Dalai Lama Tries New Tack

The Dalai Lama says he's lost hope in talks with China.
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NEW DELHI, India: Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama greets well-wishers, 16 October 2008.
NEW DELHI, India: Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama greets well-wishers, 16 October 2008.
DHARAMSALA, IndiaTibet's exiled spiritual leader, the Dalai  Lama, will  convene a conference of Tibetan exiles in November to discuss  policy approaches to China, in a meeting experts say aims most immediately at unifying an increasingly fragmented exile community.

Tibetans from  numerous  political and social groups will gather Nov. 17-22 in Dharamsala, the northern Indian town where the Dalai Lama has based his government in exile since fleeing Tibet in 1959, the Dalai Lama's aides have said.

The Dalai Lama, 73,  and a Nobel peace laureate, said over the weekend that he had lost hope regarding ongoing talks with Chinese authorities about his efforts to secure greater autonomy for Tibetans inside China.

"I have not lost faith in the Chinese people. However, my faith in the Chinese government is becoming thinner and thinner," he said Oct. 25.

At a public function in Dharamsala, he said he had been "sincerely pursuing the 'middle way' approach in dealing with China for a long time now, but there hasn't been any positive response from the Chinese side. As far as I'm concerned I have given up."

The Dalai Lama, in his "middle way" policy, has given up demands for Tibet's independence in favor of what he has called a "meaningful autonomy" for Tibet as part of the People's Republic of China.

Possible shift

Experts say the conference could pave the way for a shift in relations between Tibetan exiles and Chinese authorities, who have ruled the Tibetan region for decades.

Mary Beth Markey, vice president for international advocacy at the International Campaign for Tibet in Washington, cited widespread disappointment with the Sino-Tibetan dialogue.

"I think that His Holiness has been messaging pretty consistently for a while that he is disappointed at the outcome of the dialogue so far. And certainly when he called the general special meeting for November, he signaled that he's expecting the Tibetan community to register an opinion about what they want for the future of Tibet," Markey said.

"There are plenty of people out there who think the dialogue process is a failure...that there should be some kind of independence movement," she said.

"But I think that Tibetans have been pragmatic and constructive in their outreach to the Chinese, and have understood that if you want the support of the international community, which means governments, then you can't go for independence."

Robbie Barnett, a Tibet expert at Columbia University in New York, said nothing yet indicates that either the Dalai Lama or the exile government will abandon their "middle way" effort at autonomy. Some officials are discussing reaching out directly to the Chinese people, he said. 

"I think the government wants the  [November] meeting to feel free to give opinions," Barnett said, adding that most Tibetans will probably support any position finally taken by the Dalai Lama, however moderate.

Activists critical of negotiations will have the chance to air their views, and will then be able to seek community support, Barnett said

"I would guess that this part of the exercise is probably an attempt to reunify the fragmented Tibetan community by making all groups, including the activists, feel they are being listened to."


"For the first time, I think there's a certain amount of realism which may be creeping into  [the Dalai Lama's]  thinking about Sino-Tibetan relations," Elliot Sperling, a Tibet expert at Indiana University, said at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington Oct. 27.

In calling only for autonomy, and reiterating that he has accepted Tibet as a part of China, the Dalai Lama has unwittingly served as a spokesman for Beijing, Sperling said.

"The Dalai Lama [has] effectively marginalized those Tibetans who, nonviolent as they are, would like to see an independent Tibet. That position has been marginalized, and in that respect Chinese policy has been quite brilliant. And it's not, as the Dalai Lama has said, that the Chinese don't understand him. They do understand him."

2008 unrest

The Dalai Lama  continues to insist his aim is autonomy, not independence, for Tibet, but Beijing reviles him as a "splittist" bent on separating Tibet from the rest of China. Numerous rounds of talks between the Dalai Lama's aides and Chinese negotiators have yielded few concrete results, and tensions are simmering.

In March, peaceful protests against Chinese rule in the Tibetan capital, Lhasa, erupted in violence in which Beijing says 22 people were killed, hundreds of shops  were burned, and Han Chinese civilians  were attacked.

Tibetan exiles say at least 140 people died in the  region-wide  crackdown that followed, while more than 1,000 were detained.

Comments from Tibet

Gauging sentiment inside Tibet, where freedom of expression remains subject to tight curbs, poses  unique  challenges, but callers to RFA's Tibetan-language hotline from inside Tibet have sounded a cautious note.

One Tibetan man who phoned RFA's hotline program Oct. 29 said he backed the "middle way" approach to Tibetan autonomy and believed pursuing independence was impractical.

"I personally think the 'middle way' approach proposed by His Holiness the Dalai Lama is a very practical and farsighted approach, benefiting both Tibet and China," the caller said.

"My views and thoughts are shared by many other Tibetan youths inside Tibet. Of course if we can achieve independence from Chinese rule, that's best, but it's impractical. During the protests in Tibet this year, Tibetans shouted and demanded independence, but those were emotionally charged slogans. The present Chinese government is not responding to the Dalai Lama's 'middle way' approach, but gradually things could change."

Another man, who also asked not to be named, urged fellow Tibetans to follow the Dalai Lama.

"Here in Tibet, many people still haven't heard of the 'middle way' approach. But even if they don't know about it, they have faith in His Holiness the Dalai Lama, so they would believe in his approach. If we don't listen to the Dalai Lama, Tibetans inside Tibet will end up disappointed," he said.

Original reporting by RFA's Tibetan service and by Richard Finney in Washington. Translation from the Tibetan by Karma Dorjee. Tibetan service director: Jigme Ngapo. Written and produced in English by Sarah Jackson-Han.





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