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Story Publication logo April 3, 2008

Young Tibetans Impatient with Nonviolence


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Today Maoist insurgents keen to exploit the state's enduring weaknesses stalk the Hindu heartland...

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A Tibetan protester has his face painted in Dharamsala, India, the home of the Dalai Lama's government-in-exile.

Dharamsala, India -- Palgay spent more than two weeks dodging Chinese authorities to fulfill his lifelong dream - a face-to-face meeting with the Dalai Lama.

His journey to the seat of the spiritual leader's government-in-exile high in the Indian Himalayas began earlier this month when he paid a driver nearly $800 to hide inside a pile of luggage headed for Nepal. From there, he sneaked across the border, feeling his way along treacherous rocky terrain under the cover of darkness.

Sitting on a bunk at the Tibetan Reception Center, the 28-year-old shepherd who refused to give his last name, voiced doubts over the Dalai Lama's non-violent strategy amid the military crackdown by Chinese forces. Since protests began in Tibet on the March 10 anniversary of the 1959 uprising against Chinese rule, 22 people have died, according to Chinese officials. The government-in-exile says 140 Tibetans have been killed.

"In Tibet, we have no rights, no freedom," said Palgay. "Waiting has brought us nothing. ... Unless China frees us, we will not stop this fight."

His bitter view is emblematic of a growing sense of impatience among young Tibetans, inside and outside Tibet, where anti-government unrest has reached its highest level in decades.

"Many Tibetans are starting to question whether nonviolence is getting them anywhere given the stance of the Chinese regime. The protests show how youth are torn between the two," said Lhadon Thethong, executive director of Students for a Free Tibet in Dharamsala.

'Tibetans are human beings'

Thethong adds that the clashes across Tibet have opened a "good discussion that Tibetans are human beings, not perfect saints that are calm under any circumstance."

A hard-line shift toward the Chinese may be due to a generational and geographic gap, as Tibetans who have spent their entire lives stifled under Chinese rule know less of the man their parents taught them to revere. Since he fled Tibet in 1959, eight years after it came under Chinese control, the Dalai Lama has promoted what he calls "the Middle Way" - nonviolence and sustained dialogue - to secure greater political autonomy for Tibet. He repeatedly says he is against full independence.

Some 100,000 of his countrymen followed their spiritual leader into India, most of whom have never challenged his nonviolent stance, though the CIA trained Tibetans in Nepal to wage guerrilla warfare against the Chinese in the 1950s and 1960s during the Cold War.

Commitment to dialogue

Over the years, analysts say the Tibetan leader's commitment to dialogue has never wavered even though Chinese Communist Party boss Zhang Qingli recently blamed him for the unrest in Tibet, branding him a "wolf in monk's robes."

When protests led by Buddhist monks turned violent on March 14 in the Tibetan capital, Lhasa, the Dalai Lama pledged to step down as spiritual and political leader rather than see his movement turn violent. "If things become out of control, then my only option is completely resign, completely resign," he said at the time.

Contending that Tibetans and Chinese must learn to live together and put tensions aside, the 72-year-old monk insists he is ready to negotiate greater autonomy for Tibet - a move that has alienated some activists.

"The middle way has been in existence for 20 years and nothing has come out of it," Tsewang Rigzin, president of the Tibetan Youth Congress, said recently.

The Tibetan Youth Congress, formed in 1970 with the Dalai Lama's blessing, claims to have more than 30,000 members worldwide. They favor full independence and employing the same tactics used against South Africa's former apartheid government, including boycotting companies that do business with China.

Violence a help to China

"There is a tragic battle going on between those who claim that only exile stridency or even violence can attract world attention, and those who say that violence is what most helps China justify its use of force and its attacks on the Dalai Lama," said Robbie Barnett, director of the Modern Tibet Studies program at Columbia University. "People are caught in the vise of this dilemma."

In the months leading up to the Beijing Olympic Games - a period some activists here see as the best opportunity to draw international attention - Barnett says angry exiles will have to ask themselves whether the media attention is "worth the risk of a seriously divided community, which could damage the Dalai Lama's standing."

The ban on foreign media coverage has made it all but impossible to gauge the sentiments of young Tibetans inside the region. But ongoing unrest has boiled over across China's borders.

Police detain 50 exiles

On Wednesday, police detained some 50 Tibetan exiles in the Nepalese capital of Kathmandu, after they staged a second day of protests in front of the heavily guarded Chinese Embassy, according to the Associated Press.

In Dharamsala, protesters wield Tibetan flags, chanting slogans for a "Free Tibet" and calling on China to end its oppression.

Dozens of students and nuns are on hunger strike and pledging to continue until Beijing calls off its soldiers. Their fervor is fueled by a steady stream of news updates and posters of Tibetans allegedly killed and maimed by Chinese forces that canvass town walls. Most victims appear to have been shot in the head and chest.

"We want peace but I see what's happening to our people over there and I think maybe there is no choice (but to fight)," said a 32-year-old man who identified himself as Choephel. He said his 23-year-old nephew was killed by Chinese forces a week ago in Amdo city along with five others.

But Kalsang Sherab, 28, said nonviolence remains the only way to gain lasting improvements for Tibetans.

"We may feel angry and want to strike back, but the middle path is a good one," he said. "(The Dalai Lama) has shown the way, and it's good for the whole Tibetan community."


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