Trouble Ahead for Tibet?

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Beijing announced yesterday that talks between representatives of the exiled Tibetan leader the Dalai Lama and senior Chinese officials were to be postponed until later this month. It was a another bad omen in a situation that looks increasingly grim. Conditions on the ground are still very tense. Beijing also announced that it had arrested 16 Tibetans, mostly monks. for carrying out three bombings in Tibet in April. Meanwhile the Dalai Lama himself has expressed apprehension that there could be further protests in Tibet and its neighboring ethnically Tibetan areas of China proper in coming weeks. The Chinese authorities seem to make the same judgment: a colleague traveling in the province of Gansu noted that the military presence was very heavy and visible, considerably more than in the past, presumably an attempt to head off trouble. Nearly three months after the initial protests, foreign reporters still can’t enter Tibet, most likely a sign that the situation is still not even close to being stabilized. A possible flash point could be when the Olympic Torch passes through Tibet later this month. The International Olympic Committee is closing a meeting in Athens today at which activists have been protesting in an attempt to get the IOC to cancel the Tibet leg of the relay. Little chance of that.

Tellingly, the 72 year old Dalai Lama recently said he felt “helpless” because his “middle way” policy of seeking to negotiate with Beijing was failing to find support among Tibetans. I’m not surprised the famously cheery monk is somewhat gloomy these days. As someone who is familiar with his thinking told me, even more than ever, he is caught between a rock (younger, more radical Tibetan exiles) and a hard place (Beijing). In the aftermath of the earthquake, China not unnaturally has a great deal of sympathy overseas and this appears to have led to a more inflexible stance from the Chinese. Should Tibetan frustration break out in further riots/demonstrations, the Dalai Lama will have no good options, forced to choose between supporting the protesters and losing Beijing completely or condemning the protests and losing vital support from his own people. It’s a delicate business for Beijing, too, though. I don’t believe that Beijing wants to see the Dalai Lama discredited and radical younger exiles gain influence.

There don’t seem to be any good options for anybody at the moment, least of all the Tibetan people. Maybe it’s too easy to be pessimistic, but it’s hard to see a scenario under which things change for the better inside Tibet. And that means continued heavy control by the military/police for a long time to come.

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