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"As long as human rights are violated, there can be no foundation for peace. How can peace grow where speaking the truth is itself a crime?"

A Generation Gap in Tibet's Royal Family

November 24, 2008

By Jyoti Thottam
November 21, 2008

Dharamsala, Nov. 21 -- "I was seven years old in 1959, and I was
studying in Darjeeling," recalls Khedroop Thondop. "One day my
teachers told me that I was to go and receive someone at the train
station. That's when I realized that I was related to His Holiness
and that I was Tibetan."

As the Dalai Lama's nephew, the eldest son of the Tibetan spiritual
leader's eldest brother, Thondop, now 56, has already led an
extraordinary life. He was born in Calcutta, where his father, a
political leader in the Tibetan government, had been posted. He went
to the elite St. Stephen's College in New Delhi, got an MBA in the
United States, ran a family business for several years in New York
City, and then returned to India in 1977 to serve as his uncle's
special assistant. Two years later, he went to Beijing for Tibet's
first negotiations with China, taking notes on the meetings between
his father and Chinese supreme authority at the time, Deng Xiaoping.
For the last 21 years, he has run a center for Tibetan refugees in
Darjeeling and has served three terms in the Tibetan parliament-in-exile.

But perhaps the most extraordinary turn has been his recent
conversion to the cause of full independence for Tibet — standing
apart from both his father and the Dalai Lama. Thirty years of
negotiation have been fruitless, he says, and China has not made any
effort to acknowledge the demands of the Tibetan people for autonomy.
"There is a generation's difference between my father and myself," he
says. His father is an old-school diplomat, while Thondop isn't shy
about openly criticizing the current Chinese leadership. He calls
them "a bunch of cheats and liars" for denying that Deng was willing
to put everything on the table except independence in those first
negotiations. "I just can't forgive them," Thondop says. "We Tibetans
will never be able to live under China." (See pictures of Tibet Under
Chinese Rule.)

At this week's summit of Tibetan exiles, Thondop, a member of Tibet's
"royal family", as one young admirer described him, has become a
symbol of a generational shift among Tibetans toward support of a
free Tibet. "He was there in the beginning," says Tenzin Tsundu, a
pro-independence activist. "To hear his voice say that, it's a very
emotional thing."

No one is expecting the 130,000 Tibetans in exile, or the 5.5 million
in Tibet, to suddenly shift course away from the official position:
the so-called Middle Path of negotiating for genuine autonomy while
remaining part of China. Talking about independence can be taken as
an implicit criticism of the Dalai Lama and thus considered taboo
among many Tibetans, but this week's talks have brought those views
into the mainstream. Leaders of the main pro-independence activist
groups were invited to be among the 550 delegates, and their opinions
will be incorporated into its final report. "Overall it was a very
frank discussion," says Tenzin Choeying, president of Students for a
Free Tibet.

Still, in conversations with the young activists during a break in
today's proceedings, it was hard not to notice their disappointment.
As the delegates' working groups presented their reports publicly, it
quickly became clear that those supporting independence were still a
small minority — about 20%, according to Thondop's own estimate.
"People who speak for independence, there are not many," says Tsundu,
whose red headband and fiery rhetoric has made him a minor celebrity
among the activists here. He complained that the meeting itself was
weighted toward the old guard, because most of the invitees were
formally elected, not grass-roots leaders. "There is a huge
discrepancy in the way the meeting was called," he says.

The best hope of the independence activists may be to try to
influence the strategies of negotiation rather than call for a
wholesale change in policy. "We have realized that in the area of
non-violence, we have used only 45 methods, but there are 200,"
Choeying says. "Within Middle Path there can be confrontation." Even
among those who support independence, there is some skepticism about
whether pushing for it now would be wise. "I'm divided," says Tenzin
Choegyal, a delegate from Brisbane, Australia. "I'm a youth who's for
independence, but looking at the path that we should take. The
realistic approach is better. The nations that have fought for their
independence, they have shed a lot of blood, and we don't want that."

Thondop says he understands the impatience and ambivalence. But he
counsels for the long view. "Do not think of what you're going to get
right here," he says. "What you may get now may not be good enough
for future generations."
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