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Dangerous Dialogues

May 19, 2008

Tsering Topgyal
Phayul
May 16, 2008

On 25 April, 2008, China offered to talk to the Dalai Lama. Through
Xinhua, an official said that Beijing will have "contact and
consultation with Dalai's private representative." Western
governments welcomed the gesture enthusiastically.

Experience has taught the Tibetans to be more guarded. The Dalai Lama
welcomed "serious" talks, not empty gestures. The exile prime
minister called China's offer a "good sign" and that normalcy must be
restored in Tibet for formal talks to begin.

Circumspection is warranted. Xinhua repeated Beijing's pre-conditions
that the Dalai Lama repeatedly addressed. He denied seeking
independence, opposed violence and supported the Beijing Olympics.
Meanwhile, vilification of the Dalai Lama continues. On 27 April,
People's Daily accused him of secessionism and "playing with words."
On 30 April, China Daily said that he "is spewing lies." Is Beijing
serious about addressing fundamental Tibetan grievances?

This is an important question because when raised expectations are
dashed, dialogue becomes dangerous. Dialogue must now be treated with
trepidation as much as relief.

Talks always raise Tibetan hopes and expectations. Tibetans think
that deliverance from political powerlessness, cultural depression
and economic marginalisation is close. The possibility of being
united with the Dalai Lama lifts their sunken spirits. Past
experience suggests that failed dialogue provokes Tibetan protests.

Between 1987 and 1992, Lhasa was rocked by 140 protests and riots.
Martial law was imposed in Lhasa in 1989. The Tibetans paid dearly.
Many died during protests or in prisons. Others spent years in
prisons and labour camps.

The protests took place after the Sino-Tibetan dialogue that began in
1978 collapsed. Four exile fact-finding missions visited Tibet
between 1979 and 1985, where they received wildly emotional
receptions. Two exploratory talks took place in 1982 and 1984.
Dialogue failed as a result of widely divergent agenda, but the
balance of compromise favoured the Chinese. The Dalai Lama
controversially gave up independence for autonomy, while Beijing
denied the existence of a Tibetan issue, choosing only to talk about
the Dalai Lama's return.

The euphoria of renewed links with the Dalai Lama and promise of
greater autonomy, palpable in the early 1980s, gave way to despair
and anger as talks floundered and Beijing saw economic development as
a panacea for Tibetan grievances. In 1984, Tibet was opened for
Chinese businesses and trade, despite the reservations of leading
Tibetan cadres. The influx of Chinese caused great resentment. More
fundamental political, cultural and economic reasons existed, but the
failure of talks and the dashing of hope clearly contributed to the
1987-1992 protests.

The recent round of nearly 60 protests and riots is no different.

A sense of political hopelessness and cultural depression has gripped
the Tibetan psyche in the face of hard-line policies-ruthless
suppression of dissent and unbridled economic development-Chinese
migration and the continued exile and treatment of the Dalai Lama.
Even in heavily censored blogs and popular media from Tibet, the
Dalai Lama's exile and the fate of Tibetan identity under Chinese
political and cultural imperialism are lamented at great risk.

Against this backdrop of despair, dialogue resumed in September 2002,
raising Tibetan hopes again.

Immediately, Beijing indicated that it was not interested in
meaningful negotiations. The Dalai Lama's representatives were not
formally recognised and his scaled-down, post-2002 Middle Way policy
was pooh-poohed. In 2005, Zhang Qingli, Tibet's Party Secretary,
stepped up the anti-Dalai lama campaign calling him a "false
religious leader." On September 30, 2006, Chinese troops shot dead
two Tibetans escaping across the Himalayas.

On 18 July, 2007, Beijing announced the notorious "Order No. 5",
prohibiting Tibetan lamas from reincarnating without prior approval
from the Chinese government! Clearly, Beijing has the selection of
the next Dalai Lama in mind. Tibetan resentment grew.

After six rounds of dialogue, which the Tibetans handled with great
delicacy, nothing was achieved. The Dalai Lama conceded on 10 March,
2008 that "on the fundamental issue, there has been no concrete
result." On that and the next three days, monks and nuns in Lhasa
demonstrated peacefully, but were beaten up and arrested. On 14 March
protesters turned violent and attacked any symbol of Chinese
colonialism (not of capitalism or modernity as leftist pundits are
trying to portray), including Han and Hui Chinese. Through written
and verbal slogans, the protestors were clearly adding weight to the
Dalai Lama's positions, with the stalled dialogue in their minds.
They are paying with lives and livelihoods. This time around, Chinese
migrants also suffered.

This time around, according to the Beijing-based Tibetan writer,
Woeser, "Tibetans in China hold that the Chinese side is not sincere
about the talk."

In light of such suffering, it would be extremely irresponsible for
Beijing to initiate a dialogue without addressing long-standing
Tibetan grievances. Dharamsala should also tone down its positive
assessment of talks, if it is not certain that positive outcomes are
in the offing. Let's not raise the hopes of the Tibetans in Tibet
again, only to be cruelly dashed at the hands of Chinese
intransigence. Western leaders should push China to conduct
substantive talks instead of using dialogue as a PR gimmick. Remember
the dead Chinese and the Tibetans, Mr. Hu!.

* Tsering Topgyal is a Tibetan writing a PhD dissertation on the
Sino-Tibetan conflict at the London School of Economics. This piece
appears in Tibet Society Briefing. Also by the author: "Our struggle
will go on, despite the crackdown" in The Independent.
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