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"For a happier, more stable and civilized future, each of us must develop a sincere, warm-hearted feeling of brotherhood and sisterhood."

At the Dalai Lama's urging, hundreds of Tibetans converge to discuss their future

November 23, 2008

The aging spiritual leader called on Tibetans to consider what
direction their relationship with China will take.
By Mark Magnier,
Los Angeles Times
November 20, 2008

Reporting from Dharmsala, India -- China may be more than a hundred
miles away over a clear Himalayan horizon, but it is casting a huge
shadow over this week's special meeting of exiled Tibetans, as is the
mortality of the Dalai Lama and the future of the struggle to
preserve their culture and religion.

The six-day meeting was called by the Dalai Lama here in the home of
his government in exile to consider fundamental questions: Should
Tibetans maintain his "middle way" approach, which acknowledges
China's sovereignty over their land, in hopes of securing greater
autonomy? Or should they adopt a more hard-line approach favored by
many younger Tibetans advocating a struggle for independence?

At one level, the talks here among hundreds of Tibetans are
meaningless. China can do what it wants, and it usually does. Their
government in exile has no jurisdiction and no country to govern, and
this week's meetings lack a formal agenda. Even if a conclusion is
reached, the results are not binding.

"China holds all the cards," said Tsering Shakya, a historian and
professor at the University of British Columbia.

Still, Shakya noted, "there's an urgency among Tibetans to get an
agreement before the Dalai Lama is no longer among them."

Chinese troops marched into Tibet in 1951, and since then Beijing has
spent billions of dollars trying to integrate the vast, sparsely
populated territory, which accounts for over a quarter of China's
landmass. Over the past half a century, the region has seen a series
of uprisings followed by harsh crackdowns, capped by widespread
rioting in March of this year. Beijing and representatives of the
Dalai Lama have held periodic talks since 2001 without notable progress.

Some Tibetans hope that they can convince China to ease its iron grip
by keeping to what they consider the moral high ground and
encouraging international pressure on Beijing.

China, not surprisingly, sees the equation differently. Beijing is
gambling that the eventual departure of the charismatic 73-year-old
Dalai Lama, who was hospitalized last month and had gallstones
removed, will reduce international pressure. That in turn could ease
resistance internally among China's 6 million ethnic Tibetan
citizens, the leadership in Beijing hopes.

In Dharmsala, delegates mingle and chat, greeting each other on the
narrow mountain roads. Most are outspoken in their differing
opinions. "The debate spills over in the evenings into the bars and
cafes," said Kate Saunders of the International Campaign for Tibet,
who flew in from London. "It's an amazing atmosphere."

Traditionalists believe, as unexciting as it may be, that slow but
steady pressure is the best strategy until either some cataclysmic
event or the ascension of a more pluralistic government in Beijing
causes the Chinese to relax their controls.

"Unless we can move to the moon, we have to talk to the Chinese,"
Gyalo Thondup, the Dalai Lama's elder brother and a former president
of the Tibet Cabinet in exile, told reporters Wednesday.

"We're not breaking away, we're not asking for independence."

But others in the exile community, including many who have watched
the recent creation of nations such as East Timor and Kosovo, argue
that accommodation doesn't work.

"I was the first Tibetan to publicly state the 'middle way' is
unworkable and therefore unacceptable," said Lhasang Tsering, former
head of the Tibetan Youth Congress. "All means are justified. As a
Buddhist, my intent is not to kill, but I accept that lives may be
lost" in the struggle for independence.

The meetings also reflect a vacuum within the Tibetan movement. And
it's not only the Dalai Lama's death that's a concern; his worsening
health or incapacity could prevent him from traveling, meeting with
foreign leaders and keeping up international pressure.

Beijing is under relatively little pressure. It has strong domestic
support for its policy, particularly after Tibetans attacked Han
Chinese during the March riots. Its economy and military power are
expanding rapidly. And it continues to encourage more Han Chinese
migration into Tibet. And the Tibetans risk losing vital support from
governments in Europe and North America by calling for independence.

The movement has a fundamental tension between Tibetans inside their
homeland, many illiterate, and the estimated 500,000 exiles. Many of
those inside China have braved jail, torture and loss of income for
the Dalai Lama, whom they see as godlike. Abroad, the exiles' view of
him tends to be more temporal and political, more laced with the
intrigue of a scattered community that sees him at least as much as a
man as a god.

For China, which this week sent official Zhu Weiqun before the
world's cameras to slam the meetings and the Dalai Lama, there has
been a marked defensiveness. Zhu accused the spiritual leader of
trying to carry out "ethnic cleansing" of Han Chinese.

While Beijing's exaggerated language is largely for domestic
consumption, it suggests the government is under pressure from
hard-liners within the Communist Party and military. China's Tibet
policy is associated with President Hu Jintao, who, some say, needs
to protect his flank and appear tough in the wake of the embarrassing
March riots.

Closely connected is the lingering question China would rather not
ask aloud: How has it failed so miserably to win Tibetan hearts and
minds despite pouring in so much money and political capital over many decades?

"I think more thoughtful people really believe the Tibet policy needs
a serious re-think," said Mei Renyi, a professor at Beijing Foreign
Studies University.

"But certainly the mass turmoil in March might give voice to those
who advocate a harder line."

Magnier is a Times staff writer.
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