updated 11/23/2008 7:39:11 PM ET 2008-11-24T00:39:11

The Dalai Lama warned that the decadeslong dream of a free Tibet would be in danger if exiled leaders weren't careful, after they said they might push for independence if China refuses to grant autonomy soon to the Himalayan region.

The Buddhist spiritual leader also called for dialogue with the Chinese people on Sunday, saying he has little faith anymore in the Beijing government.

Frustrated with stalled talks with China, the Dalai Lama called the weeklong gathering of Tibetan exiles from around the world discuss the future of their movement. The meeting ended Saturday with delegates saying they had decided against seeking independence for now, and that they would maintain the Dalai Lama's "middle way" — his push for autonomy through measured compromise that falls short of calling for independence.

But they also said they would seek independence if China fails to respond positively.

"The next 20 years, if we are not careful, if we are not prudent in our plans there is a great danger," the Dalai Lama said in an address to the leaders in Dharmsala, the north Indian mountain town where has lived since fleeing Tibet following a failed rebellion in 1959. "It could lead to the danger of failure."

Tibetan cause at major crossroads
While the Buddhist spiritual leader did not specify what he meant, he appeared to be speaking about the larger Tibetan cause, which many exile leaders believe is at a major crossroads.

In March, violent protests rule erupted in Tibet — the biggest challenge to Chinese rule in nearly two decades. They were met with a swift, aggressive crackdown by Beijing. That response served as a reminder that while some exile leaders may dream of a more confrontational approach, Tibetans living under Chinese rule would bear the brunt of any government response.

Since Communist troops swept into Tibet in 1950, Chinese authorities have crushed any sign of Tibetan nationalist sentiment. An independence movement would be nearly impossible, at least in the foreseeable future, and China has long made clear it will not accept autonomy for Tibet, which it maintains has been Chinese territory for 700 years. Many Tibetans, however, argue it was effectively independent most of that time.

China has repeatedly accused the Dalai Lama of secretly seeking independence in his quest for autonomy and stepped up its denunciations of the spiritual leader in the wake of the March unrest.

"My trust in Chinese officials is becoming thinner and thinner, but my trust in the Chinese public is still alive and strong," the Dalai Lama said Sunday.

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