In the hills of holy sadness: Exiled in northern India, the Dalai Lama passes a bitter landmark: it is 35 years since he was forced to flee from the Chinese in Tibet, perhaps for ever. Interview by Isabel Hilton

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His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama, earthly manifestation of the Avalokiteshvara, Bodhisattva of Compassion, leant forward, adjusted his maroon robe and said, 'I have come to the conclusion that my last 15 years' effort has been more or less a failure.'

He has a point. It is now 35 years since he fled Tibet following an armed uprising against the Chinese forces that had occupied the country for the best part of a decade. Since then, his country's temples have been razed, its natural resources plundered, its lands commandeered for Chinese settlers, its environment degraded, its monks and nuns persecuted, its people imprisoned. And for all the Dalai Lama's popularity with the entertainment industry in the West, his efforts to mediate, negotiate or simply strike a dialogue with the Chinese government, as he engagingly volunteered, have achieved precisely nothing.

Perched in the foothills of the Himalayas in northern India, just above the former hill station of Dharamsala, is the settlement of McLeod Ganj, home for the past three decades to the Dalai Lama and some 7,000 Tibetan exiles. The mountain air and the sharp chill that descends in the evening bring memories of Tibet. Wild monkeys play on the flat roofs of the buildings, and the narrow, muddy streets of McLeod are thronged with shaven-headed monks and lama-struck Westerners shopping for souvenirs.

Conditions in Dharamsala have improved since that first scramble to safety when thousands of Tibetans died, either on the journey or in the road gangs that gave them their first employment in India. But the refugee reception centre above McLeod Ganj, which is temporary home to the steady stream of new arrivals, is grossly overcrowded and unforgivingly spartan.

There has been diplomatic progress of a sort in 35 years: for the first 20 years there was no contact at all between Peking and Dharamsala. Then, in 1979, three years after the death of Mao Tse-tung, the Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping told an emissary of the Dalai Lama that the Chinese were open to dialogue: anything, he said, short of total independence for Tibet could be discussed. The Dalai Lama sent a series of fact-finding missions and personal envoys to Tibet and Peking to seek the ground on which discussions could begin. In a statement delivered in Strasbourg in 1988, the Dalai Lama adopted a flexible approach and proposed that complete independence was not a necessary goal. He would, he said, be prepared to discuss a version of autonomy in which China could retain control of foreign affairs and defence.

'When my proposal was made public, many Tibetans were disappointed and critical,' the Dalai Lama recalled. 'Some even stated that the Dalai Lama had sold out Tibetan rights. But in spite of that, I argued that, in today's political reality, talking about independence is going too far. If the Chinese treat us as equals, genuine brothers and sisters, on genuinely equal terms, why not remain with the Chinese? The possibility is always there. So that was my basic belief.'

He had gone as far as Tibetan opinion would allow, but, as he explained, 'In spite of maximum concessions and flexibility in my proposals, the Chinese government side never responded with concrete ideas or concrete proposals.'

As long as China was the third player in the Cold War's superpower poker, the rape of Tibet was a matter of indifference in Western capitals. But the end of the Cold War and China's economic opening have created room for leverage.

China's human rights record is under increasing scrutiny and China's need to generate favourable trading conditions renders her marginally more sensitive to international pressure. Add to that a change of atmosphere in Washington, from George Bush's extravagantly pro-Chinese White House to Bill Clinton's more constituency-sensitive approach, and perhaps the conditions exist for progress. So far, however, there is little sign that the Chinese have any desire to be constructive about Tibet.

Last May, according to Tibetan sources, the Chinese government held a high-level meeting to discuss the international embarrassment that the Tibetan issue was creating for China. The conclusions of that meeting, the Tibetans believe, were that China should seek to create dissent within the Tibetan communities, and to speed up the population transfer that has been pursued with what Peking regards as success in Inner Mongolia and East Turkistan. This consists of swamping the indigenous ethnic populations with Chinese immigrants to stifle the desire for autonomy.

Accurate figures on the scale of the population transfer to Tibet are hard to verify, but the Tibetans argue that the 6 million Tibetans who remain within the 1959 borders of Tibet are now outnumbered by 7.5 million Chinese. Tibetans live as an oppressed minority in their own homeland, deprived of access to education, discriminated against in employment and fiercely punished for any expression of nationalist sentiment.

In a small rooftop office on top of the finance ministry of the exiled government sits the Amnye Machen Institute, the Tibetan Centre for Advanced Studies, founded by four Tibetan intellectuals. While critical of the Dalai Lama's willingness to negotiate for less than independence, they have few illusions about Western support. As Jamyang Norbu, a playwright and novelist, recalled: 'In the Sixties and Seventies, we were told there was no problem. It was just that we were old-fashioned people who were getting in the way. J K Galbraith called us 'unwashed mountaineers' and the Committee of Concerned Asian Scholars regarded us as a stumbling block in the progress of Asia. The only support we got - and that was pretty embarrassing - was from General Diem of South Vietnam.

'Now there is sympathy for Tibet,' he said, 'but it is sympathy for a fantasy, not for a hard, ugly political situation. It has a dreamlike quality.'

In Dharamsala's conservative atmosphere, the straight-talking intellectuals, with their mission to modernise Tibetan society, have shocked many of their own countrymen. But the signs are that the Dalai Lama is reaching the same conclusion. The traditional aristocracy has all but disintegrated as a power and the Dalai Lama has attempted to introduce democracy and debate to his conservative followers in exile. An elected national assembly has been established, which in turn elects his ministers, and the Dalai Lama talks of retiring from his secular role as leader of the nation. National policy, once decided by a shadowy group around the Dalai Lama, is now widely debated. But in a nation in exile, riven by a multitude of fears and suspicions and torn between the hope of return and the need to make a living, between the secular pressures of the outside world and the desire to conserve a unique spiritual universe, the Dalai Lama remains the indispensable figurehead.

The Venerable Thupten Ngodub, the Medium of the State Oracle, a religious dignitary who lives in the Nechung monastery in Dharamsala, said: 'In the 1960s, the fear was that Tibetan culture would become extinct. But the Dalai Lama's leadership has been decisive in preserving it, so I do not foresee problems of that nature in the future.'

But preservation of the culture demands something else of the religious authorities - locating the boys who are the reincarnations of the high lamas (it is a fundamental tenet of Tibetan Buddhism that its high lamas are reborn).

In the Nechung monastery lives a six-year-old monk who began life in central Tibet. Last year, he was identified, in a clandestine mission, as the reincarnation of the Nechung Lama who had died in 1983. The boy was smuggled out to begin his religious education in Dharamsala. In another reincarnation drama, a protracted dispute has broken out in the exiled Tibetan monastery of Rumtek, in Sikhim, where the four senior lamas charged with identifying the 17th reincarnation of the Kamapa Rimpoche have come to blows over rival candidates.

The Venerable Thupten Ngodub is philosophical about these difficulties. 'These are problems of exile,' he said. 'If Tibet was an independent country, there would be a state law to regulate reincarnation.'

It can take several years to identify the Dalai Lama's reincarnation and many more before the boy's education is complete and he is old enough to assume his position. The present Dalai Lama is nearly 60. The potential perils of a regency under current conditions have not escaped Dharamsala's religious hierarchy.

'It is true,' said the Venerable Thupten Ngodub, 'that His Holiness fears that the Chinese might take advantage of a period of regency. He has already said that Tibetans need one leader - like a president - who should be nominated during his lifetime. But people insist that they don't want anyone else as long as he is alive.'

'The only way to keep the community together,' said Jamyang Norbu, 'is to hang on to the idea of independence as a goal. Once you compromise, you get all these Henry Kissingers squabbling about what to do next. We are not promising independence tomorrow, but we are saying that the dream of independence is better than the illusion of a reasonable arrangement.'

'I used to have some arguments to use against these critical views,' said the Dalai Lama, 'but now, after 15 years, with no response from the Chinese government and no improvement in the internal situation, my arguments are becoming weaker and weaker.

'I stuck to my commitment,' he continued, 'but now many Tibetans inside Tibet are feeling hopeless and discouraged. They are losing spirit. I must find another option.'

(Photograph omitted)