“While there are many religions, Buddhist teaching offers the ultimate answer,” intoned the Dalai Lama in his native Tibetan.
For some in the crowd, the Dalai Lama’s words are not enough to stop them from dozing under the hot Indian sun. Among those listening attentively, though, are a small group recently arrived from Beijing.
“It is for us an amazing opportunity … we study Buddhism because life in China is lacking in spirituality,” says their leader, who asked not to be identified.
Leading a 10-day teaching course on the “path to enlightenment” that culminated in celebrations for his 70th birthday early last month, the Dalai Lama is not the only one commemorating an anniversary.
Founded in 1965, six years after the Dalai Lama fled Tibet following a failed uprising against the Chinese, the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR) – the administrative area marking modern day Tibet – turns 40 on 1 September.
On the face of it, the two sides could not be further apart.
Dubbed a “splittist” by the Chinese government for his former insistence that Tibet is an independent country, Beijing still tries hard to restrict the Dalai Lama’s travel itinerary, placing pressure on host governments not to meet him.
And in the north Indian hilltop town of Dharmsala – the current home of the Dalai Lama – anti-Chinese propaganda and Free Tibet posters are ubiquitous.
“For many years we viewed each other suspiciously as though we each had horns on our heads. If the talks continue to grow as they are now then we could move to full blown negotiations… In a number of years we will get to know each other … so that with full confidence can resolve the issue of Tibet peacefully”
Since 2002, however, a series of annual talks between Beijing and Dharmsala have been held in an unprecedented attempt to resolve the long-standing issue of Tibet’s status.
The most recent meeting was in July.
Tibetan officials say they are cautiously optimistic of a breakthrough.
Likened to the mystical Shangri-La, Tibet has long held fascination for the West. Evocative of forbidden cities and a deeply ingrained spirituality, this romanticised image of Tibet was shattered when soldiers of the newly formed People’s Republic of China invaded, or as the Chinese put it, “peacefully liberated” the country in 1951.
In official Chinese propaganda, pre-1950 Tibet had few redeeming qualities. Described as a “feudal” backwater at the mercy of “foreign imperialist and expansionist forces”, in Marxist eyes Tibet was crying out for help.
And while Tibetans say they have always been a separate nation, Beijing says that the two have been part of the “big Chinese family” since the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368).
In recent years, however, Tibetan activists have been talking of a growing crisis to preserve what is left of their culture, complaining of massive Han Chinese immigration from other parts of China that has diluted indigenous customs and language.
In response, the Tibetan community has adopted a negotiating stance known as the “middle way” in the hope of initiating dialogue.
In effect an articulation of the Dalai Lama’s position since the late 1980s, it eschews calling for complete independence, and instead asks for limited autonomy in the form of an elected parliament and control over all policy issues except defence and foreign affairs.
Unprecedented in any of China’s 31 provinces, these demands are further complicated by the fact that the Tibet that the government in Dharmsala refers to, and the Tibet as delineated by the TAR is no longer the same.
Activists say Tibetan customs
One third the size of its former self, much of the country and its population has been divided up by neighbouring Chinese provinces.
“The ‘middle way’ approach is not something that has been imposed.
“It has been legislatively sanctioned by the Tibetan parliament so the parliament has passed a resolution saying it is the policy of the parliament and administration that we follow the ‘middle way’ route,” says an emphatic Thupten Samphel, the Dharmsala government’s secretary for information.
A tiny yet crowded jamboree of guesthouses, government buildings and monastic centres, the earthquake prone Dharmsala has been the home of the Tibetan government-in-exile since the early 1960s.
Given by India to his holiness – as many here call him – after he fled China, the government was reformed along democratic lines. It is hoped that this model could be transferred to Tibet, depending on how the talks proceed.
Begun under the former government of Jiang Zemin, the exact content of the talks remain shrouded in secrecy.
“It has been very slow and time consuming. The first two times we had a preliminary dialogue and the third time we spoke in more detail, with both sides expressing their doubts and reservations,” explained Tibetan Prime Minister Samdhong Rinpoche.
Positive but slow
At the most recent meeting, held in Switzerland, a press release put out by the Tibetan government said that, “despite the existing areas of disagreement … both sides had a positive assessment of the ongoing process”.
Direct negotiations however, have yet to start.
“For many years we viewed each other suspiciously as though we each had horns on our heads. If the talks continue to grow as they are now then we could move to full blown negotiations.
“Being realistic, we can’t expect suspicion to clear and the air made clean by one, two, three, four visits. In a number of years we will get to know each other, our positions and sensitivities so that with full confidence can resolve the issue of Tibet peacefully,” believes Samphel.
TYC activists advocate violence
Although previous Chinese leaders have been quoted as saying that China can just wait until the Dalai Lama dies for the problem to resolve itself, that thinking appears to no longer be in vogue.
Pursuing a policy of non-violence, the current Dalai Lama, the 14th since 1391, may one day be succeeded by a reincarnation that believes a more confrontational approach is needed, as some in Dharmsala currently advocate.
In addition, the issue of Tibet remains an embarrassment for a Chinese leadership keen to be fully accepted as a leading nation in the global community.
Being able to reach a compromise with the Dharmsala government, which regularly lambasts Beijing for human-rights abuses, would help accomplish this.
What exactly Beijing would be prepared to give, however, remains unclear.
One possible concern is that by granting a degree of autonomy to Tibetans, other provinces with large non-Han Chinese populations may be encouraged to raise similar demands.
To the north of Tibet, the Muslim province of Xinjiang has already made headlines with sporadic outbreaks of violence, including bus bombings, riots and shootings, with some there calling for a complete separation from China.
Another worry is that once granted autonomy, Tibetans will merely continue their calls for independence. If negotiations begin, Beijing will want to concede as little as possible to secure an agreement with the Dalai Lama.
Not all support the meetings, with the exiled Tibetan community having varying opinions as to their effectiveness.
Sceptical of Chinese intentions and against the compromised stance of the Dalai Lama, Lobsang Yeshi, vice-president of the Tibetan Youth Congress (TYC), holds little faith in dialogue.
“Because of the facts China and Tibet cannot work out their differences through peaceful negotiation. We have seen in the history how faithful, how loyal, how sincere Chinese are,” says Yeshi sarcastically.
Listing changing demographics, human-rights abuses, an education system that neglects traditional Tibetan culture and language, mineral exploitation, and use of Tibet as a nuclear-waste dumping ground, the TYC advocates violence in solving Tibet’s problems.
“Today Tibet’s situation has become very complex, very crucial. Something has to be done. We opt for violence as Tibetan people are in danger”Lobsang Yeshi,
Tibetan Youth Congress
“Today Tibet’s situation has become very complex, very crucial. Something has to be done. We opt for violence as Tibetan people are in danger,” says Yeshi, although he stresses that his members would never contravene the Dalai Lama’s current stance on peaceful protest.
Representing 30,000 members, the largest NGO in the Tibetan community in exile, Yeshi evokes memories of past fighting against the Chinese, firstly in the failed uprising of 1959, and then with the aid of the CIA during the Cold war, in a longer running operation called ST Circus in the 1950s and 60s that saw Tibetan operatives trained in Nepal then smuggled into China.
For now though, Dharmsala is committed to peace.
While officials say this is the best hope so far for a negotiated settlement, there are signs that they remain sceptical of the chances for a breakthrough.
Indicative of this has been the Dalai Lama himself, who has already announced that search parties should look for his reincarnation among Tibetan communities outside of China, and so avoid possible Chinese interference.