In a blunt admission that his efforts to win autonomous status for Tibet through negotiations with Beijing have borne no fruit, the Dalai Lama said Monday he would step back from his role as political leader and let Tibetan exiles decide if a new strategy is needed.
"Things are not improving inside Tibet" despite seven rounds of talks with Chinese officials, he told reporters in Tokyo where spoke to the Foreign Correspondents Club of Japan. "Our approach has never affected the inside situation. I cannot continue like this. I have to accept failure.
"My moral responsibility now is to ask people what to do," he added. The Dalai Lama has called a meeting for later this month of Tibetan exiles worldwide. That could lead to a major change in the way Tibet's exiled government deals with China, which has ruled Tibet since 1951 when it dispatched troops to the region.
The Dalai Lama has increasingly come under fire from radical Tibetan political activists who are frustrated by his lack of success in pursuing a "middle way" strategy of seeking limited autonomy for Tibetans to practice their Buddhist religion, culture, and language.
Tibetan exile groups say they regularly receive reports from Lhasa that official repression of monks remains fierce, seven months after riots in the Tibetan capital left 22 Chinese civilians dead according to Beijing.
Two envoys of the Dalai Lama began another round of negotiations with Chinese officials this week, but the Tibetan leader said his "trust in Beijing is now thinner, thinner, thinner.
"Tibet is passing through almost like a death sentence," he lamented. "An ancient culture and [an] ancient civilization are now dying."
The Dalai Lama said he would remain "completely neutral ... completely silent" in the debate over the direction of his people's struggle, so as to allow a broad range of opinions to surface.
His divine status, he acknowledged, meant that many Tibetans would automatically support any position he adopted publicly.
"I don't know what will happen" in discussions, he said. "It is completely up to them. Their minds should be open to explore all possible options."
Some young Tibetan exile leaders are urging the government in exile, based in Dharamsala, India, to press for full independence. Others are encouraging exiled authorities to organize mass demonstrations within Tibet.
The Dalai Lama's pledge to stay out of the debate "is an interesting political move" said Robbie Barnett, an expert on Tibetan affairs at Columbia University in New York. "He is giving the radicals an opportunity to come up with something and sending a strong signal to those who say religion suppresses political debate."
In the end, however, "very few people will say they can do without the Dalai Lama," whose international stature is matched by few other statesmen, says Dr. Barnett. "Even the radicals want him as a figurehead, so he will have a softening effect on any resolution that comes out."