Tibetans back Dalai Lama's 'middle way,' despite impatience

But they may yet abandon his moderate stance on China if it doesn't bring progress soon, they warned.

Abhishek Madhukar/Reuters
Support: On Sunday the Dalai Lama addressed the Tibetans who had gathered at his behest to discuss their political future.
Anil Dayal/AP
Tibetans meeting in India last week agreed not to pursue independence – yet – but to stick to the Dalai Lama’s “middle way” China policy. Many Tibetans are losing patience with Beijing but are loath to defy their leader. Here, young monks in Shimla, India, played cricket Sunday.

At the end of a conference called to consider the future of the Tibetan movement, the Dalai Lama and his delegates spoke of continuity – maintaining his "middle way" policy of negotiations with China.

Yet the legacy of these six days in the Indian hill town of Dharamsala could well be one of change. For the first time, Tibetan leaders said there was a limit to their support of the nonconfrontational "middle way." Without progress soon, they said, they would abandon it.

This robust debate clearly demonstrated that even the most moderate Tibetans are growing impatient at China's apparent unwillingness to grant Tibet a greater degree of autonomy. The result is that the Dalai Lama now has a clear mandate to take a harder line on China, should he choose.

"His stances [toward China] have been very soft," says Vijay Kranti, editor of Tibbat Desh, a newspaper for the Tibetan community in India. "Now he may take a stronger stand."

The Dalai Lama called the conference at a time of mounting frustration. He recently called his attempts to find a negotiated settlement to the Tibet question a failure. Not long after, Chinese officials and envoys from the Dalai Lama acknowledged that talks between the two had broken down.

Some Tibetan exiles – particularly youths – have increasingly questioned the Dalai Lama's methods and goals. They are pushing for greater agitation worldwide to force China's hand. Many also want a fully independent Tibet.

The intent of bringing 600 Tibetan exiles to Dharamsala – the home of the Tibetan government in exile – was to allow the Tibetan community to question the Dalai Lama's policy openly. The result was essentially a vote of confidence for the Dalai Lama. But the voices of dissent are growing louder.

"The majority were for a continuation of the 'middle way' policy," Karma Chophel, speaker of the Tibetan government in exile, told AFP. "But quite a number said if the 'middle way' did not produce any results in the near future, then the people will be forced to switch the policy to complete independence or a demand for self-determination."

The Dalai Lama himself acknowledged in a press conference Sunday: "My trust in Chinese officials has become thinner and thinner."

For a leader who is acknowledged as a god by many Tibetans, the notion of seeking public support might seem perfunctory. But for the past 20 years, the Dalai Lama has sought to expand the Tibetan movement beyond himself – to make it a sustainable campaign controlled and fueled by Tibetan exiles. He engineered the establishment of the democratic government in exile in Dharmasala. With his "middle way" faltering, last week's conference was an attempt to accelerate this process.

"It was a robust debate," says Srikanth Kondapalli, a Tibet expert at Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi. "The momentum of the movement has increased."

On Sunday, the Dalai Lama ruled out retirement – something he had hinted at before – saying he would continue to lead the movement until he succeeded or died.

The gathering of 600 Tibetans sent a message to Beijing that he is not alone, says Tibbat Desh editor Mr. Kranti. If policy changes, "these are the people with whom you will have to deal," he adds.

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