For two decades the Tibetan struggle against China has been defined by the Dalai Lama's measured path of compromise. Now, it could be abandoned for the long-held but unlikely dream of independence.
More than 500 Tibetan exile leaders opened weeklong discussions Monday, the first major re-evaluation of their strategy since the Dalai Lama in 1988 outlined his Nobel Peace Prize-winning "middle way," which pushes for autonomy but not outright independence for the Himalayan region.
The meeting in this northern India hill town, the base of Tibet's self-proclaimed government-in-exile, was called by the Dalai Lama, the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader. It comes after he expressed frustration over years of fruitless talks with China and follows this spring's uprising by Tibetans across western China that was aggressively put down by Beijing.
"The middle way approach has failed, it has not produced any results," said Karma Chophel, speaker of the exile parliament. "In that light, the Tibetan public should come out with an opinion about what to do."
China insists Tibet has been part of its territory for 700 years, although many Tibetans say they were effectively independent for most of that time. Chinese forces invaded shortly after the 1949 communist revolution and the Dalai Lama fled to India in 1959 amid an unsuccessful uprising.
Move toward independence?
Large numbers of Tibetans remain fervently Buddhist and loyal to the Dalai Lama. If the exiles choose a more confrontational approach, Tibetans living under Chinese rule would bear the brunt of any government response.
Much of the debate is expected to boil down to two main choices: whether to continue pursuing the politics of compromise or to begin a long-shot independence movement — a move almost certain to end talks held intermittently with Beijing since 2002.
Within the two camps, there are a range of possibilities, with various factions urging more protests, angrier protests, more pressure on Western nations and even, in a very small group, a push for sabotage of China's infrastructure.
Samdhong Rinpoche, the exile prime minister, called for an "open and frank discussion" Monday in a speech to delegates. He said the meeting may not lead to a new approach, and that any new path needs to have "the clear mandate of the people."
The Dalai Lama was not expected to attend; he said he did not want to tilt the debate.
Any deviation from current policies was almost certain to scuttle the tenuous ties with Beijing, which has long accused the Dalai Lama of fomenting an independence movement.
Analysts said a strong anti-Beijing sentiment could play into China's hands.
"It seems to be a possible Chinese strategy to make the radical section much stronger," said Robbie Barnett, an expert on Tibet at Columbia University. "It would mean no contacts with China and make contacts with the international community very difficult."
Autonomy plan rejected
That would be fine with some delegates.
"We can't live with China," said Lobsang Phelgye, 55, who came to Dharmsala from the exile community in Nepal.
The Dalai Lama's envoys to the recent talks with Beijing said in a statement Sunday that they had presented China with a detailed plan on how Tibetans could meet their autonomy needs within the framework of China's constitution.
The plan calls for the protection for the Tibetan language and culture, restrictions on non-Tibetans moving into Tibet and the rights of Tibetans to create an autonomous government.
But China apparently rejected the plan.
Chinese officials said no progress was made in the talks two weeks ago, calling the Tibetan stance "a trick" and saying it lacked sincerity. However, a senior Chinese official said in comments broadcast Friday that Beijing is open to further talks with the Tibetans.
The envoys said China was entirely to blame.
"The Dalai Lama or the Tibetan government-in-exile cannot be held responsible for the failure of the Chinese to respond to our sincere and genuine attempts," said Lodi Gyari.
Follow the leader
China has dismissed this week's meeting as meaningless, saying the participants do not represent the views of most Tibetans.
Chophel, the parliament speaker, said more than 8,000 of 17,000 Tibetans recently surveyed in Tibet said they would follow any decision by the Dalai Lama. More than 5,000 said they wanted Tibetan independence — more than twice the number who wanted to continue with the current approach, he said.
The survey almost certainly was done secretly. There was no way to independently verify the results.
After the March uprising in western China, Chinese forces set up camps near major monasteries and important towns, and many monks were expelled from the clergy. Those controls have been heightened recently, according to accounts from recent travelers to the region and the pro-Tibet community in the West.
"The people inside Tibet may say as quick as possible a solution is better, anything that will get the Chinese off our backs," said Barnett.