Sunday, November 23, 2008

Tibetan exiles at a crossroads

Tibetan exiles at the Tsuglakhang temple in Dharmsala, India, 23 Nov 2008
Delegates backed the Dalai Lama's policy of autonomy after a week of meetings

By Chris Morris
BBC News, Dharamsala

The Dalai Lama's temple compound in the foothills of the Himalayas was an appropriate setting for the final session of this week's meetings.

The Tibetan exile community may not agree on everything, but there's no doubt that they continue to revere the Dalai Lama as their spiritual and political leader.

His policy of non-violence was unanimously endorsed.

"The first and foremost thing is that we've been able to convey the message to the Chinese government," said Tsering Norzung, one of the hundreds of delegates who had travelled here from around the world.

"His Holiness the Dalai Lama is the supreme leader of the Tibetan people."

The delegates sat and listened with rapt attention as the Dalai Lama addressed them at length.

The Dalai Lama talks to the press in Dharmsala, India, 23 Nov 2008
My faith in the Chinese people has never been shaken. People are always there, but sometimes governments change
Dalai Lama
Tibet's spiritual leader

He said he was pleased that so many different views had been expressed during the week, but when asked for his own opinion at a press conference he was suitably enigmatic.

"Wait for a month," he declared.

He also emphasised several times the need for greater contacts with ordinary people inside China.

Quite how that might happen remains a mystery, but the Dalai Lama insisted that most Chinese can't be held responsible for what he called the use of fear and brutal repression in Tibet itself.

"My faith in the Chinese people has never been shaken," he stressed. "In any dialogue there are two levels - dialogue with the government and dialogue with the people."

"People are always there," he said, "but sometimes governments change and certainly leaderships change."

So from his hilltop retreat in India the Dalai Lama is hoping for change in China.

Perhaps he knows that that could have far more influence on events in Tibet than anything the exile community can do.

But how long will people be prepared to wait?

New urgency

There's no sign at all of the current Chinese leadership making any concessions on Tibet, and that's why many Tibetans are frustrated - the Dalai Lama included.

Delegates attend the meeting in Dharmsala, India, 22 Nov 2008
The Dalai Lama warned against radical options raised for the first time

The majority view during these meetings was that efforts to negotiate with China on greater autonomy - the Middle Way Approach - should continue.

But for the first time other, more radical options have been given a formal hearing.

"This time what has changed is that we have adopted independence as the alternative," said Tenzin Tsundue, a prominent Tibetan activist. "We are going to give a short period of time for China to respond appropriately."

But that's not something with which the Dalai Lama appears to agree.

He warned the delegates that if they were not careful about their plans for the next 20 years, the Tibetan community would face great danger, and the possibility of failure.

One of the reasons he called for Tibetans from around the world to gather here may have been to foster a new sense of unity among them.

For now he seems to have succeeded. But many exile leaders accept that their movement has come to something of a crossroads.

The 14th Dalai Lama, widely known and respected as a Nobel peace laureate, is 73 years old and he won't be around for ever.

"It is my moral responsibility until my death to work for the Tibetan cause," he said.

But he's trying to prepare his people for what could be a complex transition.


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