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Opinion: He Has Got It Wrong

November 30, 2008

Times of India
November 28, 2008
By Eliot Sperling

Bloomington: In the end, China was right. It is all about the Dalai
Lama. Following a week-long "special meeting" to discuss the future
of the Tibetan movement, delegates from various points in the Tibetan
exile world agreed, more or less, to continue with the Dalai Lama's
30-year-old policy of accepting Tibet's place as a part of China
while seeking greater autonomy within the Chinese state. One says
"more or less" because reports have emerged that the meeting was
weighted against those groups most obviously dissatisfied with the policy.

It was not the policy that sold itself but the person from whom it
emanates. China has long placed the Dalai Lama's status at the centre
of its negotiation stance, offering him a nominal position should he
return. And while the Dalai Lama has repeatedly stated that the Tibet
issue is not about him but about all Tibetans, the end result of the
special meeting bears out China's stance: in spite of his democratic
rhetoric, the Dalai Lama has never empowered Tibetans to feel
comfortable taking stands at variance with him. Accusations of
disloyalty to the Dalai Lama remain a weapon in political and
personal feuds in Dharamsala.

But several weeks before the meeting the Dalai Lama stated that he
was losing faith in China, and many Tibetan exiles energetically
responded with calls, not for violence, but to make Tibet's
independence once more the official Tibetan position. They certainly
felt there was good reason for concluding that negotiations with
China had reached a dead end and that the Tibetans should minimally
reclaim the legitimacy that their cause had lost through years of the
Dalai Lama asserting (often at China's prodding) that Tibet should
not be independent and that it was to Tibet's benefit to be a part of
China. As far as the advocates for Tibet's independence are
concerned, those benefits had been on ample display in Tibet during
March and April.

In 2002, following a decade without direct talks, Dharamsala once
more began sending delegations to Beijing to discuss the Tibet issue.
Periodically the Tibetan representatives delivered cautious
assessments, citing the positive steps taken by both sides to better
understand each other's position. For many observers, however, it
seemed clear that these talks were never meant to go anywhere. They
were, rather, devices for marking time while China waited for the
Dalai Lama to pass away. The talks also provided a convenient display
of engagement at times when it was expedient to deflect international
concern over China's policies and human rights violations in Tibet.

That China was uninterested in reaching an arrangement with the Dalai
Lama became obvious before discussions began. But after the latest
round concluded earlier this month their futility was obvious. The
perennial Tibetan delegates, Lodi Gyari and Kelsang Gyaltsen,
returned to India, vowing to make no statement before the special
meeting. But there was no need for them to speak. Within days, Zhu
Weiqun and Sithar, their Chinese counterparts in the meetings, held a
press conference and bluntly said the talks had gone nowhere. They
rejected any compromise with the Dalai Lama on any of his proposals
about the nature of autonomy within Tibet and stated that, while the
door was open for him to return, he must reflect on his mistakes "and
return to the correct and patriotic stance". And so, after almost 30
years of contacts China signalled that they had never advanced beyond
square one. It's only about the Dalai Lama; otherwise there is no
Tibetan issue. And the signals were given without any attempt to
disguise China's awareness of holding the upper hand: having
successfully staged the 2008 Olympics and poised now for a major role
in addressing the global financial crisis, China thumbed its nose at
the Tibetan delegates who returned to India in silent embarrassment
while Chinese officials let the global media in on the failed discussions.

Naivete has marked the Dalai Lama's dealings with China. At China's
insistence he long ago repudiated Tibetan independence,
delegitimising the concept in a way no Chinese leader could ever do.
But he has yet to understand that he was willingly led to a dead end.
Under present-day conditions, it is unlikely that demands for Tibetan
independence would have brought the movement any closer to a
resolution of the issue. But they could not have left Tibetans in a
weaker position than they are now in; indeed, the international taint
that attached to China's possession of Tibet would have remained an advantage.

The Dalai Lama has helped remove that taint and now, after the
special meeting, he remains the arbiter of the Tibetan position.
Noticeably gloomy, he opined a few days ago that at least he still
has faith in the Chinese people. One must ask whether he is aware of
the vast groundswell of popular Chinese antipathy to Tibetans that
came in the wake of the March events. In the 1990s he was in the
habit of referring to Deng Xiaoping as his old friend. If Deng knew
of this, he must have been bemused (or baffled) by such professions
of friendship. Throughout the abortive negotiation process the Dalai
Lama would seem to have been similarly speaking to imaginary friends,
something most people stop doing at around age five.

* The writer teaches Tibetan history at Indiana University.
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