Associated Press
Dalai Lama

Dalai Lama Stresses Caution After Tibetan Exiles Meeting

November 24, 2008 10:01 AM
by Josh Katz
The Dalia Lama said that more time is needed to consider severing relations with China, though it's what Tibetan exiles want.

Exiles Come Together For Summit

On Sunday, Nov. 23, the Dalai Lama suggested that it would be hasty to break off relations with China, even though the week-long meeting of Tibetan exiles recommended such a course of action.

"Wait a month" and "then we'll see" whether Tibetans would cut off ties with China, he said.

A summit of Tibetan leaders in Dharmsala, India, which began on Nov. 17, concluded on Nov. 22. Throughout the week, 581 Tibetan exiles from around the world debated how to proceed with their relationship to China. 

The Dalai Lama has long advocated that Tibetans seek a “Middle Way” when dealing with China, by not asking for lofty goals like complete independence, but by seeking increased autonomy instead to protect the distinctive Tibetan culture.

The Dalai Lama, who called for the conference of the world’s 150,000 Tibetan exiles last month, did not participate in the conference all week as he did not want his opinion to influence the outcome. “As a result, the meeting has become a dress rehearsal in democracy as the Tibetans try to formulate a plan without the guidance of ‘His Holiness,’ a man they view as closer to a god than a mere leader,” the Associated Press reports.

The frustration of many Tibetan leaders has reached its boiling point, since China has outright rejected the Dalai Lama’s request for more autonomy. Chinese officials have indicated that they would prefer to wait for the 73-year-old Dalai Lama’s death than come to an agreement with him, according to The New York Times. 

The most extreme idea discussed was independence from China, mainly supported by the younger generation. "I'm looking for complete independence," said a 32-year-old farmer. "We don't need to stay with China." But he went on to say: "if His Holiness goes for 'the middle way' approach, I will support the Dalai Lama."

Tseten Phanucharas of Los Angeles said Tibetan exiles should not launch a campaign to break away from China. "I don't see that we can get the support of the international community for an independent Tibet," she said. "Without that, I don't see how we can achieve it."

The members of the conference had broken off into 15 groups of 40 people each to discuss their thoughts and rejoined on Friday to the share their conclusions.

The government-in-exile also gauged the opinions of Tibetans in Tibet prior to the meeting. According to Reuters India, the results indicated that 5,000 people sought a change to the “Middle Way,” 2,000 said the “Middle Way” should continue, and 8,000 said they favored the path advocated by the Dalai Lama.

Background: The Dalai Lama’s change of course

The Dalai Lama called for this meeting at the end of October, after he essentially conceded that his struggle with China for Tibet’s autonomy was a lost cause, and the Tibetan people should take the task upon themselves.

The spiritual leader made the surprise announcement from Dharamsala on Oct. 25. “I have been sincerely pursuing the middle way approach in dealing with China for a long time now but there hasn’t been any positive response from the Chinese side,” he said. “As far as I’m concerned I have given up,” Time magazine reported.

Opinion & Analysis: The Dalai Lama’s decision

The Taipei Times of Taiwan had an editorial acknowledging the Dalai Lama’s frustration and expressing similar sentiments about Taiwan, a country also under China’s grip. “Peaceful actions are scorned and cited by Beijing as sedition deserving of military retaliation—whether in the form of deploying missiles in the Taiwan Strait or cracking down on Tibetan demonstrations.” The editorial argued that China places the blame on Taiwan for the lack of any progression in talks, when in fact China constistently refuses conversation. “As our own government pursues a dialogue with Beijing, it is unclear why we should expect results that are any better” than the Dalai Lama expects, the editorial stated.

John Pomfret of The Washington Post reiterated the pessimism expressed by the Dalai Lama and the Tapei Times. Speaking of the Dalai Lama’s talks with China over the years, he writes, “at no point was there ever really a sense that the Chinese were sincere in their attempts to solve the Tibetan problem.” He argued that China increased its demands on the Dalai Lama at each meeting, indicating that it never cared to reach an accord with him: “China’s government is waiting for the Dalai Lama who is 73 to die.” The leader’s death would cause the Tibetan movement to divide, and eventually the rest of the world would lose sympathy for the their fight, he claimed. This is what China wants, Pomfret wrote, and “It’s a grim future no matter how you cut it.”

Robbie Barnett, a professor of Tibetan studies at Columbia University in New York City, also argued, in a Time magazine article, that the recent events could benefit the Chinese: “It’s really very serious indeed and a major disappointment, though not so much of a surprise. The Chinese must have know[n] this was coming—some of the responsible officials in fact must be very pleased that they have managed to provoke this reaction. Now they can say that it was the other side that broke off negotiations, and claim the moral high ground.” Barnett went on to say that China took an “aggressive” stance in its talks with the Dalai Lama earlier this year. The “only real surprise is that it took so long,” he claims.

The BBC took a look at what the Dalai Lama’s apparent retreat means and why he may have chosen that path. The spiritual leader may have made his announcement as a “political ploy,” the news service wrote. It does “help to push Tibet back into the spotlight. Post-Olympics, many Tibetans feel forgotten.” But at the same time, the BBC claimed that the exiled government’s cause will undoubtedly be “weakened” without the Dalai Lama’s international persuasion. At the same time, “his absence would also raise the stakes for China. Many see the Dalai Lama as Beijing's best hope—and urge the Chinese to do business with him while they can.”

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