Exiled Tibetans Weigh Freedom Struggle
Hundreds Gather To Discuss Future Of Their Homeland

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.

The Dalai Lama, who plans to speak publicly Sunday, has stayed away from the meetings, saying he wants to give participants the chance to have frank conversations without deferring to him.

Chinese officials insist Tibet is an integral part of China and say those at the meeting do not represent the sentiments of the majority of Tibetans. China also says that it has brought economic development to Tibet, a remote and destitute Himalayan region.

But the Dalai Lama's administration accuses China of stifling the Buddhist religion in an effort to destroy Tibetan culture, while moving millions of ethnic Han Chinese into the region.

Despite debates over stances, the meeting was a moment of pride and a show of Tibetan unity for China and the rest of the world to see, delegates said.

"We're respected by the world because of our commitment to nonviolence and our uniquely Buddhist approach," said poet and activist Tenzin Tsundue, who said his backpack was filled with the tools of Tibetan protests: posters, pamphlets and thumbtacks. "International support is still really powerful. We have shown the world our nonviolent way. We hope we are rewarded one day."

The meetings were part gab sessions, part politics and part reunion, with exiles coming from as far away as Rome and New York. Unofficial gatherings spilled late into the night over hot drinks of ginger, lemon and honey mixed with a shot of brandy to keep discussions going despite the mountain chill.

The movement has a renewed sense of urgency. Many Tibetans became fed up after a March uprising turned into deadly riots, the biggest challenge to Chinese rule in Tibet in two decades.

Many young Tibetans living in exile in Dharmsala say they hope for a softening of Beijing's stance with the next, more open generation. Others want a full push for independence.

"The outcome was not completely satisfactory. We had hoped to revert our role to full independence," said Tsewang Rigzin, head of the Tibetan Youth Congress, which has about 30,000 members. "After 60 years of Chinese occupation, Tibetans realize that they cannot have a life under Chinese rule. Still, it was a healthy democracy at work. If you looked at the U.S. 40 years ago, no one would have thought an African American like Obama could be president."

Sitting in an Internet cafe started by former political prisoners, Labsang Tashi, 34, said he was unsure how much the meeting had accomplished.

In 1993, he said, he was locked up by the Chinese government for four years and interrogated and tortured for writing "China quit Tibet" and "Long live the Dalai Lama" on a wall. After being freed, he made a 27-day journey over mountain passes, escaping to Nepal and making it to Dharmsala.

"I can't back the middle way. I want an independent Tibet," he said, looking up at one of the large framed photographs of the Dalai Lama that hang in nearly every shop here. "I love the Dalai Lama. But China is so strong. I worry that even my grandchildren will never see a free Tibet."

Some analysts say the 73-year-old Dalai Lama called the meeting to prepare the way for his gradual retirement.

At a weekly concert hosted by Tibetan Music Trust, held under a banner reading "We Can Change the World," Karma Lodue said he was once a prominent student leader but quit after the movement split because he backed the Dalai Lama's middle path while others wanted independence.

Chain-smoking and pacing outside the concert, he said that now even the Free Tibet concert group is divided.

Inside, some members said those who care about the Tibetan cause are growing restless.

"I worry about what will happen when the Dalai Lama passes," said Rob White, a British pro-Tibetan activist who runs the music program with Lodue. "Sometimes, I wish this community could toughen up."

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