DHARAMSALA, India — Summoned by the Dalai Lama, Tibet's spiritual leader, more than 550 Tibetan exiles from around the globe have descended on this Himalayan hill station this week to debate the future of their homeland, which many see at a crucial juncture.
By day, they gather in intense sessions, devising strategies to challenge China over its firm grip on the Tibetan Plateau, the scene of unprecedented rioting earlier this year.
By night, they flock to coffee shops, restaurants and bars, greeting old friends from afar and new acquaintances, singing Tibetan songs, quaffing Kingfisher beer and making merry.
Tibet may be at a crossroads, but this six-day forum of exiles is turning into an unusual event that seems equal parts structured bull session, a profound lament over Tibet's situation, a celebration of its culture and, well, a party.
The Dalai Lama, the 73-year-old Nobel Peace laureate who's revered as a God-king by most Tibetans, has remained behind the scenes in this town, his exile base, saying that he doesn't want to put any imprint on the emergency meeting, which has drawn voices from among the 120,000 Tibetan exiles spread around the world.
Participants include bankers, parliamentarians, scholars, reincarnated lamas, refugee camp leaders, student activists and even a few critics of the Dalai Lama's position that Tibetans can accept China's sovereignty over Tibet as long as there's greater autonomy there.
"It is absolutely energizing," said Tenzin Tsundue, a 35-year-old Tibetan exile activist who wears a signature red bandanna around his head. "There are many people who I've read about or whose e-mail I've read. But I've never met them. When you come together, you feel good. We are strong."
"The government (in exile) did not try to make any agenda," added Tenzin Losel, who works with Tibetan refugees, noting that exiles had been broken into smaller groups. "In my group, there are 29 people. They come from all over the world, from Europe, from the States, from settlements all over India."
For most of the exiles, the meeting is a rare encounter.
"There are people here who haven't seen each other in 10 years," said Kate Saunders, a Briton who's the spokeswoman for the International Campaign for Tibet, an advocacy group for greater freedom in Tibet. "There is a sense of a historic meeting and a party at the same time."
At the closed-door sessions, exile participants say, there's been anguish that talks between the Dalai Lama's envoys and China's reached the point of rupture earlier this month, six years after they began.
"Stop the negotiations. That's the first thing we have to do," said Tseten Norbu, who lives in Katmandu, Nepal, and is a member of the Tibetan parliament in exile, which has its seat in Dharamsala.
At the last round of talks, from Oct. 31 to Nov. 5 in Beijing, Tibetan exile envoys presented a memorandum to their Chinese counterparts calling for "genuine autonomy" for the Tibetan region, including greater self-determination over religious, educational and cultural matters.
Afterward, China's senior negotiator, Zhu Weiqun, excoriated the proposal as a subterfuge designed to lead to China's dismemberment and independence for Tibet.
"We will never make a concession," Zhu said Nov. 10, suggesting that the talks would focus only on the Dalai Lama's acceptance of the status quo in Tibet.
China took military control of Tibet in 1951, and the Dalai Lama fled into exile to India in 1959 amid aborted uprisings against Chinese rule. Beijing has poured development aid into impoverished Tibet, raising living standards. Tibetans complain, though, that they have no say in development decisions. They say that migrant Han Chinese are swamping the plateau, threatening their culture, and that Buddhist monks are obligated to denounce the Dalai Lama, whom Beijing regards as a criminal separatist.
While many exiles say they're uplifted by the chance to voice their opinions, a few dissidents say the clock is ticking toward doom for Tibet.
"We've waited 30 years for the Chinese government," said Lhasang Tsering, a former head of the Tibetan Youth Congress, a group that advocates independence. He referred to the date when Tibetans claim that former Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping said that all matters regarding Tibet were up for negotiation short of its breaking away from China.
"Are we going to wait for 300 years, or 3,000 years, for the Chinese people to tell us, 'You are going to get nothing'?" Tsering asked. "We are going to be wiped out in 30 years."
Tsering said he hoped that Tibetan exiles would return to a policy of demanding independence and using, if necessary, a campaign "to target their industries, their power supply and communications inside China through acts of sabotage."
A previous guerrilla campaign by Tibetan exiles, funded partly by the CIA, ended in failure in the 1960s.
Tsundue, who's been detained in India repeatedly for publicity campaigns on the Tibet issue, said exiles should adhere to principles of nonviolence but use more confrontation.
"Where there is injustice, we will go there and fight. We will receive the beatings. We will go to jail. We will fight court cases," he said.
Saunders, the spokeswoman for the overseas campaign, said the Dalai Lama wouldn't be swayed from his stance on pacifism.
"The Dalai Lama's approach on nonviolence is non-negotiable," she said.
The six-day forum draws to a close Saturday, and the Dalai Lama is expected to speak publicly Sunday.
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