Tibet Movement Confronts Calls for Change

DHARAMSHALA ~ More than 500 leading Tibetan exiles will gather in India next week for a rare meeting that could radically alter the course of their decades-old struggle with Chinese rule in Tibet.

The conclave – the largest of its kind in 60 years – was called by Tibet’s spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, who last month finally, and very publicly, threw in the towel on wringing any concessions from Beijing.

In a move seen by some as an open invitation to those who favor pushing for full Tibetan independence, the Dalai Lama has urged the November 17-22 gathering to consider every aspect of current policy regarding China.

“I think this meeting will prove to be a turning point,” said Sonam Dolkar, a human rights worker with the Gu Chu Sum organization of former Tibetan political prisoners.

“The time has come for the Tibetan people to consider their future and to make a substantive decision on what direction they want the Tibetan movement to take,” Dolkar said.

The Dalai Lama has spent the last two decades of his long exile campaigning for “meaningful autonomy” for his homeland which he fled in 1959 following a failed uprising against Chinese rule.

Many in the exiled community feel that stance and its de facto recognition of Chinese sovereignty has had its day and, in the absence of any tangible progress, should be discarded for an unequivocal pro-independence position.

Next week’s gathering in the northern Indian hill town of Dharamshala has no policy-making power – any recommendations would require the approval of the exiled Tibetan parliament – but it comes as the entire Tibetan movement is at a crossroads.

Firstly, there are growing concerns over the health of the 73-year-old Dalai Lama who some believe is already in semi-retirement.

He still commands vast respect and almost total loyalty, but many Tibetans – including the Dalai Lama himself – acknowledge that their freedom movement must learn to stand on its own.

“We have been relying on him for so long,” said Tenzin Choeying, national director of Students For a Free Tibet.

“The Chinese are just waiting for His Holiness to die because they think that will be the end of the Tibetan movement,” Choeying said.

“We must not fall prey to the same assumption … It is time for the Tibetan community to take responsibility for its future.”

Another factor weighing on the upcoming conclave is the current situation in Tibet.

In March, peaceful protests against Chinese rule in the capital, Lhasa, erupted into violence which spread to other areas of western China with Tibetan populations.

Tibet’s government-in-exile said more than 200 Tibetans were killed in a subsequent Chinese crackdown.

The unrest was cited by some Tibetan groups as further evidence that the Dalai Lama’s “middle path” quest for autonomy was getting nowhere.

In a public address in Dharamshala in October, the Dalai Lama admitted he had given up hope of reaching a compromise with China, and during a visit earlier this month to Japan he went further.

“I have to accept failure,” he told reporters in Tokyo. “Suppression (in Tibet) is increasing and I cannot pretend that everything is OK.”

Acknowledging growing criticism of his middle-path stance, he said there was “no other alternative” but to initiate a policy review at the Dharamshala meeting.

Tibetan groups such as Gu Chu Sum, Students for a Free Tibet and the influential Tibetan Youth Congress all favor independence, but such a shift in policy would be of historic proportions and could cost international support.

Many governments are sympathetic to the Tibetan cause, but none officially challenge China’s sovereignty over Tibet and they would be unwilling to support demands that went beyond autonomy.

“I think a pro-independence stance would play straight into Beijing’s hands,” said Ben Hillman, an expert on China’s Tibet policy at the Australian National University.

“It would allow them to say: ‘See, this is what they were always moving towards,'” Hillman said.

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