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Tibet exiles decide against seeking independence -- for now

November 24, 2008

They agree to stick with the Dalai Lama's 'middle way,' but say they
will be more confrontational if Beijing doesn't grant Tibet greater
autonomy soon.
By Mark Magnier
Los Angeles Times
November 23, 2008

Reporting from Beijing -- Exiled Tibetans have agreed to continue
with the Dalai Lama's accommodating approach toward China despite
years of frustration and failed talks, their self-declared government
said Saturday.

But for the first time, the exile group said it would pursue
independence if Beijing didn't grant more autonomy soon.

The "middle way" stance that Tibetans have followed for two decades
acknowledges Chinese sovereignty over their homeland amid hope that
they will gain greater say over religious and cultural affairs.

The Dalai Lama, speaking to reporters today, said that total
independence was not practical, his faith in the Chinese government
was waning although his faith in the Chinese people remained strong,
and that he would remain in place.

"There is no point, or question, of retirement," he told a news
conference in the mountainous Indian town of Dharamsala, where he's based.

The decision to maintain the status quo capped six days of talks in
which about 580 exiles from around the world met to confront a
central issue facing the group.

The Dalai Lama, the exiled spiritual leader, is 73 and slowing down,
as highlighted by a recent hospital stay for gallstone surgery.
China, meanwhile, is getting stronger as its military, political and
economic clout expands at home and abroad.

"Aside from the decision to continue with the middle-way approach, in
a lot of other ways we suggested how to be less conciliatory toward
the Chinese government," Tenzin Dorjee, a delegate to the meeting,
said Saturday by telephone from Dharamsala.

"It's significant that we'll continue the middle way for a defined
amount of time, maybe two or three years," added Dorjee, the New
York-based deputy director of the Students for a Free Tibet.

The Chinese military marched into Tibet in 1951, shortly after
Communists gained control of China. Since then, Beijing has
maintained tight control over ethnic Tibetan areas, seen most
recently in the crackdown that has followed widespread riots in March.

Though the Dalai Lama called for a full airing of views at the
meeting, analysts and delegates said the outcome was almost a
foregone conclusion, aimed more at reaffirming support than finding a
new direction.

At the same time, even those closest to the leader acknowledge
growing frustration, with some seeing the beginning of a course correction.

Dolma Gyari, deputy speaker of the Tibetan parliament in exile, told
reporters that the group would not pursue a conciliatory line
indefinitely, and that it was halting talks with Beijing, according
to the Associated Press.

The meeting sent a strong message to the Chinese, said Kate Saunders,
communications director for the International Campaign for Tibet. In
particular, she said, many expressed anger over China's long-standing
attempts to drive a wedge between Tibetans and their leader.

"So the approach by China, to undermine the Dalai Lama, is having the
opposite effect," she said. "The specter of independence is very much there."

Whether China cares is another question. Some Chinese acknowledge
quietly that they've failed to win over many Tibetans despite a
massive, decades-long spending campaign on roads, schools, railroads
and other infrastructure and untold hours of "patriotic education"
sessions designed to bind people to Beijing. But that viewpoint is
difficult to express openly, given the current mantra to be tough.

"The China side is hobbled by internal contradictions," said Robert
Barnett, a professor of Tibetan studies at Columbia University.

"More reasonable voices are sidelined because of the riots, bringing
to the fore the hard-line view that if you give them an inch, they
riot, so we must control them," he said.

Longer term, however, the hard-line tactics may be unsustainable, he
said. Keeping nearly one-third of your country's landmass under
intensive restrictions isn't consistent with being an emerging global player.

"It would be as if all of Texas and most of the South were
off-limits," Barnett said. "You can't make it on the international
stage with that sort of arrangement."

Magnier is a Times staff writer.

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