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The limits of the Dalai Lama's Middle Way

March 11, 2009

They might venerate the spiritual leader, but young Tibetans believe 50 years without progress is too long
The Globe and Mail (Canada)
March 10, 2009

DHARAMSALA, INDIA -- What will he say? What can he say?

Early this morning, Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama, will address a large gathering of Tibetans at the Tsuglag Khang, the temple next to his home-in-exile in a hilltop pine forest in this town in northern India. The devout will wait, with reverence and with hope, to hear what he has to tell them today, the 50th anniversary of his exile.

Close attention will be paid in China, which invaded and occupies his homeland and is watching these events intently; in India, which has played host to his government-in-exile all these years; and among the long-suffering Tibetan diaspora.

There has been speculation that the Dalai Lama may speak in something of a harder tone today; harder, at least, by the standards of the man who speaks, with respect and determined compassion, of his "Chinese brothers and sisters."

Last November, the Dalai Lama gathered leaders of the exile community to debate the policy he has carefully forged - the "Middle Way" - which stems from the Buddhist belief in avoiding extremes and seeks autonomy to protect a distinct culture within China, but not independence, for Tibet.

The 73-year-old Dalai Lama said then, with uncharacteristic frustration, that the policy had yielded nothing and he had to admit failure. But the gathering debated and concluded that the policy had to be continued; that other options bore too great a risk of fruitless loss of life.

Today, no matter how frustrated he knows his people are, the Dalai Lama is similarly hamstrung. When Tibetans began peaceful protests on this anniversary a year ago, the Chinese government responded with a brutal crackdown and an effective martial law remains in place in the Tibetan territories: Tibetan organizations say as many as 200 people died in the monk-led protests.

"One thing His Holiness has done in exile is to democratize the administration - he won't say or do anything that does not reflect the will of the majority in the Tibetan parliament," the Dalai Lama's spokesman, Thubten Samphel, said in an interview yesterday, trying diplomatically to manage expectations for the address.

Parliament endorses the Middle Way. And most Tibetans, in their devotion to the Dalai Lama, whose title means Ocean of Wisdom, support his strategy.

Older people among the Tibetans living in exile seem to have an unquestioning faith: "From generation to generation, we believe in His Holiness - many people are wrong but he is always right," said Lhundup Sangay, 57, who fled Tibet in 1982 after a wave of political killings, and has lived in Dharamsala separated from his family ever since. "I never thought for a moment that we would not get our freedom. I still believe we will."

Young Tibetans similarly venerate the Dalai Lama, and yet one senses that many, including a second generation growing up without ever having seen Tibet, feel 50 years is too long with no progress.

"No one ever speaks against him, but young people say that His Holiness should go his own way and we should do something ourselves in India," said Lhundup Namkha, 28, a shopkeeper who was born in exile and awaits a child of his own next month. "We believe he is right, but we do not get anything from China. So some young people want to go to a little bit of violence - not to kill anyone but to do something so that China knows they will actively [resist.]"

He will join the older people at the temple today - and then take to the streets in a protest march.

In the Tibetan capital of Lhasa last year, peaceful demonstrations to mark the anniversary of the 1959 uprising that led to the Dalai Lama's exile were brutally disrupted by Chinese soldiers. This year, Beijing has clamped near-martial law on Tibet in anticipation.

Mr. Semphel acknowledged that the idea of 50 years of exile, with no prospect of going home in sight, is discouraging. But he insisted that those years have also brought progress to Tibetans in exile, particularly in the opportunities for education that children have had. "Whatever was destroyed, we were able to rebuild in exile," he said. "We built universities for Tibet's cultural and collective past and this has been passed to a new generation of monks and nuns."

The anniversary has drawn all 43 members of the Tibetan parliament-in-exile and about 30 other religious and political Tibetan leaders from across the globe to this Himalayan town. Up for debate in the parliament, which sat yesterday, are issues including the creation of a new religious council to govern the four strands of Tibetan Buddhism, and the ordination of nuns (the Dalai Lama is in favour, while many influential senior monks oppose the idea).

China invaded Tibet in 1949, ostensibly to free "serf" peasant farmers. The Dalai Lama, in his 20s, began unsuccessful negotiations with Mao Zedong and other Chinese leaders to end the occupation. In 1959, an uprising against Chinese rule began in Lhasa, and the Chinese army brutally suppressed it - nearly 90,000 Tibetans were killed.

Fifty years ago today, the Dalai Lama and a small group of followers fled into the Himalayas to make the weeks-long, perilous journey into exile. He arrived in northern India dangerously ill with dysentery. Another 80,000 Tibetans followed him that month.

Today there are six million Tibetans in Tibet, where they are now outnumbered by Chinese immigrants, and another 150,000 Tibetans in exile, the vast majority in India where they have refugee status.
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