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Fifty Years And Counting...

Fifty Years And Counting...

Author: P Stobdan
Publication: The Times of India
Date: March 14, 2009
URL: http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/TOP-ARTICLE-Fifty-Years-And-Counting/rssarticleshow/4256728.cms

Introduction: The China-Dalai Lama face-off over Tibet continues

China recently appeared keen on averting a replay of last year's Tibetan unrest that nearly wrecked the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Ahead of the 50th anniversary of the Tibetan uprising on March 10 this year, it poured extra troops into Tibet to quell any disturbance. Since mid-January, security preparations sanitised the region of pro-Dalai Lama activists and kept out foreigners for fear of violent incidents attracting global spotlight. Internet and mobile text-messaging services have been blocked between March 10 and May 1 for "network improvement".Monasteries have faced shutdowns and monks, subjected to 'patriotic education', have been monitored.

On the eve of the anniversary, President Hu Jintao promised to build a "Great Wall" against Tibetan separatism while foreign minister Yang Jiechi warned other countries not to allow their territories to be used by the Dalai Lama for anti-China activities. Yet reports of monks defying orders have filtered out, especially from the Qinghai and Sichuan provinces. But the anniversary went off peacefully in Lhasa amid China's heightened measures.

Tibetans in exile staged symbolic protests and called on the "Indian people to free Tibet". The Dalai Lama made unusually strong comments about his anguish at failing to realise a half-century-old struggle for Tibet's independence. He accused Beijing of turning Tibet into "hell on Earth" through periods of martial law and hard-line policies. But he also reiterated the demand for "meaningful autonomy" within the framework of the Chinese constitution. Beijing too did not react to the event with a show of force. Refuting his criticism as "lies", China extolled its own achievements in freeing Tibetans from supposed slavery. It declared March 28, marking the fall of the Dalai Lama regime in 1959, 'Serfs' Liberation Day'.

Both sides perhaps saw reason for avoiding mutually counterproductive confrontation. The Tibetan cause has received the world's attention but China has successfully resisted scrutiny by maintaining a seemingly nonnegotiable Tibet policy. If anything, explosive anger on the part of Tibetans has merely risked triggering aggrieved nationalism in China. Last year, Beijing was able to whip up public emotions at a time the Dalai Lama - finding growing support among the Chinese intelligentsia - linked his struggle with democracy's advent in China and his 'unshaken faith' in the Chinese people.

But 2008's events damaged China equally. A huge country with the world's largest population and en route to becoming an economic superpower was made to look paranoid and helpless when protesters the world over threatened to mar its Olympics showcase. China's achievements appeared to lack credibility in

the international community's eyes. The Chinese perhaps now recognise the soft power the Dalai Lama represents, which can impact negatively on China's image.

Beijing in the past followed a dual approach to the Dalai Lama, engaging him through talks but also accusing him of plotting bloody riots. Intermittent dialogue lost steam after the Olympics, with China rejecting a constitutional provision for the Dalai Lama's sway over Tibet via what it called "disguised independence". While Tibetan interlocutors faced condescension and admonishments about riots in Tibet, the talks helped Beijing sidetrack international scrutiny.

The Dalai Lama came under intense pressure from younger Tibetans to abandon his mild creed in favour of a more proactive stance. When Beijing warned him to rein in his young followers, they told him to break off talks. Squeezed from both sides, he threatened to retire from political life. But in a special conclave in Dharamsala last November, the majority reaffirmed their allegiance to his non-violent approach. His retirement was ruled out but so were talks until Beijing showed seriousness.

There is no visible sign of change in Beijing's waiting-game strategy: waiting for the Dalai Lama to pass away so it can install a pliable replacement. The focus is shifting to the contested issue of succession. For the Dalai Lama, the choice, though involving a mystical process, is becoming clear. He had stoked a debate in 2007 over breaking his born-again rule and opting for a democratically elected successor through a referendum before his death. It is not clear if his recent statements are linked to a divine call or political expediency aimed at thwarting China's control.

The 73-year-old leader's poor health last year compelled his followers to seriously think about a leadership change. It would be difficult to enforce an arrangement not involving the notion of reincarnation. But several campaigns favour passing the mantle to the controversial 17th Karmapa who has Beijing's blessings apart from the Dalai Lama's recognition. Succession is a complex issue under the Tibetan hierarchical system. It could mean the collapse of the Gelukpa's supremacy which, in turn, would fuel dissensions along sectarian lines, resulting in a final victory for China.

Tibet could figure prominently on the Obama administration's radar. The US may call for a multilateral approach to ending the imbroglio. For India, Tibet will always cause some anxiety. Last year, New Delhi was both criticised for bending over backwards to please China as well as patted for its realpolitik. With economic issues driving India's China policy, Tibet is unlikely to assume much significance though it is linked to critical security issues. It is not inconceivable that Beijing may at some stage pressure New Delhi to dismantle Dharamsala. India needs a more sophisticated policy that goes beyond simply curbing the Dalai Lama's activities.

- The writer is a senior security analyst at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi.

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