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Dalai Lama's exile anniversary

April 6, 2009

The Korea Herald (South Korea)
April 4, 2009

The 50th anniversary of the Dalai Lama's escape
from Tibet even as the Chinese army moved in
pursuit against him was observed on March 10.
This major event continues to reverberate as a
defining moment in the difficult relationship
between China and its Tibetan region.

As was only to be expected, the Tibetans in exile
with the Dalai Lama and the Chinese government
marked the occasion in greatly contrasting
styles: the Buddhist leader issued a statement
recalling Tibet's suffering and struggle, his
hopes for the future and his renewed wish for a
negotiated settlement acceptable to both parties,
while China promised stern action against
separatism and declared a public holiday to
celebrate the end of serfdom in Tibet. The
passing of 50 years, it would seem, has done
little to bridge the gap between the two sides:
if anything, the distance between Beijing and the
Dalai Lama has only increased with the passage of time.

Apprehending outbreaks of disaffection similar to
those that rocked Lhasa last year when a
deliberate attempt was made to upstage the
Olympics, on which China had lavished
unprecedented effort, stringent security
precautions were taken by the authorities as the
anniversary approached. No chances were taken and
a series of measures were implemented to preclude
any kind of public disturbance that could draw
attention yet again to the unresolved Tibetan
issue. These security safeguards ensured that
Lhasa remained quiet but there could be no
restraining Tibet's sympathizers elsewhere.
Exiles from Tibet and their supporters are by now
spread all over the globe and they came out in full force on the occasion.

The centrepiece of the observance of the
anniversary by exiled Tibetans was a statement by
the Dalai Lama. This is a detailed and careful
document that sets out once more the main
features of the Tibetan leader's lifelong
endeavour to find a way forward through dialogue
and reconciliation. The statement recalls the
many steps of his odyssey, beginning with the
shared effort in the 1950s by Tibetans and
Chinese to work together on the basis of the
17-point agreement of 1951 arrived at after the
Chinese army first entered Tibet. Within the
promised protection for Tibet's religion, culture
and traditional values, plans had been framed for
social and economic development in Tibet, and
some measure of mutual understanding had been achieved.

However, the effort foundered when increasingly
radical policies were promoted in Tibet -
described as "ultra leftist" - as a result of
which progress came to a halt. Thereafter the
situation deteriorated progressively, leading
eventually to a "peaceful uprising" of the
Tibetans in 1959, against which Chinese military
intervention took place. This resulted in the
flight of the leader, who was eventually followed
by some 100,000 of his adherents.

Among the many points made in the wide ranging
statement is a reference to the Tibetan refugees
who came out with little but have rehabilitated
themselves successfully wherever they have
settled - on this there can be no dispute: one
has only to look at the bustle and prosperity of
the refugee settlements and their commercial
establishments. In tacit acknowledgment of
changing times, it is also pointed out that some
democratic forms have been introduced into the
selection of the leaders of this exiled community.

Relations with Beijing, however, show no
substantive advance. The "middle way" policy
first presented in 1974 as something to meet the
requirements of both sides remains a virtual dead
letter and, so far as can be judged, has sparked
no useful discussions despite several meetings
between Tibetan and Chinese representatives. The
search for "meaningful and legitimate" autonomy
has yielded little. The Dalai Lama has not
abandoned his quest but there is little positive to show for it.

The countries that have found room for people
displaced from Tibet receive thanks in the
anniversary statement. India tops the list, as
home to far the largest number, including the
Dalai Lama himself. This community has been here
so long that they are more or less taken for
granted, so it is perhaps necessary that India's
special effort in opening its doors wide at a
time of great need should be acknowledged in this
fashion. The Tibetan Arts and Culture Exhibition
in New Delhi has also been arranged to convey the
same message of appreciation and to strengthen the vital link with India.

There is a strongly contrasting presentation of
the significance of the anniversary from the
Chinese side. Chinese intervention when it came
in the 1950s is described as a move to liberate
Tibet from the system of feudal exploitation
under which it had suffered, the elite having
prospered exceedingly while the ordinary people
had to suffer appalling hardships. Thus the
removal of the Dalai Lama and his supporters is
presented as something that emancipated Tibet
from misery and exploitation, in token of which
the anniversary is henceforth to be celebrated as "Serfs' Emancipation Day."

Though loudly proclaimed, there will not be many
takers within Tibet or elsewhere for this view of
what happened 50 years ago. True, Tibet was ripe
for social reform at that time, being weighed
down by feudal and monastic demands, and
restoration of the old order is on nobody's list
of demands. China has invested heavily in the
development of Tibet and the local people have
taken full advantage of the new opportunities that have come their way.

Yet the glimpse of prosperity that has come to
them, and with it an easier and more agreeable
life, has not affected their devotion to their
leader-in-exile. He remains the indissoluble
symbol of their culture and tradition. His
worldwide fame helps keep the Tibetan cause on
the global agenda. Even developments like South
Africa's refusal to give him a visa to visit that
country only add to his luster.

The strengthening of China's historically
unsympathetic response no doubt owes something to
the greater assertiveness of Tibetan activists
both within the country and outside. Last year
both India and Nepal were hard pressed to contain
a projected "march to Beijing" by Tibetan groups
intent on publicizing their cause, and in Tibet
itself there were widespread demonstrations. The
ideological counterattack of instituting a
"Serfs' Liberation Day" reflects China's
awareness that its image can be affected by the
persistent criticism it faces on the issue of
Tibet. Neither side is likely to give way, so the
prospects for any early resolution in the future look poor.

So far as India is concerned, it would be well if
the issue were decided soon. Heightened
sensitivity about Tibet can become a complication
in China's dealings with India. Possibly the
recent discordant statements from China about
Arunachal Pradesh owe something to that.
Resolving the border dispute with China remains a
major aim of Indian diplomacy, for which a
settled internal situation in Tibet would be conducive.

(The Statesman/Asian News Network)

* Salman Haidar is a former foreign secretary of India. - Ed.

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