New Delhi - Near 50 years after their spiritual leader the Dalai Lama fled Chinese occupation to set up base in India, leaders of the Tibetan exiled community are meeting in the northern hill town of Dharamsala on Monday to discuss their future.
A long-simmering debate on the best approach - greater autonomy within China or a call for independence - is expected to be the focus of discussions among the 500-plus delegates attending the meeting.
After negotiating with the Chinese government for a "meaningful autonomy" within China for three decades, the Dalai Lama now says he is increasingly losing faith in the Chinese leadership.
In a speech in late October, the Buddhist leader who is revered by his followers said he saw no useful purpose in continuing with the talks for Tibetan aspirations.
The Dalai Lama said he may even be a hindrance, and called for a special meeting of Tibetan leaders in exile to "think over the issue of the common good of Tibet and decide accordingly."
China crushed protests in China's Tibetan Autonomous Region as exiled Tibetans and their supporters demonstrated across the world in the months before the Beijing Olympic Games. Chinese authorities said the talks were going nowhere and blamed the Dalai Lama.
Officials of the government-in-exile, senior monks, leaders of Tibetan non-governmental organizations, women and youth groups as well as scholars from India and abroad are expected to attend the session from Monday to Saturday at Dharamsala.
"The Dalai Lama will not attend. He does not want to influence people by his presence or words," his secretary Chhime Chhoekyapa said. But the spiritual leader is expected to make a statement at the concluding session.
Chhoekyappa described the meeting as "a sort of brainstorming session. To review the past 30 years and to explore the possibilities of where we should go; to assess where we stand.
"Some want to continue with the middle way, some want independence. Everyone is expected to put on the table real objectives, feasible objectives after assessing the situation."
Chhoekyapa said the "middle way" has had not been a total failure, as it has drawn international attention to the Tibetan cause.
"And while there is no Tibetan who does not want independence, is it practical, is there international support which could make it happen? Will it be appreciated by our host country India?" he asked.
For the younger generation of exiled Tibetans, the middle way has failed to yield substantive results.
Many feel the goal of independence and a tougher stand by the government-in-exile would give them a better chance of achieving greater autonomy. "The Dalai Lama is too idealistic. International politics is about hard bargaining, it is about money," said one youth leader who did not want to be named.
"We have to keep the goal clear - independence - even if it is not realistic at the moment," Tenzin Cheoying, leader of the Students for Free Tibet said. "Things keep changing. We have to be prepared to seize the opportunity at the right time."
Some Tibetans feel the concept of non-violence poses a fundamental problem for their aspirations.
"The Chinese do not take us seriously because we are non-violent. The world gives in to their bullying tactics and pays lip service to our cause. They talk of human rights and bow down to the so-called needs of globalization and commercialization," Tibetan Woman's Association leader B Tsering said in an interview.
Young exiles have a deep sense of hurt about the failure of protests in the days leading up to the Beijing Olympics.
"We were told to cool down when we had the world's attention. Gandhi said protest peacefully, he never said that you do not have the right to protest," one youth leader said.
The debate promises to be long and hard. And no one seems to expect an early outcome. In a message to all Tibetans on the eve of the meeting, the Dalai Lama called for "free and frank" discussions.
Tibetan affairs analysts say the Dalai Lama may be posturing to pressure the Chinese government. The monk said Chinese intransigence forced him to call the meeting and abdicate a leadership role.
But he also said: "However, if the Chinese leadership honestly engages in talks, then I may be in a position to take up this responsibility again. I will, then, sincerely engage with them."
"Reverence for the Dalai Lama knows no bounds. He said stop wearing animal fur and every Tibetan inside Tibet stopped. If tomorrow he gives us the power everyone will respond. They just need to give the signal," Choeying said.
About 6 million Tibetans live in the Tibet Autonomous Region of China while another 100,000 live in exile, mostly in India and Nepal. (dpa)
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