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Tibet festers as China-Dalai Lama talks off the boil
BEIJING (Reuters) - The Dalai Lama has been racking up air miles, and China isn't happy.
The spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhism, considered a traitor by Beijing since leading a failed uprising against Chinese rule, has recently been received in capitals from Washington to Canberra, and will meet the Pope at the Vatican next month.
The diplomatic push has been met with a stream of vitriol from Chinese officials and state media, calling the 72-year-old a "splittist" bent on independence for Tibet and accusing him of orchestrating anti-Chinese activities in the remote region.
None of which bodes well for two sides which are supposed to be engaged in a process of rapprochement.
After six rounds of talks over five years that have nothing to show in the way of progress, analysts say both sides are hardening their positions, leaving Tibetans frustrated and China with a festering source of instability.
"The Chinese feel that the Dalai Lama has used his moral and religious authority to destabilise Tibet," said Tsering Shakya, a Tibet scholar at the University of British Columbia.
"They have not only abandoned discussions about Tibetan autonomy, they have also abandoned offers of accommodation with the Dalai Lama as an individual religious figure."
For a Tibetan government-in-exile that has operated for nearly five decades from the Indian hill station of Dharamsala, many feel there is nothing to lose by intensifying diplomatic engagement -- even if it antagonises China.
The Dalai Lama fled Tibet in 1959 after the failed uprising against nine years of Chinese Communist Party rule.
"It's hard to see for the Tibet government-in-exile what alternatives they would have that could serve them better," said a Western diplomat in Beijing.
"Foreign governments are part of the advocacy push, but it's a double-edged sword."
The sharp end of the blade is Beijing's response to the Dalai Lama's wave of visits.
China has stepped up its campaign against him with personal attacks featured regularly in state media.
"He is trying to internationalise the issue of Tibet with a two-step splittist approach. The first step is autonomy and the second step is independence," Xinhua news agency quoted Ciren Jiabu, a local Tibet scholar, as saying.
"The Dalai Lama should be fully responsible for the failure of those dialogues," the same piece quoted An Caidan, a member of China's delegation to the talks, as saying.
An internal Communist Party memo that surfaced last month also showed the Party questioning the loyalty of ethnic Tibetan members. And analysts say university campuses in Lhasa are strewn with banners personally attacking the Dalai Lama.
Pro-Tibet groups say such attacks have little effect on public support for the movement.
"This hysteria, this vitriol that comes out of Beijing, people roll their eyes at it. Nobody's quaking in their boots," said Mary Beth Markey, a vice president of the Washington-based International Campaign for Tibet.
BUSY OR BAD YEAR?
Markey also disputes the idea that the Dalai Lama has been on a diplomatic offensive, saying that he always has a busy calendar, but the difference is that he is being received by more leaders.
This year, he met U.S. President George W. Bush at the White House, in addition to leaders of Austria, Germany, New Zealand, Australia and Canada.
"Western leaders are frustrated in their own outreach to China and they see the Dalai Lama as a figurehead for human rights and a signal to Beijing that they are concerned about political freedom," Markey said.
But for the Chinese side, it's a bad year for compromise.
A five-yearly Communist Party Congress in October brought a wave of leadership changes, meaning China's bureaucracy charged with spearheading the Tibet dialogue is in transition.
China is also loath to change the status quo and risk instability ahead of the Beijing Olympics in August.
But as talks stagnate, signs of discontent in Tibet and ethnic Tibetan areas of western China are increasing.
Last year, almost 10,000 Tibetans converged on a monastery in China's northwest, mistakenly thinking the Dalai Lama was there.
This month, four ethnic Tibetans were jailed for "inciting to split the country" and engaging in "splittist activities" after publicly calling for the Dalai Lama's return.
"Whatever China thinks about the Dalai Lama, it is quite clear he has moral authority and religious authority in Tibet," said Tsering Shakya. "Without some sort of accommodation or reconciliation with him, the Tibetan issue will fester."
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