DHARAMSALA, India — In this Himalayan hill town, where Tibetan prayer flags flutter and red-robed monks study Buddha’s call for forbearance, talk is brewing of kicking off the world’s next separatist movement.
Posters around town advertise the word “rangzen” — Tibetan for “independence.” Not in years has it been heard so much in the streets here, falling from the lips of members of the Tibetan diaspora whose frustration runs as deep as the mountain ravines of their homeland. Decades of dialogue with the Chinese government, they say, have failed.
“Support for independence will definitely increase,” Dhondup Dorjee, 30, said, as he took a break from a heated discussion with fellow exiles to grab lunch in the cafeteria of the Tibetan hospital. “What are the pressures we can put on the Chinese? The pressures will come in any form.”
The Tibetan exile movement, so long associated with the Dalai Lama and his “middle way,” has reached a crossroads. The Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader of the Tibetans, has called hundreds of representatives from the world’s 150,000 Tibetan exiles to a crisis meeting here this week. He wants people like Mr. Dorjee to speak their minds about whether a decades-old strategy of seeking a political reconciliation with China has failed.
Mr. Dorjee is vice president of the Tibetan Youth Congress, an exile organization that wants independence from China. The Dalai Lama and the Tibetan government-in-exile, based here in Dharamsala, have long advocated autonomy under Chinese rule, not outright independence.
“It’s completely useless,” Mr. Dorjee said of negotiating with the Chinese. “There’s no point. We have been played.”
Chinese officials now say in blunt terms that they will not accept the Dalai Lama’s demand for greater Tibetan autonomy, and have suggested that they would rather wait for the 73-year-old spiritual leader to die rather than reach an accord and allow him to return to Tibet.
One of the biggest causes célčbres in the world, taken up by actors and rock stars, the movement is also losing international support because of China’s growing economic influence.
It is time to adopt desperate measures, some Tibetans here say. At the conclusion of this week’s meeting, a majority of the 581 delegates could very well recommend to the Dalai Lama and the government in exile that they start a formal independence movement — a situation that would alarm Chinese leaders while also confirming their long-held suspicions that exiled Tibetan leaders would never settle for anything but separation from China.
“We have totally surrendered before the people and let them express their views,” Samdhong Rinpoche, prime minister of the exile government, said in an interview. “Obviously we’ve ruled out the violence approach. Other than that, anything is possible.”
The other big issue looming over the conference is the question of the Dalai Lama’s successor. The Dalai Lama, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, has suffered bouts of ill health recently. Some Tibetans are now suggesting that he could break tradition and appoint his own successor rather than wait for his reincarnation to be discovered after his death. Many Tibetans fear that China will hijack the process of locating his successor, as it did with the Panchen Lama in 1995, unless the Dalai Lama uses his influence to anoint a new spiritual leader before he dies.
The conference itself is being interpreted by many as the Dalai Lama’s attempt to wean the movement off his guidance — something that might have been unthinkable just years earlier.
“I see this meeting as a symbolic transition from a Tibetan movement led by His Holiness to a Tibetan movement led by Tibetan people,” said Lobsang Sangay, a research fellow at Harvard Law School.
The Tibet issue has reached a critical point for the exiles following a mass uprising of Tibetans across western China last spring. Protests and riots in which ethnic Han Chinese were killed prompted a harsh crackdown by the Chinese government. Envoys of the Dalai Lama and Chinese officials held two further rounds of talks in a series of negotiations that began in 2002, but the Chinese announced last week that they would never make any concessions on genuine autonomy for the six million people in Tibetan regions of China.
Robbie Barnett, a scholar of Tibet at Columbia University, said the Dalai Lama’s purpose in calling for the conference last September was probably to allow Tibetans to vent their frustrations while seeking unified support for his “middle way” strategy. But the recent hard-line statements by the Chinese could push moderate Tibetans in a more radical direction.
The Dalai Lama has not taken part in the conference. He said he wanted to remain neutral in the discussions, though his sister is attending, as are his envoys. He is expected to hear the recommendations of the delegates over the weekend, before Parliament discusses them.
In some discussions by committees at the six-day meeting, abbots who fled decades ago from Tibet debated the finer points of reincarnation doctrine with younger exiles who have never set foot on the roof of the world.
The most pressing question, though, has been whether the movement as a whole should call for Tibetan independence and abandon the Dalai Lama’s approach.
“The bottom line is every Tibetan would wish and aspire for independence,” said Mr. Dorjee, the officer of the Youth Congress. “It’s just that the Dalai Lama is not seeking independence, the exile government is not seeking independence.”
Though rare, there is talk among some young Tibetans of using violence. “There are so many views now,” Mr. Dorjee said.
Jamyang Norbu, a prominent Tibetan writer who lives most of the year in Tennessee, gave a speech here before the start of the conference on the concept of rangzen. A flier seen throughout the streets of Dharamsala says: “Let’s Talk — Why? How? When? Rangzen.”
“The Dalai Lama’s middle way depends on China democratizing,” Mr. Norbu said while unwinding early on Thursday evening in his cottage. “That premise has so far not materialized in any way and has even gotten worse.”
An independence movement, he said, would unite the exile community, keep Tibet in the headlines and increase pressure on the Chinese government. Supporters would organize economic boycotts of China. Young Tibetans in the West would go door to door explaining the cause.
“It’s a kind of peaceful guerrilla warfare,” he said.
Mr. Sangay, at Harvard, said he took a survey of his 34-person committee after he was elected chairman. The members were divided, with 40 percent for independence, 40 percent for autonomy and the rest in the middle. “They’re the swing voters, like Ohio, Pennsylvania and Florida,” he said of the last group.
For his part, Mr. Sangay, who has organized six conferences between Tibetans and Chinese scholars, said he still supported dialogue.
“There’s no basis for optimism where China is concerned, but I’m always hopeful that the good conscience of the people will come out,” he said. “If you choose nonviolence, the only path you’re left with is dialogue.”
On Wednesday, the Dalai Lama’s elder brother, Gyalo Thondup, made a similar point at a rare news conference. He met with reporters to relate how Deng Xiaoping, the former paramount leader of China, had told him in Beijing in 1979 that “except for independence, all issues can be discussed.” Chinese officials today have betrayed that promise, he said, by denying that Mr. Deng ever said it and refusing to negotiate on autonomy.
Still, Mr. Thondup, 80, said, “It’s essential for Tibetan people not to lose hope in pleading for our rights to the Chinese government.”
Whether that is the future, or whether it lies in adopting a more radical approach, Tibetans now have to decide who will lead their struggle. Several committees are discussing the possibility of the current Dalai Lama naming a successor. “I personally don’t know whether this is acceptable according to religious traditions,” said Samdhong Rinpoche, who, besides serving as prime minister, is also a monk.
Other people have talked of a greater political role for the young Karmapa Lama, the third-ranking spiritual leader. There is also the widely held thought that the next Dalai Lama should devote himself solely to spiritual concerns and turn all political matters over to the elected leaders.
“One cannot do without a personality like the Dalai Lama,” Mr. Sangay said. “But we can’t avoid a linear movement toward a modern, democratic system.”