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Young Tibetans question path of nonviolence

Unrest in Tibet has revealed a generational fault line that is likely to sharpen as Olympics near.

By Jason MotlaghCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / April 1, 2008

Different Perspective: Young Tibetan exiles in Dharamsala, India, waited for a demonstration to begin last month.

Jason Motlagh

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Dharamsala, India

Jigshe Tsering spends nearly every day inside a wire enclosure outside the Dalai Lama's residence. Like most of his fellow student hunger-strikers, who have vowed to remain inside their mock cages until China eases its crackdown, he fled Tibet hoping to find a better life close to the man who has long stood as the bulwark of Tibetan identity.

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But grim reports of China's hard line against antigovernment protests that began there in March – illustrated by the poster-sized images of those allegedly killed or maimed by state forces that decorate town walls – have eroded his support for the spiritual leader's nonviolent strategy.

"We are always waiting and nothing has changed in Tibet," he says. "I want peace, but when you are pushed so much, you finally strike back."

The unrest in Tibet has revealed a generational fault line within the Tibetan community – one that is likely to sharpen as the Olympics draw closer. While they affirm their respect for the Dalai Lama as a religious figure, many Tibetans say they have lost faith in his "Middle Way" of coexistence to achieve political autonomy. Impatient with the approach that has brought their cause global sympathy – and little change on the ground, young activists say they are willing to consider a much broader array of actions to press their cause.

"The middle way has been in existence for 20 years and nothing has come out of it," Tsewang Rigzin, president of the Tibetan Youth Congress, recently told reporters.

The Tibetan Youth Congress was formed in 1970 with the Dalai Lama's blessing. Today, it claims to have more than 30,000 active members and is one of several nongovernmental organizations that openly disagree with him, preferring radical tactics to dialogue in its drive for a separate state.

So far, this has included staging hunger strikes outside foreign embassies, a mass march back to Tibet, and a torch run that kicked off over the weekend to raise support for a global boycott of the Olympic Games slated for August in Beijing. Monday, police in Kathmandu, Nepal, beat back pro-Tibet protesters and detained nearly 300 after they attempted to storm a Chinese consular office.

Even bolder stunts are promised as the real torch makes its way up Mt. Everest and through the Tibetan capital of Lhasa in the weeks ahead.

China has angrily accused the Dalai Lama of planning and fomenting the recent anti-Chinese protests ahead of the Games. The Dalai Lama has denied this, offering to talk with Chinese officials and asking them to allow international observers into Tibet. A number of foreign leaders have also asked the Chinese to meet with the Dalai Lama.

But the confrontational tactics of Tibet activists have chafed at the moral authority of the Dalai Lama, who has repeatedly called on Tibetans to show restraint and announced he would step down if his followers embraced violence, which he has likened to "suicide" for the Tibetan cause.

Yet the Dalai Lama has stopped short of criticizing groups like the Tibetan Youth Congress, saying that debate helps foster a sense of democracy in the community.

One fundamental difference may prove troublesome, though: Mr. Rigzin's Youth Congress has refused to rule out violent struggle if, he said, Chinese repression does not stop.

"Our struggle has been nonviolent so far," he says, adding that violence is not his organization's position "right now."

A shift in that direction would undercut the Nobel Peace Prize winner, who has campaigned around the world on a platform of nonviolence since he fled Tibet in 1959, eight years after it came under Chinese control. He was followed by some 100,000 Tibetans, most of whom resettled in India, with the exception of a breakaway group that initiated a guerrilla campaign from Nepal that dried up in the mid-1970s.