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EDITORIAL: Tibet stays true to middle way

December 1, 2008

The Bangkok Post
November 29, 2008

It is well that the six-day conference of exiled Tibetan leaders in
Dharamsala, India, ended last weekend with an endorsement of the
''middle way'' practised down through the decades by the country's
73-year-old spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, to achieve the
restoration of democracy in Tibet. The consensus was reached despite
the strong undercurrents of unease among mostly younger exiles who
are growing impatient with China's refusal to negotiate.

At this point the exiles agree to seek autonomy, not independence,
for the region, but the Chinese leadership steadfastly refuses to
give any ground on the issue.

The formal government-in-exile, known as the Central Tibetan
Administration, also headquartered in Dharamsala, presented the
Chinese government with a memorandum of autonomy earlier in the
month, but the leadership in Beijing rejected it out of hand.
Moreover, the Chinese authorities said last week's meeting was
meaningless, as the exiled delegates do not represent the Tibetan people.

In response to this intransigence, representatives of certain youth
organisations said last weekend at the close of the meeting that they
might change their mantra to one of independence if China does not
grant Tibet autonomy in the near future.

But at a press conference last Sunday the Dalai Lama wisely urged
these groups to proceed with caution: ''The next 20 years, if we are
not careful, if we are not prudent in our plans, there is a great
danger.'' He did not elaborate, but it seems clear that he was
referring in part to the near-certainty of harsh reprisals from the
Chinese government if the call for independence is taken up inside
Tibet, as happened in widespread and increasingly aggressive protests
in the lead up to the Olympics Games in Beijing earlier this year.
Just as their cause may be, there is only one foreseeable outcome in
confrontations between Tibetan activists and the Chinese military.

There is another danger as well if impatience, however
understandable, dissuades the Tibetan people from the present path
laid out by the Dalai Lama, one which has won widespread
international support. Coinciding with China's growing influence as a
global power, the cause of Tibetan democracy could be marginalised as
an international issue if countries fear that support for Tibet will
harm their relations with Beijing, in much the same way that the
world has acquiesced to China's claims on Taiwan.

This marginalisation of Tibet seems to have been behind the step by
Beijing on Wednesday to call off a major summit meeting with European
Union member states scheduled to begin tomorrow in Lyon, France. This
was seen as a response to plans by French President Nicolas Sarkozy
to meet the Dalai Lama in Gdansk, Poland, at a meeting of Nobel peace
prize winners this coming Saturday. The Buddhist leader is also
scheduled to attend a session of the European parliament. The
EU-China summit was expected to focus on disputes linked to China's
huge trade surplus with European Union members and on coordinating
international action to counter the global economic crisis.

China's growing economic clout gives it great leverage, but as it
stands now the situations in Tibet and in Taiwan are pretty much
viewed separately by the international community. This is due to a
number of factors, but chief among them is the identification of the
Tibetan cause with the spiritual leader.

The Dalai Lama said he had been fighting for the restoration of
democracy in Tibet over many decades. ''Since I strongly believe in
the principles of Mahatma Gandhi, I have advocated the middle-way
approach,'' said the spiritual leader last Sunday. He admitted,
however, that this approach had not yielded any results, and seemed
to sympathise with the frustrations of the Tibetan youth.

The meeting in Dharamsala was confirmation that those frustrations
will not be put on hold forever. In the end, if a violent future is
to be avoided for Tibet, China should and must be persuaded to
compromise on the issue of autonomy.

There is reason to believe that may happen eventually, as the Chinese
government is increasingly concerned about its image and understands
that the issue has done great damage to its prestige throughout the
world. Last week's cancellation of the EU summit is sad evidence that
day may be a long time coming, but as it stands the Dalai Lama's
example still holds the most hope for Tibet.
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