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"Canada can, within a positive friendly atmosphere, ask the Chinese government to resolve the Tibetan situation."

Tibetans Look to Future, Without Dalai Lama

November 19, 2008

By Jyoti Thottham
November 18, 2008

New Dehli -- Hundreds of Tibetan political leaders, activists and
individuals from all over the world have just begun a meeting in
Dharamsala, India, that is unprecedented in its ambition: to bring
all Tibetans together to decide their own future, without the direct
guidance of the Dalai Lama.

The week-long summit, which includes elected members of the Tibetan
parliament-in-exile, non-governmental organizations and protest
groups, comes at a critical time. After the Dalai Lama indicated
recently that he had all but given up on negotiations with China over
autonomy for Tibet, there is increasing tension between Tibetan
conservatives, who favor continuing talks, and younger radicals who
want to push for a free Tibet. After protests this March in Lhasa
that turned violent, the radicals were energized. But since then,
they have been unable channel their efforts constructively. "The
community is feeling slightly lost and helpless," says Tsering
Shakya, a Tibetan scholar and professor at the University of British
Columbia who has written extensively about modern Tibetan history.
This week's meeting is an attempt on the part of Tibetan leadership
to allow them to voice their views openly — without feeling inhibited
about criticizing the Dalai Lama — and perhaps restore some sense of unity.

But the choice that Tibetans are facing isn't a simple fork in the
road between seeking independence or seeking autonomy. That's clear
from looking at the people expected to play a key role in the talks,
which are closed to the public. The central voices of the Tibetan
establishment include Lodi Gyari, the Dalai Lama's envoy to
Washington and chief negotiator with the Chinese, and Prime Minister
Samdhong Rinpoche, who is also seen as a conservative force, along
with several cabinet ministers. Those pushing for radical change
include the Tibetan Youth Congress, who are vocal and visible, but to
date have had little sway over the Tibetan political system; Students
for a Free Tibet, who are very well organized but whose influence has
been limited to English-speaking world; and individuals like Jamyang
Norbu, a writer and fiery orator who could have an outsized influence
in this kind of forum. There are also several NGOs and individuals
with regional influence over different parts of the Tibetan diaspora,
and a secularist group pushing for more lay leadership.

But perhaps the biggest wild card in the talks will be Tibetans
inside Tibet, says Robbie Barnett, a professor of Tibetan studies at
Columbia University in New York City. (There are 5.5 million,
compared to about 130,000 in the global diaspora.) They won't be able
to attend in person, but many of them are making their views heard
through informal or secret communications. And here too, there is a
wide range of views, from radicalized former prisoners to those who
are actually pushing for more concessions to China in the hopes of
bringing the Dalai Lama back to Tibet before the end of his life.

It will be up to the chair of the meeting, Karma Choepel, the speaker
of the Tibetan parliament, to allow open and frank discussion. The
Dalai Lama will not participate in any of the talks, although he is
expected to address the gathering after the end of the summit. The
meeting, Barnett says, is "explicitly a response by the Dalai Lama to
criticism that his charisma has cramped any space for real
discussion." But no one is expecting Tibetans to suddenly shift
course from the "Middle Path," which advocates for negotiating with
Beijing for autonomy, not independence, and has been steered so
carefully by their spiritual leader for the last 30 years. Instead,
the summit will be considered a success if it reaches some consensus
about how to choose the Dalai Lama's successor, and if it brings
Tibetans together to discuss issues like education and how to involve
young Tibetans in the political process. Barnett notes that China may
find it more difficult to control a movement that is strong and
unified around a common purpose. "If they can achieve that, it will
really be quite significant." And perhaps the most radical move of all.
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