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Tibetan exiles discussing their struggle

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[November 17, 2008]  DHARMSALA, India (AP) -- Tibetan exile leaders opened weeklong discussions Monday on their struggle with China, talks that could see them abandon the Dalai Lama's path of compromise with Beijing in favor of a long-shot independence movement.

The meeting in northern India, called by the Dalai Lama, the region's exiled spiritual leader, comes after he expressed frustration over years of fruitless talks with China.

Much of the debate is expected to boil down to two main choices: whether to continue pushing for Tibetan autonomy, a path called the "middle way" that the Dalai Lama has promoted for two decades; or striving for independence -- a move almost certain to end the on-off talks held with Beijing since 2002.

Samdhong Rinpoche, prime minister of the self-proclaimed Tibetan government-in-exile, called for an "open and frank discussion" and new ideas.

Within the two camps, there are a range of possibilities, with various factions urging more protests, angrier protests, more pressure on Western nations and even, in a very small group, a push for sabotage of China's infrastructure.

Rinpoche said in an opening speech to the hundreds of delegates that the meeting may not necessarily lead to a new approach with China and that any new path needs to have "the clear mandate of the people."

The Dalai Lama was not expected to attend any of the meetings, said Lobsang Choedak, press officer of the government-in-exile.

On Sunday, the Dalai Lama's envoys to the last round of talks with Beijing said in a statement that they had presented China with a detailed plan on how Tibetans could meet their autonomy needs within the framework of the Chinese Constitution.


Their plan says the constitution "contains fundamental principles on autonomy and self-government" that would allow Beijing to "respond to the uniqueness of the Tibet situation."

It calls for the protection for the Tibetan language and culture, restrictions on non-Tibetans moving into Tibet and the rights of Tibetans to create their own government that would "have the power to execute and administer decisions autonomously."

But China apparently rejected the plan and recent "Chinese statements distort the position and proposal we have outlined in our paper," the statement said.

Chinese officials said no progress was made in the talks two weeks ago, calling the Tibetan stance "a trick" and saying it lacked sincerity.

"The Dalai Lama or the Tibetan government-in-exile cannot be held responsible for the failure of the Chinese to respond to our sincere and genuine attempts," said Dalai Lama envoy Lodi Gyari, who has participated in all eight rounds of talks since 2002.

"The Chinese leadership keeps on saying that the doors to a dialogue are always open but they haven't shown any willingness to take any step, however small, forward," he said in the statement, the first by envoys since the latest round of talks.

China has dismissed this week's meeting as meaningless, saying the participants do not represent the views of most Tibetans. Beijing says the Dalai Lama and his followers are seeking outright independence from Chinese rule.

The Dalai Lama has declined to offer his views on the future of the movement because he said he did not want to tilt the debate in any particular direction.

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Karma Chophel, speaker of parliament in the government-in-exile, said more than 8,000 of 17,000 Tibetans recently surveyed in Tibet about their view said they would follow any decision by the Dalai Lama. More than 5,000 said they wanted Tibetan independence, more than twice the number who wanted to continue with the current approach, he said.

Chophel declined to offer any details about how or when the survey was conducted, but it almost certainly would have had to be completed in secrecy.

China insists Tibet has been part of its territory for 700 years, although many Tibetans say they were effectively independent for most of that time. Chinese forces invaded shortly after the 1949 Communist revolution and the Dalai Lama fled to India in 1959 amid an unsuccessful uprising against Chinese rule.

A senior Chinese official said in comments broadcast Friday that Beijing is open to further talks with the Tibetans.

Despite a half-century of Chinese rule and political campaigns, large numbers of Tibetans remain fervently Buddhist and loyal to the Dalai Lama. If the exiles choose a more confrontational approach, Tibetans still living under Chinese rule would bear the brunt of any government response.

The widespread uprising by Tibetans across western China in March prompted Beijing to move aggressively to reassert order. Paramilitary forces have set up camps near major monasteries and important towns and monks were expelled from the clergy for their views. Those controls remain in place and have been heightened in recent weeks, according to accounts from recent travelers to the region and the pro-Tibet community in the West.

The Dalai Lama voiced his impatience with China last month and appeared to give up hope of achieving a form of autonomy from Beijing that would allow Tibetans to freely practice their culture, language and religion.

"As far as I'm concerned I have given up," he said.

[Associated Press; By ASHOK SHARMA]

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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