaned. What we do today will decide the fate of future generations.”
“I am terrified to think of what might happen to us if we fail to save our country now.”
Nyima Dorje, another participant in the Special Meeting, said that he had supported the Middle Way approach until he attended a meeting with the Dalai Lama in Ottawa in 2004. “His Holiness kept referring to China as the central government, and to Tibet as a regional, local government. At that moment, it hit me: The Middle Way would make me a Chinese citizen.”
“I went home and listened to the Chinese national anthem,” he said. “And I asked myself, ‘Could I ever accept this as my song?’ With tears in my eyes, I said, ‘Not a chance!’”
Maura Moynihan, a writer and musician, has been a consultant to the Rubin Museum of Art in New York City, America's largest Himalayan and Tibetan cultural institution. She worked for many years as a refugee consultant in India and Nepal and recently completed a master's degree in political science at the New School.