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Crunch time for Tibetan cause

November 18, 2008

By Penny Spiller
BBC News
November 17, 2008

As many as 500 exiled Tibetan leaders are meeting in the Indian hill
town of Dharmsala this week to discuss the future of their fight for
their homeland.

It is a critical time, as they face up to the fact that their
decades-long call for "meaningful autonomy" for Tibet has pretty much
fallen on deaf ears in China.

Last month, Tibet's spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, said he was
losing hope that his deliberately moderate "middle path" policy with
Beijing - seeking autonomy but not full independence - would yield results.

He has now called together Tibetans from around the world to spend
the next six days discussing what they do next.

The "brain-storming session" could lead to a more hard-line strategy,
Tsering Tashi, the Dalai Lama's representative in London, admits.

"It's possible they will push for outright independence," he told the
BBC. "Tibetans have a right to independence. Our history is evidence of that."

But one aspect will not change, he stressed.

"The Tibetan struggle will not want to take a violent stance."

'Hot debate'

The meeting comes at a time of crisis for the exiled Tibetans and
their leadership, says Tibetan analyst Robert Barnett, of Columbia
University in New York.

China's aggressive response to any moves by the Tibetan cause has led
to divisions and dissension among the exiles, he says.

"China realises it's on a winning streak. The longer it can go on
being aggressive, the more the exiles split, the more it produces
dissenters and the more the Dalai Lama is pressured to make compromises.

"The best outcome of this meeting, in the short term, is that they
overcome the divisions. It will be quite impressive if they produce
some unity."

Many Tibetans believe any criticism of the Dalai Lama's strategy is
criticism of His Holiness himself.

This has made it difficult for a younger, more activist generation to
have their calls for full independence taken seriously.

TIBET DIVIDE
* China says Tibet was always part of its territory
* Tibet enjoyed long periods of autonomy before 20th century
* In 1950, China launched a military assault
* Opposition to Chinese rule led to a bloody uprising in 1959
* Tibet's spiritual leader the Dalai Lama fled to India
* Dalai Lama now advocates a "middle way" with Beijing, seeking
autonomy but not full independence

The Dalai Lama realises it is time to have that debate, which is why
he has removed himself from this meeting, Mr Barnett says.

Tsering Palden, head of the New York branch of the Tibetan Youth
Congress, which is pushing for full independence, believes there will
be a "hot debate" next week.

"There are some people who blindly believe everything the Dalai Lama
says. It's very important during this special meeting to make them
aware that the 'middle way' is not working. Then, I think they will
agree with us," he said.

"Our strategy is to educate Tibetans around the world, to make them
more politically aware and to make sure that our voice continues to
be heard on the global stage," he said.

"We know this will take many years, possibly generations, but nothing
lasts forever. We believe times will change; China will change.
Already we see people in China who are sympathetic to our cause."

Successor

Another, perhaps unspoken, issue at the heart of this meeting is the
question of a successor to the Dalai Lama.

The Tibetan leader is now 73 and has suffered bouts of ill health. In
September, he was hospitalised for four days with stomach pain.

Last year he said he was considering breaking with centuries of
tradition by choosing a successor, rather than awaiting rebirth which
can take many years.

There is reason for his caution. When he picked a six-year-old boy in
1995 to be the Panchen Lama, the second most important figure in
Tibetan Buddhist, Beijing rejected the choice and selected a
pro-Chinese replacement.

Robert Barnett says Beijing believes the whole issue of Tibetan
independence will disappear once the Dalai Lama dies, taking with him
his skilled leadership and ability to court the West.

And, he says, there is a fear his death will lead to a disintegration
of Tibetan society - with major unrest inside the region, and radical
groups freed from the constraints of non-violence.

Tsering Palden hopes that a possible successor will emerge from next
week's meeting.

"The Dalai Lama has a special place in the hearts of every Tibetan.
If we can find someone who is endorsed by the Dalai Lama himself,
then it will make the transition of leadership, when it happens,
easier," he says.
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