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"As long as human rights are violated, there can be no foundation for peace. How can peace grow where speaking the truth is itself a crime?"

The Pain of Tibet

March 1, 2009

By Simon Elegant, TIME
Thursday, Feb. 26, 2009

I first met Dorje in front of the gates of the Longwu Monastery in
Tongren, a town in China's far-western Qinghai province. Like the
majority there, he was an ethnic Tibetan, a nomadic yak breeder in town
on a pilgrimage. While friendly toward foreigners, Dorje nodded at the
video cameras mounted above the road and said we'd better speak
somewhere private. It's a grim commentary on the iron grip China
maintains on Tibetan areas of the country that even a yak herdsman knows
to be wary of video surveillance. In a sheltered corner of the
monastery's walls, Dorje enumerated the wrongs visited on ordinary
Tibetans by the Chinese authorities: beatings, arbitrary arrests and
lengthy jail sentences, extortion, forced attendance at public
vilifications of exiled Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama. The
list went on, culminating in attempts to make Tibetans celebrate the
Lunar New Year, something Dorje and others told me they had refused to
do out of respect for Tibetans killed in Lhasa last March when
anti-Chinese protests turned violent. (See pictures of the Dalai Lama.)

Beijing says 19 people, mostly innocent Chinese shopkeepers, were killed
in the unrest, but it's still by no means clear exactly what happened or
how many died. The truth may be irrelevant compared with what Tibetans
believe took place. During my trip through Qinghai, it became clear that
ordinary Tibetans believe hundreds, possibly thousands of their
compatriots were gunned down. When I asked Dorje if last year's protests
could eventually be forgotten, he shook his head. "Even my son's sons
and their sons will remember. We will never forget," he said.

The hardening attitudes on both sides mean there is no relief ahead for
the Tibetan people. "I think violence is inevitable," says Lobsang
Sangay, a senior fellow at Harvard Law's East Asian Legal Studies
program who focuses on human rights in Tibet. So it's imperative for
both sides to do their utmost to clear the logjam that has blocked
progress since the Dalai Lama was forced to flee Lhasa nearly 50 years
ago. On the Chinese side, there's little doubt that some officials
realize their strategy of oppression at home and stonewalling overseas
will one day backfire. But as Tibet scholar Robert Barnett of Columbia
University says, their chance of influencing Beijing's policy before it
is too late is vanishingly small: "Eventually, the hard-liners are going
to be thrown out for having bungled their tasks. But by the time that
happens, the chance of negotiating with the Dalai Lama might well have
passed, and China will be stuck with an internal quagmire of its own
making."

That leaves the Tibetan side, whose exile community has shown increasing
signs of fracturing as younger Tibetans push for an approach different
from the Dalai Lama's "middle way," which stresses patient negotiation.
But short of launching an intifadeh that would condemn the Tibetan
people to even greater suffering, there appears to be no realistic
alternative that could increase pressure on Beijing.

The problem is, the middle way has hit a brick wall. Even the Dalai Lama
recently said he had "given up" on negotiating with the Chinese and
hinted he might step down, fearing that his position "is only becoming
an obstruction instead of helping find a solution to the Tibet issue."
Yet as an international celebrity and a deity to his people, he is the
only person who can shift the equation. And the issue is pressing; he
turns 74 in July.

That is why it may be time for the Dalai Lama to acknowledge that he has
failed. For all his success in keeping the issue of Tibet on the world
stage, this has not made and will not make one iota of difference to
Beijing. His government-in-exile has always insisted on discussions
about such matters as self-rule. Now it is time for one final, bold
stroke: an announcement that the Dalai Lama is willing to return without
any preconditions. Though Beijing has said it would accept him back on
those terms, it is possible that the Chinese leadership--mindful of the
return of exiles like the Ayatullah Khomeini to Iran--will try to block
his path or refuse to live up to its promise to allow the Dalai Lama to
go back to Tibet. But such a result would only broaden support and
sympathy for the Tibetan cause.

And there are more optimistic scenarios. The Dalai Lama's presence in
China might allow for improvement in the way Tibetans are treated.
Whatever the possible outcomes, this last, desperate gesture is one that
has to be made. The only alternative is for Dorje's son's sons and their
sons to continue to live in a long, anguished twilight as communist
cadres, Coca-Cola and Chinese immigrants slowly snuff out Tibet's unique
heritage.
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