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China Watches as Tibetan Talks Begin

November 19, 2008

By Simon Elegant
November 18, 2008

Beijing -- Discussions began Monday in Dharamsala, India, among
leaders of the Tibetan exile community on the future of their decades
old — and so far utterly fruitless — attempts to get Beijing to give
the region some form of self-rule. The six-day talks, called by the
exiled spiritual leader the Dalai Lama, who lives in Dharamsala, come
at a critical juncture not only for the exiles but for their
compatriots inside China and the officials in Beijing responsible for
administering the region.

There have now been eight rounds of talks between the Dalai Lama's
representatives and Beijing officials on what avenues might be
pursued in reducing the yawning gap between the two sides. The most
recent round ended in Beijing on Nov. 5 in total failure. The
Tibetans said they had presented a memorandum with suggestions on how
autonomy might be structured; the predictable reaction from China was
one of outrage. A week after talks ended, a Chinese spokesman
condemned the Dalai Lama for seeking "disguised independence," and
dredged up old charges about the Tibetan leader's alleged failure to
prevent exile groups from staging protests at the Beijing Olympics
this summer. Beijing's later comments were even more strident, with
one official alleging that the Nobel Peace Prize winner's proposal
for policies favoring Tibetans was a form of ethnic cleansing. After
so many unsuccessful attempts, the Dalai Lama and his advisers had to
have been well aware of what the Chinese reaction would be to their
proposals, especially given the fact that the 73-year-old admitted
shortly before the talks started that he had already "given up" on
persuading Beijing to agree to make any concessions whatsoever.

All this begs the question, then, of what the Dalai Lama hopes to
achieve with this week's congress in Dharamsala, which continues
until Saturday and which he won't attend until its close.
Tibetologists and other analysts say there is a danger that the
radical faction among the exiles, many of them younger members of the
community who have criticized the Dalai Lama's self-described "third
way" of trying to persuade Beijing to change its attitude on Tibet
through negotiation, not independence, could rise to prominence.
After all, as the Dalai Lama's representative Tenzin Taklha told
reporters earlier in November, the consultative meeting would examine
the exile group's approach to achieving their goal of a freer Tibet
from the ground up. "Everything will be on the table," he said,
except the fundamental principle of non-violence. But seeking
independence more aggressively could be a risky strategy — one that
might leave the Dalai Lama pitted against a section of his own people
and severely weakened in the eyes of his Chinese foes.

In fact, the Dalai Lama's chief goal in holding the extraordinary
meeting of exiles is the exact opposite, says Columbia professor and
renowned Tibetologist Robbie Barnett. He says the summit is an
attempt to "reunify all the factions in the Tibetan exile movement"
at a time when it appears to be at its most fragmented. "He's been
criticized strongly in the past for not allowing free discussion.
This is a great way to answer that criticism," Barnett says. He
thinks the likelihood of the more radical voices gaining the upper
hand in the discussions is low. "They are a minority among the exile
community and they are a tiny majority among ordinary Tibetans living
in China, the vast majority of whom will support whatever the Dalai
Lama decides." In fact, reports indicate that the process of
smoothing over divisions is already beginning to happen. "The exiles
at the Dharamsala meeting already received messages from inside Tibet
urging them not to fight among themselves and think about the future," he says.

Having made all possible attempts to negotiate with Beijing and
failed, the Dalai Lama and his supporters need an open reaffirmation
of his "Middle Way" policies to keep the exile community united in
and out of China. But there are also deeper, more long-term motives
lying behind the decision to call this unprecedented meeting. At 73
and not in the best health, the Dalai Lama is keenly aware of his
mortality. Should he die without his succession resolved, there would
almost certainly be an attempt by Beijing to appoint its own Dalai
Lama, just as it did nearly two decades ago in the case of the second
highest ranking monk in the Tibetan hierarchy, the Panchen Lama.
"He's already indicated that he's ready to consider a number of
non-traditional possibilities such as appointing a child successor
now or having a lay person follow him around, or even contemplating
having a woman successor," says Barnett. "This seems to be turning
into the forum where they can discuss issues like that."

Beijing, too, seems well aware of the Dalai Lama's age. In a recent
press conference, a senior official was quoted by official media as
speaking of a "post Dalai Lama era," calling on the leader to
"correct his mistakes and get closer to the central government and do
something beneficial for the people...during the remainder of his
life, no matter if his health condition is good or poor." That would
be consistent with the simple policy many analysts believe the
Chinese have settled on: waiting until the Dalai Lama dies and
refusing to concede anything in the meantime. Still, as strong a hand
as Beijing seems to have, that approach could backfire. "They are
very confident now," Barnett says "and feel that they have the upper
hand. But it's consistent with their behavior in the past that they
may well overplay their hand and make decisions now that help the
Tibetans in the future."
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