Chinese and Tibetans Debate Dalai Lama’s Return

Reuters, Aug. 27, 2002
By Jeremy Page

LHASA (Reuters) – As they shuffle past the Dalai Lama’s empty throne in his Summer Palace in Lhasa, a small group of Tibetans pause, hands clasped, to pay their respects.

Not a word is said. But afterwards, in the gardens surrounding the Norbu Lingka, they talk in hushed tones about the spiritual leader they have not seen in Tibet for 43 years.

“Of course, we hope he will come back,” says one, a driver who gives only his first name, Ngawang. “I don’t know when it will be, but maybe one day.”

The Dalai Lama’s throne has been empty since 1959, when the 23-year-old Tenzin Gyatso fled to India with some 80,000 followers as Chinese shells rained down near the Norbu Lingka.

But now that the Dalai Lama is 67 — and still in India — debate is brewing among his followers and Chinese leaders about whether he should return to his homeland, and on what terms.

Officially, the two sides are in a deadlock, refusing to talk.

However, a recent visit by the Dalai Lama’s elder brother to Tibet, the release of high-profile Tibetan political prisoners and an imminent leadership change in the Communist Party have raised some hopes of a softening in Beijing.

“There are clearly some people in Beijing who believe it would be best for the Dalai Lama to die in exile,” said one Beijing-based diplomat who follows Tibet closely.

“There are others who fear the consequence of him dying overseas and see the benefits of bringing him back,” he said.

“I think the doves may be getting the upper hand.”

The stakes are high on both sides.

If the Dalai Lama dies overseas, the Tibetan community in exile could fragment, analysts say.

Without his unifying presence, younger Tibetans fed up with a lack of progress could drift toward more radical groups, such as the Tibetan Youth Congress, which have espoused violent resistance to Chinese rule.

“We, as youngsters, see the danger but our older generations would not hear of discussing Tibet minus His Holiness in the future,” said Tenzin Chokey of the Tibetan Center for Human Rights and Democracy in Dharamsala, the north Indian town where the Tibetan government-in-exile is based.

“There are talks and fears however that people might resort to violence.”

The Tibetans would then not only be bereft of the charismatic leader who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989 for his non-violent campaign against Chinese rule.

They would also risk losing support of an international community wary of anything that smacks of terrorism in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks on the United States.

From China’s point of view, violent unrest in Tibet would pose no greater threat to its rule today than it did in the 1950s.

But it would throw an uncomfortable spotlight on Chinese policies in the region, and disrupt a campaign to develop China’s impoverished West.

And without the Dalai Lama, Beijing would have no figurehead with whom to negotiate.

“It’s a tremendously damaging sidecar to be dragging around beside you,” said Orville Schell, dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California, Berkeley, and a long-time China watcher.

“I think it could provide for China one of the most spectacular PR (public relations) victories and largely resolve the very contentious issue of Tibet if they could find a way to have the Dalai Lama come back.”

Chinese officials doggedly repeat the official line that the Dalai Lama must renounce independence and separatist activities and admit that Tibet and Taiwan are part of China before political dialogue can start.

The Dalai Lama has long said he wants greater autonomy, not independence, for Tibet but refuses to meet Beijing’s condition on Taiwan.

And whatever may be going on between Beijing and Gyalo Thundup, neither side seems willing to shift position.

Part of the problem is that both sides have painted themselves into a corner with years of inflammatory rhetoric.

The Dalai Lama, criticized by some Tibetans for renouncing independence, is unwilling to risk losing further credibility by giving in to Beijing’s demands without reciprocation.

Beijing, for whom territorial integrity is a key source of legitimacy, cannot be seen giving ground to someone they have long vilified as a puppet of foreign anti-China forces.

Vested interests in both Tibet and the Tibetan community in exile present further obstacles to a political solution.


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Religion News Blog posted this on Wednesday August 28, 2002.
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