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Dalai Lama at critical crossroads

By Zoe Murphy
BBC News

The Dalai Lama makes his anniversary address in Dharamsala (10 March)
The Dalai Lama's anniversary speech was a scathing attack on Chinese rule

Five decades in exile and years of denigration by Beijing have failed to weaken the Dalai Lama's influence over Tibetans in his homeland and beyond.

The Tibetan spiritual leader's unwavering commitment to non-violence has also earned the world's respect. But the long conflict over the status of Tibet has hit a critical juncture.

The Dalai Lama has, so far, met with failure in his negotiations with the Chinese, and he is facing growing criticism from supporters, frustrated by this political impotence.

Many Tibetans have long felt unease over the "Middle Way Approach" - offering to accept Chinese sovereignty in Tibet in return for genuine autonomy - which he has advocated since 1988.

At the latest round of stop-start talks with Beijing last November, China seemed to harden its position, and condemned the Tibetans' proposals as a bid for "disguised independence".

THE TIBET DIVIDE
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 independence

China says its troops freed Tibetans from effective slavery in a feudal society. It says it has developed Tibet's economy and improved both human rights and living conditions.

It accuses the Dalai Lama of plotting to separate Tibet from the motherland, and of fomenting unrest.

Beijing's intransigence has led the Dalai Lama to declare his conciliation efforts a failure.

Although most Tibetans approve of his leadership, this public acknowledgement seems to have galvanised some exiles - of whom there are an estimated 150,000 - to call for a tougher line.

"There are no options left for the Dalai Lama - he should revert to what the Tibetans were originally calling for which was the struggle for independence," says veteran Tibetan activist and blogger Jamyang Norbu.

He blames the Dalai Lama's "political naivety" for his failure to extract a single concession from China.

"All these overtures made by the Chinese for Tibetans to come and sit at the negotiating table were essentially a Chinese trap - they were playing the Dalai Lama the whole way.

"If His Holiness sticks to the idea that he can resurrect some kind of discussion with China, I think his legacy is going to be considered a failure by Tibetans."

Many of the younger generation - who have never known a free Tibet - believe the Dalai Lama's policy of low-key diplomacy has failed.

Chinese paramilitary police patrol Lhasa, the capital of Tibet (9 March)
China is confident in its military might to crush any Tibetan uprising
The Tibetan Youth Congress (TYC), an independence-seeking group of some 30,000 members, says there is growing frustration among its ranks.

Vice-President Dhondup Dorjee points to last year's deadly anti-Chinese protests in Tibet and other ethnic Tibetan regions of China - the worst unrest there for 20 years.

He says the uprising was proof that Tibetan youths are willing to sacrifice their lives for the "Tibetan cause".

The TYC does not state violence as an option for achieving its aims, rather young Tibetans at home and abroad are continuing a campaign of civil disobedience, says Mr Dorjee.

But despite their different political goals, the Dalai Lama still commands huge respect as their spiritual leader, he says.

"In a democratic set-up he encourages people and organisations to have a difference of opinion.

"He's never questioned the right of the Tibetan people to fight for independence," says the youth leader, adding that the Dalai Lama is simply trying to find the best solution given the circumstances.

'Cultural genocide'

Fifty years on, the exiled spiritual leader finds himself on the sidelines unable to halt the changes in his homeland which are making the situation in Tibet dangerously volatile.

Dalai Lama framed by the Tibetan flag (file photo)

The Dalai Lama has accused China of "cultural genocide", by seeking to change the ethnic mix of Tibet and erode Tibetan culture, language and religion with a massive influx of ethnic Han Chinese and a system of "patriotic re-education".

Tibet-born historian Tsering Shakya says the problem of Tibet in China concerns the identity and dignity of a people, and the issue will persist until the Tibetans have some satisfaction.

Chinese policy is alienating Tibetans and storing up trouble for the future, he says, but Beijing feels no need to reconsider its stance.

Even if every Tibetan were to take to the streets, China knows it has the military might to crush any uprising, says Mr Shakya, of the University of British Columbia.

The Communist Party also fears any compromise could lead to a domino effect inside China - with disturbances in other ethnic minority areas such as Xinjiang, Inner Mongolia and Gansu.

Meanwhile, Tibet is slipping down the international agenda because leaders do not want to jeopardise economic ties with China, Mr Shakya adds.

Suitable successor?

Tibetans impatient for change face another difficulty: there is no alternative in place to succeed the 73-year-old Dalai Lama, who has been troubled by ill health.

In a speech marking the 50th anniversary of the failed revolt against Chinese rule, the Dalai Lama said it was the responsibility of every Tibetan to "work for the just cause".

DALAI LAMA'S SPEECH

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"As long as I live I will uphold this responsibility," he said from his seat in exile in India's Dharamsala.

The Dalai Lama says he has entered semi-retirement. He has speculated on whether a successor may be re-incarnated outside Tibet, chosen by referendum or whether, as the 14th Dalai Lama, he will be the last.

China has refused to recognise the boy identified by the Dalai Lama as the Panchen Lama - Tibetan Buddhism's second-highest figure - keeping him hidden and appointing its own candidate.

Beijing says it reserves the right to approve incarnations.

What seems certain is that the Tibetan "problem" will not go away - in fact, it is likely to become more acute.

Tibetan activists demonstrate in Washington DC (10 March)
Will the younger generation provide a new symbol of the Tibetan cause?
For all China's accusations against the "wolf in monk's clothing", the Dalai Lama has always maintained that his followers pursue their goals peacefully.

Analysts say China may come to rue the day it declined to co-operate with the Dalai Lama.

"The Dalai Lama has the authority to sell any deal to the Tibetans as the best possible solution. He would also lend international legitimacy to the agreement," says Tsering Shakya.

"Without the Dalai Lama's guidance, Tibetans may take matters into their own hands."

The Dalai Lama has provided the Tibetans with strength and unity, and international exposure of their cause, and many fear his absence.

But veteran activist Jamyang Norbu says: "The Tibetans have far more vitality than given credit for. They will still come out to defy the authorities and pay the price.

"Times are changing, now it's the young people's struggle. We may well see a symbol emerge from a new generation - as long as they are there we're not finished yet."

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