Uprising Spurns Dalai Lama's Way

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Demonstrators protest on a street in Lhasa, Tibet. China moved Saturday to quell the uprising that left at least 10 people dead.

Violent anti-China demonstrations in Tibet eased Saturday, and a tentative calm — and electricity supplies — returned to the Tibetan capital Lhasa following four days of unrest. China's state-run news agency said protestors had killed ten people, while Tibetan activists based in India said that at least 30, and as many as 100 had died in the protests and subsequent crackdown by security forces. The authorities on Saturday issued an ultimatum demanding that the "lawbreakers" surrender themselves by Monday, but for many Tibetans, the current uprising is a sign that the prospects for a compromise with Beijing are dimming.

The Chinese authorities blame Tibet's exiled spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, for the protests. The Tibetan government installed by Beijing alleged, in a statement released Saturday, that the demonstrations had been organized by "law- breaking monks and nuns," as part of a plan by the "Dalai Lama organization" to destabilize Tibet. Aides to the Dalai Lama said these allegations were "absolutely baseless," and that the unrest was "spontaneous." Earlier last week, the Dalai Lama told supporters gathered to commemorate the 49th anniversary of his escape to India after a failed anti-China uprising, that "repression continues to increase with numerous, unimaginable and gross violations of human rights, denial of religious freedom and politicization of religious issues," but that he would continue to advocate for dialogue with Beijing and a "‘middle-way' policy."

Young Tibetans, many of them born outside their homeland, have become increasingly critical of the moderation of the Dalai Lama and other exiled leaders. Although they remain loyal to the Dalai Lama, they believe that demonstrations or even confrontation might be more effective means of securing their rights. "There are two schools of thought," says Lobsang Sangay, a Senior Fellow at the East Asian Legal Studies Program at Harvard Law School. "One says you can never trust the Chinese government because they will never negotiate peacefully, and so confrontation is the best approach. The one led by the Dalai Lama says dialogue is the best approach."

Wherever they fall in that debate, Tibetans clearly view the 2008 Beijing Olympics as a high-profile opportunity to draw attention to their cause. B. Tsering, the head of the Tibetan Women's Association, told TIME that her group and four other Tibetan organizations based in India have spent the past year planning a peaceful protest campaign timed to coincide with the buildup to the Olympics. It took dozens of meetings to agree on a strategy, in part because the groups are split over whether to demand autonomy for Tibet within China, or to press for it to become an independent state. Despite the arrest of 100 or so activists by Indian authorities three days ago, a march to the Chinese border is still underway. "This is no time for differences," Tsering says. Activists including Tsering emphasize that while protests outside Tibet were planned, the uprising in Tibet itself was spontaneous. "They have been entirely without coordination," says Tsering. "Though we're watching everything — each other — on BBC."

The protests in Tibet were spontaneous, agrees legal expert Lobsang Sangay, but a violent uprising was inevitable. The combination of simmering resentment over the failure of the Dalai Lama's six-year-long negotiations with Beijing, and the influx of Han Chinese settling in Tibet have pushed Tibetans to breaking point, says Sangay, who grew up in exile. "The frustration level has reached very, very high," he says. "If you study violent movements, when these reach a threshold when it starts to affect not only political issues but also bread and butter issues, then it crosses a line and the response becomes much more aggressive and violent and that's what's happened here."

This week's events resemble the 1959 uprising and similar protests in the late 1980s, Sangay believes, all of which followed periods of attempted dialogue. "There is a co-relationship between dialogue not working out and demonstrations, dialogue not working out and frustration growing. [When dialogue constantly fails] this type of uprising is inevitable. It's not a question of if, but when." The protestors, says Sangay, are not rejecting the Dalai Lama's call for dialogue and negotiations, but Beijing's refusal to take negotiations seriously. "It's not that the Dalai Lama is wrong," says Sangay. "It's that the Dalai Lama's approach is right but that the partner is not willing and the people see the Dalai Lama being taken for a ride."

The latest protests may mark a more serious shift towards confrontation, however. Tsering notes that this is the first time major demonstrations have taken place simultaneously inside and outside of Tibet, and that the two communities seem to be drawing encouragement from each other. There's also a sense that Tibet is fast losing the culture many Tibetans are so desperate to preserve, and that the prospects for compromise are receding. "The crucial factor is the age of the Dalai Lama," says Sangay. "Unlike the ‘50s and ‘80s, Tibetan people inside and outside are very well informed of events and what's happening around the world through radio and Internet, and they know that, for an agreement to be implemented effectively, time is a factor. Implementing an agreement, this only the Dalai Lama can do. And the Dalai Lama is 73 years old now. The sooner you do it the better. The people inside feel a sense of urgency, they want him to return to the land he belongs to. They want a closure to this tragedy of history."