For two decades, the Tibetan struggle against China has been defined by the Dalai Lama‘s measured path of compromise. Now, that path could be abandoned for the long-held but unlikely dream of independence.
More than 500 Tibetan exile leaders opened weeklong discussions Monday, the first major re-evaluation of their strategy since the Dalai Lama in 1988 outlined his Nobel Peace Prize-winning “middle way,” which pushes for autonomy but not outright independence for the Himalayan region.
The meeting in this northern India hill town, the base of Tibet’s self-proclaimed government-in-exile, was called by the Dalai Lama, the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader. It comes after he expressed frustration over years of fruitless talks with China and follows this spring’s uprising by Tibetans across western China, which was aggressively put down by China.
“The ‘middle way’ approach has failed. It has not produced any results,” said Karma Chophel, speaker of the exile parliament. “In that light, the Tibetan public should come out with an opinion about what to do.”
Chinese forces invaded shortly after the 1949 communist revolution, and the Dalai Lama fled to India in 1959 amid an unsuccessful uprising.
Large numbers of Tibetans remain fervently Buddhist and loyal to the Dalai Lama. If the exiles choose a more confrontational approach, Tibetans living under Chinese rule would bear the brunt of any government response.
Much of the debate is expected to boil down to two main choices: whether to continue pursuing the politics of compromise or to begin a long-shot independence movement - a move almost certain to end talks held intermittently with Beijing since 2002.
Within the two camps, there are a range of possibilities, with various factions urging more protests, angrier protests, more pressure on Western nations and even, in a very small group, a push for sabotage of China’s infrastructure.
Samdhong Rinpoche, the exiles’ prime minister, called for an “open and frank discussion” Monday in a speech to delegates. He said the meeting may not lead to a new approach, and that any new path needs to have “the clear mandate of the people.”
The Dalai Lama was not expected to attend. He said he did not want to tilt the debate.
Any deviation from current policies was almost certain to scuttle the tenuous ties with Beijing, which has long accused the Dalai Lama of fomenting an independence movement.
The Dalai Lama’s envoys to the recent talks with Beijing said Sunday that they had presented China with a detailed plan on how Tibetans could meet their autonomy needs within the framework of China’s constitution.
The plan calls for the protection of the Tibetan language and culture, restrictions on non-Tibetans moving into Tibet, and the rights of Tibetans to create an autonomous government.
But China apparently rejected the plan.
China has dismissed this week’s meeting as meaningless, saying the participants do not represent the views of most Tibetans.
Mr. Chophel, the parliament speaker, said more than 8,000 of 17,000 Tibetans recently surveyed in Tibet said they would follow any decision by the Dalai Lama. More than 5,000 said they wanted Tibetan independence - more than twice the number who wanted to continue with the current approach, he said.
The survey almost certainly was done secretly. There was no way to independently verify the results.