Is the Dalai Lama About to Give Up on China?

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Ashwini Bhatia / AP

Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama greets a crowd in Dharmsala, India, on Oct. 25

Has the Dalai Lama really given up on hope that China might some day come around and agree to his proposal for some sort of (very) limited autonomy for his homeland, Tibet? That's what the 73-year-old exiled Tibetan spiritual leader appeared to indicate during an Oct. 25 speech in his exile home of Dharamsala in northern India. "I have been sincerely pursuing the middle way approach in dealing with China for a long time now but there hasn't been any positive response from the Chinese side," he was quoted as saying. "As far as I'm concerned I have given up." That was, as an Associated Press report on the speech noted —almost with shock — "an unusually blunt" statement from a man whose well-known global public image revolves around preaching the compromise and non-violence that are central tenets of Buddhism.

But it appears that after decades of fruitless negotiations with Beijing as part of an attempt to gain some concessions for his homeland, the 15th Dalai Lama may have finally reached the end of his tether. "Mr. Patience has run out of patience," says Robbie Barnett, a professor of Tibetan studies at Columbia University in New York City. "It's really very serious indeed and a major disappointment, though not so much of a surprise. The Chinese must have know this was coming — some of the responsible officials in fact must be very pleased that they have managed to provoke this reaction. Now they can say that it was the other side that broke off negotiations, and claim the moral high ground."

The eighth round of talks between Beijing officials and the Dalai Lama's representatives was scheduled for late October. It's not clear how the statements by the Dalai Lama will affect them. On the day after the speech, the Tibetan leader's spokesman Tenzin Taklha told reporters that the talks were set to go forward as scheduled, stressing the need to "keep the door to dialog open." Taklha also confirmed that the Dalai Lama had called a consultative meeting of exiled Tibetans for mid-November at which the group's approach to achieving their goal of a freer Tibet would be completely examined from the ground up. He said "everything will be on the table" for reconsideration except the fundamental principle of non-violence.

In March, anti-Chinese riots in the Tibetan capital Lhasa did turn violent, leading to scores of fatalities on both sides. Chinese authorities swiftly sealed off Tibet and rounded up hundreds of suspects, some of whom reportedly remain in jail nearly eight months later. With access to the region still almost completely blocked, there have been only intermittent reports of further protests and alleged abuses and human rights violations by Chinese security forces attempting to quash the simmering dissent. Resentment against Beijing has exploded sporadically among the roughly six million Tibetans living in the mountainous region ever since troops of the People's Liberation Army invaded in 1951.

The Dalai Lama fled his homeland for exile in India in 1959, and has since become a familiar, maroon-robed presence on the world stage in a tireless, peripatetic campaign to win his homeland some degree of autonomy and preserve Tibet's traditional culture. This year he has found himself in an increasingly impossible situation since the riots in March, analysts and academics say. Younger and more radical forces among the some 100,000-strong exile community in India have increasingly called for a tougher stance against Beijing, particularly as reports of alleged further abuse, including arrests and shootings of demonstrating monks, have grown.

Sources familiar with the Tibetan stance say they have dropped almost all preconditions in talks with the Chinese and were seeking only a meeting between the spiritual leader and Chinese president Hu Jintao. but rather than soften their position, Chinese officials seemed to grow more aggressive since the middle of this year, most recently stating in July that the talks were not about the future of Tibet but about arrangements for the Dalai Lama's own future, including when he might be allowed to return to China. "That's exactly what caused the collapse of talks all the way back in 1985," says Barnett. "They must have known what would happen if they humiliated him that way again." Once they had returned to that phraseology, Barnett says the Dalai Lama had almost no choice but to repudiate them. Considering everything, he says, "the only real surprise is that it took so long."

(Click here for photos of the Dalai Lama at home.)