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Tibetan exiles debate future of movement

A summit of Tibetan exiles is turning into a clash of generations over the direction of their struggle  for independence from China.
APTOPIX India Tibet
The Dalai Lama, Tibet's spiritual leader, right, confers with Samdhong Rinpoche, prime minister of the Tibetan government-in-exile, in Dharmsala, India, on Thursday. A summit of Tibetan exiles is turning into a clash of generations over the direction of their struggle with China. Ashwini Bhatia / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Out of the hundreds of Tibetan leaders who have flocked here for a pivotal summit on Tibet's future, few understand the hardships there better than a recently arrived barley farmer.

The stocky 32-year-old left his Tibetan village last month to hike across the mountains to meet the Dalai Lama in Dharmsala, the spiritual leader's home in exile. The Chinese have stepped up security in the wake of the March uprising, he says, making a hard life even harder. Now, he believes it's time to move past the measured path of compromise with China, called "the middle way."

"I'm looking for complete independence," said the farmer, who declined to give his name because he planned to return to Tibet and feared retribution. "We don't need to stay with China."

"But," he continued, "if His Holiness goes for 'the middle way' approach, I will support the Dalai Lama."

If the farmer was conflicted, he had plenty of company in an auditorium up the hill, where 581 exile leaders from around the world — from Boston to Los Angeles to Britain to Spain and Nepal — gathered this week to find a way to move their struggle forward.

What emerged, more often than not, has been a cacophony of disparate voices, all calling for some form of freedom for Tibet, but uncertain what shape it should take.

Radical option weighed
Abandon compromise and push for independence? Press on with the current strategy? End the dialogue with China? Push for "self determination?" Full autonomy? Every permutation is under discussion, and a resolution is expected to be announced Saturday at the meeting's close.

The Dalai Lama called the summit after publicly expressing frustration over the failure of his approach to yield greater autonomy for the region. He has declined to discuss his preference for a strategy, not wanting to tilt the debate.

As a result, the meeting has become a dress rehearsal in democracy as the Tibetans try to formulate a plan without the guidance of "His Holiness," a man they view as closer to a god than a mere leader.

The most radical option under discussion is a call for independence, a move that would infuriate Beijing and alienate much of the international community, which is loath to get on China's bad side.

On China's bad side
The Tibetan exiles, of course, have long been on China's bad side. On Friday, China launched a new attack, making clear it would not yield in its hard-line approach toward Tibet.

The Dalai Lama's "so-called 'middle way' is a naked expression of Tibet independence aimed at nakedly spreading the despicable plot of opposing the tide of history," said an editorial in the official Tibet Daily newspaper.

While China allowed former British and Portuguese colonies to retain their own police forces, legal systems and limited democratic governance even after returning to Chinese sovereignty in the late 1990s, they have repeatedly made clear that Tibet is completely different.

"Any acts to harm or change Tibet's current basic political system are in diametric opposition to our country's constitution and law," the editorial said in what appeared to be a signal to the exile leaders gathered in Dharmsala.

Nevertheless, a sizable group of delegates — many from the younger generation — have argued that the time to push for independence has come.

"We need to take a much stronger position," Tenzin Choeying, 29, of Dharmsala said before Friday's meeting. "We are so cautious and careful. If we are more strong, maybe it would have better results."

Sonamtopga, 57, agrees that "pursuing the present policy isn't going to get us anywhere.

"We have to change," said the delegate from a town near Dharmsala who goes by one name. "It hasn't worked for 30 years and I don't have any reason to think China's leaders will change."

Most of those calling for independence have not articulated how that would be achieved, but say further discussions could provide an outline.

Others argue that launching a quixotic bid to make Tibet its own nation would be counterproductive.

"I don't see that we can get the support of the international community for an independent Tibet," said Tseten Phanucharas of Los Angeles. "Without that, I don't see how we can achieve it."

'Powers come to an end'
She believes in the 'middle way,' but also that the Tibetans should end their dialogue with China because it's not helping. Most of all, she preaches patience.

"Being Buddhist, we believe nothing is permanent," she said. "All powers do come to an end. And China is no different."

For others, the struggle has become urgent — the Dalai Lama is 73, they point out. Tibet is being diluted with Han Chinese settlers. China is only becoming stronger.

"Independence is the best, but if that's too farfetched we want some change," said Tenzin Nyesang, 28, of Boston. "People say give it another three years — China isn't going to change in three years."

Hard-liners acknowledge that wrestling Tibet from the Chinese is a long shot, but they take comfort in the great sea changes of the past.

"It is our duty to try and get it back, no matter how long it takes," said Sonamtopga.