Patience Of Tibetans Wears Thin

Exile's suicide last week reflects growing discontent with Dalai Lama's approach.

As Thupten Ngodup watched the first three Tibetan hunger strikers being taken away under cover of darkness, he decided there was only one way to fight back.

So as Indian riot police surrounded their camp in New Delhi at dawn the next day to pick up the three remaining protesters, the former monk poured kerosene over himself, struck a match, and walked out from behind a banner demanding independence for Tibet.

Mr. Ngodup died two days later on April 29. But his actions, like those of the hunger strikers, reflect the growing frustration among India's Tibetan exile community with the lack of progress in their struggle for independence almost 50 years after China occupied their kingdom in the Himalayas.

Despite spending nearly 40 years in exile, the Dalai Lama remains the undisputed symbol of the Tibetan exile movement. But more and more exiles are beginning to question his authority as the political leader of their struggle. "There is a stagnation in the Tibetan struggle caused by indecision on the part of the leadership and a lack of political will to take the necessary steps to achieve results," says Lhasang Tsering, former president of the Tibetan Youth Congress.

The nongovernmental organization is dedicated to total independence.

Mr. Tsering, who in the early 1970s joined a CIA-backed guerrilla force to fight against the Chinese occupation of Tibet, is one of the most vocal critics of the government-in-exile, which is based in the northern Indian town of Dharmsala. "If a small mouse is cornered by a big hungry cat, what should it do? Shut its eyes and hope the cat won't eat him, or make a dash for it even if it has only the slightest chance of escape?"

Demands not met

The hunger strikers, who had gone seven weeks without food, had called on the United Nations to debate the Tibetan issue and appoint a special rapporteur on human rights.

While their demands have not been met, they have focused attention on their cause at a time when the issue is being hyped by Hollywood in movies such as "Seven Years in Tibet" and "Kundun."

In Dharmsala, where the Tibetan spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, has single-handedly guided the political struggle on behalf of the 6 million Tibetans living under Chinese rule, people are questioning the traditional wisdom on how to gain freedom for their homeland. "The hunger strike is making people talk. It is inspiring a nationalist feeling and is giving everyone a boost," says Tenzin Chokey of the Tibetan Center for Human Rights and Democracy.

The groundswell of sympathy for the hunger strikers has even reached the Dalai Lama's office, which looks out over the Himalayan range beyond which lies the Land of Snows, as Tibet is often called.

A dilemma for Dalai Lama

Although the Nobel Laureate has said that hunger strikes and self-immolation are harmful to oneself and therefore constitute an act of violence, he has stopped short of calling for an end to the protest.

"My middle approach up to now in certain fields has brought no results, so they are trying to bring some more notice to this to everyone including the Chinese government," the Dalai Lama said after meeting a group of recent escapees from Tibet. "Therefore I felt if I stop them I have to offer some other kind of alternative. But that is not there unfortunately. I myself am in a state of dilemma over what to do and I frankly told them I am confused now."

Dealing with China

For the man who was enthroned at the age of 4 as the undisputed spiritual leader of 6 million Tibetans, such admissions of failure might come as a surprise. In the 39 years that have elapsed since he fled the capital, Lhasa, after an abortive uprising against the Chinese, the Dalai Lama has failed to obtain any concessions from Beijing despite his willingness to sacrifice the goal of independence for genuine autonomy.

Now the Dalai Lama and his government-in-exile are hoping that the new leadership in Beijing will be more flexible than its predecessors. They are placing greater importance on reaching out to the Chinese diaspora and dissident community to make them more aware of the Tibetan issue.

But that, according to Tsering, is nothing more than the wishful thinking of a government out of tune with reality.

"Why should they negotiate?" he asks, in his well-stocked bookshop lined with volumes on Tibetan literature, history, and culture. "It cannot be in the interests of anyone aspiring to power in China to even hint at granting autonomy to Tibet as that would be seen as splitting China."

The new wave of radicalism sweeping through the exile community and the Dalai Lama's own admission that his health may not allow him to play a prominent role for much longer, has prompted Tibetan activists to ask themselves how best to carry forward the Tibetan struggle. "We are questioning the limitations of his institution. If he dies, who will be there to replace him?" asks Mr. Chokey.

Polling support

While the Dalai Lama claims that a recent opinion poll carried out in Tibet and in India found that the overwhelming majority of people wanted him to continue to lead the political struggle, critics like Tsering claim the only way forward is through the election of a truly democratic and representative government-in-exile.

Adding to the urgency of the debate is the fear that time may be running out for preserving Tibet's rich 13-century-old culture.

Today Chinese settlers already outnumber Tibetans in their Himalayan homeland, and escapees from Tibet who arrive at the reception center in Dharmsala claim that Beijing is stepping up discrimination against the indigenous population in areas such as education and freedom of religion.

"[The Chinese authorities] came to the monasteries and made me disavow the Dalai Lama, When I refused I was expelled." says Nyma Dickyi, a young Buddhist nun who lost seven toes from frostbite while escaping from Tibet across the Himalayas on foot.

"The policies are very subtle, but you can see that they are out to destroy and eliminate Tibetan culture, Tibetan religion, Tibetan language, and ultimately Tibetans themselves," says Rinchen Khando Choegyal, minister for education in the government-in-exile.

As the last major colony still held in subjugation by a great power, Tibet is likely to remain a compelling cause.

The six fasting protesters who were taken away and hospitalized against their will last week were replaced by five new Tibetans. (Ngodup was to be the sixth replacement.)

And with more and more exiles willing to give up their lives for a free Tibet, the rift between radicals and those who preach reason is set to grow.

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