<< Prime Minister of the Tibetan government-in-exile, Samdhong Rinpoche, leaves during a break at the conference called to discuss the Tibet in Dharamsala on November 17, 2008 (
MANPREET ROMANA / AFP / Getty Images)
The week-long summit, which includes elected members of the Tibetan parliament-in-exile, non-governmental organizations and protest groups, comes at a critical time. After the Dalai Lama indicated recently that he had all but given up on negotiations with China over autonomy for Tibet, there is increasing tension between Tibetan conservatives, who favor continuing talks, and younger radicals who want to push for a free Tibet. After protests this March in Lhasa that turned violent, the radicals were energized. But since then, they have been unable channel their efforts constructively. "The community is feeling slightly lost and helpless," says Tsering Shakya, a Tibetan scholar and professor at the University of British Columbia who has written extensively about modern Tibetan history. This week's meeting is an attempt on the part of Tibetan leadership to allow them to voice their views openly — without feeling inhibited about criticizing the Dalai Lama — and perhaps restore some sense of unity.
But perhaps the biggest wild card in the talks will be Tibetans inside Tibet, says Robbie Barnett, a professor of Tibetan studies at Columbia University in New York City. (There are 5.5 million, compared to about 130,000 in the global diaspora.) They won't be able to attend in person, but many of them are making their views heard through informal or secret communications. And here too, there is a wide range of views, from radicalized former prisoners to those who are actually pushing for more concessions to China in the hopes of bringing the Dalai Lama back to Tibet before the end of his life.
It will be up to the chair of the meeting, Karma Choepel, the speaker of the Tibetan parliament, to allow open and frank discussion. The Dalai Lama will not participate in any of the talks, although he is expected to address the gathering after the end of the summit. The meeting, Barnett says, is "explicitly a response by the Dalai Lama to criticism that his charisma has cramped any space for real discussion." But no one is expecting Tibetans to suddenly shift course from the "Middle Path," which advocates for negotiating with Beijing for autonomy, not independence, and has been steered so carefully by their spiritual leader for the last 30 years.
Instead, the summit will be considered a success if it reaches some consensus about how to choose the Dalai Lama's successor, and if it brings Tibetans together to discuss issues like education and how to involve young Tibetans in the political process. Barnett notes that China may find it more difficult to control a movement that is strong and unified around a common purpose. "If they can achieve that, it will really be quite significant." And perhaps the most radical move of all.