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OPINION: History's long end game in Tibet

November 19, 2008

Martin Regg Cohn
The Toronto Star (Canada)
November 18, 2008

The Dalai Lama is more than ever a man in a hurry. At 73 he leads a
people who, like him, are running out of time. And patience. And options.

His mantra of the "Middle Path" has become a dead end. Talking with
Beijing turned into name-calling this month as negotiations reached
the end game.

This week, hundreds of Tibetan delegates are meeting for a
post-mortem on the Dalai Lama's path to autonomy, the middle way
between independence and assimilation. By his own admission it has
brought Tibetans nowhere, which means they are losing ground.

They have converged on Dharamsala, the hill town in India that has
hosted his government-in-exile since 1959. Even for a reincarnated
god-king, 1959 seems like many lifetimes ago – a time when Jawaharlal
Nehru was prime minister of India and granted him sanctuary after he
fled the depredations of China's Great Helmsman, Mao Zedong.

Nearly a half-century later, the campaign for an autonomous Tibet
remains on life support. And as the Dalai Lama grows older and
frailer, he is painfully aware that the prospects for Tibet's rebirth
grow dimmer.

Now Tibetan delegates are talking about the alternatives, and there
are no good options: If not autonomy, what? If not by negotiating
with China, how? And after the 14th Dalai Lama, who? How will the
15th be chosen, if not by the traditional selection of a reincarnated
boy god-king in Chinese-controlled territory?

When I interviewed the Dalai Lama in his heavily guarded residence a
few years ago, he peppered me with questions about my own recent trip
to Tibet, a land he is unlikely ever to see again. He fretted about
the silent "cultural genocide" that brought hundreds of thousands of
Han Chinese settlers into Tibet, overwhelming his people.

"The Tibetan nation is dying, so therefore we need (an) immediate
future," he warned in an emotional burst of his staccato English. "We
have to do something now!"

China has since completed a railway linking Lhasa with Beijing,
bringing 4 million new Han Chinese settlers every year, making Tibet
even more of an economic colony and cultural relic.

And so Tibetans continue their meetings today in Dharamsala, the
Dalai Lama's home away from his homeland. His sine qua non is
non-violence. But many in the younger generation are impatiently
calling for outright independence – a path the Dalai Lama turned away
from nearly 30 years ago when he accepted Beijing's offer of dialogue.

In their latest meetings this month, the Tibetans presented a
detailed written plan for autonomy. Last week, the Chinese rejected
it by publicly denouncing the Dalai Lama with a ferocity and finality
that went beyond their perennial name-calling.

The Middle Path has left his people high and dry in Tibet, the roof
of the world.

China's strategy all these years has been to keep talking until the
Dalai Lama dropped dead. Time is on their side. After the Dalai Lama
is gone, Western fascination with Tibetan culture will wane as the
mainland's economic appeal soars.

The Olympics have come and gone, so why would the Commun-ist party
led by Hu Jintao -- who served as governor of restive Tibet at the
time of the Tiananmen massacre – permit an autonomous Tibetan entity
that it considers a Trojan Horse? From the ruling party's point of
view there is little upside, only downside. Hu is intent on
outlasting the Dalai Lama. And likely will.

China's calculation is almost certainly right. And yet at the same
time -- that is to say, over the long term -- wrong.

History takes strange turns. For Tibet, the turning point will not be
the Dalai Lama's passing, but the death of the Communist party,
whenever that day comes. Be it a decade from now or even longer,
there is every reason to believe a democratic China, a nation more
tolerant of spirituality and ethnicity, will embrace Tibetan culture.
And belatedly grant it special status.

The question is, how much of Tibet will have died off before it is reborn?

Martin Regg Cohn, a long-time foreign correspondent, is deputy
editorial page editor. His column appears Tuesday.
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