Tibetans Look to Future, Without Dalai Lama

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Tibetan Prime Minister Samdhong Rinpoche, center, at the summit to discuss Tibet's future in Dharamsala, India, on Nov. 17

Hundreds of Tibetan political leaders, activists and individuals from all over the world have begun a meeting in Dharamsala, India, that is unprecedented in its ambition: to bring all Tibetans together to decide their own future, without the direct guidance of the Dalai Lama.

The weeklong summit, which includes elected members of Tibet's parliament-in-exile, nongovernmental organizations and protest groups, comes at a critical time. After the Dalai Lama indicated recently that he had all but given up on negotiations with China over autonomy for Tibet, there has been increasing tension between Tibetan conservatives, who favor continuing talks, and younger radicals, who want to push for a free Tibet. After protests this March in Lhasa that turned violent, the radicals were energized. But since then they have been unable to channel their efforts constructively. "The community is feeling slightly lost and helpless," says Tsering Shakya, a Tibetan scholar and professor at the University of British Columbia who has written extensively about modern Tibetan history. This week's meeting is an attempt on the part of Tibetan leadership to allow Tibetans to voice their views openly — i.e., without feeling inhibited about criticizing the Dalai Lama — and perhaps to restore some sense of unity.

But the choice that Tibetans are facing isn't a simple fork in the road between seeking independence or seeking autonomy. That's clear from looking at the people expected to play a key role in the talks, which are closed to the public. The central voices of the Tibetan establishment include Lodi Gyari, the Dalai Lama's envoy to Washington and chief negotiator with the Chinese, and Prime Minister Samdhong Rinpoche, who is also seen as a conservative force, along with several Cabinet ministers. Those pushing for radical change include the Tibetan Youth Congress, which is vocal and visible but to date has had little sway over the Tibetan political system; Students for a Free Tibet, which is well organized but whose influence has been limited to the English-speaking world; and individuals like Jamyang Norbu, a writer and fiery orator who could have an outsize influence in this kind of forum. There are also several NGOs and individuals with regional influence over different parts of the Tibetan diaspora, and a secularist group pushing for more lay leadership.

But perhaps the biggest wild card in the talks will be Tibetans inside Tibet, says Robbie Barnett, a professor of Tibetan studies at Columbia University in New York City. (There are 5.5 million, compared with about 130,000 in the global diaspora.) They won't be able to attend in person, but many of them are making their views heard through informal or secret communications. And with this group, too, there is a wide range of views, from radicalized former prisoners to those who are pushing for more concessions to China in the hopes of bringing the Dalai Lama back to Tibet before the end of his life.

It will be up to the chair of the meeting, Karma Choepel, the speaker of the Tibetan parliament, to allow open and frank discussion. The Dalai Lama will not participate in any of the talks, although he is expected to address the gathering after the end of the summit. The meeting, Barnett says, is "explicitly a response by the Dalai Lama to criticism that his charisma has cramped any space for real discussion." But no one is expecting Tibetans to suddenly shift course from the "middle path," which advocates for negotiating with Beijing for autonomy, not independence, and has been steered so carefully by their spiritual leader for the past 30 years. Instead, the summit will be considered a success if it reaches some consensus on how to choose the Dalai Lama's successor, and if it brings Tibetans together to discuss issues like education and how to involve young Tibetans in the political process. Barnett notes that China may find it more difficult to control a movement that is strong and unified around a common purpose. "If they can achieve that, it will really be quite significant," he says. And perhaps the most radical move of all.

See pictures from the Dalai Lama's six decades leading Tibet here.

See pictures of the March 2008 riots in Tibet and China here.