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Dalai Lama 'helpless' amid protests

As Tibetans make their most forceful demands for independence in years, their spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, in exile in Dharamsala, India, outlines his concerns to the BBC's Chris Morris.

Dalai Lama, 16/03/08
The Dalai Lama says he does not control the Tibetan people

"Am I early?" asked the Dalai Lama, as he ambled into the room. He sat down and coughed, and thanked us for coming.

"This is a critical time for us," he said, as he waited for the interview to begin.

He compared it to 1959, an iconic date for many Tibetans, when a huge uprising against Chinese rule was suppressed, and the Dalai Lama himself was forced to flee into exile on horseback.

Eventually, he made his home here, in the foothills of the Indian Himalayas, in this small town which is known to some as Little Lhasa.

It is awash with thousands of Tibetan activists-in-exile. As unrest in Tibet itself has escalated, there have been daily protests in Dharamsala throughout the week.

Cars waving Tibetan flags weave through the pedestrian traffic, leaflets are pressed into passing hands, and a hunger strike is taking place outside the entrance to the Dalai Lama's temple.

I'm a spokesman for the Tibetan people, not the controller, not the master
Dalai Lama
And when the sun sinks below the mountain range, marchers - chanting Buddhist prayers for the souls of the dead - walk through the streets carrying candles.

"We have to do our bit," said one of the marchers, who gave his name as Tenzin. "We have to support those who are struggling in Tibet itself, in our homeland."

Emerging patience

But beyond the slogans there is not much that most people here can do except watch and wait, as accurate information about what is happening in Tibet becomes harder to find.

Many of the activists take a more radical line than the Dalai Lama himself. For years now he has campaigned for genuine autonomy in Tibet, not for independence. But a new generation seems increasingly impatient with nuanced diplomacy.

Buddhist nuns and monks in Dharamsala, 16/03/08
Dharamsala is now home to many Buddhist nuns and monks

"I've already received a request from Tibet," he said. "Don't ask for the demonstrations to stop."

"I'm a spokesman for the Tibetan people, not the controller, not the master. It's a peoples' movement, so it's up to them. Whatever they do, I have to act accordingly."

Tibet's spiritual leader is also appealing to the Chinese authorities. "Stability is important" is his message - but it must come from the heart, not simply from the use of physical force.

There is not much sign, though, that Beijing is listening.

"Of course I feel helpless," the Dalai Lama admitted. He is particularly worried about the deadline given by China, for protestors to surrender by midnight on Monday (1600GMT) or face the consequences.

China angered

But the one thing Tibet's spiritual leader does have - here and around the world - is moral authority.

That is why President Bush met him in Washington recently, where the Dalai Lama was presented with the Congressional Gold Medal, America's highest civilian honour.

It infuriates China, but it is something that the authorities in Beijing cannot control.

And even if this spate of demonstrations peters out, even if they are successfully suppressed, it seems unlikely that we will have heard the last of the Tibetan issue in this Olympic year.


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Dalai Lama on the 'tense' situation in Tibet



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