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Dalai Lama and the Tibet question: Time for a new approach?

November 12, 2008

Edward M. Gomez
San Francisco Chronicle
November 11, 2008

The Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhists around the
world and, in practice, their political leader, too, has been ailing
lately. Considering the intensity of the tide of criticism that
continually flows his way, even from some Tibetans in exile, it's a
miracle the Berobed One has any stamina left at all.

Next week, a representative group of Tibetan exiles is scheduled to
meet officials of China's central government in Beijing for talks
about the future of Tibet. (The Dalai Lama and the Tibetan government
in exile are based not within the territory of Tibet itself but
rather in Dharamsala, India.) Now, in the lead-up to next week's
powwow, the Chinese government is laying the anti-Dalai Lama
criticism on thick.

Yesterday, Zhu Weiqun, the vice minister of the Communist Party's
United Front Work Department, "made clear that China had no interest
in engaging with the Dalai Lama's call for 'genuine autonomy' for
Tibetans, which he called an attempt to promote 'ethnic splitting.'"
Zhu advised that the Dalai Lama "should completely give up his
splittist opinions and actions and strive for the understanding of
the central authorities and all Chinese people so as to solve the
issue concerning his own prospects...." Zhu went so far as to suggest
that, if the Dalai Lama ever were "to gain power one day" in Tibet -
in his dreams, that is - the Holy One "would without compunction or
sympathy carry out ethnic discrimination, apartheid and ethnic
cleansing." (Financial Times)

Xinhua, China's government-controlled news agency, also quoted Zhu
Weiqun, who, at a press conference in Beijing organized by the
Information Office of the State Council (China's governing cabinet),
stated: "We hope that [the Dalai Lama] could correct his mistakes and
get closer to the central government and do something beneficial for
the people, including the Tibetans, during the remainder of his life,
no matter if his health condition is good or poor....He is in his 70s
and in a poor health condition, after all[;] we do not expect him to
leave an infamous reputation in history...." Looking ahead, Zhu
suggested that "some foreigners and Tibetans in exile had warned that
violence and terror might increase in Tibet" after the Dalai Lama dies.

A commentary penned by Tashi Phuntsok, a teacher at a prep school
(private high school) in Connecticut appears on, a website
based in Delhi, India, that offers news and information of interest
to exiled Tibetans around the world. For Phuntsok, the Dalai Lama's
so-called middle-way policy for dealing with China (neither fighting
the Chinese government nor passively accepting its decisions and
actions) has failed. Phuntsok writes: "For the last twenty or so
years, the Dalai Lama has sincerely attempted to reach out to China
to resolve the Tibet issue....However, as a result of lack of
commitment and will from the Chinese side, the Dalai Lama recently
publicly announced that he has lost faith in the current Chinese
leadership....However, it is important to reflect on why the
middle-way policy failed...."

As Phuntsok sees it, the Dalai Lama's middle-way policy was based on
a "false promise" from the late Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping. The
commentator recalls: "Deng Xiaoping assured the Dalai Lama that,
except for the independence of Tibet, all other questions regarding
Tibet could be resolved through dialog. The Dalai Lama was further
encouraged when the chairman of the Communist Party [of China (CPC)],
Hu Yaobang, following his visit to Tibet, recommended an immediate
reform for Tibet which became basis for many of changes that took
place in Tibet in 1980s. The new open-minded policy from the Chinese
leadership swayed the Dalai Lama to put aside his demand for
independence of Tibet, and that is how the middle-way policy came
into being. Unfortunately, the internal conflict within the [CPC]
dashed this reasonable and promising approach for resolving the
political status of Tibet."

Today, Phuntsok observes, the bottom line appears to be that, in the
view of China's current leaders, the Dalai Lama "has nothing to offer
in return" for any deal he might want them to cut with his government
in exile and the Tibetans he represents. Commentator Phuntsok adds:
"Tibet is firmly under [China's] control, and the demand for
independence was voluntarily and unilaterally forsaken with the
middle-way policy. The Chinese leaders knew well that the ephemeral
international condemnation of the military crack down in Tibet in
March [of this year] would soon be forgiven and forgotten like the
Tiananmen Square massacre [in 1989], and as the world media either
[got] bored or [found] something else to get excited about, world
leaders would change their positions accordingly. For instance, the
French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who was in [the] vanguard calling
for the boycott of the opening ceremony [of last August's Beijing
Olympics] in the [European Parliament], attended the opening ceremony
after all."

A separate item notes that a news report from the exiled
Tibetan government's headquarters in Dharamshala "stated that '[t]he
future course of the Tibetan movement, including the possibility of a
historic switch from demanding autonomy to a demand for full
independence, will be the focus of a special meeting [later this]
month of around 300 delegates representing the worldwide exiled
Tibetan community. 'The only non-negotiable aspect is that the
[movement] will still be non-violent. Everyone is agreed on that,'
the Dalai Lama's spokesman, Tenzin Taklha, told [the French news
agency, Agence France Presse]."

Edward M. Gomez, a former U.S. diplomat and staff reporter at TIME,
has lived and worked in the U.S. and overseas, and speaks several
languages. He has written for The New York Times, the Japan Times and
the International Herald Tribune.
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