DHARAMSALA, India (Reuters) - A restless young generation of Tibetans is warning that a failure to achieve Tibet’s independence is creating a deep well of frustration, offering space for more radical groups in coming years.
Many exiled Tibetans would like to go further than the conciliatory “middle way” approach of their spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, who seeks autonomy. Yet they say it is Beijing that is to blame if their exiled movement turns violent.
“The space for a militant leader is not being created by the Dalai Lama’s policy, but because of China’s stubborn unwillingness to negotiate with His Holiness,” said Nawang Lobsang of Tibetan college students’ mass movement group.
Many in the group operate from Dharamsala, where the self-proclaimed Tibetan government-in-exile is based. Some 150,000 Tibetans live in India, many of whom fled Tibet after a failed uprising against Chinese rule in 1959.
The town has been a centre of protests since a crackdown by Chinese authorities following a wave of unrest in Tibetan areas in March and subsequent demonstrations against the Olympic torch route around the globe.
Chinese officials met representatives of the Dalai Lama earlier this month, but many Tibetan community leaders said the talks were not serious negotiations, but merely a ploy to improve Beijing’s image ahead of the Olympics.
China, which says it sent troops into Tibet in 1950 to liberate it from feudal serfdom, blames the Dalai Lama for the recent unrest and has vilified him as a separatist bent on independence for Tibet and disrupting the Beijing Olympics.
“That way the Chinese are foolish because they are missing the opportunity to negotiate with a non-violent, peaceful man,” Lobsang said. “They might have to deal with a radical leader in the future.”
Many Tibetans are careful to balance every criticism of the Dalai Lama with affirmations of admiration.
“Our youngsters are getting fed up with the middle way, but we are not criticising the Dalai Lama,” Lobsang told Reuters. “The frustration is generated by the Chinese response to the middle way, not necessarily by the middle way approach per se.”
The sharpest critic of the “middle way” is the Tibetan Youth Congress (TYC), whose charter speaks of a struggle for independence “even at the cost of one’s life” — a position that many in China use as evidence to brand the group as terrorists.
“Tibetan youth today, they are speaking in a language like, ‘give me a needle I will find the eyes of the elephant myself’. How do you interpret that?” TYC vice-president Dhondup Dorjee said.
“There are people who are just willing to do anything. There are so many. So what we are doing is resorting to indefinite hunger strike — 40 to 50 days without food just a little bit of water — we are trying to balance the frustration and anger.”
Dorjee says the chances are that someone will mobilise this anger to lead a violent struggle in the coming years.
What could happen, he says, is an armed revolt within Tibet might be coordinated from outside using routes and communication channels that exiles use to keep in touch back home.
“If someone said to us ‘Tibet will be free if we chop off the head of a sheep’, the Dalai Lama cannot do it,” Dorjee said. “But we are not the Dalai Lama. Where is the problem in us chopping off the heads of thousands of sheep to free Tibet?
“The issue of Tibet is not just the issue of the Dalai Lama. The issue of Tibet is the issue of the Tibetan people.”
Even elderly Tibetans, such as Karma Chophel, the speaker of the Tibetan parliament-in-exile, say the “middle way” is alienating the Dalai Lama from the new generation.
“Even according to the middle way approach we are trying for self-rule, we should not depend entirely on China to give us something,” he said. “We must be aggressive ourselves also. We must be seen as doing something.”
But young leaders such as Dorjee are aware of the difficulties of a more radical Tibetan exile movement.
In that case, China could put pressure on India, Dorjee says, to ask the Dalai Lama to leave. But others say New Delhi could use an anti-China movement as leverage for geopolitical advantage.
“We don’t know what will happen,” said Lobsang. “But it is the false hope of China that the Tibet issue will go away once the Dalai Lama is gone.”