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In exile 50 years, will the Dalai Lama ever return to Tibet?

China says keep out; the leader fears the Tibet tinderbox will again catch fire.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / March 10, 2009

More police: China on Monday widened its security lockdown in heavily Tibetan areas.

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Half a century after the Dalai Lama fled Tibet after a failed uprising against the Chinese, the question of whether he will ever return is growing increasingly urgent.

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In Tibet itself, "strong pressure is building, more than at any time previously, for him to be allowed to come back," says Robbie Barnett, a Tibet expert at Columbia University in New York.

The Dalai Lama, however, considers his return as "the least important question," says Pico Iyer, who recently published a book based on a series of conversations with the Tibetan leader. "He says that his only real concern is the welfare of the 6 million Tibetans."

Either way, on Monday, the day before Tibetans worldwide mark the anniversary of his flight, Tibetan monks in the Indian town of Dharamsala, home of the Tibetan "government-in-exile," led "long life prayers" for the Dalai Lama, who turns 74 in July.

In a bid to forestall protests marking the anniversary, the Chinese government has blanketed Tibet and neighboring Tibetan-inhabited areas with Army and police forces, according to reports by local residents. The authorities say they are determined to prevent a repetition of the unrest that spread widely across the Tibetan plateau a year ago this week.

The heavy security presence, and the ban on foreigners entering Tibet or neighboring provinces that has been in force for several weeks, according to travel agents, cast doubt on Chinese claims that ethnic tensions are not high. In addition, two police cars were damaged by explosive devices Monday in the heavily Tibetan western district of Qinghai Province, the official Xinhua news agency reported.

"The stringent security indicates a failure of Chinese policy on Tibet," argues Kate Saunders, spokeswoman for the International Campaign for Tibet (ICT), which advocates greater freedom for Tibetans.

Meanwhile, the Dalai Lama has himself acknowledged the "failure" of his own policy of talks with Beijing that have yielded no results. "Our approach never affects the inside situation" he told reporters in Japan last November. "Things are not going well."

The perspectives expressed by the Dalai Lama and Chinese officials on Tibet could not clash more directly. The man who acts as his people's spiritual and political leader talks of "cultural genocide" by the Chinese, and warns that Tibet's "ancient culture and ancient civilization are now dying."