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Protests Reflect Two Approaches: Solemn and Furious

By Rama Lakshmi
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, March 20, 2008

DHARMSALA, India, March 19 -- This tiny Himalayan town, host to the Tibetan government-in-exile, is the scene of two distinct kinds of protests this week -- protests illustrating the divergent ideologies that have come to dominate exiles' politics since unrest broke out in their homeland nine days ago.

In the first kind, solemn, peaceful marchers hold candlelight vigils and pray for an end to the Chinese crackdown. In the other, Tibetans furiously call for the death of Chinese President Hu Jintao and parade alongside bare-chested actors playing victims of Chinese torture.

The two groups have been marching up and down the streets of Dharmsala, jamming narrow alleyways. But Wednesday, for a few moments, the stoic marchers and full-throated, sloganeering youths came face to face at a traffic circle outside the town's main temple -- literally the Dalai Lama's doorstep.

At first, it was unclear which group would yield. But the youths stopped where they were and fell silent for five minutes, letting the peaceful protesters proceed, before resuming their death chants.

"Things are coming to the boil on the streets. Emotions are running very high," said Tenzin Taklha, a senior aide to the Dalai Lama. "We can't blame them. There is a deep sense of frustration and resentment among the Tibetan people now. But the presence of his holiness Dalai Lama amongst us acts as a strong restraint."

The uprising in Tibet has thrown into stark relief the impatience of some Tibetans with the path of moderation followed by the Dalai Lama, the Nobel Peace Prize winner who has said he does not support Tibetan independence from China. Younger Tibetans, in particular, are growing increasingly edgy about what they see as Tibetan passivity, even if they remain bound by their devotion to and respect for the Dalai Lama.

Protesters who favor a more aggressive approach have been agitating for years, but they say this time is different because of the severity of the situation. Dharmsala is plastered with grisly pictures of monks' corpses in Tibet -- victims, exiles say, of the Chinese crackdown. The images have been enlarged and put onto placards, which people carry through the streets.

"It is difficult for me to control my group this time. They are very, very angry. Information is no longer as tightly controlled as before," said Dhondup, a 26-year-old protester who, like many Tibetans, uses only one name.

On Wednesday, Dhondup was leading a group of activists shouting "Shame on China!" and "China, get out of Tibet!"

"Because of cellphones, satellite TV and Internet, we can see everything, every day. And the anger is rising," he said. "How can we contain our emotions and continue to wait for the Chinese to come around?"

In another example of the friction between the cautious approach of the Dalai Lama and the emotional urgency displayed by the activists, five Tibetan nonprofit organizations have been pressing to lead a controversial march to Lhasa to join protesters there.

The Tibetan spiritual leader called representatives from the groups for a meeting Wednesday morning and appealed to them to halt their march.

"His holiness the Dalai Lama made an appeal to them to halt the march because he wants the efforts to focus on getting the international community to put pressure on China," said Chhime Chhoekyapa, secretary to the spiritual leader. "He said it is an unrealistic march. They would have to cross many mountains and many hurdles. It will take months to reach the border, and the Chinese troops will capture them or shoot them. How does it help anybody? But the Dalai Lama also told them that he is committed to democratic principles and would not order them to stop, but merely appeal."

At a news conference Tuesday, the Dalai Lama had also voiced his concerns about not upsetting the Indian government, which maintains close relations with China.

The representatives of the five groups walked out of their meeting with the Dalai Lama calmly, but without making any assurances. They immediately huddled together to evolve a response. Meanwhile, fiery protesters continued to walk Dharmsala with sore feet under the hot sun. They seemed oblivious to the negotiations over whether to stop the march to Lhasa.

"I would be very disappointed if we were asked to stop. Our people are waiting for us inside Tibet to come and help the movement," said Penpa Tsering, 29, one of the marchers with the Tibetan Youth Congress. "This is the time to do something dramatic, although we are still wedded to nonviolence."

The activists say they are impatient because the Olympic Games offer them a unique but narrow window of opportunity to get the world to put pressure on China. And despite the Dalai Lama's conciliatory approach, six rounds of talks with the Chinese government since 2002 have not yielded any results.

"The Dalai Lama says the middle path is working, working. Why should we wait?" said Tsering Norbu, 26, who has led daily demonstrations in the past week and has lost his voice because of all the shouting. "He is 73. I am 26. I want to go back to my homeland as soon as possible and will take nothing short of total independence."

Meanwhile, a delegation of 43 Tibetan lawmakers joined in a hunger strike in New Delhi, urging the U.N. Security Council to investigate the Chinese crackdown.

"If we fail," said Karma Yeshi, a member of the Tibetan parliament-in-exile, "it is not just a failure of the Tibetan people, but the failure of nonviolence as a means of resistance."

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