Page last updated at 00:09 GMT, Monday, 17 November 2008

Crunch time for Tibetan cause

By Penny Spiller
BBC News

As many as 500 exiled Tibetan leaders are meeting in the Indian hill town of Dharmsala this week to discuss the future of their fight for their homeland.

Dalai Lama
The Dalai Lama wants the Tibetan people to decide strategy

It is a critical time, as they face up to the fact that their decades-long call for "meaningful autonomy" for Tibet has pretty much fallen on deaf ears in China.

Last month, Tibet's spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, said he was losing hope that his deliberately moderate "middle path" policy with Beijing - seeking autonomy but not full independence - would yield results.

He has now called together Tibetans from around the world to spend the next six days discussing what they do next.

The "brain-storming session" could lead to a more hard-line strategy, Tsering Tashi, the Dalai Lama's representative in London, admits.

"It's possible they will push for outright independence," he told the BBC. "Tibetans have a right to independence. Our history is evidence of that."

But one aspect will not change, he stressed.

"The Tibetan struggle will not want to take a violent stance."

'Hot debate'

The meeting comes at a time of crisis for the exiled Tibetans and their leadership, says Tibetan analyst Robert Barnett, of Columbia University in New York.

China's aggressive response to any moves by the Tibetan cause has led to divisions and dissension among the exiles, he says.

We believe times will change, China will change
Tsering Palden
Tibetan Youth Congress

"China realises it's on a winning streak. The longer it can go on being aggressive, the more the exiles split, the more it produces dissenters and the more the Dalai Lama is pressured to make compromises.

"The best outcome of this meeting, in the short term, is that they overcome the divisions. It will be quite impressive if they produce some unity."

Many Tibetans believe any criticism of the Dalai Lama's strategy is criticism of His Holiness himself.

This has made it difficult for a younger, more activist generation to have their calls for full independence taken seriously.

A police officer stands guard in Lhasa, Tibet, 20/06
China says Tibet was always part of its territory
Tibet enjoyed long periods of autonomy before 20th century
In 1950, China launched a military assault
Opposition to Chinese rule led to a bloody uprising in 1959
Tibet's spiritual leader the Dalai Lama fled to India
Dalai Lama now advocates a "middle way" with Beijing, seeking autonomy but not full independence

The Dalai Lama realises it is time to have that debate, which is why he has removed himself from this meeting, Mr Barnett says.

Tsering Palden, head of the New York branch of the Tibetan Youth Congress, which is pushing for full independence, believes there will be a "hot debate" next week.

"There are some people who blindly believe everything the Dalai Lama says. It's very important during this special meeting to make them aware that the 'middle way' is not working. Then, I think they will agree with us," he said.

"Our strategy is to educate Tibetans around the world, to make them more politically aware and to make sure that our voice continues to be heard on the global stage," he said.

"We know this will take many years, possibly generations, but nothing lasts forever. We believe times will change; China will change. Already we see people in China who are sympathetic to our cause."


Another, perhaps unspoken, issue at the heart of this meeting is the question of a successor to the Dalai Lama.

The Tibetan leader is now 73 and has suffered bouts of ill health. In September, he was hospitalised for four days with stomach pain.

Last year he said he was considering breaking with centuries of tradition by choosing a successor, rather than awaiting rebirth which can take many years.

There is reason for his caution. When he picked a six-year-old boy in 1995 to be the Panchen Lama, the second most important figure in Tibetan Buddhist, Beijing rejected the choice and selected a pro-Chinese replacement.

Robert Barnett says Beijing believes the whole issue of Tibetan independence will disappear once the Dalai Lama dies, taking with him his skilled leadership and ability to court the West.

And, he says, there is a fear his death will lead to a disintegration of Tibetan society - with major unrest inside the region, and radical groups freed from the constraints of non-violence.

Tsering Palden hopes that a possible successor will emerge from next week's meeting.

"The Dalai Lama has a special place in the hearts of every Tibetan. If we can find someone who is endorsed by the Dalai Lama himself, then it will make the transition of leadership, when it happens, easier," he says.

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