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Tibet movement gathers to decide future

November 17, 2008

November 16, 2008

DHARAMSHALA, India (AFP) -- Leading Tibetan exiles gathered in India
on Sunday ahead of a week of discussions that could transform how the
movement pursues its decades-old struggle with Chinese rule in Tibet.

The meeting was called by Tibet's spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama,
who has recently admitted his efforts to secure greater autonomy for
the region through negotiation with the Chinese government have failed.

He has urged the November 17-22 forum to consider every aspect of
current policy regarding China -- an invitation likely to encourage
those Tibetans who favour pushing for full independence.

The meeting will hear "the real opinions and views of the Tibetan
people through free and frank discussions," the Dalai Lama said as
delegates arrived in Dharamashala, the north Indian town where the
government-in-exile is based.

The Nobel peace laureate has spent the last two decades of his 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 should be replaced by a more
aggressive pro-independence position.

The Dalai Lama has increasingly voiced his own frustrations with the
situation, and has said that he has now given up trying to win
concessions from Beijing.

Speaking earlier this month, he said he accepted that his "middle
path" approach, which called for autonomy rather than independence, had failed.

There was now "no other alternative than to ask people" about how to
proceed, he told an audience in Japan.

The meeting that starts on Monday has no policy-making power -- any
recommendations would require the approval of the exiled Tibetan
parliament -- but it comes as the Tibetan movement is being forced to
confront its future.

Among its major concerns is the health of the 73-year-old Dalai Lama,
who had to cancel trips abroad after being hospitalised in August and
undergoing gallstone surgery last month.

He has since returned to his gruelling schedule, and still commands
huge respect from Tibetans and supporters around the world, but he
now describes himself as semi-retired.

The speaker of the Tibetan parliament in exile, T.T. Karma Chophel,
said the Dalai Lama's age was one key reason for the policy review session.

"His Holiness is getting older, and we do not deny that this has
brought an urgency to the situation," Chophel told AFP.

"His talks with China have come to a dead end, and restlessness is
growing among the young."

The meeting is also likely to focus on the situation inside Tibet.

In March, 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 the subsequent Chinese crackdown.

The unrest was cited by some Tibetans as further evidence that the
Dalai Lama's quest for autonomy was ineffective.

Tibetan groups such as Students for a Free Tibet, the Gu Chu Sum
organisation of former Tibetan political prisoners, and the
influential Tibetan Youth Congress all favour independence.

But any such policy change would threaten to fragment the Tibetan
movement and cost it much of its international support.

A Chinese government spokesman dismissed the Dharamshala talks,
saying that "the people planning or attending this meeting do not
represent the majority of the Chinese people. Their separatist
attempts will get nowhere."

The Dalai Lama will not attend the discussions in an attempt to
ensure that its decisions are independent of his own views, officials say.

The prime minister-in-exile Samdhong Rinpoche, who will be present,
said the push for independence would be "very much open to discussion."

"This event is for us to get the views of the people. We will be
playing the role of listener," he said.
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