Associated Press
Dalai Lama

Dalai Lama’s Conference May Signal an End to Tibet’s Era of Protest

October 29, 2008 06:34 AM
by Josh Katz
Commentators analyze the Dalai Lama’s declaration that he has “given up” on dealing with China, and his decision to call for a meeting of Tibetan exiles.

The Dalai Lama’s Change of Course

The Dalai Lama has arranged a five-day meeting beginning Nov. 17 at which Tibetan exiles will speak about their policy toward China. News of the meeting comes after the Dalai Lama essentially conceded this Saturday that his struggle with China for Tibet’s autonomy is a lost cause, and the Tibetan people should take the task upon themselves.

The focus of the meeting is broad and Karma Choephel, speaker of the Dalai Lama’s “government in exile,” said, “Anything can come up,” the Associated Press reports. He also said the gathering will take place in the north Indian town of Dharamsala, which has been the home of the Dalai Lama since he fled Tibet in 1959. The exiles first established a charter in 1991, and Choephal says that this is the first meeting of its kind since then.

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 new meeting could a signal a change in that tactic, according to the AP. Many younger Tibetan activists who think a more aggressive approach is necessary have opposed the Dalai Lama’s middle path.

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 reports.

Reactions: China comments; what’s next for the Dalai Lama, and for Tibet

In a news conference on Tuesday, Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu said that China has always been open to dialogue with the Dalai Lama. In response to the recent developments, China called upon the Dalai Lama to proceed with talks and “carry out the promises made in July this year,” when China and a representative of the Dalai Lama agreed that the spiritual leader would not incite actions that would disrupt the Beijing Olympic Games, writes state-run Chinese news service Xinhua.

According to Choephel, the Dalai Lama had previously considered himself “semi-retired” but now he is “almost completely retired,” The Independent writes. The article reports that many believe that the Dalai Lama will use the November meeting to “stand down.” Ogyen Trinley Dorje, the 23-year-old spiritual head of the Kagyu order of Tibetan Buddhism, is seen as a possible political heir to the Dalai Lama.

Opinion & Analysis: The Dalai Lama’s decision

The Taipei Times of Taiwan has an editorial acknowledging the Dalai Lama’s frustration and expresses 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 argues 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 states.

John Pomfret of The Washington Post reiterates 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 argues 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 claims. This is what China wants, Pomfret claims, 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 claims, in a Time magazine article, that the recent events can 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 takes 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 writes. It does “help to push Tibet back into the spotlight. Post-Olympics, many Tibetans feel forgotten.” But at the same time, the BBC claims 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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