Delegates from 19 countries strongly endorse the Dalai Lama's 'middle way' but may seek independence if talks make no headway.
Tibetans in exile to keep options open
Beijing // A special meeting of more than 500 Tibetan exiles closed in Dharamsala, India, offering a strong endorsement of the Dalai Lama's "middle way" approach in dealing with China, but also holding out the possibility of seeking independence if China fails to show a willingness to negotiate. Karma Choephel, the speaker of the Tibetan parliament-in-exile, said in a telephone interview that the majority of delegates were in favour of continuing the Dalai Lama's approach to engaging China, but he added: "If the policy does not result in solving the Tibetan issue in a period of time, then the Tibetan people will change to a policy of seeking independence or self-determination." Delegates said they recognised the importance of trying to seek engagement and affirmed that there would be no change in the policy of non-violence; however, they also expressed frustration with the lack of progress in eight rounds of negotiations with Beijing since 2002. The meeting held in Dharamsala, the seat of the Tibetan government-in-exile, was convened by the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan spiritual leader, to find a way out of the impasse in negotiations with China. He did not attend the meeting so as to avoid influencing the outcome. Delegates taking part in the meeting called on envoys of the Dalai Lama not to hold further talks with China, a position that was included in the final declaration. The meeting was seen as a strong endorsement of the leadership of the Dalai Lama, 73, and his conciliatory approach to Beijing. Delegates blamed China for the failure of talks since 2002 - and not the policies of the Tibetan religious leader. They also urged the leader not to go into retirement. Robbie Barnett, professor of Tibetan studies at Columbia University in New York, said the outcome of the meeting was important because it "vindicated [the Dalai Lama] even under extreme pressure" from the Chinese government, which has lashed out at the spiritual leader in recent weeks. Mr Choephel said the meeting reaffirmed the Dalai Lama as "the sole representative and leader of the Tibetan people". "The Chinese leadership has claimed that the Tibetan envoys and His Holiness the Dalai Lama have no power to decide the Tibet issue," he said, "but this meeting has shown that the policies of the Dalai Lama remain supreme." In his closing remarks at the end of the meeting, Mr Choephel taunted Chinese officials. "The envoys of His Holiness the Dalai Lama have challenged the Chinese leadership to hold a referendum of the Tibetan people if they wanted to know whom they consider their sole representative and leader." Mr Choephel also called on the Chinese leadership to stop its harsh criticisms of the Dalai Lama, and he said he was not responsible for the trouble that broke out in Tibet in March, as Beijing has repeatedly alleged. The meeting statement blamed "Chinese misrule and bad policies" for the uprisings that took place in Tibetan areas throughout China. "The blame has been placed squarely on the shoulders of the Chinese government," said Kate Saunders, the director of communications at the International Campaign for Tibet, who was in Dharamsala for the meetings. "This meeting has sent a clear message to Beijing." Observers said the meeting was important because it marked a major step forward involving exiles from around the world in deciding the future of Tibet. Delegates came from some 19 countries, and included a wide array of opinions, with even strong critics of the middle way approach being invited to the meeting. Mr Barnett called the meeting "a new phase for exiles". "Exiles are starting to take responsibility for policy matters and political decision making rather than just expressing broad statements or opinions," he said. "They are starting to step up to the mark and become a representative body. This represents a step forward for institution building and unity." Ms Saunders said: "It's been a very positive force for all involved. There is more of a sense of solidarity. We have seen democracy in action." Mr Barnett said the Tibetan exiles had been able to "provoke China to react in an irrational way", despite numbering a little more than 100,000, adding that the exile body is starting to become an "institutional voice". "China hasn't really learned to deal with the problem in a way that would neutralise it," he said. "It keeps reigniting the tensions. "So China keeps giving them this strength and so the issue has become bigger rather than smaller. "If the politics shift. China could be looking at a different kind of challenge altogether." firstname.lastname@example.org