Exiled Tibetans Meet in India to Discuss Future of Freedom Movement

By Emily Wax
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, November 23, 2008

DHARMSALA, India, Nov. 22 -- Through a narrow passageway, past Buddhist prayer flags and worn posters for weekly "Free Tibet" concerts, Yangzong sat in a warm cafe quietly knitting a sweater.

It is her way of fighting for Tibet's freedom, she said. Yangzong, 29, works at a restaurant and clothing boutique that proudly boycotts all Chinese products, stitching the clothing it sells and serving only food that has been cooked by dozens of former Tibetan political prisoners who recently escaped to this town in India's Himalayan foothills.

"We do what we can for our homeland, Tibet," said Yangzong, who goes by one name, pointing out two conflicting banners in her shop: "Game Over for China's Olympics: Free Tibet Now!" and "Love. Compassion. Patience."

"The problem is many young Tibetans in exile are running out of patience," she said. "Tibet is at a real crossroads."

Such concerns were part of the lively discussions this week across "Little Lhasa," headquarters of the Tibetan Government in Exile, where nearly 600 Tibetan monks and musicians, poets and politicians from around the world gathered to discuss the future of their homeland. It was the largest such meeting in 60 years.

Participants were called together by the Dalai Lama, Tibet's spiritual leader, who fled Tibet and resettled in Dharmsala in 1959 after a failed uprising against Chinese communist rule. Nearly 50 years later, the struggle for Tibet's freedom remains a slogan on T-shirts and a Hollywood cause celebre but still lacks a definitive road map.

The Dalai Lama won the 1989 Nobel Peace Prize for his nonviolent struggle to free his homeland from Chinese rule. He has advocated a "middle way" policy, which rejects calls for Tibet's outright independence but seeks greater autonomy through dialogue.

But the Buddhist leader, famous globally and beloved here, where he holds God-like status, has recently shocked his followers by expressing his own fraying patience after the failure of eight rounds of talks between Tibetan and Chinese negotiators.

Although the meeting this week yielded few dramatic policy shifts, delegates announced Saturday that they will temporarily end formal negotiations with China because the government was not taking them seriously.

"We will not send envoys for further contacts" with China, Dolma Gyari, deputy speaker of the exile parliament, told reporters after the meeting, held in a school nestled among pine trees.

Leaders said they would, however, continue to be guided by the Dalai Lama's policy but would review that stance if China persisted in declining to grant autonomy.

"There was a majority for the middle way," Gyari said. But if China does not respond positively, she said, "there is no other option left to us than to go for independence." She added that the movement would always be nonviolent and that the Dalai Lama's followers would pursue whichever path he deemed most appropriate.

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