Tibetan exiles saw a chance to put China on the spot ahead of the Beijing Olympics, but never expected their protests to spread to Tibet and turn violent. Now the Dalai Lama is threatening to quit if his people don’t return to peaceful resistance.
It’s a warning he has used before — telling Tibetans to return to peaceful protests during 1989 unrest — but this time it comes amid deep divisions within the Tibetan community between those who back his pacifist approach and an angry young generation that demands action.
While the situation inside Tibet remains unclear, much of the violence last week appears to have been committed by Tibetans against Han Chinese — a fact that troubles the 72-year-old Dalai Lama, who has long called for Tibetans to have significant autonomy within China.
“Whether we like it or not, we have to live together side by side,” the Dalai Lama told reporters Tuesday in the northern Indian hill town of Dharmsala, seat of the Tibetan government-in-exile. “We must oppose Chinese policy but not the Chinese. Not on a racist basis.”
Though fearful of a Chinese crackdown — he compared the plight of Tibetans to that of “a young deer in a tiger’s hands” — the Dalai Lama insisted he could not abide violence by his own people. Peaceful protest is the only way, he said.
He said that if the situation gets out of control, his “only option is to completely resign.”
An aide later clarified that the Dalai Lama meant he would step down as the political leader of the exile government — not as the supreme religious leader of Tibetan Buddhists.
Regardless, his call for Tibetans to work with the Chinese stands in stark contrast to the “Free Tibet” chants of thousands of Tibetan youths, Buddhist monks and nuns who have marched the steep paths of Dharmsala in recent days, angry faces painted with Tibetan flags and chests smeared with blood-red paint.
They want action not diplomacy, independence not autonomy.
Youth activist cites frustration
“There is growing frustration among the younger generations. They have been talking for 20 years and nothing came out of it,” said Tsewang Rigzin, head of the Tibetan Youth Congress.
He urged “the protesters in Tibet to continue in their protests until China gets out of Tibet.”
While hesitant to directly criticize the Dalai Lama — who is deeply revered by Tibetans — and careful not to endorse violence, the younger activists warn that patience with his approach is running thin.
“I certainly hope the middle way approach will be reviewed. The Tibetan nation and Tibetan culture are on the verge of extinction,” Rigzin said.
Another activist, Tenzin Choedon, a 28-year-old student, said: “It is time for a change in Tibet and the Tibetan movement.”
The activists argue that the Dalai Lama is squandering a golden opportunity by not opposing China hosting the Olympics.
“We have to seize the opportunity of the Olympics,” said Rigzin. “We have to shift the spotlight while the whole world is watching to show the true color of China.”
The Youth Congress and other exile groups began a Dharmsala-to-Tibet walk on March 10 — just before Beijing was to kick off its Olympic celebrations with a torch run through Tibet. It was also the anniversary of a failed 1959 uprising in Tibet that forced the Dalai Lama to flee to India.
When Indian authorities stopped the first march just days after it began, the exiles embarked on a second attempt.
It’s a far more antagonistic approach than the Dalai Lama prefers. On Tuesday, he urged the marchers to abandon the project, saying it would only spark confrontation with Chinese troops at the border. “Will you get independence? What’s the use?” he asked.
Yet even the Dalai Lama understands the anger of the young.
“In recent years our approach has had no concrete improvement inside Tibet, so naturally (there are) more and more signs of restlessness, even inside Tibet,” he said.
The turmoil in Tibet also has laid bare the inability of Tibetans to capitalize on the intense exposure to their cause and extract concessions from China.
“We are helpless,” said Samdhong Rinpoche, prime minister of the Tibetan exile government, echoing comments by the Dalai Lama.
The government announced Monday that it was setting up a committee to coordinate the actions of Tibetan groups during the crisis. But word has not reached every group.
“So far we have not heard from them,” said B. Tsering, head of the Tibetan Women’s Association, which is taking part in the march to Tibet.
Despite China’s charge that the Dalai Lama and his supporters planned the uprising, the protests in Tibet and cities around the world were spontaneous — organized by local Tibetan groups and their sympathizers, B. Tsering said.
“If this continues I’m afraid the Tibetan people might lose control. It could get difficult,” she said. “Lots of demonstrations are decided on by the young people and we can’t control them.
The Dalai Lama insists pacifism is the only path to saving Tibet from the “cultural genocide” that he sees being inflicted by Han Chinese migration to Tibet and the communist regime’s religious restrictions.
“Our only strengths are justice and truth,” he said. “Force is immediate, but the effects of truth sometimes take longer.”