The Middle Way Put to Test

Eight rounds of dialogue between Tibetan envoys and Chinese Communist officials have failed. What will happen next?

tibetan-monk-305.jpg DHARAMSALA, India: A Tibetan monk in exile walks in the compound of the Tsuglakhang Temple, Nov. 16, 2008.

By Maura Moynihan

DHARAMSALA—November is glorious in this remote north Indian hill station. The air is pristine, the mountains aglow, the hotels perpetually overbooked.

In the 1990s, Dharamsala, traced upon mountain cliffs above the Kangra Valley, home of the Dalai Lama and seat of the Tibetan exile government, surpassed the Taj Mahal as the most popular tourist destination in India. The global traffic converges in McLeod Ganj, a circular bazaar of Punjabi shops, Tibetan restaurants, Internet cafes, Buddhist shrines, and bookstores, filled with travelers and pilgrims of every variety.

Yet most visitors reclining in hotel gardens with a cappuccino and the Hindustan Times, amid prayer flags and temple spires, seem placidly unaware of the fractures crackling through this Tibetan exile universe.

On Nov. 17, hundreds of delegates gathered in Dharamsala for the "Tibetan Special General Meeting" convened by the Dalai Lama to address the crisis in Tibet. Eight rounds of dialogue between Tibetan envoys and Chinese Communist officials have failed.

The Dalai Lama is in despair, unable to rescue the six million Tibetans living under Chinese rule. He is vilified by the Chinese Communist Party, and admired but abandoned by world leaders who are unwilling to provoke China's displeasure by making the case for the political rights of the Tibetan people.

The Dalai Lama has summoned his people to Dharamsala to assess his Middle Way approach, which seeks "genuine autonomy" for Tibet within the Chinese state. The meeting commenced on Monday morning at the Tibetan Children's Village with statements by Karma Choephel, speaker of the Tibetan Parilament-in-Exile, and exile Prime Minster Samdhong Rinpoche.

Tea breaks

The Dalai Lama didn't attend, which shifted the media focus away from the world's most famous Tibetan to the status of his captive nation. The function was twice suspended for lengthy tea breaks in the garden where the Tibetan Youth Congress and the Chushi Gangdruk resistance group passed out fliers.

Journalists clustered round Tenzin Tsundru, Jamyang Norbu, and Lhadon Tethong—activist-intellectuals, proponents of Rangzen, or independence.  By lunchtime it was clear that the meeting had induced a tangible shift in the parameters of debate and power through the presence of those who pose a legitimate challenge to the notion that autonomy is plausible in a totalitarian state.

Many Tibetans are now openly critical of the exile government's adherence to the Middle Path. This was formerly unthinkable; to criticize the exile government was formerly deemed a supreme betrayal of the Dalai Lama himself. 

In 2006 a senior Tibetan official who questioned the efficacy of the autonomy principle was vehemently censured by his peers for alleged disloyalty. But the exile government was unprepared for the crisis that erupted in Tibet last spring and the wave of global outrage that drowned the Olympic Torch relay. When Samdhong Rinpoche ordered Tibetan activists to suspend all protests, the activists respectfully replied that they would not follow this order. Men and women were being jailed and slaughtered in Tibet, and the demonstrators refused to lie mute.

Not 'a united entity'

For decades, Dharamsala bar talk invariably veered into a circular discussion of the fate of Tibet, usually ending in drunken platitudes and the occasional fistfight.  On Monday night the cafes and pubs in McLeod Ganj teemed with restless energy, anger, and impatience. Now, conversation at the Hotel Tibet bar swirled with a new urgency and purpose with the celebrated author and Rangzen champion Jamyang Norbu holding forth at a corner table.

Can nonviolent activism plausibly reform a Communist government that subjects its citizens to torture and incarceration for simply refusing to denounce the Dalai Lama? Does China's intransigence reveal fear or confidence? And will Tibetans resort to violence if pushed too far?

This week, advocates of the Middle Path must confront this crisis of confidence. Tibetans are weary of living as refugees in fragmented settlements scattered across the Indian subcontinent. They will Go West if they must, but they want to go home to Tibet, and some are ready to fight for Tibetan liberation. The constraints of tradition and protocol are loosening.

On the walk back to McLeod Ganj after the Monday meeting, a Tibetan scholar remarked: "The future of the Dalai Lama and the future of Tibet are two very different things. They can no longer be conflated into a united entity."

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.


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